Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am currently a stay-at-home “housewife/dog mom,” with no kids (and never want them). I was making good money before, a $200,000 salary, but was always stressed out and worked 100 hours a week. My husband makes a lot more, so he encouraged me to quit and stay at home with our dog. We have always kept our finances separate but transparent, which works beautifully for us.
He writes me $10,000 checks whenever I need more money, which is very generous. We have literally never fought about finances, and have an unusually healthy and happy marriage (I call him my unicorn). However, I have been advised to stash some money away “just in case.” This seems like a terrible, deceitful act, in my opinion, but a tiny part of my brain is like, You never know … So, my question is: Should I start stashing away some money just in case to protect myself, or is that wrong?
—Cringey 1 Percent Problems
Dear Cringey 1 Percent,
A happy marriage shouldn’t be considered unusual. This should be everyone’s goal or else why bother? I’m glad you’re in a healthy relationship like you deserve to be. But my tangent aside, let’s get to the money.
Everyone should have an individual money reserve, even in a relationship. This doesn’t mean you don’t love your partner or trust him any less. It means that you are being realistic. Stuff happens that we can’t predict—even beyond breakups. If something were to ever happen to anyone we are in a relationship with, it’s important we’re able to jump in financially no matter what the task. Sometimes we need immediate access to money to do that, especially if we don’t have direct access to our partner’s account or are waiting on an insurance policy.
It’s also important to note that women have historically stayed in abusive relationships, or unhappy ones, because they are solely dependent on their partner’s finances. This isn’t the case for you, but for many women it is.
So I suggest you start squirreling money away for a rainy day. Once you have a comfortable amount (I’d say at least $5,000), you can always save for experiences that both of you can enjoy, like a surprise trip or purchase for your home.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I want to finish our basement and I don’t understand how to deal with the financing. We have about $25,000 in savings that are easily accessible but would only want to spend $5,000 to $7,000 as an upfront payment. We both make about $80,000 and have no debt besides one car (almost paid off) and our mortgage, so we can handle a monthly payment. Our kid is getting older, so we’d like to do it soon. How do people go about paying for a renovation of this size (we’re thinking it’ll probably cost $25,000 to $30,000) if they can’t pay for it all upfront? I assume a loan, but from who, how long, and at what interest rate?
—Basement Renovation Bonus
Dear Basement Renovation,
You don’t have to explain wanting to finish up a home renovation sooner rather than later. No one wants construction dust everywhere. Look into a home equity line of credit, better known as a HELOC.
HELOCs use the difference between your home’s value and your mortgage balance as collateral since the loan is secured against the equity in your home. Even though a HELOC loan can have an interest rate that’s almost the same as a mortgage, it can still be a cheaper route than charging it onto a credit card.
There is one downside to using a HELOC loan for your remodel. If you miss a payment, the financer of the loan can place a lien on your house. So make sure you can afford an additional payment alongside your mortgage for your basement remodel. If you can’t, it might not be the time to finish this project—you can always reconsider down the line.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am writing with an absurd nonproblem. How is it that my husband and I still feel constantly stressed about what we can afford despite, objectively, being able to afford it? He has a corporate job earning about $500,000 annually, and I make another $100,000 at my nonprofit. We have about $3 million in investments (mostly from trusts I inherited) and two $2 million homes that have conforming mortgages at low rates (the rest of my trusts went into the purchases). No other loans. We have kids in private school, but tuition is paid for out of trusts.
But at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of money left for all the things our peers spend money on. We cannot figure out how everyone we know affords all the vacations they take and all the renovations they do. Yes, we have sat down with budgets and tracked things, and I know where our money goes.
I’ve read no one is saving. Are they expecting to work until they die? We are trying to make sure that we can maintain our existing standard of living for at least 25 years post-retirement at age 65, with some left over in case we need extra care. So, we max out all the retirement vehicles our workplaces offer, and any other retirement savings vehicle we can find.
We also pay so much in taxes. As we should! But every time the tax guy says we have to pay another $125,000 in taxes, I wonder: Is everyone else skipping this? We give at least $75,000 to charity annually. We make $20,000 gifts to each of our priorities, then a chunk to our alma maters and a chunk to our kids’ school. Then we buy tickets or give $100 to everyone who asks. This seems like the moral baseline.
We spent $8,000 on vacation this year, and it felt CRAZY. But I’m in a parenting forum for moms in my city, and they’re constantly talking about trips that would, bare minimum, cost $15,000 as a bargain. We’re trying to renovate our kitchen, and have allocated two years of our home repair budget, $100,000, for the project. Our contractor laughed us out of the meeting, and now we understand the kind of renovation we are imagining has a floor of $250,000. I told a friend this, flabbergasted, and she shared that their kitchen renovation cost that much five years ago. She and her husband have similar finances to us and less inherited wealth. But she seemed to think it was no big deal. What are we doing wrong?
—Rich and Confused
Dear Rich and Confused,
You are absolutely right that this may not be a problem for the huge majority of the population. The average American makes $51,000 according to USA Today. So you are part of the privileged few. But I think many of us can relate to pondering how others afford their lifestyles. Lately, I’ve been wondering how everyone on my Instagram is going to Europe for the summer.
First of all, you aren’t living on $600,000 a year. Let’s run some hypothetical numbers. You’re maxing out your retirement accounts, so let’s say you stashed away $39,000 into your 401(k)s last year. I’m assuming you also pay for other benefits like health insurance. A family of four spends on average $12,000 a year on premiums. So, you now have $549,000 left being taxed at, most likely, a 35 percent rate. That tells me you’re bringing home on average $357,000. After giving away $75,000, you’re left with $282,000, or $23,500 a month.
You aren’t sharing all of your expenses, but I can imagine a mortgage on two multimillion-dollar homes takes up a lot of pay, including property taxes and regular home repairs. You might live in an area with a high cost of living, which means you’re generally paying more for expenses like food and gas.
So, what are other people doing with their money? They might have lower expenses than you do, for one. Not everyone has two multimillion-dollar houses they have to pay for. Their children might not be in private school. They could have investments that are performing higher than yours. And I can almost guarantee you they aren’t giving away a substantial amount of their take-home pay to charity; $75,000, per your calculations, is like five rich people’s vacations. They could also be up to their eyeballs in debt.
My point is, we don’t know what people are doing with their money and how they can afford things. We will never know unless their finances are made public. So all you can realistically do is manage your own investments, cut what you can from your own budget, and try to save as much as you can. Try to find areas where you don’t mind cutting back on your expenses so that you can live the lifestyle you want. I believe in you.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My partner and I are expecting our first child, and we’re trying to make a budget (go ahead and laugh, we know it can only be a rough draft). Until now, we have shared very few expenses (primarily housing) and have kept our finances separate. We are not married if it matters. The baby will radically increase our shared budget—and of course, put pressure on our financial life.
We have agreed on a proportional split for the baby and household expenses, but here’s the problem: My partner is self-employed and has a wide variation in his yearly income, not to mention uncertainty month to month. He is the higher earner, by a small amount in lean years and a large amount in fat years. Our biggest-budget items will be recurring (day care, health care, mortgage). How should we figure out what his share should be? Should we adjust retrospectively, even if that seems like a pain? How should we protect ourselves against lean months or years? We want something fair and something administratively simple. Help!
—Feast or Famine, With a Side of Baby
Dear Feast or Famine,
First off, congratulations! Having a baby is exciting and it makes sense you are making sure everything is financially taken care of so you can enjoy your new bundle of joy when they arrive.
I honestly would continue your financial arrangement even with the additional baby expenses on the way. It works, and you guys seem to be doing well. But I understand your hesitation since his income does fluctuate.
What a lot of freelancers do is build a cash reserve and pay themselves a steady amount each month from there. I myself have started to do this so that every month I can pay myself a consistent amount and can budget better. The fatter months can help cover my bills when I have leaner ones, and then I’m not borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Good luck!
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I just got out of a financial and romantic wreck. My boyfriend moved his mistress into my guest bedroom, telling me she was a co-worker who “needed a place to stay.” When I found out the truth, I kicked them both out; she stole some clothing and electronics from me before leaving town. My ex called me last week accusing me of taking more than $10,000 in cash that his parents had given him to buy a new car. I told him he was out of his mind and hung up. He also left a lousy old couch at my place and refused to come pick it up. I asked him if he was ever going to haul it away, and he told me to throw it out. While I was pushing it out to the curb, I found an envelope full of cash under one of the cushions.