Pay Dirt

My Stepsister Tried to Steal My House. I Can’t Believe My Family’s Reaction.

It blew up in my face.

Photo illustration of a house from different angles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus and Spoon Graphics.

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 inherited my late aunt’s four-bedroom house. It has a separate studio apartment on the property. Since my mom died when I was a baby, my aunt and I were all that was left of our family. We were very close, especially after my father remarried for the third time and I gained a pack of stepsiblings. I was very much the odd duck out.

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I love my new house because I never had much space between sharing a room, a dorm, and an apartment as a child and young adult. I have plans to make a music room, a library, and a cat heaven for my three tabbies, but I updated the studio first with plans to rent it out.

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Then my stepsister and her two daughters were left homeless after her boyfriend stole from her and they were evicted. They have been bouncing between friends and family with no money and no prospects. The girls haven’t been in school for months. I live in a good school district with a strong transportation system. There are help wanted signs everywhere. I could give her and the girls a year to get on their feet. There would be a lease and I would expect my family to help out financially. I am not close to my stepsister. I was trying to be kind and it blew up in my face.

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My stepsister was happy enough to accept and then grew unhappy with the idea of living in the studio. She demanded the house. She claimed her family was more deserving since she had kids and I didn’t need all that space. At that point, I told her it was my space and she really wasn’t in any position to make demands. I thought that was the end of the conversation until I got blasted by my father and stepmother. They could not believe I would act like this and not open up my home that I was so “lucky” to get. They live in a 55-plus retirement community. At this point, I called my stepsister and withdrew my offer. Now my family is treating me like the Wicked Witch of the West.

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—No Good Deed

Dear No Good Deed, 

If your father and stepmother think the studio isn’t enough for your stepsister and her kids, maybe they should offer her space in their retirement community. Your offer to give her the studio for a year was generous, and whether or not you “deserve” the house—that is absolutely yours and not family communal property—is irrelevant.

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Your father, stepmother, and stepsister are all behaving as if you owe them your house simply because your stepsister needs housing. I’m not sure there’s much you can do about their inflated sense of entitlement, other than to remind all parties that you are not responsible for housing your adult stepsister and her kids. They are not your children.

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I don’t think you’re obligated to make any more offers to help, and though, I feel bad for her daughters, it sounds like you’re lucky not to be stuck living with your stepsister who is simply inclined to treat your generosity as her entitlement. Consider this a dodged bullet.

Dear Pay Dirt, 

I am getting married in the fall and my best friend since middle school, Mary, is one of two bridesmaids. A bachelorette party is being planned with about seven guests a two-hour drive away. Mary is the only attendee who is married with young kids and she has a tighter budget than the others (I met the other women through work or grad school). In discussing accommodations she said she couldn’t afford the proposed rental and offered to not attend. I asked if I could cover her share which she adamantly refused.

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Then I told her that we should then pick another, less expensive rental (or destination). I said several times that her presence and spending time with loved ones was paramount, which is absolutely true, but she again refused, saying she would be causing me and others to “settle” for a lesser experience. Until now, she seemed excited about a weekend away.

I don’t know where to go from here. I know what it’s like to feel self-conscious about money and I don’t want to put that on Mary. (I grew up without much money and found it terribly embarrassing.) I also recognize that American weddings and bachelorette parties are big asks of participants and in no way do I want to be a demanding bridezilla. I am fine with a less expensive rental or locale. At the same time, this could all be solved if Mary would just let me pitch in extra, but I am afraid I might have offended her by offering. What should I do?

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—NOT a Bridezilla

Dear Not a Bridezilla, 

I doubt you’ve offended her by offering, but she may genuinely not want to be the reason you have to change your plans. You also mention that she has two young children, which can make it difficult to spend time away from home. (If her spouse can’t take care of the kids, that can also mean hiring child care and rearranging logistics to accommodate.)

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I understand why you’re disappointed, but you don’t want a bachelorette party weekend where Mary feels like she’s on the receiving end of charity. The weekend wouldn’t be enjoyable for either of you—even more so if she’s not close to the other participants at your party, who you say you met through work and grad school. So I think you have to respect her decision to opt out.

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It doesn’t sound like she’s opting out of the wedding itself, and if she’s a bridesmaid, that’s already a big commitment that she has to spend time and money on that she may not really have. Asking her to spend more time and funds for a weekend trip may just be hitting her limits in terms of both. You know personally what it’s like to not have enough money for this sort of thing when others do. I know you’re trying to help, but if you keep insisting, you may be creating more stress for your friend.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My partner has a high-powered job in a very large corporation. She’s amazing at what she does but the culture she is working in is extremely resistant to change, highly political, and aggressively misogynist. I’ve watched her start at least a dozen transformative projects, invest tens of millions of dollars in them, and build huge client support, only for an IT or operations manager to close down years of work for the paltriest of reasons.

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Her latest project would change the face of the insurance industry and today an IT project manager decided to call for an internal audit as a delaying tactic. It will almost certainly tank yet another project for no good reason and it’s utterly heartbreaking.

The problem is that I am feeling serious empathy fatigue. I’ve supported my partner through four previous burnouts, constantly counseled her against getting too invested in projects that have every chance of failure, and begged her to take literally dozens of different roles. There have been so many nights of crying, so many long hours, and so many plans set aside for projects that will never be completed.

I know that she is going to get down into the trenches and fight the good (but utterly hopeless) fight for this project until her last breath instead of just sitting back, earning a massive salary, lowering expectations all around, and taking time to find something else. How do I teach her that sometimes it’s best to just throw your hands in the air and walk away? I’ve got Kenny Rogers singing The Gambler in my head and I want her to know it is time to fold ‘em and walk away.

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—Please Retreat

Dear Please Retreat, 

I understand your frustrations; it can be exhausting to watch someone you love fight the same battles over and over again when you feel that there’s an obvious way out. But your partner may not think that way. You mention that she’s working in an environment that’s aggressively misogynistic, and suggest that many of her professional roadblocks are a function of that. For many women in male-dominated industries, this is always the case. Your partner may see this as a structural problem she has to face, no matter where she goes. What you see as an easy exit, she may see as more of the same, but at a different company.

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You may also be correct that these problems would be largely solved if she chose to walk away (or per Mr. Rogers, run). Perhaps she could find a better situation elsewhere. But she really has to come to that conclusion herself, and pressuring her to leave will only add to her stress. The problem, as far as you’re concerned, is that you’re tired of being her burnout counselor. Fortunately for you, there are people who specialize in just this sort of thing—therapists who specialize in professional development, and executive coaches. (The latter can be pricey, so this is not an option for everybody, but you suggest that your partner is well-compensated.)

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I’ve seen an executive coach, once, when I was running a big organization, and was unsure about whether I should leave. She helped me clarify my thinking on the topic and weigh the pros and cons. She asked me to identify the top three things I value from work, and gave me some examples of what that could look like: sense of purpose, status, relationships with colleagues. I responded that I valued autonomy, fulfilling work, and compensation, but that if you took away autonomy, compensation moved to the top.

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This may seem simple, but having a neutral third party walk you through priorities when you’re burned out is helpful, and not the sort of thing your partner is always capable of doing or wants to do. What your girlfriend probably wants from you is support, not a fix. But it wouldn’t hurt to point her in the direction of people and resources who can help her fix the problem, or at least get some clarity about what she wants out of work.

Dear Pay Dirt, 

I have four siblings—one brother and three sisters—all of whom live within 25 miles of one another. Over the years, my three sisters and I have taken a number of trips together, ranging from an overnight trip to a nearby event to weeklong road trips or flights to more distant cities.

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My brother recently joined myself and two sisters on a weeklong trip, the first time he’s come with us, and he found he enjoyed it. In the past, he’s been pretty self-centered in many ways and was only interested in doing exactly what he wanted to do and thus had no interest in traveling with us. However, he unexpectedly lost his wife not long ago and I believe that changed his perspective entirely. Since we’re all now more or less retired, I anticipate the trips will become more frequent and we hope he’ll join us often.

I’m the “planner” of the family and have pretty much always planned the trips, including finding hotels, flights, etc. I generally pay for gas, airfare, and hotels up front and get reimbursed somewhere along the way. I keep track of the costs and let them each know their share. However, now that we hope our brother will be joining us often, I’m not certain how to allocate hotel expenses fairly since he, of course, needs his own hotel room. I’m not sure if it should be split equally between all of us or whether he should pay the total amount of his room while the cost of the shared room is split between the sharers of that room.

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For background, my brother and I, while not rich, are both financially more than comfortable while the other three sisters, while not poor, have to watch their money very carefully.  Because of that, I’ve often paid a bit more than my “fair share” when I could do so without them realizing and fully intend to continue doing so. This enables us to travel more often and to splurge a bit more than they’d otherwise be able. I don’t feel the need to do this with my brother, since he can as much or more easily afford the cost as I. This exacerbates my issue as it would create an even larger difference between what I ask each for reimbursement if my brother pays for all of his hotel expenses while I subsidize my sisters’ share.

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I haven’t yet gotten reimbursement for the last trip and have been putting off telling anyone what their share is since it’s not sitting right to tell one sibling he owes me $1,000 while telling the others they each owe $300. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair that the sisters who have much less than my brother should cough up an extra $200 because he came along on this trip. And, while I wouldn’t mind doing it one time, I don’t really want to eat the difference myself every time we travel together. I don’t really know a fair way to handle this difference in the needs of the travelers. Do you have any suggestions on how to be fair to all in this scenario?

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—Caught Between Siblings

Dear Caught Between Siblings, 

I think you should explain all of this to your brother and see what he thinks is fair. Then you can come to some sort of arrangement that works for both of you. I doubt that he will resent paying more if he understands why you subsidize your sisters, but he might if he finds out some other way and it just looks like you’re charging him more unfairly.

It’s always awkward to talk about these sorts of things, but it’s easier in the long run if you do it upfront. That way you’re all in agreement about what’s expected and everyone understands what’s happening. It sounds like your brother’s self-centeredness might have prevented you from doing broaching this conversation earlier, but if he seems to have changed, there may be nothing to worry about.

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At any rate, you don’t want to be in a position where you’re hiding the true cost of the trips trying to keep your siblings from finding out. Assume that if you continue to do that, they will anyway, and it will erode trust between them and you. It’s not worth the risk.

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—Elizabeth

More Advice

My husband and I have been happily married for 15 years. Our children are 12 and 14, both girls. When they ask questions about money, we’ve always said that we make “about the same” or that perhaps Mom makes “a bit more, but money isn’t everything.” But the reality is that my husband has a fun, engaging, and low-paying job as a busy local musician—work he loves—while I have a stressful, demanding, and much (much) better-paying job in corporate management, which is tolerable on a good day and allows us to live a nice life but isn’t “fun” in any way no matter how we spin it. I am concerned we are setting them up for a really harsh wake-up call.

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