Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
We just had a big wedding and our baby’s first birthday celebration. We were a pandemic wedding that got canceled, so it was great to do a big party with friends. I’m struggling, though, because I’m surprised at how little our guests gave, and I’m feeling guilty about that. Generally, I’ve always heard you give $100 to $125 per person, particularly if you’re drinking and eating (we had an open bar).
However, many people we consider good friends gave … much less. A few didn’t give at all. Getting about $100 each would’ve covered the cost of each person at the wedding. Of course, if they didn’t have the money, we’d understand, but many of them are very financially comfortable. I know it’s in the past now. But how do I not let this frustration and sadness color my friendships with these people? I know it’s not the point of the party, but it’s also hard to not feel like the celebration we threw was a bit underappreciated.
—Blue About the Wedding
Dear Blue About the Wedding,
I am not a wedding planner, but this is the first I’ve heard of anyone being obligated to pay to attend a wedding, much less pay an amount that would be equivalent to a meal at a three-star Michelin restaurant. The point of a wedding is that your loved ones can celebrate with you, not that they can subsidize a very expensive party you want to throw for yourself and, in your own words, feel “appreciative” of it.
It’s not uncommon for people to give wedding presents (though that is not required either, to be clear). But even then, your price range—$300 per couple at the high end—seems extremely high to me. And I live in New York City, where everything is more expensive than virtually everywhere else in the country. I also got married here, in a lovely venue, and had a sit-down dinner and open bar, which, as you note, is not cheap. But it never occurred to me for one second that my friends should be paying for it.
So, consider the possibility that your friends did their part, which is to show up to the wedding—at your convenience and not theirs—and celebrate your marriage with you. They already likely had to take time out of their schedules, in some cases travel and/or arrange and pay for child care, and I’m sure many of them did give you gifts. I’m afraid the only person here who’s being unappreciative in an inappropriate way here is you.
Weddings can be very expensive, but that is a choice. They don’t have to be. I know plenty of people who had small ceremonies in their backyards, with potluck dinners and flowers plucked from the local deli stand. They were just as meaningful as the fancier weddings I’ve attended at glamorous locations that were epic, multiday affairs. It doesn’t matter which option you choose, but it’s your responsibility to pay for your party, and no one else’s.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My brother, “Ben,” has had behavioral issues his whole life. He has never held down a long-term job because he can’t handle anyone telling him what to do. Despite being 33, he relies on my parents to take care of life things, like calling the bank when his debit card doesn’t work. A few years ago, he received a settlement from a bad car accident and used the money to purchase a house outright. He, therefore, doesn’t have a mortgage, but he does have to pay taxes on the house once a year. Recently, it came up that if anything ever happens to my parents, I’ll have to make sure the taxes are paid so he doesn’t lose his house. They don’t expect me to use my money, they’ll put money aside for it (the taxes are very low where he lives), but I’ll have to be the one to make sure the bill is paid.
I told them that’s not happening—he’s an adult, and if he can’t remember to do this, he doesn’t deserve to own a home. They got really upset and said they can’t believe I’d just let him lose his house. I then felt bad for making them upset, and now I’m not sure what to do. Should I go to them and tell them I’m sorry and that I’ll take care of it? But I have no intention of taking care of it, because it won’t just be that one thing—he’ll eventually try to use me more and more in place of my parents to handle things like this.
I don’t want to give my parents a false sense of security. They need to realize that my brother needs to learn to function on his own, and he won’t do that so long as they keep doing things for him. I certainly don’t want him to be homeless, but I am not going to spend the rest of my life taking responsibility for him. So, how can I help my parents feel better about this situation, while also not agreeing to what they’re asking of me?
—Not My Brother’s Keeper
Dear Not My Brother’s Keeper,
It’s not really reasonable for your parents to expect you to take care of your brother as if he is your own child for the rest of both of your lives. I’m not sure what the nature of his behavioral issues is, and it may be that he’s genuinely not capable of doing these things for himself, but if that’s the case, it’s still not your obligation to agree.
If they want to make sure that he’s taken care of, there are ways to do that in a manner that doesn’t put the burden on you. If he has a disability, your parents can establish a special needs trust to ensure that he is taken care of, and you can use a third-party service to act as trustee and manage financial affairs for your brother. People often appoint family members as trustees, but institutional trustees are good alternatives when family members are unavailable or unwilling to perform trustee duties. They also provide experience navigating disability benefits, tax law, and other issues that family members often don’t have. Special needs trusts are generally irrevocable, though, so if you expect that your brother will eventually find employment, or that his circumstances might change materially, your parents may need to set up a more flexible living trust to accommodate those changes. At any rate, they should consult an estate lawyer to determine their range of options.
For your part, I wouldn’t rely on the hope that your brother’s issues are just a matter of irresponsibility or laziness, and that they will improve with some external pressure. There are a vast number of reasons someone like your brother might struggle with things you find simple or obvious. His inability to handle these things does not mean he’s not deserving of housing security. So, at the very least, you need to assume that his situation is not going to change. In the meantime, you should discuss this with your parents and make it clear that you do not want to be responsible for taking care of your brother’s finances once they’re gone. They have plenty of third-party options for doing that and should make a plan now that doesn’t rely on you.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am financially fine. Not great, but fine. I have a very modest house, some savings, and no debt. However, I am now in a relationship with someone who has a much higher salary than I do and his friends have a lot more money and nicer houses than I do.
I feel very insecure about my modest lifestyle. I feel a lot of pressure to spend money and buy things to keep up. I am afraid that I am going to hurt myself financially trying to keep up with my partner’s social group. How can I navigate this? Can relationships between us people of different means really work in this era?
—High-Value Woman Without a High-Value Salary
Dear High-Value Woman,
Relationships can and do work when there are financial disparities, but you do have to talk about those disparities and come up with a way to negotiate them that works for you both. (Very often, those disparities exist in every relationship at different times. The higher-income partner may become the lower-income partner over the course of the relationship, or it may shift between you over time.)
You should not feel pressure to spend money the way your partner does, though, and you should talk to them about it if you’re starting to feel obligated to spend in a way that makes you feel financially insecure. You should talk about what you think are reasonable expenses, and how you plan to split them. You should also discuss the possibility of occasionally doing things with your partner’s social group that are less expensive, and there’s no rule that says you have to have exactly the same social group or attend every event together. This is a conversation that even couples who have comparable incomes have at some point, and it’s healthy to find some agreement on these things before they become a source of conflict.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mom became too ill to drive several years ago. I was surprised to learn that she gave her car to my nephew for his 16th birthday. Two of my grown children had no need for the car, but my youngest was using a combination of public transportation and a bicycle to get to work. His father recently gave him a car, so the point is probably moot, but I am really wondering why the car was given to my nephew. None of my children ever received a comparable gift. Mom has recently moved to assisted living and has dementia. I am curious more than anything about the car. Should I ask, or let it go?
—Let It Go?
Dear Let It Go,
This strikes me as the kind of thing where satisfying your curiosity has no real value. If your mom gave your nephew the car for the worst reason imaginable (whatever that is), what would you do with that information? If she said, “Honey, I secretly hate your children but love my nephew and that’s why he got the car,” would you try to get the car back from your nephew? I would hope not, given that it was your mother’s decision, and your children all have cars.
It’s possible that your nephew got the car simply because he’s the youngest. Grandparents sometimes like to spoil their youngest grandchildren, in a way that they didn’t the older ones, especially as they get older and have the sense that it might be a last opportunity to do so. If that’s the case, should you really feel resentful about it? Do your children feel that they were denied any attention from your mother? If not, I think you have to recognize that this is something that is only bothering you. But even if your mother had the worst motivations, no good can come of contesting her decision. Your mother’s car is not worth the family drama.
My husband and I have two teenagers, aged 14 and 15, who are well-adjusted and doing well in high school, both socially and academically. About three years ago their father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, which has since metastasized in various ways. From the beginning, we have been honest with them about his diagnosis and its development, but even though we knew the prognosis was three to five years, we never told them that because we didn’t want to scare them. Instead, we conveyed optimism about the possibilities of treatment, and, indeed, we have been genuinely hopeful about how well the treatments would work. Now we have reached a point where treatment options are limited.