Pay Dirt

I Forced My Wife to Work, but I Regret It

She once dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom.

A woman in a business suit smiles and hugs a child beside a table where another child looks on smiling
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos 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,

About a year ago, my wife and I had some hard discussions about her having to go to work to make ends meet financially. She had strong feelings about being a stay-at-home mom for our girls who are 8 and 12, while my position was from the financial side only. I was rather insensitive at the time in our discussions, which did not help matters.

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Now, we have had a positive change in our finances, and she could leave her job and go back to being a stay-at-home mom, with our income staying where we need it to be to meet expenses and save for the future. However, she does not want to do that, as she has invested time and effort into finding a job, which I do understand. I feel that our girls need someone’s presence daily, before and after school, as well as during the summer months. Right now, I get the girls off to school in the morning, but there is no one home after school, and they will start having full days alone during the summer.  Last, we are spending our family time just doing chores and catching up on things that used to be done during the week.

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I want to be supportive but feel strongly that our girls need someone to be with them more than we are now. I would gladly do it, but I am unable due to being the primary earner. Is being concerned just showing how much of a caveman I am? How can we best work through this situation?

—Trying to Do the Right Thing

Dear Trying,

You’re not a caveman, but I think you fail to understand that people operate in two-income families with younger children all the time. Your girls are not being shortchanged because their mother decides to work. If anything, she is modeling something for your daughters that is important: that their mother’s agency and time matter just as much as yours.

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If you feel like your daughters need someone to be with them more than you are, child care is an option. If your finances have changed for the better, you might also want to consider after-school programs that your girls might enjoy. There are plenty of summer programs your girls can participate in with other children, so they’re not spending the day alone during the summer either. In fact, they might prefer that over your wife staying home with them.

I would not pressure your wife to quit her job, though. It’s really her decision to make, and choosing to work or stay at home is not a minor thing. It’s life-altering, and your wife’s happiness matters here, too. You do not want her to resent you or your children because she feels like she has no choice in the matter.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m really screwed up and think others might be in the same boat. I am a single professional who has worked hard all my life, having been employed from the age of 15. Recently, when I turned 63, I kind of retired. Over the course of this time, I’ve saved about $7 million but have no pension except for a couple of annuities amounting to about $1,200 per month. I have a financial planner who has me at about 60 percent equities, 20 percent bonds, and 10 percent cash. My problem is that I’m not dealing well with drawing on my funds and feel financially insecure. My friends, my family, and my adviser tell me I’m fine and have nothing to worry about, but I worry constantly. I shop at discount stores, buy low-end products, live in an apartment I’m not thrilled with, and avoid spending whenever possible. I cannot seem to break out of the “accumulation” phase and into a proper retirement. I turn 65 in several months but don’t see anything changing. Is there a name or condition for what I have? What is the best way for me to deal with this?

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—Money, Money Everywhere but Cannot Spend

Dear Money, Money Everywhere,

There are many people, like you, who become accustomed to frugality and living in conditions they don’t really like in order to become financially stable. When they finally are, they’ve conditioned themselves so heavily to worry about money that they have trouble breaking out of those habits. I’m not sure this is a specific condition, but it’s not uncommon.

Part of why you’re having trouble enjoying your money is that there’s probably still some part of you that fears being financially insecure, even though you’re not. This can make spending feel unpleasant. You may even feel irresponsible doing it.

You need to give yourself permission to do it, and plan for it so that it doesn’t worry you. I would recommend that you meet with your financial planner and set some goals for what you’d like to do with your money, and then budget and schedule these expenses. For example, if you’re not happy with your apartment, look into what it would cost to upgrade to a place you would enjoy living in, and give yourself a budget and deadline for finding something. I think being very intentional about your spending and planning it responsibly will help address some of the discomfort you feel, and once you begin to enjoy the fruits of your years of hard labor, it’ll get easier to spend reasonably without anxiety. If you find that your discomfort with spending persists, even with those interventions, it may be worth seeing a professional therapist to help you get comfortable with your situation.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

How can I convince my spouse that we can and should retire early? I’ve been married for 20 years, and from day one my wife and I shared a natural frugality. We didn’t even have a reason for some of the frugal (and cheap) things we did, such as setting the thermostat uncomfortably low or declining to go out with friends because of the cost. Over time, we’ve managed to loosen the purse strings and live a much more comfortable life, but our incomes grew even faster than our spending. We’re sitting on a $3 million pile at this point, not even counting home equity or the six-figure 529 college savings accounts we have for our kids. At some point, I discovered the concept of early retirement and later the financial independence, retire early (FIRE) movement. Based on even an extra safe 3.33 percent “safe withdrawal rate,” we can support our current lifestyle indefinitely.

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But it turns out that while my spouse and I were on the same page when it came to saving money, when it comes to no longer earning it, we’re at loggerheads. I can’t see why we should keep working for money we no longer need. She can’t see why I would want to stop working when we don’t have a specific plan for what we’ll do with our time. I feel like I can’t even come up with a plan when all my time is more than allocated between work, trying to keep up with chores, raising kids, and a million other obligations. I’ve been working on convincing her to

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1. Go part-time herself
2. Enthusiastically agree that I can go part-time, even though it’s nearly impossible to do in my industry
3. Take three, maybe six months off

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She’s explicitly disagreed with anything approaching a year, never mind permanent. To add one more complication, I love spreadsheets, but any numbers make her eyes glaze over. Do you have any advice on how I can get through to my spouse? Or otherwise improve my situation?

—Fe FIRE FOMO Fun

Dear FOMO Fun,

Your wife needs to understand that you may not have the same feelings toward work and leisure and that you both need to be satisfied with how you choose to live your lives. She may enjoy working, and the idea of having lots of free time might create some anxiety for her. But she needs to understand that you want free time and are not as attached to work.

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It may help to see a financial planner together so that you can make sure you’re on the same page about the financial implications of retiring early. Even if your wife hates numbers, she can probably focus on a third-party expert who will explain to her what early retirement means in terms of what you’ll be able to afford to do. They can help ease any anxiety she has about potential financial insecurity. You can also use the opportunity to, at the very least, set a goal for retirement by a certain point.

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You also don’t have to retire at the same time, and if you hate it, there’s nothing to stop you from going back to work. Around 1.5 million retirees unretired last year and reentered the labor market. It may help to argue for a “trial” retirement—like taking an extended period of time off—with the intention of revisiting the issue a few months in.

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Regardless, your wife shouldn’t try to force you to work when you don’t need to, and you shouldn’t force her to stop working if she doesn’t want to.

Now is the time to have a conversation about what you both think retirement actually looks like for you, and what you want to do with it. That doesn’t mean you have to come up with a formal plan, but you should both have a sense of what your lives will look like once you are retired. The process of discussing this will help your wife envision the opportunities for you to enjoy retirement together more concretely, and it won’t seem to her like a vast abyss of having nothing to do.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I inherited my estranged father’s five-bedroom house when I was 20 and working a series of menial jobs. I had housemates who helped me pay off the mortgage since it was located near a local university. Quickly, it became only my three friends: Luke, Leah, and Hanna. We lived together for nearly eight years. I was in Leah and Hanna’s wedding party. I was there when Luke got his master’s. They helped me navigate my own hurdles with education and get into a lucrative trade. Once the house was paid off, I cut their rent in half because I was starting to make good money and they all had serious college debt. Other than utilities, I only asked a few hundred from each of them and let the rent slide when Luke and Hanna were in between jobs. We do have a formal month-to-month lease. But I thought of them as family, which is why this hurts so much.

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The only family I have is my mother and maternal grandparents. Both are getting older and my mother has started having serious health issues. They live eight hours south of me and I spend as much time as I can down there. I put over 50,000 miles on my new car in under a year. (Flying isn’t an option.) I have decided I need to be closer and plan to sell the house next fall.

When I told my friends, they flipped out. Luke told me the only reason he accepted the local doctorate program here was that he counted on his living arrangement at the house. Hanna started to cry because she and Leah had been talking about babies. They could only afford it if they stayed here (their two rooms are in the back annex so it’s private). Leah asked me if I knew what the cost is of a rathole studio. She called me an asshole. I finally snapped and asked them why they didn’t have any savings. They were paying below-market rates seven years ago and I halved their rent three years ago. At that point, Hanna left the room in tears. Luke and Leah ganged up on me and it got worse. I told them I needed to be near my family. I offered that they could buy the house from me at the market rate. Luke yelled that not all of us could be so lucky to inherit a house and then bleed off money from my friends. I told him that wasn’t fair. Luke told me, given how much I hated my father, if he had known and not been lazy about writing a will, I wouldn’t be “sitting so pretty.” My father left my mother and me when I was 11 and barely spoke to me afterward. This hurts.

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No one spoke to me for several days. I ran around like a cockroach fleeing the light if I saw any of them. Then they came to me with a proposal: They won’t pay anything for six months to save up or I “owe” them a slice of the sale. Additionally, they suggested I could move and have them pay a higher rent. This “helps” everyone. But I don’t want to be a landlord and I don’t want to share part of the sale. I love them, but I am still pissed at them. What should I do? How do I talk to them and try to repair this?

—Family Not Family

Dear Family Not Family,

Your friends are jerks. They do not own the house and you do not owe them housing. If they are adult enough to earn doctorates and consider having children, they are old enough to figure out their own housing without having you effectively subsidize them. I am frankly floored that they believe you owe them anything beyond reasonable notice about your intent to sell. You don’t. I can only imagine they came to this ridiculous conclusion because they all talked themselves into this silly line of reasoning behind your back.

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It also appears that they have some jealousy issues about the fact that you inherited the house—but that is their problem to address, not yours. You’ve done nothing wrong, and have been generous in allowing them to pay below-market rates and forgiving rent debt when they needed it. It’s completely understandable that you’re hurt by this.

Unfortunately, I think you should speak to a lawyer in case this escalates and they try to stay in the house, which they seem to feel entitled to. You should also give them some formal written notice about your intent to sell, within the guidelines appropriate to your state and any terms that are specified in the lease.

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I’m not sure there’s anything you can say to them to “repair” the relationship because you’re not the one who broke it. It’s not your responsibility to ensure that their life choices are sustainable for them, and it sounds like they’re all in denial about what their options are. If they can’t afford to have kids without paying below-market rent, they are probably already underestimating how expensive it is to have children and cannot afford it right now. That, too, is their problem to solve, not yours. I’m sorry that they’re behaving like this, but it also speaks volumes about the extent to which they value your relationship. If your friendship with them ends, it sounds like it’s their loss and not yours.

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—Elizabeth

More Advice From Slate

My friend “June” and I have been close since college. She is a wonderful, kind, generous person. In our 20s, we both made bad financial decisions, which meant we both racked up considerable credit card debt. In the past few years, I have started to get serious about getting out of debt permanently by the time I am 40. In November, we both got engaged to wonderful people—yay! For a variety of reasons including financial, I had initially planned to elope and a month later have a casual dinner party at my house to celebrate. My fiancé has since gotten laid off, and as a result, we decided to cancel the dinner party. In contrast, June is having an extravagant, large wedding. I also just learned that she is planning on filing for bankruptcy.

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