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 (31M) work in a niche field that’s infamous for being difficult to break into: Tons of talented, hardworking, dedicated, well-connected people work for poverty wages to break in but never make it. Luck is a big part of it, and while I’ve worked hard, I’ve also been lucky. I’ll never be a millionaire but even in lean months, I out-earn my boyfriend, who works an office job.
Because so many people never make it, I’m used to a certain amount of eye-rolling assumptions when my job comes up with strangers, but I find myself very upset when it comes from people closer to me. For example, my boyfriend’s family assumes he supports me because everyone who works my job is struggling. Casual acquaintances often make condescending remarks about “showing support” for my projects, when the projects are already at capacity and making great money. My own parents are suspicious about how my boyfriend and I afford our rent.
How do I politely and firmly nip this in the bud while also not being insufferable about my success? The cultural narrative about failure in this work is so strong that it feels like outsiders won’t believe me unless I produce my bank balance.
Dear Fine, Thanks,
I’ve been there. I’ve worked as an independent consultant to media companies and startups for years. In years when I solely did that, I’d tell people I was a consultant, and many people assumed that meant I was unemployed when I was in fact making far better money than I did working for other people. The reality is that you can’t change the fact that people have stereotypes about what you do. But I understand why it hurts that people close to you don’t understand that you’re not just good at what you do, you’re successful at it.
I think the remedy depends on who’s making the assumptions. If you’re very close to them (i.e. if we’re talking about your parents), casually dropping how much money you’re making will probably fix the problem. It’s none of their business of course, but it won’t come up again. And if you’re comfortable, have your boyfriend do the same with his parents. If he knows it bothers you, he shouldn’t have a problem correcting his parents’ mistaken assumptions.
That said, I wouldn’t read people saying they’re supporting your project as a de facto assumption of financial instability. I have friends who use the language of “support” to promote their wildly successful gallery shows, bestselling books, award-winning music and films, and so on. They don’t mean they need money. It can just mean showing up for your friend.
But where people are condescending, I think you can just note how well your work is going. Occasionally talking about good things that are happening to you doesn’t make you insufferable. Even in industries with high failure rates, there are successes. I doubt they think no one is ever successful; they just don’t know what success looks like when it’s right in front of them.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband is currently unemployed, but can’t help spending money on video games. I’ve spoken to him multiple times about it and he keeps apologizing, but then two weeks later does it again. How can I teach him that he can’t spend hundreds of dollars when he doesn’t have a job? I’m so frustrated and want to open separate bank accounts but every time I say that he cries and begs me not to. Help!
—Soon to Be Bankrupt
Dear Soon to Be Bankrupt,
You should definitely open a separate bank account. You are not required to support your husband’s video game habit and he needs to be aware of what he’s actually spending. But more importantly, you need to make sure he doesn’t keep spending and put you in a dire financial situation.
It also sounds like he may be addicted to video games and/or spending because he’s struggling with something—unemployment, most likely—and may be depressed. The games may allow him to escape reality.
If he were capable of controlling it entirely, I don’t think he’d get so upset at the idea of having separate bank accounts. He’s afraid to get cut off. You need to talk about why this is happening, and he may need therapy to deal with whatever’s precipitating it. It’s OK to be sympathetic to whatever’s going on and supporting him, while also setting boundaries around spending as a precaution.
You don’t say whether you expect or want him to work, but that’s a factor, too. If he’s looking for a job and having trouble finding one, that may be where he needs help as well. Good luck.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My partner’s father is quite wealthy and has promised to buy my partner a home on four different occasions, but soon reneged for one reason or another. About a year ago, my partner was diagnosed with cancer and has gone through a lot of chemo, radiation, and surgery.
One month ago, my partner’s father decided to buy a condo and allow us to rent it from him. We both appreciate his generosity but he’s made so many other unfulfilled promises such as giving him $1 million when he turned a certain age, which came and passed three years ago without a word. He insists on there being a rental agreement, that the rent be fair market value, and that I pay half the rent.
Increasingly this seems less of a gift and more like an investment. The father’s name is now on the title, not my partner. This doesn’t seem like a gift at all. Am I expecting too much? Should we take him up on the offer?
—Appreciative But Wary
Dear Appreciative But Wary,
This is absolutely not a gift. If your partner’s father wants you to rent his condo at market value, he is your landlord, not Santa Claus. If you think there’s some other reason to rent from him specifically (like being fairly certain that if things go south you won’t be evicted, for example), I think it’s fine to consider it. But otherwise, I’m not sure what the “gift” is here. He’s not giving you a discount; you don’t own the place, and aren’t building equity in it; and he wants a rental agreement, which presumably gives him legal recourse if you fall behind on rent, like any other landlord.
It also sounds like your partner’s father has never made good on any of his promises to help, so I’d move forward with the assumption that he’s not going to and make your decisions accordingly. It may be that he keeps making all of these empty promises to keep your partner close and is worried that if he follows through your partner won’t need him anymore. I don’t know what your relationships with him are like, but he may need reassurance that you both value him for the relationship you share and not his money.
Nonetheless, I’d find another option for housing if I were you because it seems like your partner’s father is not really helping you here. Becoming his tenant may complicate the relationship further, especially if he thinks he’s giving you a gift and you owe him something for it besides your rent check.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My partner and I met as teachers. I went on to a more lucrative career and they went on to pursue their passion in the performing arts. Years later, we now have a few kids, my career is thriving and they are a full-time stay-at-home parent.
Even though I have an income that can support our family, we don’t have much in savings or retirement. I have panic attacks about being the sole breadwinner and I wake up in a cold sweat thinking about what happens if I were to die or become ill and am unable to work! I also feel resentful that I worked so hard to finally make a high income and I can’t enjoy it because we’re playing financial catch-up.
My partner is also unhappy being the primary caregiver and has had a bit of an identity crisis now that they can no longer be on stage. They want to put the kids in day care and get back to performing. However, the money they make likely won’t even cover child care, let alone make a meaningful contribution to our savings. I would prefer they go back to teaching where they will at least have health and retirement benefits, if not a high salary, but they HATE this idea. I’ve suggested going back to school and finding another career, but they balk at this idea, saying they’re too old to start over (we’re both in our late 40s).
If we had a better safety net, I don’t think I need them to take a traditional job, but I don’t know if there is anything else I alone can do to improve our situation. I want them to be happy, but not at the expense of my mental health. Is there a solution that will work for both of us?
Dear Anxious Breadwinner,
I assume your partner is aware of what your financial situation is, so it’s worth emphasizing to them that they are also responsible for the long-term financial health of your family. If they want to return to performing, they need to figure out a way to do that in a way that takes into account the cost of child care. This is not just your problem to solve; it belongs to both of you. Sit down with them and create a budget. Actually, sit down and price out what child care will cost, and have your partner estimate realistically what they think they could make returning to performance. That should make this less abstract for your partner.
Secondly, I would suggest that your partner also consider jobs that involve the performing arts but are more lucrative than actually being a performer. Your partner needs to consider those options for both practical reasons, and because if they haven’t been on stage in a long time, they might not be able to just go back to work. They may be effectively starting over anyway, so more options should be on the table.
But most importantly, your partner needs to understand the pressure they’re putting on you to be the sole provider. It’s not fair for your partner to say they want to go back to work but only in a job that will increase financial pressure on you. Pursuing your passion is important, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a full-time job. There are plenty of ways to get involved in the performing arts without working in the industry full time, so this shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing decision. They can get involved in the local arts community after work hours and perform recreationally, too. You need a solution that will satisfy both of you, even if you both have to compromise a little to get there.
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