Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My wife and I agreed she would stay home with our sons after the twins were born. In order to make up for the lost income, I took a different job that requires me to travel a lot. Half of the time I am on the road and half the time in strange motels (if I am lucky) or at the job site. The pay is good but the stress takes a toll.
When I get home, the stress doubles. The place is a pigsty, my wife constantly complains, and when I try to help out with the twins she bites my head off. She doesn’t want help. My mother and her mother have made offers to come over to clean or watch the twins, but my wife wouldn’t let them. She claims they are both too critical. We already have a lawn service because my schedule is too erratic for me to continue to mow. I have looked up local cleaning services and even grocery deliveries. And it is a few hundred dollars. Even with tip.
I am drained when I get home. I want to take a nap, get up, enjoy my boys, and not fight with my wife because the bathroom wasn’t cleaned properly. Every time I bring this proposal up to my wife, she shoots it down. She says it is a waste of money and an insult to her that she can’t keep our house in order. I argue she can’t. We can’t. And there is no shame in paying for help. It is the equivalent of going through a car wash rather than getting out the hose and bucket.
She tells me I need to step up more. I tell her after a ten-hour workday, six hours on the road, the last thing I am going do is go scrub a toilet. Right now I am sleeping in the guest room. I don’t know what to do. I love my wife. I love our sons. But I am waiting for that last straw to break everything. My wife refuses to even consider counseling.
—The Last Straw
Dear the Last Straw,
I’m not sure how old your twins are, but if they’re still babies, I will give you both some unsolicited, non-money advice: It will get easier. If your children are especially young, I think what’s going on with your wife is that she gave up a job to stay at home and has to adjust to essentially another full-time job that she has never done before. This is generally hard for everyone, especially if your twins are your first children. She may be accustomed to feeling very competent and on top of things at work and doesn’t want to admit she’s struggling because it makes her feel guilty and irresponsible, even if she’s not. I also don’t know what she did before, but if she assumed that domestic responsibilities were less difficult than her old job, she may also be embarrassed that she’s finding it harder to do things like manage twins and keep up the house.
All of which is to say, this is not an unusual situation—especially when you’re shifting roles in your relationship once you have children. You were both breadwinners before and now she’s not. She may have some guilt about that, and feel like she’s failing.
Also, even when you decide that one parent is going to stay at home, you still both have to parent your children. That doesn’t just mean spending time with them when you have the energy. You are exhausted at the end of the day, but she is too. One infant is exhausting in the absence of child care. Two is, well, worse.
It is clear that your wife is struggling and you are trying to help. She needs to be able to accept your help, and I think she would as long as you’re not implying that you want to hire someone because she is incompetent. She probably isn’t. In the absence of help, nearly anyone with baby twins has a pigsty of a house. As humans, we historically lived in communities with our extended families, not two-person units where one person was almost exclusively responsible for child care. We are not designed for it. And grandmas are a double-edged sword. They can be helpful and provide relief, but can also be critical when new mothers need it the least and that can exacerbate all of the existing problems, particularly if the criticism is misplaced or wrong.
So be careful about framing getting help as a matter of remedying what you perceive to be her deficiencies. I’m sure you believe, from a well-meaning place, that what you do every day is more tiring and difficult than what she’s doing. But if that’s the case, I’d suggest you take a few days off work and try to do it yourself. You need to get it through to her that you know that she’s struggling and needs help, without being judgmental about what’s happening now. You may not understand why it’s happening.
On the upside, the fact that she’s already asking for you to help out more says that she does want it on some level. It also says that she wants you to participate more as a parent, not just find her child care. She’s telling you she feels alone in this and very specifically wants you to help.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I, married nine years, have a difference of opinion regarding retirement. I am 44 and he is 52. We got married because I was pregnant so we didn’t exactly discuss long-term plans at the time.
His lifelong goal is to own a large ranch and have a smattering of livestock that he can putter around with on a day-to-day basis along with staying partially engaged in the construction company we currently own and run. My ideal retirement would be to live in a smaller space, with less maintenance and travel frequently, or own a second home on a beach location. We currently live on five acres of property and have horses, chickens, dogs, cats, and a cow. I moved in with him when we got married. That is more than enough property and pets for me.
Our youngest child will graduate high school in nine years and I know he would like to move to his dream location anytime afterward. Any time we talk about the future we agree to disagree for now, but it does affect how we save and plan now. I don’t want to crush his dreams but I also don’t want to be stuck on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. How do we begin to get on the same page about this?
—No Ranch Retirement
Dear No Ranch Retirement,
It is possible to live on a ranch, travel, and go to the same beach spot on a regular basis. You can do all of these things if you can afford it; it’s not an either/or situation.
The bigger issue is that generally, people talk about these things before they get married, and both parties want to grow together in the same direction. Marriage is not just about agreeing to be parents together, it’s about a commitment to live and change together over time. If you didn’t think about it that way when you got married, because your primary impetus was pregnancy, now’s the time to start. You can’t plan or save if you don’t know what you’re planning and saving for.
The best thing you can do is have this conversation now and start with a broad discussion of how you envision your day-to-day future without the specifics of a ranch in Wyoming, eight vacations a year, or whatever you both are thinking about. What’s important to you? What for each of you is a must-have, and what’s nice to have? Are these things you need all the time or some of the time?
Once you can agree on some of those things, you can start to envision something that might work for both of you. For instance, you would prefer less maintenance than you have now. Perhaps there’s a way your husband could have his ranch or some variation of it where the maintenance of it doesn’t create stress for you. If it’s important to you to have a place on the beach, maybe there’s a way to do that part-time or seasonally. Regardless, it sounds like you’ve been separately imagining different paths and you need to start imagining yourselves together with the understanding that neither of you may get exactly what you’re imagining now, but you’ll be working toward something together that satisfies both of you.
Also keep in mind that at 44, your retirement may be quite a ways off, and what you want then might be different than what you want now. You should plan and save, but neither of you should become so rigid in your ideas of what your future is going to be, (potentially) decades from now, that you are not open to new possibilities, or the idea that you are both going to change as people as you get older. In the best of worlds, you will change together and it will deepen your relationship. You may find yourself in a wonderful retirement situation that you both love that doesn’t at all resemble what you think you want now.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I are retired and have always had separate financial accounts. He receives a pension and I have a 403(b) retirement account. In the past few years, my husband has taken foolish risks with his money, including investing in bitcoin and losing money to scammers. For this reason, I would like to name our three grown children (all in their 40s) as the primary beneficiaries of my retirement account instead of my husband as the primary with the children as secondary beneficiaries upon his death. Is this a good idea and, if you think it is, how do I approach him about this decision? I believe that he would have to sign off on this change.
—Sidelining My Risk-Taking Husband
Dear Sidelining My Risk Taking Husband,
I think your course of action really depends on what you intend to happen with your retirement account, ultimately. If your husband did manage to spend away his pension and your death preceded his, would you want him to be taken care of using those funds? If so, would you trust him to manage them, or would you want your children managing the money and disbursing the funds? Or do you fundamentally want the proceeds from your retirement account to go to your children? If you’re mostly just concerned that your husband will spend your retirement account in irresponsible ways, you may want to consider creating a trust and naming the trust the beneficiary of your accounts, which will allow you to more granularly direct how the money is allocated and used.
You should also think about this in the context of any other estate planning you’re managing. If you have a will, you should be aware that the beneficiary designation almost always supersedes the will, and make sure your family is aware of that too, so there is no confusion or conflict if the two appear to be contradictory.
If you think your husband will object to the idea of anything that isn’t naming him the direct beneficiary, you should lovingly remind him that you’ve always had separate financial accounts. You can begin this conversation by confirming that you respect each other’s autonomy in financial decision-making, which is presumably part of the reason why you have separate accounts in the first place.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband has worked in a real-estate adjacent job for the last 30 months after bartending for over a decade. During the pandemic housing market boom, he was very busy, but now that interest rates are rising, he is getting fewer jobs and our monthly income is decreasing rapidly. Fortunately, the company he works for pays him a base salary of $2,000 even if he gets no jobs for the month, but this is over $3,000 less than his average take-home pay from the last 12 months.
I am a public school teacher, so I have no control over my salary, though I do have a side hustle that can bring in an extra $500 a month or so. I want my husband to get a part-time job to supplement his income during the slow-down, and am pushing him toward bartending, as many local places are hiring and the hours would work for us (we have a 6-year-old). I also suggested he start a handyman business on the side, which he is qualified to do. Either way, I want us to make a plan and execute that plan.
He is in denial and wants to “wait and see”, and also is loathe to return to the service industry after “escaping.” I am frankly not interested in making $2,000-$3,000 worth of lifestyle changes as our budget was tight already. We have a considerable amount in investment accounts but of course, those have taken a big hit and are for retirement anyway. We have less than $4,000 in savings. Our only debt is our mortgage. How can I move him from denial to reality on this, before we go broke?
—Rate Hike Realities
Dear Rate Hike Realities,
I think it’s reasonable to expect your husband to contribute to the household in a good faith way that doesn’t put your family in a hardship position. I don’t think, however, that you can tell him precisely what to do with his work life. You don’t mention what he does in real estate but if it’s interest rate dependent, then what you’re experiencing right now is a normal cycle for the industry, and the lower income is no fault of your husband’s. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to go back to a service job after finding something new he’s interested in that has the potential to make far more money in the long run.
It might be different if you both agreed that money was the most important priority for your household and that the job you spend a minimum of 40 hours a week doing was irrelevant, but in that case, I have to point out that teaching in public schools is probably not the most lucrative option available to you. (I know many public school teachers, and I don’t know any who do it because the compensation is attractive.)
What you do need to do is have a conversation with your husband about what you want, lifestyle-wise in both the short term and the long term, and quantify it. You already have a number in your head because you’re able to identify that you think this is resulting in $2,000- $3,000 in lifestyle changes. What does he think is acceptable? If there is a disparity, where can you find a compromise that works for both of you in the next 12 months? Inflation is subsiding and if it continues, what would this mean for your husband in another year or two if rates went back down?
But most importantly, you need to be on the same page about what you’re aiming for long term, and that means not just determining what sort of lifestyle you both want and how much it will cost, but what you’re each willing to do to get there. Are you happy working in a job you don’t like if you make more money, and to what extent? What are your long-term career ambitions outside of money? If these things don’t matter and money is the sole purpose of working, even if only for the short term, what are both of your options? You don’t have to be identically aligned on every single one of these things, but you need to be headed in the same direction. Right now, you’re trying to convince your husband to essentially change industries because the economic environment has been this way for 12 months. A wait-and-see attitude toward real estate as an industry right now is not unreasonable.
I do think it’s fine to suggest that he pick up some side work as a bartender since he’s done that before, but understand that it probably does cannibalize whatever he’s trying to do long term in real estate and have a serious conversation about what that means. I also wouldn’t underestimate what goes into a “side business” as a handyman. Unless you’re planning on doing it all under the table, you really are starting a business there, and not everyone’s equipped to be an entrepreneur. So you need to talk about what you both want in terms of lifestyle maintenance and what you literally want to do every day with your lives to ensure that you get there.
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My spouse and I each own our own businesses. One of our businesses is a pretty traditional professional services firm (think: accountant, architect, or lawyer), and the other one is a more creative business (think: artist, musician, or writer). We both love our jobs, but one of us makes more than $400,000 and one of us makes around $40,000. To do our jobs well, they both require about the same amount of time. That means each of us needs to work for 40–50 hours per week. We have two young kids. Our conflict is over who needs to be the primary caregiver during the 60 hours per week when we don’t have child care.