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’m 34, married with kids, and make a solid income (a little over $200,000). We live a great life with a nice house, a wonderful private school for the kids, and take multiple trips each year. In spite of this, I feel like I’m failing at managing our money. I can’t seem to keep our average checking account balance higher than $500 or make any significant impact on our growing credit card debt (total around $35,000).
I feel like the biggest barrier is my wife’s spending, but I can’t seem to stop her. She was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder but has been manically spending with no regard to the total she’s racking up for years. This latest episode has lasted one month and she has spent $7,500 on home organization supplies like closet systems, pantry containers, and labels. I take the $2,000ish discretionary income we have each month and pay the credit cards, but it’s not enough. She’s not open to discussing finances with me due to the anxiety it causes her. I’m afraid she’s going to continue to drive us into the proverbial hole when I could be building wealth. How can I get ahead of the impending issues if she’s not willing to participate in the solution? All of our accounts are joined and I can’t close the credit cards because of their balances.
—I Make Too Much to Be Going Broke
Dear Going Broke,
Your theory of why you can’t get ahead sounds about 99.8 percent accurate. As someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, I can say experiencing mania is tough. I’m not proud of it, but I was manic about 10 years ago—back when I was undiagnosed—and blew through $3,000 in a week. I still, to this day, can’t tell you where it went, except buying a ticket for an overpriced (and now defunct) self-development conference and taking a friend to get pedicures. I still cringe when I think about it. It sounds harsh, but you must cut your wife off and get her into treatment before she does irreversible damage.
First, you need to open a separate checking account in your name only. Your paychecks, bonuses, and household bills should come in and out of this account and this account only. Then you need to sit her down and explain to her that the last thing you want to do is make her uncomfortable. You have realized that money is a trigger for her, so for now, you will relieve her of this responsibility. Explain to her that suspect her spending is tied to her bipolar disorder, and while it isn’t her fault, she needs to work on getting better for her children and you. She can have a happy, healthy relationship with money, but for now, she needs help getting there. If she hasn’t already, ask her to meet with her primary doctor or psychiatrist to come up with a treatment plan. I’m not a doctor, but research shows that most people with bipolar disorder can lead normal healthy lives with the right medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes.
It also needs to be said that this isn’t a punishment. You’ve realized that her mania causes her distress, and this distress is ruining your finances. Ask what she feels is a fair amount of money for an allowance and then transfer that into the joint checking account so she isn’t left without access to money. But all bills and expenses like purchasing items for your children and groceries need to come from your account so that she can’t overspend. This can change as her circumstances do.
Lastly, call your credit card companies and ask them to put a hold on your credit cards. You can also restrict authorized users under certain conditions, but you need to call your credit card company directly to find out more about this option. So, while the accounts won’t technically be closed, there will at least be no further damage racked up. It will get worse before it improves, but she can get there. I’m rooting for you both.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I recently came into a delightful, low six-figure windfall. I’ve spent my entire adult life (I’m 38) renting in ultra-high-cost cities. I finally have a chance to make a down payment on a house, which I barely felt comfortable dreaming about before. The problem? My brother is a climate change-oriented scientist, and when he heard of my plan to use the money for a house, his reaction was an emphatic “DON’T DO IT!”
I live in a city that, like many parts of the world, is already being affected by climate change and will certainly continue to worsen. My brother believes my city will be unlivable and my house worthless in just a few years. Meanwhile, I anticipate needing to live in this city for another five to 10 years due to my career, and I don’t want to be a renter any longer! I’m so tired of the underlying instability and the gross feeling of paying off someone else’s mortgage (I rent a house). How much should I really consider climate change in terms of investing in real estate, specifically in an area that will definitely be affected down the line?
Dear Global Warning,
My initial response when reading your brother’s reaction to your purchasing a home was to advise you to take it with a grain of salt. But that’s what many have been doing to scientists for years. If your brother is a climate change scientist, he probably knows what he’s talking about. I would consider what he is saying and weigh it seriously.
About 13 years ago, there was a television program that aired on ABC called Earth 2100. It was released in 2009 and dove into what life could hypothetically look like if climate change wasn’t taken seriously. I’m sad that some of the scenarios depicted in the program have already come true. The film predicted that Las Vegas would run dry by 2030. It’s 2022, and Lake Mead (which supplies much of Las Vegas’ water supply) is the lowest it’s ever been. It’s so low that random dead bodies potentially linked to organized crime are now rising to the surface. Las Vegas is currently asking its residents to limit their water use, but it remains to be seen if the city’s efforts will be successful. The film also depicted a worldwide pandemic that sounds very similar to COVID-19. This fictional pandemic damaged the world’s trade. I could go on, but that’s neither here nor there. Scientists have known about these threats all along. Whether we have chosen to listen is a different story.
My answer is to hear what your brother has to say. If the city hasn’t addressed this issue, and there is reason to believe they are in a climate change crisis, it might not be a wise move to purchase the property you originally intended to. If your city is committed to making improvements, and you feel confident in these changes, then I would encourage you to go ahead. I hope this makes sense.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m 30, and about four years into a stable/professional career after years of unstable work. I’m about to take six weeks of medical leave from my job in October. This will require me to take short-term disability as a result, which will bring me down to 80 percent of my regular income in the same month that my rent is going up by 24 percent. Normally, this rent increase would cause me to pay exactly 30 percent of my income to rent, but with a squeeze in both directions, it’s more like 41 percent.
Should I move? I am likely to be spending a bit more during the medical leave period to cover medical costs, delivered groceries, and other stuff I’d usually do myself for free. How do I know when moving is worth it? I have a sold 401(k) and three months of rent in emergency savings right now, I’m just scared. I love my apartment but I’m scared I’m setting myself up for failure.
—Sick and Tired
Dear Sick and Tired,
When you’ve lived in survival mode for years, it’s hard to switch your brain out of it and convince yourself that you’re OK. Guess what? You are OK. You have a stable career and an emergency fund to help with situations like the one you described above. You don’t need to move. Use your emergency fund to pay your rent in advance and then subsidize your other expenses with the short-term disability you will be getting. The situation is temporary, and this, too, will pass. You’re not setting yourself up for failure, you’re doing well. Trust the process. Rest up and get well soon. You’ll be bouncing back before you know it.
Dear Pay Dirt,
This isn’t a problem, just a question. My spouse and I are very fortunate. I have some family money and we both have high-paying jobs. My spouse makes more than me in a higher-risk position, which is fairly new for us. To compensate for my spouse’s higher risk position, we are trying to live by the advice of having six months of cost of living as a safety net in savings. However, in doing so, we are sitting on a mountain of cash! (More than $150,000.) I see in this column the mention of finding a high-yield savings account, but very few big banks offer them. Even looking into private banking, it’s all fractions of percentages. The truly “high yield” ones are with weird banks or come with strings. We like our mainstream bank! Is this just how it is? Is there anything we can do to make this money work for us while it waits for a rainy day?
—Wasted Safety Net
Dear Wasted Safety Net,
I would consider opening a CD ladder with a national bank like Ally. Like a high-yield savings account, CD ladders are a saving strategy that acquires interest but is low risk, and you can access your cash if needed. With a CD ladder, you spread your cash equally across multiple certificates of deposit. While the longer the term the more interest you’ll accrue, you’ll have easier access to your cash if the money is invested in a shorter-term CD. (Keep in mind that typically there are penalties if you withdraw the money before a CD’s term is up.)
If you’re still looking to consider a high-yield savings account, just look for a bank that is backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). When banks are backed by the FDIC, your money is insured for up to $250,000. The FDIC protects consumers like you from fraud in case a bank should close and will return these funds to you. I get not wanting to plunk down thousands of dollars in the newest FinTech app (sorry to all my friends in the FinTech space!). I would stick with Ally until you find a bank that fits your needs and doesn’t leave you wanting to run for the hills.
My in-laws have decided to take a payout from their company to retire early. They expect us to be happy for them, but it frankly sickens me to my stomach. My in-laws didn’t pay for my husband’s college education and they seem to spend all their money on endless home improvement projects, exotic pets, décor, and the like.