Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Lillian, Athena, and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My boyfriend and I (both mid-30s) have lived in a home that we own for the past five years. The house is located in a modest area of our county and is relatively small in comparison to a typical single-family new build. It was built in the late 1980s and its interior still reflects that. It was always a dream of ours to completely renovate the interior and we’ve had money saved up to do so for a little over six months now. We finally found a designer who fits well with us and they signed off on our budget being appropriate for the work we want to get done. I’m massively excited—I think this will finally make it feel like our home.
I find myself getting anxious about how this will reflect on us with friends though. Most of our friend community are modest people who would never dream of being able to do what we’re doing with the renovation. We’re dual-income with no kids, work in IT and IT-adjacent fields, and have experienced a higher-than-average amount of financial success over the past couple of years. We live below our means and are not flashy (we run our cars until they break instead of getting new ones every couple of years, we don’t take fancy trips, and I buy most of my clothes second-hand). When people see the interior of our house once it’s finished, I know they’ll be shocked, especially because I think it will be unexpected compared to how we live the rest of our lives. If the shoe was on the other foot, I know I would be internally raising at least one eyebrow out of pure curiosity, but of course, I’d keep it to myself.
My question is two-fold. First, how do I let go of the self-consciousness I’m already feeling around this project, which I’m afraid will only highlight the fact that we had been doing just fine in the recent past when so many others were seriously struggling with COVID-related upheavals and just general millennial instability? I don’t want us to become alienated from our friends due to hard feelings or jealousy over this.
And second, if someone were to make a comment, how do I navigate that? I know it would be gauche for someone to comment in the first place, but I’d like to diffuse that in a way that reassures people instead of (even gently) chastising them for asking. As an example, when we re-did our roof a couple of years ago a very close friend of mine asked “How did you pay for that?” It may seem shocking that I was even asked, but that friend is more like family. The unspoken undertone to the question was one of “We seem to be in a similar financial boat and if I find it hard to imagine paying for it then you must too; let’s commiserate.” To answer, I lied and said we took out a home equity loan when we actually paid in cash. Please help me get rid of the perma-cringe that’s already taking up residence on my face.
Dear Renovation Worries,
I’m in the middle of a renovation right now that we were only able to afford via a series of lucky and unexpected breaks in our mid-40s, so I understand your anxiety about this. Here’s the way I think about it: People respond best to honesty when it comes to money. They become distrustful if they think you’re hiding something, especially if what they see contradicts their perception of your situation. Just explain it when people ask, or if they’re close to you, you can frame the situation ahead of time. Your situation is fairly easy to explain: You both work lucrative jobs (and presumably your friends are aware that tech jobs can be pretty lucrative) and you’ve been saving money to make this house feel more like home. It’s a long-term project you’ve been investing in for a while, and you’re excited about it.
If after understanding those facts, your friends are jealous and resentful about it, I’m afraid there’s not much you can do because that’s about their insecurities, not any mistakes you’re making. As long as you’re not bragging about the renovation or going out of your way to behave as if it’s some kind of burden or a thing that just anybody can do, there’s no reason for your friends to be resentful. In fact, if they know how hard you’ve worked for it, they should be happy for you.
In my case, I’ve just been explaining the lucky breaks when people have expressed curiosity—not because I think it’s any of their business, but to allay any suspicion that I must be quietly selling nuclear weapons to hostile foreign entities or something to afford to be able to re-paint our house. You know who your real friends are when bad things happen to you, but you also find out when really good things happen and some people react badly. (See, also: major career promotions and milestones, happy marriages, the arrival of extremely wanted children.) Not everyone will be a good friend in that case, and I know that’s painful to realize, but don’t let it suck the joy out of something you’ve worked for and are excited about. Your real friends will enjoy it with you.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My younger sister, Bea, is getting married next month. One of her friends, Nancy, was supposed to be a bridesmaid and already purchased her dress/shoes, but recently Bea and Nancy had a huge fight. Bea told Nancy she doesn’t want her to be a bridesmaid anymore. Nancy agreed but then insisted that Bea reimburse her for the cost of the dress and shoes (the dress, at least, was custom-fitted and can’t be returned). Bea said no, and now Nancy says she’s going to sue her in small claims court. Bea asked my advice, and part of me thinks she should just pay for the dress to avoid the hassle, but what’s the right thing to do here?
—Trying to Keep the Peace
Dear Keep the Peace,
I think Nancy and Bea need to work out their differences if their relationship was close enough that Bea wanted Nancy to be a bridesmaid. But if that’s not possible, I think Bea owes Nancy a reimbursement. When you ask members of your wedding party to spend their own money and time on your wedding and then cut them off at the last minute, you are making the decision to waste the money and time they spent. I don’t know what your sister’s fight was about, but I hope it’s very high stakes because cutting a member out of the wedding party over a fight is a drastic response and will likely make the relationship unsalvageable—especially if the offense was minor.
If Nancy has to drag her into small claims court to get a reimbursement, which she might be able to do, that will almost definitely make it impossible for any future reconciliation. So, if Bea thinks they’ll ever cool off and be friends again, she should do it for practical reasons as well. I also think the early months of marriage are both exhilarating and hard, and I doubt Bea wants unnecessary conflict with Nancy clouding that. She should do the right thing and reimburse her, even if she doesn’t feel like it right now, go enjoy her wedding, and maybe revisit the relationship at a later date.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mom has quite a dilemma and I don’t know what to tell her. She has recently broken up with her boyfriend and has to find another place to live soon. She is on disability for back/neck issues and gets about $800 per month. She was also left about $80,000 by my grandfather, who recently passed away. She doesn’t have enough money to purchase a home and rent would obviously eat up her entire disability check. She is afraid to even try to work part-time for fear of losing her disability income and insurance. I cannot live with my mom for the rest of her life, which is what I think she is hoping I will offer. I am still young myself and newly married, and my mom and I will kill each other if we have to share a home. Help!
—Don’t Want to Live With Mom
Dear Don’t Want to Live With Mom,
Not wanting to live with your mom as a married person is perfectly reasonable and does not mean you don’t care about your mother’s welfare. Fortunately, I don’t think your mom’s only options are living with you or having nowhere to live. First of all, she is eligible for some amount of part-time work as long as it doesn’t exceed the Substantial Gainful Activity standards set by the Social Security Administration. At that level of income, she also probably qualifies for rental assistance programs designed for people with disabilities. Your mom might not be able to afford to buy a house (which is not something everyone can do in any case), but there’s a vast ocean between “buy a house” and “live with you” and it is swimming with options like a rent-subsidized smaller apartment near you with a part-time job, finding a roommate to split rent with, and more.
For now, I think your best option is to try to help her navigate this situation and find a place she can afford. I doubt she wants to be dependent on you anyway, so this will reduce stress for both of you.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mother is in the process of transitioning to end-of-life care. My sister and I took over power of attorney earlier this year, and have been taking care of her finances and medical decisions with the help of a great group of professionals. Recently, however, we were dealt a bit of a surprise: My mother’s estate is much larger than we thought it would be, and her will doesn’t quite say what we thought it would.
She had been adamant about supporting and prioritizing her grandchildren (I have three children, and my sister has two) through her estate. It turns out she got a lot more in her divorce from our father than we thought, never touched it, and her estate has grown much larger. My sister and I assumed her desire to support her grandchildren meant there would be a little money split either equally between the two of us, earmarked for the grandchildren eventually, or between the grandchildren directly, as they are all now young adults. Instead, in her will, my oldest son is left a third of her estate, I am left a third to distribute to his brothers, and my sister is left a third to distribute to her son and daughter.
This is a surprise, but having spoken to her about it when she was more lucid recently, she made clear that, in her words, he was her “special grandchild” and she wanted to make sure that he knew that. While I was surprised, I know she’s right, their bond is special. He was the only one of her grandchildren who regularly opted to spend time with her growing up, walking to her house at least once a week, driving her around, and taking her out to lunch or dinner when he could. My other children only saw her if I took them, and my sister simply allowed her children to opt out of spending any time with her for a significant time, despite the fact that we all lived in the same city. He still calls every week to check in on her. I love my son, and while I didn’t expect him to, I would love to see him inherit this money. He is, in addition to being the kindest to his grandma, likely to be the lowest-earning of my children (he plans to work for a nonprofit). In short, of the five, he is most likely to need the money.
How do I talk to my sister about this in a way that ensures my mother’s wishes are reserved, and my son is taken care of? My sister is deeply upset by this and feels her children are being left out. She has talked about trying to alter the will or asking my son to forgo part of his share to “make things equal.” I don’t know how to prevent her from altering the will, and I know that if she confronts my son (who does not yet know about any of this) he will either agree to take a reduced share of the money and ask that all of it go elsewhere/donate it to charity. Also, how do I help my son prepare to be the sudden recipient of a seven-figure landfall?
—My Son’s Not Ready and My Sister’s Mad
Dear My Son’s Not Ready,
Inheritances are generally designed to pass family wealth down generationally in order to ensure that future generations are financially stable. It is not supposed to be a reward for disproportionately given love, and it’s always going to create resentment when inheritances are doled out that way. It sounds like your son is a good person, and would likely agree and also would not be comfortable with the idea that his unique relationship with his grandmother and the love he showed her “earned” him additional money.
So, while I sympathize with your desire to see your son taken care of, I think you should also understand why it will feel like a kind of punishment to the other grandchildren (and by extension, your sister) if the allocation works out this way. You should probably go ahead and discuss this with your son because he should have some input here too, especially if your mother’s decision could end up creating resentment between him and his siblings. That is probably not something she would want for him.
Ultimately, the allocation is your mother’s decision and all of you are going to need to respect it, no matter what it is. That also means your sister should not be unduly pressuring your mother to alter the will. (And needless to say, your sister can’t alter the will herself without your mother’s consent.) It is, however, OK to discuss the arrangement with your mother about the pros and cons of allocating the money the way she plans to (no one should be coercing her into making decisions). If your children are all adults, they should be aware that the conversation is happening and you should know how they feel about all of it. This is not something that should be a surprise to them when your mother dies.
Lastly, everyone reacts to windfalls differently. From the way you describe your son, he seems like a caring and empathetic person, so I doubt you have to worry that it’s going to affect him in a way that alters who he is. However, for people who’ve never had money, navigating wealth management can be overwhelming, and you should make sure your son isn’t tasked with doing it alone. When the time comes, he should hire a financial planner who can tell him what this means, what it allows him to do and doesn’t, and what to expect about the extent to which the inheritance will support him financially going forward. I don’t think you can really influence what he does with that information, but it will help him make informed, responsible decisions.
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