Pay Dirt

My Partner Insists on Buying Me Elaborate Gifts—That I Pay For

I don’t want more crap in my house.

Someone holding a wrapped gift.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus and Spoon Graphics.

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,

I am the sole earner in my house. This was always the plan, and I genuinely do not feel like all the money I make is all mine. My spouse’s contribution to our family is important and valued. I make enough money for one income to be workable, but with recent inflation, things have gotten noticeably tighter. In past years, I have tried to gently tell my spouse that I really don’t need holiday and birthday gifts, but they love receiving gifts (and I love giving them!). They say they would feel very badly if I didn’t have gifts from them to open as well. Obviously, the thought put into the gift is more important than the money, but with things being tighter, I can’t help but feel like I am not actually being handed a gift, but a card that says, “Hey, I blew $200 on this thing we don’t need, now you have to find a way to cram in some overtime!” I am tired. I am stressed. I do not want more crap in my house, or to have to work more to pay for said crap. But I cannot figure out how to communicate this without making my spouse feel like I am shaming them.

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—You See a Present, I See a Day of My Life Gone

Dear You See a Present,

For some people, gift-giving is an important part of expressing love and central to how they go about doing it. It sounds like it might play that kind of emotional role for your spouse, so I think it’s probably going to hurt their feelings if you ban gifts altogether.

However, the nature of the gift is probably less important than the intent. I think it’s reasonable for you to set some boundaries around what constitutes a reasonable gift so that you don’t end up with the gift of more overtime. You’ll need to talk directly to your spouse about this, and gently emphasize that the expenses only stress you out because you feel that you have to make up for them later by working more. One way to mitigate this is to agree on a budget for gifts that still allows for thoughtfulness. The meaningfulness of a gift is not correlated to expense. There are also gifts—acts of service and time together doing activities that make you happy—that do not cost money, though it sounds like your spouse needs some kind of material element for it to really constitute a gift. It’ll help if you make suggestions for things you’d actually appreciate.

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Part of the fun of gift-giving is being creative about what you think the recipient would like, and there are ways to do that without overspending. Some of the best gifts I’ve received had emotional significance because they were tied to an experience or something the person giving the gift understood about me—a vintage movie poster from a thrift store, an older edition of a book I liked, or someone spent time learning about something solely because it interested me. These are way better gifts than the $200 item you don’t need. If you feel like your spouse is going to be disappointed by this, frame it as being more ambitious about gift-giving, not less. Doing it this way requires more thoughtfulness and creativity and ensures that the gifts are memorable.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

Like many Americans with student loans, I am extremely thankful for the upcoming federal student loan forgiveness plan, but I am also concerned that it’ll create family tension. Since I received a federal Pell Grant during college, I am eligible for up to $20,000 in loan forgiveness, while my siblings are only eligible for $10,000.

I (25) am the oldest of three, all of whom went to/are in college through a combination of family support and financial aid, including student loans. My parents own a small business, which means their income fluctuates. My first year of college was a particularly hard financial year; therefore my FASFA’s expected family income was really low and I received a federal Pell Grant as part of my school’s aid package. The family business did better in the following years, so I was no longer eligible for the Pell Grant, while I continued to receive loans and scholarships. My siblings also filled out the FASFA every year and did not receive Pell Grants.

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It seems foolish not to apply for the full $20,000 I am eligible for as a Pell Grant recipient, especially since it means I would be debt-free, but I am also worried it might create resentment from my siblings down the line. I’d be getting $10,000 more dollars of debt forgiveness on a technicality. Up until now, our college costs have been pretty even-our parents contributed about the same amount to each of us, and we each took out about the same amount in federal student loans. Confounding the situation is the fact that we each received the same small amount of money after our grandmother passed away two years ago, with the wish that we use the money to help with educational costs. I decided to save this money in a high-yield savings account until student loans resume.

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If I apply for the full $20,000 of student loan forgiveness, should I give some of the money I’ve been saving from my grandmother to my siblings? I know I’m not obligated to, but getting me and my siblings through college was a whole-family effort, and I don’t want to gain a significant financial leg up on my siblings on a technicality.

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—Debt-Free But Feeling Guilty

Dear Debt-Free,

I wouldn’t assume that this will cause tension, or that you’re really getting a leg up. I went to college on a lot of financial aid and my Pell Grants were slightly higher than my siblings for the same reason, but my siblings also had additional help because my parents’ income went up. I don’t know if this is true in your case, but our financial packages were never really adequate even with the grants, loans, and scholarships, and I worked two jobs on top of going to college full-time. If I were to calculate how much I benefited versus my siblings from our respective packages, Pell Grants wouldn’t be the only variable.

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Regardless, I would not worry about your sibling’s reaction. They are presumably adults who love you and will be happy you have $20,000 less debt. If they are not, and are angry at you for availing yourself of a program designed explicitly to help people like you, they are being petty and selfish. That is not your problem. If you feel the need to even things out to feel like everyone’s contribution is equal, that’s more about your feelings that you may have disproportionately benefited. What you’re probably doing there is just about making yourself feel better. You’d be fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. That’s fine by the way, it’s your money. But I don’t think you have any ethical obligation to do it. Regardless, take the loan forgiveness.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

After graduating with my master’s degree when I was 23, I job hopped a lot for a few years. I kept reading career advice that switching jobs often increased your lifetime earnings. And it definitely did—between ages 23 and 27, my salary increased by nearly $35,000 (I work in finance). But when I was 27, I started at a company I’ve been at since (I’ve been here for nine years). The thing is…I don’t want to leave. I know I’m only 36 and things could change, but I could totally see myself retiring at this company as things currently stand. The benefits are phenomenal, they give generous raises every year, I’ve been promoted twice, and I love my manager and team.

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I feel like I found a unicorn company—they give us a ton of PTO, including a week of designated mental health leave. It’s also a very challenging job in a good way. I feel like I’m constantly learning something new and growing in my role without it being too hard or overwhelming. But whenever I look up career advice, it says to be wary of staying somewhere too long because you’re leaving money on the table and if you ever do decide to leave, it can make you look stagnant and stuck in your ways. I love this place, but I am very much a “career woman” who has made my career the center point of my life. What do you think? As I approach a decade with this company, should I be open to leaving, or should I stay somewhere that’s treated me very well?

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—Job Hopper No More

Dear Job Hopper,

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to stay in a job you like. Depending on the industry you’re in, job hopping early in your career can be the only way to get your salary up to a sustainable level when cost of living raises don’t cut it. But once you’re there and making money that meets your needs, your imperatives can change.

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One way to think about this is to determine what you need most out of work right now, since this changes at different points in your career. What are your top three or four things that you value the most, and in what order? For example, early in your career, it might have been increasing your compensation, status, and opportunities for advancement. Now it might be stability, working with people you like, and having challenging work. Also, keep in mind that your ranking might change if you remove some of those things. I did this exercise for myself about a decade ago when I was thinking about a drastic career change, and I told a mentor that my biggest concerns were autonomy, fulfilling work, and good compensation. But if I removed autonomy, compensation moved to the top. What are the things you need out of work right now, and does this job fulfill them? If so, then yes, stay at that job!

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That said, you should make it clear to your colleagues and people who will influence your trajectory in the company that you are excited about the job and want opportunities to advance and earn more. Make it clear that you want to develop skills that will be conducive to that and make sure you understand what that pathway is like. Don’t wait for your bosses to figure out what your career development looks like; that’s your responsibility. In the meantime, enjoy the fact that you have a really satisfying job that you love and that pays you well. That is a wonderful position to be in.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m a 23-year-old graduate student. My significant other is 28; we met in school and have been together for two and a half years. We make excellent life partners, have supported each other through good times and bad, and feel aligned on the key issues. We both come from poor backgrounds and have at times struggled with money. After a rough career pivot, where my significant other almost hit rock bottom, they landed an extremely lucrative and stable job in finance. They’re now making more than 15 times what I make! (Yes, literally.)

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They did the math and realized that if we were married, we’d save around $12,000 in taxes this year and up to $25,000 yearly after that. This is a serious relationship; we’ve talked about marriage in the future. But the future was never meant to be before I left school or turned 25! If we get married, we’d prefer to just go to the courthouse for paperwork and act like we’re still dating; not throw our tax refund to the wind and host a giant wedding. But even if we agree to keep our relationship the same emotionally, I don’t know what would change for me legally. What else should I be considering?

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—Maybe Getting Married

Dear Maybe Getting Married,

I’ve been married for 11 years and feel very strongly that no one should get married solely for tax benefits, and not just because marriage is about more than legal and financial status, though it is. Any tax benefits you reap can easily be undone by the costs of divorce (both literal and otherwise) if it doesn’t work out, and you don’t know if your income will be stable indefinitely. So, even if you were thinking about marriage solely through a financial lens, it would not necessarily net out positively. It really depends on what happens to the relationship and your finances over time.

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You need to consider other factors, too. At 23, you’re certainly an adult, but also at the beginning of your career and independent adult life, and marriage as an institution is designed to be a lifelong commitment. For a lot of people, it isn’t, but I think you need to be committed to the idea that it is if you’re going to take that step. You say you and your partner have supported each other through good times and bad, and I know two and a half years seems like a long time, but if we’re talking about long-term changes, it’s not.

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So I’ll give you some advice that was given to me before I got married at the age of 37, after having been in several monogamous relationships and having already experienced cohabitation with a partner. Imagine the following scenarios: One of you experiences a devastating career development that affects your finances. One of you has a catastrophic health problem, forcing you to rework your everyday existence together and one of you becomes a caretaker. You have children and have major disagreements about how to raise them. Someone turns your head, or your partner’s, and you have an affair, or don’t. One of you decides you want a big change and want to move, change careers, or do something major that affects both of you.

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Now, think about all of these scenarios as they apply to your partner, and imagine not that some of them happen, but all of them do—and far sooner than you expect. Is this still the person you want to be with indefinitely? Can you imagine going through all of those things together and still being OK? If so, then yes, maybe you’re ready to get married, but a lot of people only anticipate these scenarios after they happen, or think one or all of them will never happen to them. If you’ve thought through and discussed all of these situations, you would be an unusual case.

If you and your partner still think this is what you want, you do get some tax advantages from getting married, as a matter of public policy, and you’ll see them show up if you’re filing taxes jointly as a married couple. As for other legal advantages, you’re eligible for benefits as a spouse that can be harder to get if you’re not married—being on your partner’s health insurance, for example; more straightforward estate planning; being able to make medical and legal decisions for each other; and so on. And a prenuptial agreement can mitigate the potential cost of divorce. But again, I’d caution against getting married solely for the legal benefits.

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—Elizabeth

More Advice From Slate

I’m a 25-year-old gay guy. I’ve been out and sexually active from around the age of 16, and I’ve had one yearlong relationship in that time with a guy around my own age. I’d say I’m the “old-fashioned” type—marriage and monogamy and all the rest. Good looks or a chiseled bod don’t play too much of a part in who I find myself attracted to. Often I’ll see “older” men. The trouble I have is that I often find that these guys (40+), after I have sex with them a number of times, develop the habit of basically supporting me—buying me alcohol, cigarettes, dinners, movie tickets, etc.

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