Pay Dirt

My Husband Refuses to Give Up on His Failing Startup

He is holding onto a sinking ship.

Someone looking at a computer with a chart trending downwards.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nattakorn Maneerat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 husband has been working on a startup since last December. It’s in an industry that has taken a huge downturn since right after he started. They have not secured any funding. They can’t afford to complete the next very important step because they are out of money. He has had two business partners in this, one being his very close friend. This friend is the main partner and just accepted a full-time job and is giving up on the startup. The other partner has seen the writing on the wall and only works a few hours a week on the startup now. My husband is still holding on. He doesn’t know what else he would want to do. He has worked for himself for the last 20 years on various businesses that he has started and run himself. He says he is applying for jobs that he doesn’t really want and is not writing cover letters for any of them.

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I am at my wit’s end. I have always supported him in his business ventures, which have included many successes and failures. Being an entrepreneur is what he is. I accept that about him. I hold down the job that secures benefits for our family. We have savings from his previous successes, but the money will run out. I don’t want him to take a job that he doesn’t want. But I am beginning to worry that he is holding onto a sinking ship. He is stressed and unsure all the time. I wish he would let go of this project and figure out what he should do next, and maybe spend more time with the kids or help out more around the house. Am I off base to try to get him to stop working on this and move on? It’s a really touchy subject.

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—Cut the Cord Already

Dear Cut the Cord,

You are not off base. I’m an occasional entrepreneur, who has had a business fail before, and I sympathize with your husband. It’s a painful experience that feels as much like a personal failure as a professional one because it becomes a big part of how you see yourself. That said, your husband has responsibilities to you and your family. He can’t wish the startup into success, and I’m sure that deep down he knows that. What’s probably making him feel stuck is that he doesn’t know what he wants to do next. Nearly every serial entrepreneur I know finds it hard to move on until they have another idea or opportunity waiting in the wings.

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I think what you have to emphasize to him here is that he doesn’t have to make a long-term choice about his next move right now, but he needs to make sure he does his part to keep the family financially stable. That may mean taking contract work or deciding to work for someone else for a year or two, while he plots his next venture. Holding on to a failing business is keeping him from looking for an interim source of income he might enjoy.

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If he’s had some business successes, he could also probably pick up some part-time consulting work in his area of expertise while he figures out his next step and how to wind down his current venture. It’s important to stress to him that if the startup isn’t working, letting go of it does not mean letting go of entrepreneurship forever. There are organizations for people who are business owners, and it may also help him to talk to other people who’ve been in the same situation.

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In the meantime, I don’t think it’s out of line for you to remind him that he has a deadline, and it’s tied to when the business runs out of money. Tell him that you do not want to dip into savings if that’s avoidable. Even if he thinks he can salvage the business, he owes it to you and your family to come up with a plan for what he’s going to do if it doesn’t work. As an entrepreneur, he should be accustomed to always having a plan B. He needs one here, too.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I’ve been married to my husband for nearly seven years. We are in our early 40s. Before we got married, I knew he had accumulated a significant amount of credit card debt in his 20s in another country from irresponsible spending, and had worked hard to pay it off. He was fearful about sharing even basic financial information with me, and when we moved in together it became a major source of stress because an unfair burden was put on me for covering our expenses. Early in our marriage, after much negotiation, he agreed to a joint account for our expenses and to allow me to use an online budgeting app to create a household budget for us. I’ve asked him over and over to participate in a shared budgeting and goal-setting process, and wish this was a shared responsibility.

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However, it was like once he allowed me to have access to his finances, he gave up all agency whatsoever. He generally refuses to discuss it at all, preferring that I just tell him what he has available to spend each month. Not only does it make me uncomfortable to give a grown man who earns half our income an “allowance,” it also doesn’t work—he rarely sticks to the amount we can afford, and will transfer money between accounts if he runs out. He doesn’t seem to be capable of understanding that if he spends all the money in our accounts today, we will have no money for things we’d like to do in the near future, even when we discuss it. Inevitably the time will come when he wants to buy a plane ticket and I will say “We don’t have the money for that” and he will pressure me until I put it on my credit card (he will not open a credit card because of his previous experience with debt), or sulk when I refuse to pay for something we can’t afford. It’s incredibly unfair on me and has resulted in me carrying modest debt on my credit card that I can’t quite shift. I’ve also had to revert to saving money for big things in accounts he doesn’t have easy access to, which makes me feel terrible, even though I am transparent with him about what’s in those accounts and he is in agreement.

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His refusal to have a credit card extends to any kind of credit—he balks at putting a utility bill account in his name, wouldn’t cosign our car loan, or even open up a pre-paid credit card, which was a solution I offered to the overspending issue. We don’t own a home, and if we choose to buy a house it would have to be in my name alone. Because of this, he literally has no credit history in the country we currently live in… When you run a credit report on him he looks like a ghost. We have had many, many discussions about how it is a form of financial abuse to insist one partner assumes all the financial risk and burden, and that it also hurts his future prospects as well as mine, but he is so fearful about the risks of credit that he won’t change. I love him, and he competently and equally shares many of the other burdens of our life together, with housework, family, income earning, etc. but when it comes to our finances I feel like I am alternately parenting a teenager/caregiving someone. People who know him professionally would find this shocking. How can we turn a corner?

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—All the Credit, All the Risk

Dear All the Credit, All the Risk,

It sounds like your husband has trauma from past debt and overreacts to minor financial complications as a result. If he finds it overwhelming, it’s going to be difficult to just talk him into being more responsible for his own finances. This is the kind of thing therapists can help address because it’s not just about the money; it’s about the way he perceives risk around money. If he’s terrified to take on any financial risk at all, that’s not just about wanting to avoid the burden of it, that’s about an irrational fear that’s rooted in something deeper.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should be the person who has to deal with it. He will likely need some therapy and handholding to get to a place where he’ll take responsibility in the way you want him to, but you can outsource the handholding. For bills that he routinely needs to pay for, you can set up automatic payments, and do the same for transfers to savings accounts—perhaps keeping a separate account for costs associated with things like travel. You should also meet with a financial planner, who can walk your husband through the mechanics of budgeting, and potentially, a credit repair organization that can help him understand why and how credit is important and help him build his credit in a constructive way. Don’t try to do all of these things at once, but incrementally, they can help give him a sense of control over subjects that he would otherwise find overwhelming.

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Tell  him that this affects you and your relationship, too. It’s not just a household administrative issue, and you don’t want to resent him for it, so you need him to make the effort to try these things. He also needs to do it for himself. If something happens to you and he has no credit and no way to manage his finances, it will be disastrous, and potentially affect other family members. He doesn’t have to figure all of this out  at once, but he needs to make progress toward getting a handle on it, for your sake, and his.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My 96-year-old grandmother recently died, leaving her husband of almost 70 years a widower. My brother recently visited him and was surprised to learn that since he is now in a senior community. He plans to sell his house and give the proceeds to the two sons he had with my grandmother, and nothing to us, the children of his stepdaughter. My mother, who sadly died 15 years ago, was eight when he married her mother and she always thought of him as her father, as she had no relationship with her biological father. It seems that he also handed all my grandmother’s jewelry off to his oldest son to give to his daughters. My brother questioned why her oldest granddaughter (me) would not receive some jewelry, too but my grandfather just looked down and mumbled. I feel very hurt. We think it is safe to assume that we will not receive any inheritance from him. I won’t pretend that this is NOT a money issue. I am certainly disappointed that my brother and I probably won’t receive anything. I am financially stable but an inheritance could have made a positive difference in my family’s life. I’m also just…hurt. Hurt for me and my brother, and hurt for my mother. Hurt that we are not considered family enough. What do I do with these feelings?

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—Left Out

Dear Left Out,

You have every right to be hurt. Unfortunately, your story is not uncommon. There are some people like your grandmother’s husband who simply don’t recognize non-biological family as family even when they are, legally. (I’m an adoptee and have seen adoptees get cut out of wills because someone decides they’re not real family. I find it morally repulsive, but it happens routinely.)

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If you think it would make you feel better, it may be worth writing a letter to your grandmother’s husband explaining how all of this makes you feel, especially since your mother considered him a father. Don’t expect, however, that it will change his mind. It may not. He has obviously viewed his relationship with you and your brother differently for a long time, and is unlikely to change overnight.

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In the meantime, know that your pain (and probably anger) are reasonable reactions, and remember that just because your grandmother’s widow doesn’t consider you family enough, doesn’t mean everyone feels that way. He’s not the only family you have, and the other people who matter feel differently. If he doesn’t consider you real family, it’s his loss, not yours.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m a man in a family of mostly women: my wife, two daughters, one daughter-in-law, my mother, my two sisters, and three nieces. My brothers-in-law are easy to buy for and my wife always sorts gifts for her father, but I struggle to buy presents for everyone else. They all want gifts that are beauty products, jewelry, or book series I have no idea about. I work an incredibly stressful job and have limited time for shopping trips, least of all to places I don’t feel at all at home in like these stores.

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My eldest daughter, “Halle” (28), loves celebrations and is an organizational master. She has spreadsheets with dates of birthdays, preferences, and gifts bought. Since she was a teenager, people have commented on how wonderful she is at buying the perfect presents for them. Most years, I have been able to ask Halle to sort the bulk of present-buying for our family on my behalf, and I, of course, give her the money for it. She enjoys Christmas shopping and it greatly eases my stress over it. Last year, however, Halle complained every time I asked her about what gifts she bought, acting like it was a huge burden rather than something she’d be doing anyway. Then, at our Christmas get-together where gifts were exchanged, she made a point of telling people stories about where she found the gifts they opened from me, making it obvious that she had done the shopping and making at least a couple of relatives annoyed with me and feeling I didn’t care about them (not at all true). I had to make the point several times that it was not Halle who had paid for them but me! It was embarrassing, and we have since had some awkward birthdays when my sisters thanked Halle for gifts from me.

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Now, I know Halle will start Christmas shopping soon. In the past, she has called to ask me who she should pick up gifts for from me and about money transfers, but there has been nothing from her this year. I have a bad feeling she will do what she did last year if I don’t say something, or simply refuse to help out at all. I absolutely don’t have time to go to the kind of effort she does—Christmas and the holidays are an overtime period for me—but I don’t want to end up forgetting anyone or leaving my wife or younger daughter with gift cards as presents. Can you advise on how I can talk to Halle about this? It seems like she’s being unreasonable and uncharacteristically passive-aggressive, and I don’t know how to approach this conversation.

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—Christmas Problems Already

Dear Christmas Problems Already,

It’s nice that Halle enjoys gift shopping and that she has been helping you all these years, but keep in mind that she’s doing you a favor. (Presumably, you’re not paying her to do this.) And it sounds like you haven’t been very grateful for the work she puts into it, and seem to think that this is her job by default now. So, perhaps her emphasizing to everyone last year that she did the thoughtful shopping was a way of letting you know that if you’re not giving her credit for all of this extra effort, she will claim it herself.

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Nonetheless, your Christmas shopping is not a difficult problem to solve, even without Halle. And it really does not require much effort on your part. Ask your beloved family members to send you two or three gifts they might want and then you don’t have to guess. It shouldn’t be a huge time suck… Online shopping exists! Or, you can go the old-fashioned, person-who-hates-buying-gifts route and just give people cash. It may not be as romantic, but trust me when I say this: No one over the age of 8 hates cash as a present. No one. There is no reason why Halle should be obligated to do all of this for you. But there is no reason why it has to be an onerous chore for you, either.

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—Elizabeth

More Advice From Slate

My mother-in-law and I don’t have a warm and fuzzy relationship, though I promise you that I am very accommodating and pleasant with her. My husband and I have been together for eight years and married for almost five. Despite having four bedrooms, being recently separated, and having only one of her children living at home, my mother-in-law does not have a guest bedroom. During visits to her house throughout our marriage, we have slept on a terrible pullout couch in the basement, in separate bedrooms on twin beds while one of his brothers sleeps on a couch, and (my personal favorite) me on a twin bed and my husband on an air mattress next to me that had a hole in it. When he mentioned the hole in the morning, she laughed it off as so unfortunate but didn’t offer to replace it for the next night!

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