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 girlfriend and I are moving in together this year when she buys her first home. We’re very excited, but obviously, this milestone comes with a lot of conversations about how to combine our finances. The biggest question is about the (still hypothetical) house. My girlfriend makes considerably more than I do, and I don’t have the savings to make a significant contribution to the down payment. (I do have more than enough for emergencies, etc. I’m generally in good financial health, just not in a position to purchase a home in my region.)
She’s looking for homes in a price range that would allow her to make mortgage payments by herself. However, in practice I will of course contribute to monthly mortgage payments, probably an amount equivalent to my current rent payments and/or proportionate to our respective incomes. Neither of us is comfortable with the idea of my simply being her tenant. We want my payments to go toward a proportionate ownership stake in the home. Though we’re confident that we’ll be together for the long haul, we also want to minimize the potential for painful financial conflict in the case of a breakup and to lock ourselves into treating each other fairly and kindly. If we were to break up, I would want her to be able to stay in the home or sell it as she sees fit. (I don’t think I would be spiteful enough to force a sale, but I’d like to take that option away from my future self!) What are the different approaches we could take to structuring this financially and legally? What considerations should we keep in mind for different scenarios, like if the home has increased or decreased in value?
—Nesting Without a Nest Egg
Dear Nesting Without a Nest Egg,
You’re right to be thinking about all the details. Homeownership is a lot to navigate, especially if you’re splitting the mortgage payment to allow for joint ownership. While it may seem like a great idea to protect your partner against a future, spiteful you, it’s also important to look out for your best interest. If the house triples in value and you’re part of a nasty breakup, you will not want to be screwed out of your investment. Because that’s how you need to be looking at this: as an investment. She’s protecting her investment by ensuring she can afford the monthly payments with or without you, so do the same.
You need to consult a real estate attorney because laws vary from state to state. But a cohabitation agreement is one thing to start considering. This is a legal document that protects you both in case a breakup should happen. You can draw up several terms in this type of agreement, like your intent to contribute payments to the mortgage in exchange for equity in the home, the type of ownership on the deed and title, and what happens to the home if there is a breakup or you choose to sell.
Before you can fill that out, though, you’ll need to figure out how you will draw up ownership of the home. Two things to keep in mind: the title and the deed. A title is a claim to rights related to the property you’ll be buying, including the right to own it. A deed is the actual document detailing who owns the property. There are a few common ways to handle the title like sole ownership, joint tenancy, and tenancy in common. If your girlfriend goes ahead with sole ownership, only she would be on both the deed and title, which means you legally have no ownership. Joint tenancy allows two or more people to own the property and share equal rights and obligations. This also means that you’ll automatically get ownership of your partner’s share of the property should they die. Tenancy in common allows you both to have rights to the property but can be divided into different shares. For example, let’s say you, for some reason, gave her $3,000 toward a home that costs $100,000. You can divide your ownership on the title to where she owns 97 percent, while you only owe 3 percent. A tenancy in the common title also lacks the ability to automatically transfer the ownership to the other person should the other pass away. Instead, it transfers to whoever they outlined as the recipients in their will.
Again, to truly protect yourself, see a real estate attorney who can help you figure out how to divide ownership and ensure you’re both protected, so worst case scenario, your real estate dilemma will be the last thing you’ll be dealing with if a breakup should happen.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have a question about if/how to prioritize paying off student loans. I’m in my mid-20s with about $20,000 in federal student loans coming due… at some point. I’ve been half-heartedly putting some money aside to pay a big chunk towards my debt once it comes due. I have about $7,000 at this point. I am separately contributing toward a Roth IRA and my 401(k) match and have a separate emergency fund. With the $10,000 in forgiveness I am still hoping for, that would get me so close to no student loan debt. Should I push to try to pay it off ASAP, use what I have currently set aside and pay the rest off slowly, or do something different with the $7,000? Something else? I know this will impact my credit score but what else should I be thinking about?
—Zeroing in on Zero debt
Dear Zeroing in on Zero debt,
It sounds like your financial plan is solid. Make sure your emergency fund has at least $5,000. I usually suggest saving an emergency fund of either $10,000 or three to six months worth of living expenses. However, I know you’re excited to get rid of this debt, and I’m a firm believer in balance. So make sure you’ve got that fund a bit filled out, if you haven’t already, and then use what you have left over to make a lump payment toward your debt. Hopefully, this will keep you motivated to go after the rest.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I are in our mid-30s with no children. I have a salaried position making just over $100,000 a year that provides us with our benefits. I’ve had a 401(k) since my early 20s, and currently contribute 5 percent each pay period with a 3 percent match by my employer. My husband has no retirement fund and was underemployed for a few years while he broke into a new career path during the pandemic. In general, I tend to play it safe and traditional with money while my husband is far more comfortable taking risks.
Last year we started our own professional service business related to my field. He works it full time while I put in effort in the evenings and weekends. My goal is to eventually leave my full-time job and work for our business once it’s a bit more established and predictable. We had a surprisingly successful first year, making a little more than I do at my full-time job. It allowed us to pay down over $20,000 in credit card debt (we are self-renovating our own home at the same time) and somehow will still end up with anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 in profit at the end of the year.
My husband wants to begin contributing toward some form of retirement but isn’t keen on the traditional Roth IRA path (we share a somewhat “doom” perspective of how society is moving with climate change and the increase of anti-democratic politics… Will IRAs even exist in 40 years?) Since I have my steady 401(k)—and can roll that into an IRA when I am fully self-employed as the “safe” retirement fund—what alternate, possibly riskier, investment strategies should we consider?
—Do Ethical Profitable Landlords Exist?
Dear Ethical Landlord,
Your husband is right when it comes to investing: It’s important to have a diverse portfolio. This prevents your investments from being wiped out in one full sweep. You don’t want it to be risky but if calling it that keeps your motor going, then have at it. Since you mentioned ethics, why don’t you consider using your funds to help someone by becoming an angel investor? Or a landlord who works with people and not against them?
An angel investor helps those who are looking to grow their business by providing loans or purchasing a percentage of their company with their own private dollars. The show “Shark Tank” is a great example of what angel investing can look like if you have significant funding. But even if you’re not Mark Cuban, you can still look for local business owners to help on a much smaller scale. Search LinkedIn for angel investors in your area to get a glimpse at how they got started and if there are any organizations where you can learn more.
As for landlords, you can be an ethical one. Consider becoming a landlord who accepts housing vouchers. Local public housing agencies receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide low-income folks with vouchers to use toward housing. It’s already difficult for residents to qualify for the program but once they do, it’s even more challenging to find a landlord who accepts the voucher. Landlords are rarely willing to keep their rents below the cap provided by HUD. And the vouchers are typically less than the going rate of the rental market because rising rents are outpacing the program’s funding. This scenario is exactly what’s happening in Phoenix, AZ, where I reside. You could potentially make a profit. But if you can at least break even, real estate is a good place to store your extra cash.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I recently received a gift from an elderly relative of two gold coins that are currently worth around $2,200 each. In a few weeks, my family is moving abroad for an indefinite period of time. I wasn’t counting on the money from the coins, and we will be fine without it. On the other hand, I will need to outfit a new workshop in our new country, and the windfall could help me get set up a little more comfortably. Is there any benefit to keeping the coins for the future, or should I cash them in and enjoy a less stressful transition?
—Artist in Hesitance
Gold can be a solid investment to hold onto for a variety of reasons but honestly, I would just cash them in. Your elderly relative gave you this gift during their lifetime because they want to see you enjoy it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that your relative gave you something valuable as a gift right before you start the next chapter of your journey in a faraway land.
Send your relative a thank you card (yes, a card because something tangible can be more meaningful) and share what you plan to do with your gift. They’ll be happy to know that you were able to set up your workshop and that with their help, your move will be a lot easier to manage for both you and your family. They’ll be delighted you put the gold coins not only to good use but that they helped your family as well. Good luck with your new journey!
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