Pay Dirt

My In-Laws Claim Poor People Just “Don’t Work Hard Enough.” They Don’t Know About My Family.

They talk about their history of being “poor.”

Couple sitting at a table with an older couple.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jupiterimages/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,

Can you give suggestions on things I can say to shut down and/or redirect conversations with my in-laws when they talk about their past growing up/raising kids poor and look down upon those receiving services as “just not working hard enough?” This is especially difficult for me because I did grow up in poverty (although still in a much better situation than many) and received many of those services, which were absolute lifesavers for my family with two very hard-working parents (and kids as we each got older). But I don’t care to have to offer myself (or anyone else) up as the “example” of a poor person that actually needed help and wasn’t just fleecing the system, as they seem to think many are (to be clear, NOT how I feel).

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They talk about their “poor” history with examples like “We all (two adults, two kids) had to stay in the same hotel room on our annual vacations instead of getting two” or shopping for certain groceries only when they were on sale to save money. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about my past, where we all slept in the living room with one electric heater running on the coldest northeast U.S. winter nights because we couldn’t afford heating fuel (and again, I realize my family with a safe secure house still had it a lot better than many that may have been on the street or in their car those same nights).

My husband is aware of my upbringing and how different it was and realizes he didn’t grow up poor as he had sometimes thought, just being a bit frugal sometimes. He will often apologize to me after we’ve been with his family for things they’ve said (election seasons just give them so many opportunities in particular to talk about welfare programs, etc.). He has absolutely spoken up to try to redirect his parents, with varying levels of success but has never brought up my upbringing because he agrees with me and thinks I shouldn’t have to be the example of a “good” poor person to get them to stop. Suggestions for either/both of us to use?

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—Below the Poverty Line Doesn’t Mean Worthless

Dear Below the Poverty Line,

You’re absolutely freaking right that you shouldn’t be the example of a “good” poor person because being poor doesn’t define your value as a person. I’m sorry they have put you in this position. I also want you to know that you can admit some of your life circumstances growing up sucked. Often, we downplay our circumstances by saying, “It could have been worse. I shouldn’t feel bad.” The worst thing that happened to you may not be the worst thing that happened to someone else. That’s absolutely true. But it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t difficult.

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I spoke with Rahkim Sabree, speaker and financial coach behind Overcome Financial Trauma, to help find a way to guide these conversations. “Opinions around how, when, or what you spend your money on (or don’t) can be tied into cultural or familial norms, perception, or even changing times,” he said. But that doesn’t mean what they’re saying to you is OK. First, establish clear boundaries. When you feel like the conversation isn’t going to be productive, or may even be hurtful or hostile, choose not to participate and then decide how you’ll end the conversation. It may mean changing the subject or making an excuse to leave the room altogether. “In all instances where boundaries are established, it’s up to you and only you to enforce it,” Sabree said.

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Not everyone gets to hear your story. Hopefully, you can tell them you agree to disagree and move on, once and for all.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My partner and I (both late 30s) have been talking about our future together, and I’m curious about your take on what he calls “being unmarriable.” We both have some credit card debt and currently rent. He got a 50 percent raise last year and has over $10,000 in savings for the first time ever. I make closer to his old salary and live paycheck to paycheck. The big difference is, I somehow managed to pay off my last student loan in 2020, but he has so much left on his and went to college later in life that even when student loan forgiveness was announced, he was unsure he’d ever pay off the balance. Now that that’s possibly off the table, he says it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to ever marry him because they would then be responsible for the student loan debt. Is that true?

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—No “My Wife!” Jokes Then

Dear No Wife Jokes,

Student loan debt sucks, and it’s (kind of?) sweet that he wants to protect you from his student loans by calling himself unfit for marriage. But debt incurred by your spouse before marriage does not automatically transfer over to you once you’ve sealed the deal. So any student loans are taken out before you? His. If he decides to go back to school while you’re married? His—unless you live in a community property state. If you do, then most debt incurred even by one of you equals debt for everybody. They can also become yours if you help him refinance by being a co-signer.

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However, pledging to be with someone with an insurmountable debt load can certainly be a problem for your finances. If a huge portion of someone’s income is taken up by debt repayment, it can be hard to cover living expenses and any future financial obligations you may want to pursue in the future. It’s difficult to offer advice on paying off his student loans because you didn’t share what type of loans they are. You did share that he was eligible for student loan forgiveness, which means that at least some of this debt is federally backed. He should call his loan service provider to ask about what repayment options are available to him. There are four different income-driven repayment plans offered by the U.S. Department of Education that may help him manage his debt load.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I support two mostly able-bodied adults without jobs—and I love it! I own a house with my best friend and live there with my fiancé. They both used to work at the most popular grocery store in the nation, and it was hellish for them. Two or three years ago, my fiance lost his job for a BS reason, then I encouraged my best friend to quit for their health, as the physical labor hurt their childhood injury. Since then, life has been fantastic. The structure and support I get from them offset my personality disorder, and I am able to work regularly as a graphic artist now!

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The problem here is I have some growing credit card debt, about $13,000, due to my emotional spending. On paper, we should have enough. I have no student loans, but my best friend and fiancé do (currently frozen). Who can I ask for advice/what can I do to make sure we can live comfortably for the rest of our lives? We’re young, (I am 25), own a home, and I feel incredibly lucky to be in the position I’m in. I just have to make sure this is sustainable.

—Cautiously Lucky

Dear Cautiously Lucky,

Congrats on the support you’re receiving for your personality disorder and being able to work regularly as a graphic artist. This career has allowed you to be in a generous financial position, and I can easily understand why you’re trying to make sure your current situation is sustainable. Getting a handle on your current debt situation is the first step.

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I’m wondering if your emotional spending is tied to your personality disorder needing a better treatment plan. Both personality and mood disorders share similar traits such as a lack of impulse control and difficulty regulating your emotions. Both of these symptoms can induce emotional shopping, especially for someone who has bipolar disorder. As someone with a bipolar diagnosis, I myself once spent $3,000 in one weekend while manic  when I was undiagnosed in my mid-20s.

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Make an appointment with your therapist and share what you told me. You both should discuss why it may be happening. If you don’t have a therapist, check out the Open Path Psychotherapy Collective. This non-profit hosts an online database to help you find a therapist in your area that works on a sliding scale. Not only can you narrow your search down to specific mental health disorders, but you can also find one who supports other aspects of your individual lifestyle. I’m not a therapist but I’m hopeful that you can find the right treatment plan to help get your spending in check so you can go onto the next step in your journey. Good luck.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

This is a second marriage for my husband and me. Our kids didn’t grow up together, but our grandkids did. We spend many vacations together at the vacation home I owned with my first husband, but now that the grandkids are grown, we just rent out the property.

“Nina” is my only biological granddaughter. She still lives at home because as a teacher she has been priced out of the local housing market. I wanted to sell the vacation home and gift the money to Nina. My husband is opposed because he feels that it will very much hurt our other grandkids—several are in similar circumstances to Nina. We should split the money equally or not at all.

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Of course, I adore all our grandkids equally, but the vacation house was inherited by my first husband, Nina’s biological grandfather. When my husband’s mother died, the ranch she owned got divided up between his brothers and my husband’s children and grandchildren. Nina was not included. We agreed to keep such properties separated when we first got married.

My husband told me to just give the money to my son and he would pass it on to Nina. I love my son, but he isn’t good with money. He and his third wife spend every of her weekend at the casino. Both of my children received a significant amount of money from their father’s estate when they turned 25. My son blew through his before he turned 30. My husband and I are quietly and comfortably retired but not so well off to afford to pay for all of our grandchildren’s houses. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to hurt my other grandkids, but I want to very much help Nina.

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—Giving Grandma

Dear Giving Grandma,

I think you’re in your right to sell the vacation property and give the proceeds to Nina. It’s not biased or unfair, mainly because of the precedent both your husband and son have set. Your husband is following the agreement you both agreed on, so it’s only fair that you have the same opportunity extended to you.

It’s understandable that Nina wouldn’t have been in your husband’s mother’s estate plan. But if your husband felt strongly about treating every grandchild fairly, he would have shared some of his own inheritance with Nina so she wasn’t left out. That’s money that his grandchildren have received that Nina did not. It was likely a smaller amount than the proceeds that will be collected on the vacation home but that wasn’t up to you. It’s also not his grandchildren’s business how much you make off selling your vacation home and what you choose to do with the proceeds.

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Your husband wants to avoid conflict by encouraging you to leave the money to your son but you don’t need to visit a psychic to know she won’t receive a dime. Your son blew through his inheritance by age 25 so why would he hold on to his daughter’s instead of using it to double his money at the casino? This isn’t a solution. Would you rather keep the peace or make sure your granddaughter has a solid inheritance?

I would personally sell the home and not tell anyone what I’m doing with the proceeds. They aren’t entitled to that information. If your other grandchildren ask, I think it’s your husband’s responsibility to break the news, not yours. He can explain your previous agreement and use the division of his mother’s estate as an example.

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—Athena

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