In this special Advice Week edition of Slate’s money advice column, we’ve gathered some of our favorite letters from the past. Have a question for us? Send it to Lillian, Athena, and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m feeling like I have lost all respect for my husband since the pandemic sent him working remotely from home. He is a creative professional and I have discovered that it means he works a total of two hours a day and feels he can meander through the home for the rest of the time.
I have two small children (ages 2 and 5) and I am worried that they see him doing such little work through the day—he often is lounging and sleeping at moments when I am toiling and I never seem to get time to even sit through the day. I’m worried that my children are forming unhealthy ideas of what it means to work (and how gender is involved) and my husband refuses to follow our household routines and is not able to help with the kids functionally. We have had advice from professionals for my husband to make at least 15 minutes a day for each child’s “special time” to help improve his relationship with them, but that doesn’t seem to be something he is willing to accomplish.
—Stay-at-Home Mom Taking Care of Everyone at Home
Dear Stay-at-Home Mom,
I think it matters less that your husband doesn’t work that much (as long as you’re financially OK) than that he doesn’t do anything else to help and isn’t making time for the kids. Your kids will have plenty of models for what work looks like as they get older. The gendered division of labor is more of a problem.
You mention that you’re getting advice from professionals; I’m not sure if you mean a marriage counselor, but if not, this is the sort of thing that counseling can help with. Your husband needs to understand that his behavior is affecting your marriage and making you feel like you’re the only adult in the house. That could escalate into feelings of contempt, which are dangerous for any relationship. A counselor can help him understand what the stakes are for you, especially if you’ve been telling him and he’s not listening.
He may be accustomed to doing whatever he wants during the workday because that was what he was doing before the pandemic. I doubt getting him to change his behavior would happen overnight, but it sounds like he doesn’t understand the seriousness of the problem or how it’s affecting your feelings toward him. I think you need to be as direct as possible about how it affects you and tell him you need more participation from him with domestic duties and your children.—Elizabeth Spiers
From: “My Husband’s Remote Job Made Me Lose All Respect for Him” (July 22, 2022)
Dear Pay Dirt,
Our son suffered from a brain injury after a car accident. He is independent but hard to employ, and my husband and I have long resolved ourselves to helping him financially. He met and married “Deb” three years ago. Deb had two girls from a previous relationship. We wanted to welcome her and her girls fully into the family, but Deb had a marked preference for her own family over ours. Despite many invitations, they only visited us a handful of times and never offered for us to visit them. My husband and I were dutiful grandparents—we mailed gifts and cards on all the right occasions and asked about the girls on the phone, but we were never grandma or grandpa. Two years ago, Deb wanted to put her girls in a private school after they went through a series of serious bullying incidents and the public school did nothing. Their family couldn’t afford it, so we stepped up and paid the tuition, along with all the other assorted costs. It wasn’t cheap.
This spring, our son broke down and told us his marriage was over. Deb had been having an affair over the entire course of their relationship. She blamed our son because he was so forgetful and unfocused that of course she would look elsewhere. I’ve never seen my son so broken, and that includes in the hospital after the accident. They are getting a divorce. My husband and I agreed it wasn’t right to punish the girls and have them be pulled out midsemester. We paid the school for the spring and the summer activities; then we are done.
We told our son this, but he did not communicate it clearly to Deb. She called me up in a rage because she couldn’t reenroll her girls. I told Deb she had only herself to blame and no sane person would expect support after how she treated my son. Deb accused me of throwing her girls in the gutter; I told her if that happened it was only because their mother was a piece of trash. Deb has had the girls calling my son every other day crying and pleading about how they don’t want to lose their friends and school. Deb got a bogus restraining order against my son, who has never lifted a hand against anyone in his life, and got him exiled from the apartment we help pay for.
My son refuses to move home and let us get a lawyer for him. He is “handling” it but blames us for not supporting “his” girls. He truly loved those girls. Other family members think we need to offer to pay tuition until the divorce is complete and then dive off. I think that is worse. What should we do?
—Wanted to Be Gran but Not Grand Theft
Dear Gran but Not Grand Theft,
I don’t believe you have an ethical obligation to continue paying for the girls’ tuition, but you may want to for your son’s sake and theirs. If you choose to do so—and no grandparent is ever obligated to put their grandkids through expensive private schools, regardless of whether they’re biological grandchildren—you need an intermediary to work out some of these things. It’s clear that neither Deb nor you are really capable of putting aside your disdain for each other and you need a neutral party to help you consider what’s reasonable in the context of a divorce. And your son needs to understand that this will probably mean getting a lawyer.
If your son has trouble keeping employment due to his injury, it stands to reason that he would struggle with managing the logistics and complex emotional issues that come with an acrimonious divorce. He may want to “handle” it, but it’s not clear that he can, and he hasn’t so far. And people never want to hear that they don’t fully know their children, but I wouldn’t take it for granted that you know exactly what led to the restraining order. Here’s something you’re not going to want to hear, but you should consider: When you say your son has never laid a hand on anyone, you have no way of knowing whether that’s really true. Your sympathies naturally lie with your son, and you believe that you know what he is and isn’t capable of. That’s normal. That doesn’t mean that you’re right. Plenty of good mothers have been surprised by the actions of their sons. So you need a neutral assessment, too.
If both Deb and your son want you to continue to pay for tuition, they cannot insist that it’s done entirely on their terms. Tell them both that if they want you to keep paying, they will have to sit down and work out these other problems with actual professionals.—Elizabeth
From: “My Son’s Wife Thinks We’re Still Paying for Her Kids’ Fancy School After She Divorces Him” (June 2, 2021)
Dear Pay Dirt,
After his furlough five years ago at 55, my brother refused to get health insurance. He could afford it; he simply chose not to—mostly because of an ignorant penny-wise/pound-foolish decision to cut “nonessentials,” but also from an arrogant conception of being “tough.” I told him this was an insanely bad decision and that he was needlessly leaving himself open to catastrophe. I even offered to pay half of it (roughly $1,200 year) if he’d just sign up. I also told him, explicitly, that I would not compromise my own retirement if something terrible did happen.
You guessed it: Disaster struck. Some uninsured kid T-boned him. Fortunately, his area has excellent emergency rescue and health care, so despite serious injuries, he survived and will recover. But he now has more than $200,000 in hospital bills. His only asset is his home, which he’ll likely need to sell … then rent a flop, return to work at 60, and grind like a dog until the day he dies … all because he refused to invest $200 a month for health care coverage.
I have declined the expected appeals for help and am now ostracized. This mess was completely and easily avoidable, and though I could discharge his entire debt, doing so would seriously endanger my own financial health. At 62 and out of work myself, I’m not doing that. But do I have a financial and ethical obligation to help?
I think it’s appalling that anyone in this country could face $200,000 worth of hospital bills because they had the temerity to get hit by car, but for now at least, we’re stuck with the terrible health care system we have, and it’s not as if your brother doesn’t know how it works. He made a decision not to purchase health insurance and not from a place of financial hardship, which would be much more forgivable.
You have no financial or ethical obligation to help. But we’ve all had family members and friends who’ve done boneheaded things we’ve warned them not to do and suffered the consequences. We often help them anyway, and if you’re inclined to do that, you can do so without putting yourself at risk. You are not a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency fund, and your brother needs to understand that. Medical bills are often negotiable, and creditors would rather have a long-term payment plan than a patient who files for bankruptcy, so consider that even if he has to sell his house, the end result is not necessarily a flop of a rental, or as you put it, “working like a dog till he dies.” If you want to engage, offer to help with those logistics first rather than writing him a check.—Elizabeth
From: “My Family Is Furious I Won’t Pay My Brother’s $200,000 Hospital Bill” (May 26, 2021)
Dear Pay Dirt,
Several years ago, a very close friend of mine commissioned a bespoke handgun from a very well-regarded custom shop—he spent about $5,000 specifically so he could create a new family heirloom, which he hoped would be passed father to son for several generations. Unfortunately, he was taken by an illness at an unexpectedly young age and passed away when his son was too young to be responsible for a handgun. He gave the gun to me before he died, with the understanding that I would give the gun to his son when he was old enough.
The son is turning 21 soon; in my state, that’s old enough to own a pistol, and the kid seems to have a good head on his shoulders. He’s on track to graduate college, on time, and when he does, I was planning to give him the pistol his father wanted him to have, or at least give him the chance to take it. I mentioned this to his mother, my late friend’s wife, and she asked me not to offer the son the handgun and instead to keep it myself. The two were not on good terms before my friend got sick, and I’m worried she’s denying her son an object his father very much wanted him to have out of a lingering spite. That said, I don’t have the full mental health background on the kid, so I can’t say for sure if her discomfort is rooted in the potential that he might hurt himself with it. Should I keep the firearm? Should I ask the young man if he wants it? I would feel extremely uneasy keeping such a valuable item for myself, but even more uneasy if someone came to harm because I forced it on a person who shouldn’t have had it. What’s the protocol here?
—Giving Young Men Old Guns
Dear Giving Young Men Old Guns,
I think you should ask the mother why she doesn’t want her son to have the gun. If she mentions any history of self-harm, aggression, or anything similar, then you have reason to be cautious. But your friend intended for his son to have it as something that would be meaningful to the family, and absent any red flags that indicate that the son might not be capable of taking care of it responsibly, I think you have to honor your friend’s wishes. If the mother believes that the heirloom presents a danger to the son, you could sell it and give him the proceeds, but you have to use your judgment about what your friend would want you to do in that situation.
But if you don’t have cause for concern, I don’t think it’s fair to the son to hide the fact that his father intended him to have the gun, regardless of what his mother says. This should be a conversation you have with both of them.—Elizabeth
From: “My Late Friend Gave Me a Potentially Dangerous Heirloom to Pass to His Son” (Oct. 21, 2021)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I have been struggling to find a house to buy. Despite having a down payment saved, we still pay rent, and the market is insane where we live. My in-laws have several homes and decided to turn their vacation home into their retirement one. After their last renter moved, they offered their old suburban house to my husband and myself for free. It is very generous—unpromptedly so!—but I hate the idea. It was built in the mid-1990s and never updated. It is huge, designed in echo-y open concept style, with half the space barely useable for everyday life. Other than the downstairs master’s, the utility room, and the upstairs bedrooms and baths, there are no doors. You can overhear a normal conversation in any part of the house. The back and front yard are huge (did I mention my husband and I have black thumbs?) The commute would be horrible enough, with the house over an hour away from where we work, but given traffic and the never-ending road construction, that time can almost triple. And the local culture here is barren—no theater, no art, no nightlife unless you want to go to a chain restaurant.
There is no question that my in-laws will be insulted and offended if we reject moving into the house and chose to sell it and use the funds to buy something better for our lifestyle. They will call us ungrateful. My husband thinks we need to take the offer and wait a year or two before selling it. I don’t know—the market can’t stay like this forever, and I do not want to get dragged into a house flip. The commute will kill my mental health. Right now I can walk to work. My husband bikes when he isn’t working from home. There is some sentimentality at play, since my husband spent his last year of high school in this house, and his sister grew up in it. And my in-laws are thin-skinned and very proud. Is this the golden goose or a white elephant?
Dear House Hunters,
I wouldn’t say it’s a golden goose or a white elephant, I’d say it’s more of a “hold your horses” situation. Here’s why. You want to offload the house while the real estate market is hot, and for good reason. It sounds like you’ll be miserable there. No one wants to be miserable, nor should they be made to feel so. Life’s too short! But I am hearing a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t be living there, not why your husband shouldn’t be living there. It actually sounds like he’d be okay staying there, and stacking some cash. Depending on how much you’re currently paying in rent, you could easily save over five figures. This cash can be put towards the down payment that you currently have saved, but that isn’t enough to get you a competitive offer in your desired area. It could also go towards repairs, to make the house more comfortable, so you could use it as a rental and secure cash flow for your future mortgage payment in the house you actually want.
Also, if you sell the house before living in it for two years, you’re at risk of paying up to 20% of your profit to the IRS. A capital gains tax is a levy on a profit of an investment after it’s sold. One of the items on the list of investments subject to a capital gains tax is real estate. Not to mention, you’d probably make your husband’s life a living hell with his parents if you take the money and run. Who wants that?
You can handle a shitty commute and no museums for a year or two. Offer your husband a compromise, and put a time limit on living in your new digs. Stack the money for over two years. Make enough upgrades to the home that you can charge market value if you sell it—or get a renter, and a cash flow to subsidize your life in your dream house.—Athena Valentine
From: “I Really Don’t Want the House My In-Laws Are Giving Us” (Dec. 2, 2021)
Dear Pay Dirt,
It seems to me like I bought a home at what was probably the peak of the market… Maybe even the same week it started to turn—when we didn’t realize it was turning from a seller’s to a buyer’s market. And, unfortunately, I don’t love the place (long story) and am not dying to be here for very long. The mortgage should be manageable if everything lines up but is higher than what would be truly comfortable.
What should I do, practically, to make sure it’s not a loss? And, more philosophically, how do I not obsess about the timing of this decision?
—Real Estate Ups and Downs
Dear Real Estate,
Last winter, there was a very special exclusive sweater I wanted. I set aside the not-insubstantial price in my budget, woke up at 4 a.m. on launch day, and managed to score the very last sweater in my size for $150. In July, I saw the same sweater selling on Poshmark for only $100. Should I have waited out the rush and bought it for 33 percent less in the heat of the summer? If it was strictly an investment, maybe. But it was a sweater. I got to wear it all winter. And let me tell you—I appreciated my purchase in December while standing in northern Finland in negative 22-degree weather.
Primary homes are the same way. While they can be part of your overall investment portfolio, they are, first and foremost, a place to live. Other investments don’t have such high transaction and maintenance costs. From an investment perspective, the best way to not stress about timing the market is to buy and hold. In the long run, the exact time you purchase in the real estate market cycle is less important than how long you hold onto your house. It isn’t the market peak that would make selling your home right now a loss; it is selling a home so quickly after you bought it. Even if you had bought when prices were low, it still takes time to make up the one-time expenses from buying: closing costs, recording fees, and agent commissions.
The purchase price of a home is not the only part of your mortgage, though. If you bought when the market was hot, you are likely paying a lower interest rate than the current average 6.33 percent 30-year mortgage rate. It’s worth running the numbers with current interest rates: Would you actually be able to get a similar house in your area now for a lower monthly mortgage?
If you sell the house, it’s vital not to get overly fixated on the purchase price. Sellers anchored to their purchase price can make homes stay on the market for much longer. Meanwhile, every extra month the house stays on the market, is an additional month of mortgage interest that you are paying.
Remember, when you buy a home with a mortgage, you aren’t paying the purchase price upfront; the bank is. You contribute a down payment and agree to pay the bank back the rest over time, with interest. When you sell the house, the bank gets paid back first before you see any of the money. If you sell quickly after purchase, you haven’t paid back the bank much of the purchase price yet because most of your early mortgage payments go toward interest due to amortization. The longer you wait to sell, the more of the sale price you get back.
While prices are dropping, home inventory is still historically low. Hopefully your agent can find a willing buyer, and you can move on from this house you don’t love.—Lillian Karabaic
From: “I Was Part of the Homebuying Rush. I Deeply Regret It.” (Sept. 19, 2022)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have been married to my husband for 15 years. For 13 years we have lived abroad because of his job. I have made a life for myself here and recently earned my (fully funded) Ph.D. I am lucky to be employed in a sector that has thrived during the pandemic, but that has meant 60-plus hours a week, and I am really exhausted. During the pandemic, my husband decided that he hated his job and quit it to pursue a passion project. I watched our savings evaporate to support his new business, which went nowhere. He has currently been out of work for 10 months, and I have taken on a side gig to earn extra money. He is now looking for work but is adamant that any new job should be something he is passionate about, even if it means he doesn’t make a lot of money. We are getting ready to move for the second time this year because we can’t afford our rent. I am at my wits’ end.
I have been considering leaving because I am so emotionally exhausted from carrying the weight of our expenses while maintaining the household, but I don’t want to leave him in a vulnerable position where he has no income. How can I reconcile this? My life feels like a black hole, and my only purpose is to make money. There is no romance, and it has been absent for some time. I have been seeing a therapist, and that has helped. We don’t have children because I am a woman and the breadwinner, and we are far away from family and don’t have a network of support.
—Fed Up Abroad
Dear Fed Up Abroad,
It sounds like the problem you have is less about the money than the state of the relationship, which you say makes you feel like you only exist as a provider and has suffered from a lack of romance for a long time. It’s admirable that you’re concerned about your husband’s welfare should you leave the marriage, but you are not obligated to take that into consideration. He is an adult, and if he believes that he can only take a job that’s a passion project, that’s fine, but it’s not your responsibility to subsidize it. If he has to put his own money (or lack of it) where his mouth is, he may find that absolutism on the topic is a luxury he doesn’t have.
My personal view is that part of marriage is understanding that in dire circumstances you may have to support your significant other financially, but there is a big difference between doing it from a place of necessity and agreeing to support long-term financial losses that are rooted in an insistence on fulfilling work. If the latter is what’s happening, your husband needs to understand that he cannot ask you to make that sacrifice without your consent. It has to be something you agree is important to both of you. If that were the case, you wouldn’t be frustrated right now because you’d be moving in the same direction. That you’re not is a sign that the relationship isn’t working more than it is that you don’t like being the breadwinner.—Elizabeth
From: “My Husband Is Destroying Our Finances for His “Passion” (May 12, 2021)
Dear Pay Dirt,
After my ex-husband’s death due to alcoholism, many people donated to our son’s future college fund. He was in elementary school at this time. Over the years, the communication and relationship with my ex’s family has become completely nonexistent. I have been to blame for all of their son’s addictions and mental health issues. (He had all of them prior to our marriage.) On the positive side, our son has grown into a wonderful, healthy, stable young man.
My ex’s family was in charge of the college fund. When it was time to decide on where our son was to attend college, I found out that the fund was gone.
I have never been told what happened to the money, but I have heard many stories and rumors about where it really went. I feel sorry for the people who donated with good intentions. An attorney could not get any information from the bank where it was in an account at one time. Our son is now an adult and has wiped his hands of “those people who don’t exist.” I just want some closure with answers on how a person could steal from their grandchild. Should I keep trying to find out what happened to that money? Or should I just close that door forever?
—Disappointed Momma Bear
Dear Disappointed Momma Bear,
I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your son’s father and this subsequent heartbreak. Props to you for raising a well-adjusted young man despite it all.
You don’t say more about how specifically the money was raised or how you found out it’s gone, so it’s hard to say what recourses you might have. Do you know what type of college savings account they had opened for your son? In certain situations, it may be unethical but not illegal for your child’s grandparents to have liquidated the account for their own personal gain. A 529 is the common savings account of choice for a child going into higher education, but if they were the account holders, they could have dissolved it and paid the penalty. If they opened a different kind of account, that presents other possibilities. A forensic accountant could also be another option for you and your attorney to pursue.
I think hiring an attorney was the correct step to find closure. You may never find answers for why they did this to their own grandchild, but legal action is always a close second.—Athena
From: “My Son’s Generous College Fund Vanished” (Oct. 12, 2021)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I inherited my late aunt’s four-bedroom house. It has a separate studio apartment on the property. Since my mom died when I was a baby, my aunt and I were all that was left of our family. We were very close, especially after my father remarried for the third time and I gained a pack of stepsiblings. I was very much the odd duck out.
I love my new house because I never had much space between sharing a room, a dorm, and an apartment as a child and young adult. I have plans to make a music room, a library, and a cat heaven for my three tabbies, but I updated the studio first with plans to rent it out.
Then my stepsister and her two daughters were left homeless after her boyfriend stole from her and they were evicted. They have been bouncing between friends and family with no money and no prospects. The girls haven’t been in school for months. I live in a good school district with a strong transportation system. There are help wanted signs everywhere. I could give her and the girls a year to get on their feet. There would be a lease and I would expect my family to help out financially. I am not close to my stepsister. I was trying to be kind and it blew up in my face.
My stepsister was happy enough to accept and then grew unhappy with the idea of living in the studio. She demanded the house. She claimed her family was more deserving since she had kids and I didn’t need all that space. At that point, I told her it was my space and she really wasn’t in any position to make demands. I thought that was the end of the conversation until I got blasted by my father and stepmother. They could not believe I would act like this and not open up my home that I was so “lucky” to get. They live in a 55-plus retirement community. At this point, I called my stepsister and withdrew my offer. Now my family is treating me like the Wicked Witch of the West.
—No Good Deed
Dear No Good Deed,
If your father and stepmother think the studio isn’t enough for your stepsister and her kids, maybe they should offer her space in their retirement community. Your offer to give her the studio for a year was generous, and whether or not you “deserve” the house—that is absolutely yours and not family communal property—is irrelevant.
Your father, stepmother, and stepsister are all behaving as if you owe them your house simply because your stepsister needs housing. I’m not sure there’s much you can do about their inflated sense of entitlement, other than to remind all parties that you are not responsible for housing your adult stepsister and her kids. They are not your children.
I don’t think you’re obligated to make any more offers to help, and though, I feel bad for her daughters, it sounds like you’re lucky not to be stuck living with your stepsister who is simply inclined to treat your generosity as her entitlement. Consider this a dodged bullet.—Elizabeth
From: “My Stepsister Tried to Steal My House. I Can’t Believe My Family’s Reaction.” (June 11, 2022)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am the breadwinner between my husband and I. I pay over half of the ridiculously expensive rent (hello, California), all the utilities, the family car payment, child care, and more—and not even counting my massive student loans, which have been on forbearance the past year. I only have 10 percent of my check for other essentials like gas and groceries, which is not enough to really live off of. My husband pays the rest of the rent, child support for his first son, and a few other bills. We have this arrangement because he says that I (who went to college, got a degree, and have a professional license) make significantly more than him, therefore I can afford to pay for more of the bills. He said that he just cannot afford to help me too much.
Out of nowhere, he went and bought a third car—his dream muscle car. He said it wasn’t my concern and that it’s his money, so he’s the one paying for it and that I don’t need to worry about it.
I was furious that he could buy his dream car, but I can’t even save to get myself out of debt. How do I get him to see how unfair this whole situation is? I’ve already shown him spreadsheets with my budget and where exactly my entire check goes to every two weeks. He agreed to help take over one or two of my bills but mentioned multiple times that I need to “cut costs and get rid of non-essential things.”
—Nursing the Debt
Dear Nursing the Debt,
I would like you to sit your husband down with your spreadsheet of bills and ask him which costs he would like you to cut for you to be able to afford your dream car as well.
No, but seriously, this inequity needs to stop. Your husband sounds very entitled, and he’s using your higher income to his advantage. He isn’t stressed out because his money isn’t being affected—he’s not seeing you as a financial partner, so why would he care? And news flash, just because he had a kid with someone else doesn’t mean he gets to skip out of child care with you.
I would suggest that you and your husband combine your incomes in a joint bank account, then create a new budget together. He can help decide which “costs” and “non-essential things” should be cut from the budget to help pay for child care and other essentials you’re shouldering. You have debt too, and student loans are something you brought into this marriage—just like his child support. With your money combined, you’re both invested in how it gets spend and can both decide as a team what to spend moving forward. If he refuses, then you may need to look into other ways to divide bills—perhaps even framing it to him that your loans are your own fancy car payment? Stand your ground. You are in the right, and you deserve more support.—Athena
From: “I Struggle to Pay Our Bills. My Husband Just Bought His Dream Car.” (June 6, 2021)
More From Advice Week
Dear Prudence: My future mother-in-law would like to wear her wedding dress to our wedding. I’m less concerned about the dress and more concerned about what this says about our future relationship. She is a very kind, considerate person, and I am certain that she knows this is not a very nice thing to do. I’m inclined to let her wear whatever she wants, as it doesn’t bother me as much as maybe something else would. Should I pick my battles, as they say? Or will not saying something make me seem like a pushover?