This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. So this week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Allison Price, a Care and Feeding columnist, handles your personal finance questions.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My sister had a brief marriage in her early 20s. There was no bad blood between her and her ex; they just married way too young. My family has kept in touch with her ex since we genuinely liked him. He is a good guy. He went through a serious rough patch after a bad car accident—lost his job and his house, and had to declare bankruptcy.
The rental market is insane and he couldn’t find an apartment. My house has a garage apartment that my wife and I didn’t want the hassle of fixing up and finding a tenant for. We came to an agreement that he would move in and pay the additional bills, but trade rent for rehabbing the place since he works construction. We wrote up the lease and he moved in. While I had mentioned to my sister that I had been talking to her ex, it slipped my mind about the move.
My sister and her new boyfriend were expected to come up for a visit soon and stay with us since our parents are in a retirement community. She freaked out when I told her that her ex might drop in to say hi. Apparently, the new boyfriend is very religious and doesn’t know she had been married before. She blamed me and told me I would be ruining her life by letting her ex stay with us. I got annoyed and told her she had bigger problems if she felt she had to lie to her new boyfriend like this. They could splurge on hotel rooms if it was such a problem. Now she is threatening to not come at all and involving our parents (without mentioning the real reason). Help!
Dear Sister Trouble,
Yes, you should have told your sister—but you know that, and it sounds like you copped to it (I hope). She’s probably freaking out and spiraling, which is why she is lashing out in this moment. Give her some grace and offer an olive branch, but you don’t have to self-flagellate over a perfectly innocent mistake. You can ask the ex to lay low and not visit this time around (offer him a white lie if it helps), or maybe you can split the cost of the hotel as a peace offering.
You’re completely right that she needs to find a way to tell her boyfriend about her past—and the longer she waits the more problematic the secret becomes—but that isn’t your concern. Chances are that even if she cancels on your parents and blames it on you, you’ll have an opportunity to set the record straight with them. You didn’t do anything majorly wrong. Keep calm and rise above; this, too, shall pass.
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 have a house that I inherited from my late father. It is small, just two bedrooms and one bath. My mother got priced out of her apartment again and couldn’t afford to make rent and pay her bills. I couldn’t afford to help her out anymore, so she moved in with me. My useless half-brother would rather spend his extra money on his manipulative girlfriend than help out our mother (our mother was going to the food bank while he was paying for his girlfriend’s thousands of dollars worth of traffic tickets). It has long been an issue between us.
I live two hours away from where my mother used to live. She can make the drive to work and her doctors but can’t see my brother’s kids every day as she used to (she can’t drive at night). She is miserable and making me miserable. She talks to the kids every day on the phone, and after she hangs up, she just cries. Every. Day.
I have talked to her until I am blue in the face. She can visit the kids on the weekend, or they can come here. There is nothing anyone can do but accept this. Nothing changed and we ended up having a huge fight. It is like I don’t matter enough to her, but I am the one caring for her. My brother does nothing but take, take, take—except he gave her grandkids. I told my mother that if living with me was so intolerable, she was free to move in with my brother and sleep on the sofa. I immediately felt awful and apologized to my mother, but the words are still there between us. I don’t know what to do here.
So, I typically write for Slate’s parenting advice column, Care and Feeding, and I’m seeing a parallel to some parenting techniques that I’d like to explore here. (I’m not trying to be condescending to your mom—just go with me on this one.) Whenever my toddler is upset about something and screams or hits, I tell him that it’s perfectly OK to feel upset, but it is not OK to behave in these ways. The reason I—and other parents—do this is to intentionally separate the feelings from the behaviors. We want kids to grow up knowing that their emotions are valid, but we also need to teach them self-regulation and ways to manage disappointment.
I think both you and your mom need to explore this concept for yourselves. Ask yourself what bothers you more: the predictable crying and unwillingness to find a solution or the impression that she is valuing your half-brother more than you? Is it the behavior or the feelings? The answer might reveal whom you have the real beef with, and what the beef is about. (And a bit of Care and Feeding advice for you: If the answer is that you resent your mom’s seemingly blind eye to your brother’s shortcomings, you will probably just have to let that one go. You will never convince her of his failings, and pointing them out might wind up causing more strife between you and her.)
Similarly, you can share with your mom that you understand why she is upset, but that it is not fair to make you feel like a second fiddle or like your generosity is a millstone around her neck. Tell her she can feel however she feels, but that you cannot be the receptacle for all those emotions anymore. From then on, if she continues to cry and lament to you, do not let yourself engage in problem-solving or debating her. Simply reply, “I’m sorry, that sounds hard,” and leave the room. You cannot control other people; you can only control your reactions to them.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
My boyfriend has never been short of money and has no problem splurging for gifts. In fact, he “prides” himself on what he gives. Except, when it comes to me, he just can’t get it right. Last Christmas, it was (ugly) photo frames. My tiny house doesn’t even have picture rails. This Christmas: books by an author I have never been able to stand. Meanwhile, having spent much of my childhood in poverty, I try to be thoughtful but cheaper with my gifts, with a fun or funny element. A giant dice (he’s a gaming nerd), figurines of game characters, etc. This Christmas, I gave him a version of a card game he loves with a silly theme, which he complained about—all while telling me he hoped I liked my gift because it had been pricey! I can barely stand money being spent on me. Are we just incompatible when it comes to presents?
—Evidently Hard to Buy For
Dear Hard to Buy For,
Yes, you are incompatible with gifts—at least for now! But it doesn’t have to stay that way. It’s time for a heart-to-heart with your boyfriend about how his fixation on price points makes you uncomfortable. Let him know that while you appreciate his love of nice things and his desire to show that he values you by spending money on you, it’s really contrary to your values in a loving relationship. You don’t have to make a dig at his choices, but you can ask that he tone down the dollar amount chatter.
Be prepared for his honest feedback though: It sounds like maybe you’ve had a misfire or two for him—is he similarly dissatisfied with your gifting habits? If so, you might need to hear that, accept it, and be willing to meet him halfway in terms of how you both navigate gifts to each other in future years. Or, maybe you agree to skip the gift-giving and get yourselves experiences instead. Easy breezy.
That may take care of the money side of the gift situation. As to his tastes and choices? I’m afraid you’re in good company with many spouses and partners in the world. Absent a wish list that you insist he uses, you might just have to practice gratitude and invest in a special Rubbermaid bin in the basement for all these “treasures.”
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I are the parents of three middle- and high-school kids, one of whom has social challenges from autism spectrum disorder. We earn roughly the same amount and require both incomes to make it work. I’m a teacher in a school district I love with a strong union. Job-wise, I feel like I’ve won the lottery, and I have it a lot easier than most teachers I know elsewhere. My husband has been very dissatisfied with his job for the past few years; since his company is full of “lifers” who rarely leave, promotions and career development are slow to come. He likes the company, though, and is unwilling to interview elsewhere.
Recently, he was offered the promotion of his dreams, but in a totally different part of the country. He really wants to go, and presented it to me as a done deal, but I don’t want to! The idea of moving three kids across the country seems like it’s wrong, and trying to settle our autistic daughter into a new school system and supports seems extra challenging. But selfishly, I don’t want to go for me. The new state outlaws collective bargaining for teachers and has a famously terrible and politicized school system with very low wages.
Cost of living is lower, but we would likely still need mine to make it work, and the part of me that watched my dad’s death impact my mom tells me to never put myself in a situation where I cannot financially afford to take care of myself. We’re on a waiting list for couple’s therapy, but this argument is unending, and I don’t know what to do. I want my husband to be happy at work, but the price of my career and relocating our kids feels too steep. It’s a great opportunity for him but what about us?
—Stay or Go
Dear Stay or Go,
I’m sorry you are in this situation. I assume you have looked into long-distance commuting and telework, and they’re non-options. If you haven’t, I’d start there.
Unless you had a previous agreement that his job would take precedence in terms of advancement and the resulting logistics (which it sounds like you didn’t), you do seem to be at a classic impasse, but I think there are a couple of factors that you and your spouse should consider in your decision-making.
Are you willing to tell your husband he must be miserable in your current state because you’re afraid you might be miserable in another? That doesn’t seem totally fair. If you hated the education system there, are there other jobs you could pursue? Could you look into private schools or try your hand as a curriculum developer or museum educator? In general, I think that if relocation will cause a partner significant emotional or career trajectory hardship, you have to stay put. But if it’s just a case of discomfort or uncertainty, that’s not a good enough argument for staying.
However, to me, family concerns should tip the scales when considering whether or not to relocate. Moving closer to siblings, or moving away from aging parents, for example, can be really important factors when considering new job opportunities. In your case, you’re right to be significantly concerned about the disruption this could cause your kids. High school is a time full of rites of passage and intricate social dynamics; I would be hesitant to move any kid at this point in their life if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, and an autistic child even more so. So, to me, unless there are significant family-related advantages you’d gain in the relocation, this is a major point in your favor. All other factors being equal (if they truly are), the tie-breaker should be the kids and what they want and need.
To answer your question, “what about us,” I don’t know. I think it’s a great idea to seek counseling, because no matter what happens, one of you is headed for some serious resentment. And maybe, once you make your decision and the dust settles, the disappointed partner should be entitled to some kind of purchase or pursuit to at least enhance their life outside of work. Whatever you decide, I wish you the best of luck.
More Advice From Slate
My 5-year-old daughter does dance lessons with a teacher she adores, Miss Emma. Her Christmas concert was this week, and Emma asked each parent to pay $50 for the concert costume. I’ve just picked up the costume, and it has a price tag for $25 still attached. Emma is a very kind teacher, and my daughter very much wants to continue classes with her, but I feel a bit annoyed.