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,
How do I figure out whether I’m safe accepting a bribe? When I was 13, my parents had a horrifically bad divorce and put me right in the middle of it. My dad had an affair, my mom filed the papers, and my dad proceeded to tell me in great detail about all the ways my mom didn’t meet his sexual needs that my now-stepmom did. He also threatened very graphically to commit suicide if my mom “split up our family.” My dad is independently wealthy, my mom has very little and the money aspect of the divorce dragged on for years. My mom proceeded to use me as a messenger for the rest of the divorce, which was awful in its own way. Neither of them ever apologized.
At 18, I moved states away and stayed there. I see my parents separately on Christmas and am polite to my dad’s wife and new kids, but I’d rather be anywhere else. Recently, I got out of a bad relationship and had to run up some substantial credit card debt to afford to leave safely. I didn’t tell anyone about the debt, and I’m struggling to pay it off. My dad is going through some guilt as a parent, and my stepsiblings won’t talk to him because of how he treats their mom. He recently reached out and offered to pay my rent, with an implied ask for more contact. I badly want to take this lifeline but can’t figure out how to judge the risk. Suggestions?
—The Devil You Know?
Dear The Devil,
The only big risk here is that your dad will want more contact if he’s helping you financially and you may not want to reciprocate. I think it’s OK to take the money, but you should set expectations with your dad beforehand. Tell him that while you appreciate the help and it means something to you, it also doesn’t repair what happened when you were younger—that will take time and work on his part. Reiterate that if he wants to help you, he can, but you’re not promising that it will completely change your relationship. Money alone can’t do that.
If you want to take the money and still maintain some distance, you can structure your dad’s offer to pay rent as a loan with appropriate interest. A loan would still help you but doesn’t carry quite the same weight as a gift, and it may allow you to feel safer getting help.
Dear Pay Dirt,
Is there a different way to think about who has to stay home with the kids? My husband makes quite a bit more than I do—$3,000 a week to my $1,000 a week. We both work for ourselves and find our jobs interesting and fulfilling. Our 3-year-old son in daycare is in fact home about 20 percent of the time, with him being sick and school closures. On paper, it makes more sense for me to always be the one who stops working when our son is home. But there is a part of me that longs for equal consideration of the value of my career. If I “move up” in my profession, like hiring staff and expanding, I could probably double my weekly earnings but that still puts my husband’s income ahead. Is there any way to justify him staying home occasionally or is the career of the lower earner just the price everyone pays for having a kid?
—More Than Monetary Value
Dear More Than Monetary Value,
This is a decision that really depends on the contours of your relationship. A lot of people will, as the logic you’re outlining suggests, optimize their situation for the highest joint income level. But work is important to a lot of people, too, and fulfillment is not something you can discount, especially over the long term. Also, your son is 3, so you can expect that childcare requirements might shift once he’s older, is in school full-time, and doesn’t require constant supervision. So I wouldn’t take it for granted that any arrangement you have now is permanent. You never know what might happen in your career or your husband’s, or what your earnings might be five or 10 years from now.
That said, you should discuss this with your husband and come up with a plan to ensure that you’re on the same page about how to handle this in the short term (say, until your child is in school full-time) and what you both want to be doing long term. You may decide that you want to make different career decisions in order to balance out the income disparity and pay for child care when you need it, or you may find ways to better live on your existing income while giving both of your careers equal time.
So the question is not really about whether the lower earner stays home but whether either of you do if higher income levels would mean you had more childcare options, and what each of you desires out of your long-term careers. You may have to make some compromises where one of you is at home more for a period of time to achieve this, but this happens all the time in two-income households. The important thing to remember is that whatever you’re doing now doesn’t have to be permanent or set the course for how you both approach your jobs indefinitely.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m in the midst of a long, if amicable, separation and divorce. We opted for mediation instead of a legal fight, and our mediator returned a separation document that we both agreed to. As the much higher earner, my ex is required to pay me out from our shared home (they have stayed in the home, and I am renting elsewhere), as well as paying out a few other agreed-upon amounts. We signed at the end of summer, and the stipulation was that the amounts would be paid out by certain dates.
We are well past the dates. My ex has a very busy job and is prone to getting ill, so every time I have attempted to follow up, I’m put off for the above reasons or an unreliable advisor at the bank. I am sympathetic! But I also can’t move forward in my life without the financial stuff being wrapped up. I don’t want to make things hostile or escalate to hiring a lawyer, but what can I say to this person that I care about, yet am SO FRUSTRATED with? Part of why we split was their issues with executive function and how it disproportionately affected me.
—Still Picking Up the Slack
Dear Still Picking Up the Slack,
If this really is an issue with your ex’s ability to do administrative tasks because they have trouble with executive functioning, the straightforward way to address it is to find a mechanism that makes payments automatic with no needed input from your ex. There are plenty of ways to automate recurring payments, and your bank advisors can tell you what their specific options are given the nature of your accounts. It may also be possible to convince your ex to put your payments in a separate account with a lump sum you can draw from at agreed-upon dates. Regardless, if you believe that your ex is acting in good faith, it will probably help to talk to them, present options, and then offer to help set up an automatic payment system. This isn’t your responsibility, of course, but if you know your ex is not capable of handling it, it may make you feel better to make sure it gets done yourself.
If it seems like your ex is missing payments for other reasons, you should explain that this is putting you in a difficult position—and that going to court to enforce the payments you agreed to is the last thing you want to do. It may not occur to your ex that you have that option if the situation doesn’t improve. The courts have a range of tools to make sure you get the payments you’re owed, ranging from fines to wage garnishment. But if you’d rather not go there, it makes sense to start by offering to help.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I own a very old house that had two tiny bedrooms and a small bath. I blew it out to make one larger bedroom with a walk-in closet and a great bathroom. Since I live alone and telecommute, I have an office set up in the living room. There is a fold-out couch for visitors, but I have a clear rule that visitors need to be up and out of the house by 7:30 a.m. when I start work. It is usually fine since I live in a beautiful, touristy place. Most people can find stuff to do until I get off. My 20-year-old niece “Kiki” got an unpaid but exclusive internship in my area. Her parents already have two other kids in college and are strapped for cash.
I should have listened to my gut, but I generally thought that at 20 Kiki could keep to a schedule. The agreement was Kiki would get up and be out the door by 7 a.m. every morning to do her internship and find a small part-time job to pay for her food and other expenses. I wouldn’t ask for anything but the occasional chore. It worked for about two weeks. Kiki likes to party—meaning staying out all night and trying to sleep in until her internship. Getting her up and out the door is like pulling teeth. She spends her money on going out and eats my food. Kiki will deny it up and down, but my food bill has doubled and the fancy food is gone in a day.
So when Kiki went home for Christmas I packed up her stuff, changed the locks, and told my sister that her daughter would no longer live with me. My family exploded. Kiki keeps crying that she will lose her internship and I have ruined her life. My sister told me I was overacting and should just move my office into my bedroom or closet. I told her she was crazy. My other sister told me my expectations of Kiki were too “high” and it was my responsibility to find Kiki a new living situation. My response was that at 10 years old, my sisters and I were expected to get up do our farm chores and get ourselves to school with adult supervision. Kiki is 20. I had already talked to her about her behavior until I was blue in the face. I am tired of this entire situation and I can’t find any solution.
Dear Foot Down,
From what you’re saying, it sounds to me like Kiki is a pretty typical 20-year-old who has a social life and as such is not out the door every morning at 7:30 a.m. If you were able to do that at 10, that’s unusual. Most of us who have children in elementary school have to drag them out of bed in the morning to do things like eat breakfast cereal and put on reasonable clothes. A 20-year-old staying out late and not wanting to leave the house by 7:30 a.m. is not aberrant behavior, even if you personally managed to do better on that front when you were half her age.
I understand why this is frustrating to you, given your work-from-home situation, but it is very drastic to simply evict her over the holidays with what sounds like no advance warning. I would guess that’s why your sister thinks this was handled badly. You are under no obligation to re-arrange your home to accommodate Kiki and you don’t owe her a place to live. It’s also not your responsibility to find her a new place now, but if you want to repair the relationship, some offer to help might be in order. You did not ruin Kiki’s life, by any means, but expecting her to be a paragon of discipline at 20, who intuitively understands the etiquette of cohabitating with someone might be unrealistic.
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