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,
Before he died a few years ago my father asked me to financially help out his only sister, unmarried and now in her 80s. He left me a small inheritance. After his death, I paid off a portion of his sister’s significant credit card debt, but she assumed I would pay all of it. I currently help her with financial gifts of a few hundred dollars a couple of times per year. She is terrible at handling money, has rejected all attempts to help her straighten out her finances, and has run up her debt again.
What my father didn’t know is that my aunt admitted to me she stole a part of my father’s inheritance when their parents died. Because of an unrelated matter, they didn’t speak to each other for many years, but reconciled before my father’s death and my aunt gave me some of the money she took, asking me not to tell him. I avoid contact with my aunt because down deep I don’t trust her, but I feel really guilty because my father asked me to provide for her, and also guilty that I never told him the truth. Help!
—Just Can’t Win
Dear Just Can’t Win,
Always trust your intuition when it comes to difficult family members. I wouldn’t trust her either, based on the fact she stole your father’s inheritance and then put you in an uncomfortable situation by confiding in you. Based on the history of the relationship, it sounds like your father may have had different wishes if he had known the full truth—I can imagine it must be difficult to carry that guilt.
You’ve done your part. You have provided for her financially despite her being irresponsible. You agreed to help her from time to time, not take on a dependent. She has had more than 60 years to figure out how to manage her money. Keep doing what you’re doing and I’d continue to hold your no-contact boundary so you have less of a chance to be roped in any deeper.
It’s not uncommon to feel guilty after a loved one dies—it can come and go in waves. I know they’re not always accessible, but I suggest you speak to a therapist about what you’re experiencing, too. They can help you overcome your guilt and push you to keep upholding those necessary boundaries with your aunt.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My stepsister and I are not close. Our parents married while we were in high school and we ended up going to college on opposite sides of the country. I think we have only spent a handful of holidays together since we became adults. On the other hand, I am very close to my stepbrother. He has similar interests to mine and even went into the same field. When he got married, I was a part of the wedding party and even paid for his honeymoon.
Last month, my stepsister eloped. I didn’t even know she was dating this guy. As there was no wedding, I just sent a congratulations card and went on my way. Apparently, my stepsister took this as a huge slight and has been complaining about the difference in the reception of her marriage and her brother’s. She says it is because she married a man of a different race. Me paying for my stepbrother’s honeymoon is her big smoking gun. Her words have greatly upset our parents and pissed off my stepbrother and his wife.
My question is what, if anything, should I do about it? I do make a good amount of money. If she had a wedding, I would have gotten her a gift but probably not paid for the honeymoon. I just find the entire situation bizarre and don’t understand why my stepsister feels the need to drag me into it.
Dear Wedding Blues,
Sounds like your stepsister needs to get a grip. She’s reaching far by bringing up his race as the main culprit behind you not funding her honeymoon. It’s hurtful to you and also disrespectful to her husband.
While giving a gift when a couple in your life elopes is a nice gesture, wedding etiquette experts say it’s not required. For whatever reason, your stepsister chose to elope. It’s inappropriate for her to demand extravagant gifts from those she didn’t want there in the first place, especially if you two rarely speak to each other.
Focus on making sure the ones who are important to you understand that this was your decision to make, not hers. Explain that while you don’t have a problem with her, your gift-giving strategy for the people in your life is based on how close you are to them, not because of the role they happen to have in your family. It’s up to your family to decide how much they will deal with her complaining, not you, so don’t feel guilty. If she does call you directly, politely say, “Stepsister, I acknowledge you’re upset and I can explain why I did not get you a gift. [Give the explanation you’ve laid out here..] I’m sad you think it’s because of your husband’s race and if you had a relationship with me, you would know that’s untrue. I am not required to give anyone a gift. I hope we can move on from this.” Now go put this behind you and spend your money on something else.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
It’s time to replace my high-mileage car. With prices higher than ever, my husband and I are estimating a total cost of $35,000. Interest rates are also high. When we purchased our current car, we signed with 0 percent financing. We have enough in savings to pay cash but that will deplete our account by about a third. So, cash or loan? Hubby says cash but I’m concerned about the big dip in savings.
—High Interest In Your Answer
Dear High Interest,
Yikes! That’s a huge junk of cash to part with in exchange for an asset that loses ten percent of its value in that first month after you drive it off the dealership parking lot. I get your hesitation, but the question you should be asking is, would you rather part with the cash now or have a car loan you pay monthly that collects interest you could have avoided paying?
Meet in the middle and run some numbers to see how much you would need to put down for a reasonable monthly payment you both feel comfortable with. According to this Bank of America auto loan calculator I tried out, if you put $10,000 down on a $35,000 car and got $1,000 for trading in your old car, a $24,000 loan at three percent interest would be $432 a month for 60 months (that is, in Arizona—this may vary by location). Don’t forget to shop around for different loan rates and make sure you check with your current bank and your local credit union. Then compare all your options and talk about what makes the most sense for both of you. If you decide to pay in cash, make sure you still have enough in your savings to cover three to six of your living expenses should you lose employment or face an expensive emergency.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am a 25-year-old living with my parents working two cruddy, low-paying retail jobs. Growing up, my family was incredibly impoverished—I grew up in a very tiny, very poor farmer town, and food and clothing were consistently scarce for my family. Despite all this, my parents have led themselves and their five children to a much more stable living situation where we are not living in squalor anymore. This leads me to the problem at hand.
I never learned how to save money in any way shape or form, because not having money was just the way I learned to live. Due to my mother’s chronic health problems, I was responsible for raising my two younger siblings from ages 2 to 10, and I did not get my first job until I was 19. I graduated high school via homeschooling, but further education was never a feasible option at that point in my life. I did not learn how to handle my own money responsibly as a child and have struggled with impulse control and the urge to spend money as quickly as possible, lest circumstances I can’t control take it from me instead.
I am now in therapy for the trauma that resulted from my childhood, and I have built up a credit score to a fair rating using a beginner’s credit card through my bank. But the issue of my impulse spending remains, and I have no savings whatsoever. My credit card has a somewhat large balance, but I have never maxed it out or missed a payment. I now have a partner whom I love dearly and ache for the independence of living on my own, but I know I wouldn’t last an instant in the “real world” because of my knee-jerk reaction to spend, spend, spend. I have no idea where to start, and the current state of inflation and the housing market makes me fear the future more than I already do. How do I start handling my money like a real adult instead of letting the terrified and confused child inside my head make all the decisions?
—That One Poor Kid From the Farm
Dear Kid From the Farm,
Feel comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one who needs help with money management after a traumatic childhood. You can survive in the real world, even if it seems like an impossible dream.
Getting help to work through your upbringing was an excellent first step. Trauma can affect your finances without you even realizing it, and your therapist can walk you through it to lessen the urge to spend. It’s worth asking them to help you set small attainable goals that work toward the independence you crave. Creating a daily routine should be your first small goal. Having a daily routine that enables you to exercise, get enough sleep, and have some time to relax can leave you feeling more confident. When you’re confident, you’ll be motivated to set even loftier goals.
Next, you need to create and stick to a budget. Budgeting is one of the most significant building blocks to reaching your financial goals. Some good places to start include: Get Good With Money by Tiffany Aliche, How to Adult: Personal Finance for the Real World by Jake Cousineau, and Budgeting For Dummies, written by yours truly. If you’d prefer an app, Prism, Rocket Money, and Mint are all free.
A budget is a spending plan that tells your money where to go, and not the other way around. It basically comes down to going over your expenses and then matching them against your income to see where your money is going. Doing this exercise can help you cut back on areas of spending that aren’t important to free up more money to use for a financial goal, like saving up for a down payment for an apartment. Don’t forget to give yourself a small amount of fun money that can be used for your purchases and outings. Once that fun money is gone for the month, it’s gone so that will help you with your shopping habits, too.
My husband got laid off during the pandemic (he worked in the travel industry) and went into a full-bore, midlife crisis tailspin. We’re in our mid-30s and I guess he came to the conclusion that he hated many aspects of his life. His response has been to make noise about starting a restaurant. He seems genuinely excited about the idea of building a community space, hosting group events, and helping people connect over food. I love that he’s so excited and passionate about this—honestly, more animated than I’ve seen him in years. But Prudie, I think this is an awful idea.