Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I own a one-bedroom condo. My ex and I were on the outs when she got pregnant. There was a chance it could be mine so I didn’t force her to move out. When her son was born, it was pretty obvious to anyone with eyes that he wasn’t mine. The paternity test proved that as well. The other guy left the state and refuses to take my ex’s calls.
My ex and I are still living together because I didn’t want to force her out to the streets or back to her abusive family. My ex is still on maternity leave so she and the baby are in the condo all the time. I have been staying with friends on and off, but everyone is getting tired of the situation. My ex refuses to discuss the future. She either ignores me or brushes off the subject. She made a few attempts to reconcile with me that I immediately shut down. She makes a good enough living, but the reality is it is going to be a struggle for her as a single mother.
I am willing to let her stay in the condo for year until she gets back on her feet and saves some money. My work has offered me a few temporary projects that require me to be out of the country for several months. But that requires a hard conversation or two and a written lease. I know my ex is stressed out. She just had a baby. Whatever our differences, I do care about her well-being and the baby. We need to have this conversation, but I don’t know how without coming across as a complete bully. Can you help?
—Need a Plan
Dear Need a Plan,
You’re already doing a lot for your ex that’s above and beyond the call of duty. It’s understandable that you want to live in your own condo by yourself. A year is a more than reasonable time for her to find another place to live, and if she saves that money, she should be able to afford a rental. You are right that it will be a struggle for her as a single mother—the early years are a struggle even for people who have partners—but you are giving her a cushion to plan things out without worrying about housing, which is incredibly generous.
Begin the conversation by reassuring her that you care about her and want to try to help, but be firm that you both also need to move on from the relationship and that won’t happen as long as you’re still living together and she’s dependent on you for housing. (Needless to say, if for some reason she’s not clear that the relationship is definitively over, that conversation needs to happen first.) Tell her she can stay for the year to save money, but she will need to find somewhere else to live after that—and give her a specific date. You are under no obligation to help her look for a place or plan, but if you’re inclined to, telling her that might soften the blow. Explain that she’ll need to sign a lease agreement even if she’s not paying rent because she’ll still have the same responsibilities another tenant would have in terms of taking care of the apartment and following any rules you’re bound to as the condo owner. (She’s essentially getting a rent abatement.)
If she somehow objects to all of that, you may have to remind her of the worst-case scenario, which is that you can legally evict her. Neither of you wants that to happen, so frame it as a problem you’re going to solve together: You’re giving her an extended period of time to figure out her next steps and while you’re gone, she will explore her options. It’s possible that she’ll still be unhappy with what you’re offering her, but in that case, you’re not the person being unreasonable; she is.
Help! My Wife’s Friend Is Not Her Friend.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
My parents bought their home in the 70s, which is where my brother and I grew up and went to school. They recently severed the lot and sold half the property to a builder who built two homes on the two lots. My parents now have a brand new home, are enjoying it, and plan to pass it on to my brother and me once they pass. We’re not sure how to share it—we each have our own separate homes that neither of us is planning on selling. We want to keep the family home but who gets to stay in it? And if one of us does, we won’t be able to afford to buy the other out of their share. We don’t want to rent it out, either. Are we being overly sentimental over keeping the family home?
—Sharing and Overly Caring
Dear Sharing and Overly Caring,
Presuming that you equally own the house, I think you both need to quantify how much you care about keeping it and what you plan to do with it long-term. But first, you need to understand the terms of ownership and how your parents plan to structure their will. You will either be joint tenants or tenants in common. If the former, neither of you can sell your stake in the property without the approval of the other, and if one of you dies, the house passes to the survivor. If you’re tenants in common, either of you can sell your stake without the other’s approval, and if one of you dies, their stake will pass to their surviving heirs.
These things are obviously important because one of you might change your mind about owning a second home once you better understand how much you’d actually use it, and what the costs are. Yes, even if the mortgage is fully paid, there will still be costs, including property taxes and maintenance. At any rate, you need to go ahead and discuss this with your parents so you know what you’re dealing with. You also need to make sure you’re on the same page about keeping the house before your parents pass because if one of you wants to keep the house and the other wants to sell, the person who wants to sell could take the other to court to force a partition action, which would result in the forced sale of the property.
If you both decide, knowing all of this, that you want to share it—because you’ve determined that the cost of maintaining the house is worth having access to it for sentimental reasons—you should come up with an equitable process for determining who has access to the house when and document these details in a formal agreement. You want to avoid a situation where your expectations differ about who is entitled to use the house and when.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My best friend and I have been creative partners for years. A hobby we did jointly turned into an opportunity to do it more professionally, and we pursued it together for a while (a side hustle turned actual business). For years, it was hugely enjoyable and fulfilling! That said, this has always been on the side of our day jobs, as the side hustle was a long way from making enough money to sustain us. Well, we pursued it for a while and while we produced some great stuff, the professional side never came together. It was disappointing, the pandemic hit, our productivity took a hit, my day job picked up in intensity, and we stopped actively pursuing it. Meanwhile, I’ve stopped producing creatively on this hobby almost completely—I’m burnt out, out of ideas, and have other things going on. But in the meantime, my friend has continued their own creative work and it’s going great! They have something big in the works that is very likely to turn into a success.
My question is this: How do I stop feeling so envious and left behind? I know it’s not warranted —we’re in different places creatively and professionally, we have different demands on our time and personal lives, and I’m not feeling the same drive they are, etc. Furthermore, I would never want them to put their aspirations on hold to wait for me to be ready to partner up again! But despite knowing this, the fact that they’ve continued with this pursuit and are doing so well makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong and like I should be trying harder. Worst of all, it makes it hard for me to enthusiastically support what they are doing. I cheer them on and am happy to listen when they share, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to deep dive into their project and give them supportive feedback on it the way they always do with me. It doesn’t help that everything going on with my work and life takes up a huge amount of my time and resources and sometimes I simply don’t have the energy to do anything in my free time other than veg and recharge.
How can I be a better, more supportive, more reciprocal friend to my former creative partner, who I love and want the best for? How can I deal with the feeling that their potential success takes something away from me? How do I deal with envy and sadness about my own slower creative work? And how do I ensure these feelings don’t make me treat them with any less generosity than they deserve?
—Beating Back the Green Eyed Monster
Dear Beating Back the Green Eyed Monster,
It’s normal to have mixed feelings when a friend enjoys successes you wanted for yourself. You’re self-aware enough to realize this is happening and worry that it might affect your friendship, so the first thing to address is the easiest: the irrational but very common feeling that your friend’s success somehow lessens yours. If you’re genuinely interested in pursuing the same route, that door is not indefinitely closed just because your friend has already walked through it. You may not have the time and energy to pursue it now, but that doesn’t mean you’ll feel that way indefinitely or that your job will always drain you the way it does currently. In clichéd movies, people only get one big shot at their dream. But in real life, there are usually many opportunities, both big and small, and dream careers often get built slowly and incrementally.
Think about what your jealousy is telling you. What is it specifically that your friend has that you want? Is it the status? The compensation? The lifestyle? Or is it the time and leeway to work on something you love? Especially with creative work, part of the reward is the actual process of creating, and you should think about how much you enjoy that outside of the possibility of commercialization. What about your friend’s situation do you particularly want for yourself? What is that telling you about what you think you should be doing?
Remember that your friend is still the same person you worked with before and that they probably do not view you or your relationship any differently now. Focus on the facets of that relationship that mean something to you, and when you see your friend enjoying their success, think of it as something that happened in part because you started out together. It probably means a lot to your friend that you were there then and know the effort they put into their work. You may not be able to exactly reciprocate the level of support your friend gives you, but it’s probably enough to let them know you’re proud of what they accomplished—and doing so will make it easier for you to internalize the idea that your friend’s wins are not your losses; they’re just a preview of something that might also be possible for you in the future.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
I was in a car accident and unable to work due to the injuries. The process of trying to get disability benefits was maddening, humiliating, and exhausting. It was made worse by the fact that my family (especially my cousins) saw it as freeloading and made countless “jokes” about how I was milking the system. Politics were very much part of it. I was fortunate to meet my wonderful now-husband later on, and we decided it was worth losing most of my benefits to get married.
I love him, and it was worth it, but it involved serious financial discussions, a prenup to protect me, and letting go of a lot of shame before I was ready to enter into marriage. He’s the breadwinner, and my health improved dramatically once the financial stress reduced. This was wonderful, but it also brought me into that murky in-between place where I’m no longer disability-eligible but can’t support myself. I work very part-time, and keep our house, as much as my body allows.
Suddenly my family approves: I work part-time and support my husband at home! I have a husband in a high-earning profession! No one says “Should you be buying/doing/eating that with government money?” I’ve been treated very warmly since I got married, but I can’t forget the way they acted when I was in trouble, and I don’t try for closeness with them. Recently, a cousin suffered a serious injury, and she reached out to me for help navigating applying for disability benefits. At the same time, both her parents have been hinting/joking around about how she just needs to marry for money, “like [letter writer] did” and asking me if I know anyone eligible. I do not have the grace to help these people, but I don’t want to have a blow-up fight. We live in a small city and I can’t avoid them forever. What can I do?
—I Don’t Even Want to Recommend a Lawyer
Dear I Don’t Even Want to Recommend A Lawyer,
The administrative burden that’s intentionally built into government benefits programs is designed to reflect exactly the sort of attitude and political orientation that you mention—one that assumes people who need the safety net the system provides are just free-loading and do not deserve help. It assumes that those the most in need should have to earn help, and makes it intentionally difficult to receive it. That’s morally reprehensible by itself, in my opinion, and harms the most vulnerable, who have the least ability to navigate Byzantine systems in the middle of their suffering. But it’s even more appalling to hear that sort of rhetoric from family members who are familiar with your situation and know better. Their lack of empathy and complete ignorance of who these programs serve and why is not something you can likely remedy, but you can set boundaries, and let them know that it wasn’t OK to insult you on the basis that you couldn’t work and needed help. If they don’t believe the government should help in those situations, presumably they believe that family should, and where were they when you needed it?
I don’t think you have to have a blow-up fight or spend too much time going back and forth on this with them. But you can let those family members know that you don’t appreciate the belittling of what was already a difficult situation for you, or the insinuation that you married your husband for money, which is insulting to both of you. Tell them that you don’t insult their marriages or baselessly suggest that they’re lazy and that you expect the same level of decency and respect. If they’re incapable of that, you may not be able to avoid them entirely, but you don’t have to engage with them beyond the bare minimum, either.
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