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 want to start off by saying I know what I did here was wrong, but I’m afraid I may have found evidence of something even more wrong. I’m retired and spend my weekdays babysitting my grandsons, ages 2 and 5, in my daughter and son-in-law’s home. My daughter is very talented and married a very well-off man, who has always been cagy about the source of his wealth. I know he owns a lot of lower-income apartment buildings, including one where a child the same age as my older grandson died a few years ago as a result of negligent maintenance, and I thought for the longest time he was simply ashamed of that.
Recently though, I came across a stack of folders containing the just-completed tax returns for my son-in-law’s companies, over 20 in all. In a moment of weakness, I took one glance at the one on top, and was shocked to see that instead of a positive income, it stated a loss of over a million dollars. Fearing my daughter and grandchildren were about to be left in poverty by some financial disaster her husband was keeping secret, I looked through the rest of the folders. Almost all of these companies had huge negative incomes. But what really worries me is that my son-in-law lists not only my daughter as a partner in many of these companies, but also their children. The little one is not even out of diapers. I admit I’m not the most well-versed in financial matters. But I’m afraid that what my son-in-law is doing is a far grander version of what my drug-addicted sister did, ruining her children’s credit before they were even 18 by running up debt in their names. I’m talking about six and seven-figure losses here. Is there any possible way this could be innocent? My daughter is a more creative type and may not be fully aware of this either. What advice should I give her about protecting herself and her children?
—At a Huge Loss
Dear Huge Loss,
This is such a huge and tangled situation you’ve found yourself in that I consulted attorney Michelle Creeden who is the practice administrator of the National Legal Center, a firm that specializes in helping people prevent bankruptcy. Creeden was also a victim of credit fraud by her parents, so she has some experience with the issue.
First, Creeden recommends giving your son-in-law the slight benefit of the doubt. It sounds like you don’t like this guy, which can certainly compound the situation. But a lot of great companies show negative profits and are still profitable. “Having 20 businesses could lead to more risk of tax issues or be a sign of some intent to hide assets, but it could be completely legitimate and legal too,” Creeden said, noting it’s a common way of sheltering assets for a lot of business owners.
Creeden is concerned, however, that the businesses are owned by your daughter and grandchildren on paper. “There is a possible innocent explanation,” Creeden said. “Some people prefer to add family to ownership, to ensure that if something happens to them, their family will own everything without having to go through probate.” Of course, what your son-in-law and daughter likely should have done was met with an estate attorney and established a trust to benefit the family as one. This can eliminate a lot of risks if your son-in-law should happen to have issues arise in the business. If something were to happen, Creeden says your grandchildren may be affected given the severity of the situation but for the most part, are in the clear.
But she also states that while your grandchildren are mostly protected, your daughter isn’t. “The wife though could be responsible for past due taxes if the spouse is avoiding them unlawfully and gets in trouble,” Creeden said. She suggests that your next course of action is to tell your daughter what it is that you found. What she does next is up to her, and whatever it is, you need to be accepting of her decisions. She may simply choose to do nothing. If she does ask for help, then direct her to speak to her husband and ask that they go to an estate attorney together. The best you can do is alert her to what you have found.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m a 25-year-old woman with roughly $8,000 in an IRA, $6,000 in stock I got through an employee purchase program, about $20,000 in the bank, and $2,000 in student loans. I think I’m in an alright spot, but also have the nagging feeling I could be doing more with my money than just letting it sit.
My big problem, however, is that I want to go back to school. It’s necessary for my preferred line of work to get a master’s. I graduated in the summer of 2020 and planned to take a year off to ride out the pandemic and save up some money, but then I met my girlfriend. Neither of us is willing to do long distance and we discussed early on splitting our bills 70/30 until she graduates and then switch. We’re generally happy with this arrangement but are both a bit dismayed that her graduation deadline is getting pushed back further and further. I’m incredibly debt averse and am hoping to have enough liquid funds to just pay for my continuing education out of pocket with minimal loans. Frankly, is this dumb? Would it make more sense to invest, especially considering my girlfriend has another two to three of her degree left? And how do I even start investing? I’ve tried bringing this up with my parents and they just shrug and congratulate me on getting this far.
—So Far So Good
Dear So Far, So Good,
First of all, you’re doing really great for your age. The only thing I would suggest is to start putting more into retirement to take advantage of compound interest and any matches your employer offers. But your arrangement with your girlfriend concerns me. And it’s not because your finances are in a 70/30 split.
Even if there is a valid reason for this, by catering to her timeline, you are doing a disservice to yourself. I mean this in the kindest way, but you should not be putting your dreams and career on hold while you wait for someone else to finish their own. You’ve seen firsthand that things happen (like her graduation date being consistently pushed back) and you’re allowing it to stop something (pursuing your education) that you can almost entirely control. What if, for some reason, you don’t work out? You’ll be kicking yourself for the next 20 years. Is there a way you can start working toward those goals sooner, while still remaining together?
If you do want to wait for her program to finish someday in the next two to three years, I would invest your cash in low-risk investments so that you’ll have quick access to it when you decide to attend. High-yield savings accounts (HYSA), certificates of deposit (CD), and I Bonds are all great low-risk investment vehicles that you can utilize while waiting.
Want more Pay Dirt every week? Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am 19. I work part-time and go to school. I was forced to move in with my father and stepmother after my mother was transferred to another city. I did look for roommates but a bad incident scared me off and I moved in with my father. My stepsiblings and half-siblings are in elementary school. Given the age gap, we aren’t close. My stepmother insisted I pay rent and for my own food.
The problem is my stepmother has initiated a no sugar, no junk food policy in the house. Since I pay for my own food, I think I am exempt. She doesn’t. Even with me buying a mini fridge and keeping the food in my locked room, the kids are relentless. They constantly whine, beg, and try to sneak into my room for snacks. Rather than disciplining the kids, my stepmother blames me. We argue all the time. I don’t think she has the right to dictate what I spend my money in and I deserve privacy when I pay rent. My father does nothing. I am tired of this. What are my options?
I know you were in a tough situation, and roommates just didn’t work out, which is why you moved in. So, it’s not the answer you want to hear, but if you want to stop hearing your stepmother’s arguments you’re going to have to stop bringing junk food into the house.
Despite being an adult who helps out financially, you’re living under her roof. And it doesn’t sound like you have a written rental agreement. That means you must respect the rules she’s set despite how ridiculous they may or may not seem, and no matter how old you technically are. You wouldn’t have your siblings whining if you didn’t have the food there in the first place, which is why she is dealing with you directly, not disciplining them. You could find a new place to stash the snacks—and hide it from the rest of the family. But you risk being caught, and starting this cycle all over again.
In the meantime, consider trying to find a roommate again. Roommates really are a hit or miss, but you can try to ask friends for referrals or even check out your school’s Facebook pages—students often post in these looking for roommates. It can be a toss-up when finding someone you gel with, but it sounds like it can’t get much worse than your current situation. Good luck.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I started a new job right after Christmas. It’s at a law firm. I am one of 16 people here. I joke to my friends that I am the only “civilian” since everyone else is either a lawyer or a paralegal. My official job title is administrative assistant but I am really just a glorified receptionist. It’s fine though because the hours and pay are way better than my last job.
The issue is that everyone here is extremely busy. They work long hours and rarely take breaks. This, combined with the fact that I am physically removed from everyone (my desk is in a large front room, with only a single doorway offering access to the entire back of the building where all the offices, break room, back door to parking, etc is). If I don’t go back there it’s possible that an entire day could go by without me seeing a single person I work with.
As a result of this, I barely know my co-workers even after three months of being here. If a courier brings paperwork and I bring it back to someone’s office, nine times out of 10 they are on the phone or in a meeting and I am waved at to simply place the paperwork down. There are very few reasons for me to be back in that area so I cannot just simply be there to organically start a conversation with someone. They never sit in the break room. The one time someone did they spent the whole time on their phone trying to enroll their kid in some private school and spoke maybe six words to me. Should I just give up trying to establish any connection with these people? I can just be one of those people who just work and go home but at my last job, my co-workers and I spent a lot of time chatting and laughing so this does sting a little. Or is this unusual, even for a busy office?
—Civilian All Alone
Dear Civilian All Alone,
Going from one workplace culture to the exact opposite can be tough, especially since it sounds like you’re a social person. A quick search though, tells me that this sounds like it is a typical work environment in a law firm. Lawyers not only work long hours, but a lot of those hours need to be billable so that the law firm is making a profit. If they’re trying to make partner, it’s competitive and requires even more commitment. So yes, they are trying to be as efficient as possible and might see talking at the water cooler as a waste of time.
If you’re trying to network with your colleagues and want to get involved in the legal field in some capacity, you can try asking individual co-workers out for coffee or lunch to chat about the company and how they got their start. But if this is just about socializing, I would use the energy you’ve been putting into being friends with your co-workers toward making friends outside the law firm. Check in on old pals and invite them to enjoy a beer or quick meal. Look for a meetup group related to a hobby you love on Meetup. Try volunteering. You can have a social life outside of work if you just look for it.
More Advice From Slate
My ex and I used IVF to have our son (she had ovarian cancer). We had multiple embryos made, but our marriage dissolved a year after our son was born. The embryos are currently on ice, and legally we both have to consent to their use. I pay for the storage. It was too painful a topic to talk about during the divorce, and neither one of us wanted to speak about the potential children we could have had. Our son is 6 now. We have equal custody and a civil relationship, at least until my ex’s sister lost her husband in a car accident last year. It was an unbelievable tragedy, and the sister was injured so badly she had to have a hysterectomy. I would have done anything to help, but the sister is now fixated on our embryos as her only solution to have a child.