Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. My cheapskate in-laws are retiring early: My in-laws have decided to take a payout from their company to retire early. They expect us to be happy for them, but it frankly sickens me to my stomach. My in-laws didn’t pay for my husband’s college education and they seem to spend all their money on endless home improvement projects, exotic pets, décor, and the like. For my wedding, my mother-in-law went off the deep end getting unnecessary accoutrements that we didn’t want or like; my husband told me that we should just let her have her fun because there was no stopping her. I shrugged it off because it seemed silly to argue about offerings made in kindness, but in retrospect, I wish I had put my foot down and just said no. We received no monetary wedding gift from them but a lot of useless Tiki crap—and we made it clear on our registry that we were trying to buy our first home and didn’t need much stuff. We still can’t yet afford a home, and my husband’s student debt and zero savings aren’t helping. My in-laws don’t seem to understand or acknowledge this. They seem blissfully unaware of the higher costs of living and college tuition for our generation. Once, my mother-in-law asked my husband, before we married, why he didn’t just buy the apartment he was living in, in NYC!
Fortunately, they live in a state far away, so I have an easy excuse not to attend their retirement party, but I feel like my husband and I need to tell them that they’re on their own if they ever need financial support later in life. I know that even broaching the subject will make them feel hurt and uncomfortable. But I need to say something. What should I do?
A: If you don’t want to travel out of state to attend your in-laws’ retirement party, I think that’s an easy-to-justify decision. But please don’t announce, “By the way, if you two ever need money for any reason, count us out.” That’s an unnecessarily combative thing to do. Lots of parents don’t pay for their children’s college education, either because they can’t afford it or because they consider it part of establishing adult independence. I don’t think it’s necessarily a mark of callousness or selfishness. They may, of course, be selfish in any number of ways, but they don’t sound like wildly cruel or wholly self-absorbed people who require a formal rebuke. I can understand why you wish you’d held a firmer line with your mother-in-law about wedding decorations, and while I don’t think you need to dwell on that forever, I can see why you might be inclined not to co-host any parties with her in the future. But while it would have been lovely to have received a big cash gift at your wedding, I don’t think you were entitled to one. If your mother-in-law asks either your husband or you unrealistic questions about why you don’t just buy something you can afford, you can of course be honest about reality. But lots of people have student loans and can’t afford to buy a home right after getting married, and I don’t think either you or your husband has been robbed or defrauded.
You are certainly free to privately disagree with your in-laws’ financial priorities. I probably would too, in your position. And you can absolutely keep a reasonable distance from them and decide, if they ever ask in the future, not to offer them money! But I think your desire to make that announcement now has more to do with a desire to lash out and hurt their feelings than it does with anything that might happen in the immediate future. Think of them as vaguely friendly, wholly impractical, distant relatives, and not people you have high expectations for, and you’ll find yourself a lot less eaten up by frustration.