Pay Dirt is Slate’s new money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have been married to my husband for 15 years. For 13 years we have lived abroad because of his job. I have made a life for myself here and recently earned my (fully funded) Ph.D. I am lucky to be employed in a sector that has thrived during the pandemic, but that has meant 60-plus hours a week, and I am really exhausted. During the pandemic, my husband decided that he hated his job and quit it to pursue a passion project. I watched our savings evaporate to support his new business, which went nowhere. He has currently been out of work for 10 months, and I have taken on a side gig to earn extra money. He is now looking for work but is adamant that any new job should be something he is passionate about, even if it means he doesn’t make a lot of money. We are getting ready to move for the second time this year because we can’t afford our rent. I am at my wits’ end.
I have been considering leaving because I am so emotionally exhausted from carrying the weight of our expenses while maintaining the household, but I don’t want to leave him in a vulnerable position where he has no income. How can I reconcile this? My life feels like a black hole, and my only purpose is to make money. There is no romance, and it has been absent for some time. I have been seeing a therapist, and that has helped. We don’t have children because I am a woman and the breadwinner, and we are far away from family and don’t have a network of support.
—Fed Up Abroad
Dear Fed Up Abroad,
It sounds like the problem you have is less about the money than the state of the relationship, which you say makes you feel like you only exist as a provider and has suffered from a lack of romance for a long time. It’s admirable that you’re concerned about your husband’s welfare should you leave the marriage, but you are not obligated to take that into consideration. He is an adult, and if he believes that he can only take a job that’s a passion project, that’s fine, but it’s not your responsibility to subsidize it. If he has to put his own money (or lack of it) where his mouth is, he may find that absolutism on the topic is a luxury he doesn’t have.
My personal view is that part of marriage is understanding that in dire circumstances you may have to support your significant other financially, but there is a big difference between doing it from a place of necessity and agreeing to support long-term financial losses that are rooted in an insistence on fulfilling work. If the latter is what’s happening, your husband needs to understand that he cannot ask you to make that sacrifice without your consent. It has to be something you agree is important to both of you. If that were the case, you wouldn’t be frustrated right now because you’d be moving in the same direction. That you’re not is a sign that the relationship isn’t working more than it is that you don’t like being the breadwinner.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My late parents started a trust meant for their grandchildren. My brother was married to “Sara,” and she had a daughter, “Emma.” A year later we lost our parents, and I was put in charge of the trust. I also added to it, since I don’t have children myself. A few years later, Sara had an affair and got pregnant. In the middle of the divorce, my brother had a heart attack. Sara automatically inherited all his assets, but her greed had no ends. My brother had changed the beneficiary of all his life insurance to me and updated his will so family heirlooms would stay with us, so Sara took my family to court but didn’t win. The last conversation I had with Sara was her calling me “cruel” for not letting her go to the wake with Emma. I told Sara that I know it was difficult since she was a greedy whore, but did she really have to flaunt the fact at my brother’s funeral? She was six months pregnant with her little bastard. My family never heard from Sara again.
Recently, Emma contacted me out of the blue. She is 20 and had to drop out of college after her mother and new stepfather cut her off for coming out as an atheist. (Apparently, Sara found God a few years back.) Emma said she felt abandoned by us but realizes her mother left us no choice. She still considers my late brother and parents to be her family, and she hoped we would do the same for her. I wired Emma a few thousand dollars as a financial cushion and told her to call me if she had other expenses. She sounded very small on the phone. I honestly don’t know what to do. Right now, the trust is extremely large and will be split between my sister’s three boys. My sister and brother-in-law would riot if I suggested the trust be spilt four ways instead of three. What are my obligations here?
Dear Family Money,
First, I understand your anger here, but I also think you need to think about both Sara and Emma from a position of generosity and take into to consideration what you may not know about what happened. People have affairs for all kinds of reasons, and it’s understandable that you are protective of your brother, but you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s marriage.
Secondly, Emma is your niece. It’s not clear from your letter whether Emma was in the original trust, but no affair or bad behavior on her mother’s part changes the fact that until the divorce, you considered Emma family. It really isn’t fair to punish her for what you perceive as a betrayal by her mother. You are not necessarily obligated to help Emma considering that you don’t seem to have much of a relationship, but you shouldn’t be conflating your feelings about her with your feelings about her mother, either. Your brother was divorcing your sister-in-law, not Emma.
I would also refrain from referring to the mother of your niece as a “greedy whore,” since, again, you aren’t necessarily privy to what happened there, and your niece, who is your brother’s only living heir and you may want a relationship with at some point, will notice when you say that. And even if she’s on the outs with Mom, it doesn’t mean that she’s going to take sides in a family dispute that has nothing to do with her. She shouldn’t be asked to.
Lastly, and I say this with a personal bias: Do not hold what you perceive as Sara’s sins against her child. Your columnist is an adoptee who doesn’t know who her biological father is and has biological family members who don’t engage with her for exactly the reasons you describe. I did nothing to deserve that, and neither does the child you refer to as “her little bastard.” I don’t object to the term, funnily—there’s an adoptee rights organization called Bastard Nation—but I don’t think you can take your anger at Sara out on children who have no choice in this situation and still claim the moral high ground. You can say no to helping Emma, but you should examine why you’re doing it.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My best friend since childhood runs a nonprofit that does really important work. She is like a sister to me, and I could not be more proud of her professional accomplishments. By contrast, I work at a job that doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the world, but I make 10 times what she does. From time to time, she goes through financially tough periods. I have always been more than happy to help her out with a monetary gift when needed, especially because I make enough that this help doesn’t affect me at all. My husband, who has a rocky relationship with her anyway, does not like this at all. He doesn’t want me to give her any more money. For reference, he makes slightly more than she does but still many times less than I do. I would like to keep helping her, but am I obligated to respect my husband’s wishes?
—What Are Friends For?
Dear What Are Friends For,
I adopt the Suze Orman philosophy that couples should have their own bank accounts, even if they share a joint account. Once you meet your basic financial obligations (mortgage, necessities, etc.), you should have some autonomy over your own earnings, especially discretionary income. Your husband has made it clear that he would not do what you’re doing, and I don’t think that makes him a jerk. But he shouldn’t fault you for using your own hard-earned money to help a friend. Would he feel better if you bought a nice luxury handbag? I doubt it. I think he is really trying to influence you in a different way: He resents that your friend takes your help. It’s possible that this is protective and he thinks she’s using you. But it also might be a function of his general dislike of her. I think it would be productive to talk to him about what he’d do if one of his close friends was in a similar situation. It clearly doesn’t upset you to occasionally help her out, and you seem to feel good about doing it. Getting to the bottom of why this very specifically bothers your husband is, I think, more important than any decision you make to support (or not) your friend.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have some rich friends who are very open about how much money they have and what they’re spending it on—and that can get a little irksome. I understand it might be logistically complicated to renovate two houses at once on different continents, and yet … But other rich friends downplay their wealth, often a bit absurdly, and I find that even more annoying. Am I allowed to call them on their I’m-just-not-sure-if-I-can-afford-that BS? And, if so, what’s the best way to do it?
—No, You’re Not Secretly Middle Class
Dear No, You’re Not Secretly Middle Class,
Your columnist feels your pain on this one, as a person who has many friends who work in finance and run companies, and your columnist is writing for, well, perfectly decent but not Second Home Acquisition money. Or, let’s face it, First Home Acquisition money.
Here’s what I think is a healthy way to look at it, and actually enjoy it, which I try to do: If these people are really your friends, you want them to be happy and not anxious and to be able to talk to you about things that they’re excited about, things they dread, things that are happening to them that you can’t personally relate to. Focus on how these things are making your friends feel and not what the things are themselves. Unless they’re complete jerks, they’re not trying to make you feel bad or self-conscious about the fact that you’re not in the same place financially.
If it really, really bothers you, a simple solution is to be more open with your friends about your own financial situation. And not so that they censor themselves, but so you can have a contextualized conversation about these things that doesn’t feel one-sided. The whole appeal of this column for me is that we live in a society where money permeates everything we do and we’re still not really allowed to talk about it, especially when what we’re talking about is not having enough money. If you think being open about this would make them uncomfortable, that’s maybe an indicator that the friendship is lacking something, not that you are.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a 25-year-old gay guy. I’ve been out and sexually active from around the age of 16, and I’ve had one yearlong relationship in that time with a guy around my own age. I’d say I’m the “old-fashioned” type—marriage and monogamy and all the rest. That’s not to say I’m a prude; I hook up often.
Good looks or a chiseled bod don’t play too much of a part in who I find myself attracted to. Often I’ll see “older” men. The trouble I have is that I often find that these guys (40+), after I have sex with them a number of times, develop the habit of basically supporting me—buying me alcohol, cigarettes, dinners, movie tickets, etc. I don’t want to feel like I’m exchanging sex for these things, and I find it unattractive that many of these men will only sleep with guys 15-plus years their junior. I’ve never asked any of these guys for any of the gifts they’re throwing at me; oftentimes, I’ve actually made it pretty clear that I feel like I’m inadvertently selling myself to a degree and it’s uncomfortable. But I’m also hypocritical and accept them without much argument when I’m really broke (which is pretty often).
Am I lying to myself about my intentions? And how can I turn around after a month of accepting these things out of desperation and then draw a line without feeling like I’m just using these guys?