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,
My husband and I have what one could call a “traditional” marriage: He works, and I tend the home. Since we’re child-free and I already finished college, I suppose you could call me a trophy wife, but firstly, I’m nonbinary, and secondly, that’s the rub. Whenever we meet new couples at social gatherings, the first question is always, “And what do you do?”
On paper, not much: I read a lot, I tend to my hobbies, I attempt to bake, and I spend time with my husband. He handles all the boring life matters like bills for us and I dote on him. Making sure I want for nothing satisfies him, and being cared for so wholly pleases me. It may not be “feminist” to others, but for us it’s blissful. We contribute differently to our life together: He provides all the concrete trappings, and I provide the immaterial. He keeps our bodies nourished and warm with his marvelous cooking and our beautiful home, and I keep our minds curious and stimulated with lively discussion and cultural enrichment.
Family and friends have no compunctions about our marriage, but total strangers feel compelled to judge our relationship as “unequal” or “misogynistic” the second I say, “Oh, I don’t work.” Is there something I can say to ward such judgment off? It’s hurtful they say our relationship is unfair just because my contribution can’t be measured in money or labor.
—Not a Trophy
Dear Not a Trophy,
Don’t waste any energy on what total strangers think, because no matter what choices you make in life, there will always be someone who strenuously objects to it and is happy to tell you so. I grew up in a conservative part of the country in a community where some people believe that if women work, it means they don’t care about being good mothers to their children, and have been told that as someone who has a career and child that I must be prioritizing the former over the latter. And these are people I know. Their opinion simply does not matter. It has no bearing on my decisions, and my decisions are not reflective of how I feel about their choices. That is even doubly true of people I don’t know at all.
I would suggest you take the same approach if anyone suggests your relationship is unfair because you choose not to work. If you chose what you’re doing, there’s nothing about it that is unequal, misogynistic, or toxic. Those descriptors are about coercion and a lack of consent—and you and your partner are making a conscious choice to live in a way that makes you happy.
I would caution, however, against reading too much into what it means when people ask you what you do. Many assume that people choose work that reflects their interests because it’s often true. The question can be a question about status or money. But just as often it’s a way of asking what you’re interested in enough that you’ve chosen to spend a big portion of your life doing it. It’s an indirect way of asking what makes you tick in a way that, coming from a stranger might seem a little less invasive or direct. If they just asked bluntly, “What are your interests?” that might sound a lot more intimate. You should be able to tell from the rest of the conversation which way they mean it, but err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt. If, however, it becomes clear that they are judging you based on your capitalistic value, they’re doing you a favor by giving you a screening mechanism. They’re not people you need to be friends with, or whose opinions you should value.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have a relatively low-stakes question since the problem at the center of this question is not really my business. My dear friend from college is about to become responsible for their partner’s teenage sibling, with very little warning. We are still in our early 20s, and unlike my friend, I have a stable, although modest, income. So I sent said dear friend a few hundred dollars—not enough to make a real difference, but enough to, say, buy pizza and beer for everyone who helps them move (I am halfway across the country, so I can’t pitch in that way). It was not totally unprompted, because they joked about starting a GoFundMe, but they were surprised.
My friend and their partner accepted it, although they did say that they felt like it was “too generous.” My question is, what’s the etiquette for giving them more help? If I lived nearby, I could help out easily with prepared meals or some such, but I don’t want to make them uncomfortable or pitied by giving them cold hard cash. I can’t afford to send life-changing amounts of money, but I know I’m financially better off as an individual than both of them are together, let alone with a minor to take care of. Obviously, I can’t and wouldn’t force them to accept charity, but this is a massive life change and if I can decrease their stress even by one percent, I want to.
—Should I Just Send a Gift Card?
Dear Should I Just Send a Gift Card,
I think you’re both overthinking and not thinking enough about your dilemma. If your friend was surprised by your gift and felt it was too generous, they may not be comfortable with you sending them even more money, even if it’s a cash equivalent like a gift card. So you need to understand what they meant by “too generous” and whether they were simply pleasantly surprised or a little uncomfortable. That’s where you need to take more into consideration.
Where you’re overthinking is finding ways to help them out financially and coming up with alternative methods. They may not actually want financial help from others, even if they’re taking on a financial burden. A lot of people feel strongly about being financially independent and doing everything themselves. So you need to just have a conversation with your friend and make it simple for yourself by asking them directly how you can best help. They may have things they need you haven’t thought about that, including help with logistics from afar or even something as simple as making the teenage sibling feel welcome since you’re part of your friend’s social circle and will eventually have a relationship of sorts with them. Ask your friend what they need. You may be surprised; what they need the most may not have an overt monetary value at all.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m a single retired 70-year-old with no kids. I do not live near my estranged brother, his second wife, and a son I do not know. He is divorced and I am in contact with his firstborn—we were close at one time, but our relationship declined after he moved away 20 years ago. Over the years, I have given him the family bible, all my family photos, etc. The only smart financial decision I’ve made is I bought my house in California in 1989. Now it’s worth almost five times what I paid for it. Half of that increase has been refinanced and half remains. I have decided to leave my home to a younger family friend who I helped while her mother had cancer and then passed away. I see her weekly, am close to her husband and son, and believe she loves me and would care for me if I ever needed it. Both my nephews are single children whose parents own homes so they have their inheritance. But I read your response to someone about inheritance not being tied to whoever loves you but to the concept of generational wealth. Am I wrong to leave my home to people who actively love me rather than nephews who are only blood relatives?
—70, Single With No House and No Kids
Dear No Kids,
No, you’re not wrong, because it sounds like you don’t have a relationship with any of your blood relatives. The scenario I’ve responded to in prior columns was one where someone with something to leave to relatives actually has a relationship with those people and is intentionally divvying up an inheritance to either reward or punish those people for how attentive they were later in life. And very often the people they want to punish are children or grandchildren who are geographically dispersed and would have to move and uproot children, jobs, and homes to provide the late-life care the letter writer wants. I think that sort of behavior is destructive and selfish. It treats an inheritance as a mechanism for manipulation, not a way to make future generations more stable.
That is not your situation. It sounds like the person you’re closest to is your nephew but that relationship is still very distant, and he’s not your son. I doubt he expects you to leave him your house, or anything beyond what you’ve already given him. In your case, your family is the people you actually have a relationship with and have chosen, and there’s nothing manipulative or selfish about your decision.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I have been married for 11 years. I’ve worked in corporate America for eight years, he’s an army veteran and real estate agent. While we do split our bills equally his VA compensation covers his half of the bills. I still have well over that from my paycheck and put money each year into a 401(k), a Roth IRA, and savings. He’s been a real estate agent for about four years, and his earnings are hit or miss—some years barely making $20,000 and this year doing well. He feels he doesn’t need to save money. I’ve asked him to equally contribute $2,000 a month so we can retire in 10/15 years. He thinks that I’m asking him to help me and his response is “I don’t have to.” We also have separate checking accounts where he keeps all the money he makes and uses how he sees fit. I put all my excess into savings. I’ve explained to my husband that he won’t be able to retire on the $2,500 a month he gets in VA retirement. Am I being unfair?
—I’ve Got 99 Problems
Dear I’ve Got 99 Problems,
I think marriages can work well both in situations where both parties have separate finances and in situations where they have shared finances. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, though, and a disadvantage of having separate finances is that it can be harder to agree on spending, saving, and shared financial goals. Your critique of your husband’s refusal to save is reasonable, but if you both have financial autonomy in the relationship, and that’s what you agreed to, it’s hard to carve out exceptions.
That said, I think it’s worth meeting with a financial planner together—if you can persuade him—because it sounds like part of the reason he’s not taking your critique seriously is that he thinks you’re demanding something of him that he doesn’t feel obligated to do. That’s utterly missing the point of your critique, of course, but it may just mean that he needs to hear what you’re saying from a neutral third party. (Yes, this is very frustrating, but there are many conversations in marriages that get stonewalled until someone who’s perceived as a dispassionate outsider makes points that aren’t being heard otherwise. This is why some people see marriage counselors!)
A discussion with a financial planner would hopefully have an outcome where you are at least aligned on what your retirement goals are and how much money it will require to get there, which your husband may be naive about because he hasn’t done the math. In the best case, you both make a commitment to save a certain amount in a joint account so you both have enough to retire on.
You should also emphasize to your husband that what you are saving is going to your retirement and you cannot afford to fund his as well, in case he’s counting on that. The outcome he may not anticipate is one where you can retire in 10 years and he can’t. You should make it clear that you are saving for that deadline and if he doesn’t do the same, you may be enjoying your retirement alone while he continues to work.
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