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,
I would like to have a baby. My husband is an anxious person who claims he’s “just a realist” who tends to be stubborn and likes big things planned out in advance. He agreed to have a kid before we got married, but only if we could financially afford to. That’s where our opinions differ; I think we can, and he disagrees.
Together, we currently make at least $200,000 in gross income. However, we live in a city that we love with high costs and we are religious enough that my husband INSISTS that the kid needs to go to religious day school. (There is no flexibility around this requirement. Believe me, I’ve tried.) Religious day schools in our region are notoriously expensive (we’re talking five-digit numbers yearly, starting at $20,000). My husband fears that even with tuition assistance, which is common, we would end up leading a lifestyle that requires us to penny pinch, worry about money, never go on vacation, have no retirement fund (to the point of joking about committing suicide as a retirement plan), and devote every single spare dollar to tuition. Even if I say that we could afford it now, he argues that with inflation and recessions, etc., one day we may not be able to afford it. Clearly, in an ideal world, he would want a trust fund with the tuition money already saved up. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.
We’ve tried going to a financial advisor for reassurance, but they weren’t very helpful; I need hard, specific numbers relevant to our location and projections for an 18-year period, minimum. When I suggest moving to a city with a lower cost of living, he says that our salaries will drop according to the location and we will be back in the exact same boat (he thinks the current remote work trend will be disappearing within the next few years). What do I do? Who do I talk to who has an understanding of school tuition concerns? How do I get these numbers? I can’t do it myself; I’m over my head. I suspect the most helpful thing would be for my husband to take anti-anxiety medication, but that’s not going to happen, so this is the next best thing.
—35 and Not Getting Any Younger
Dear Not Getting Any Younger,
I feel a kinship with your husband. I’m also a financially anxious planner, down to searching out the price of espresso in Wien a year before I embark on a trip there. I was stressed at the grocery store today because the tofu price went up another 30 cents. So I understand he wants to be informed about the financial commitments of having a child. But part of bringing another life into this world is realizing you can’t control everything. You said your husband is religious, but he is demanding such insight about the future it’s as though he expects you to be an omnipotent being. You will not know if your hypothetical child has medical or learning needs not met by a religious day school before they are even conceived. You can’t say when future recessions will be. You can’t resolutely predict the future of remote work two decades out—or even if student loan debt will be canceled in six months. It’s important to remember that life is unpredictable, and it is impossible to plan for every eventuality.
It sounds like your husband might be helped by treatment for his anxiety, but have you considered that he might not be on the same page about wanting a kid? It reads like for every single (practical) solution you come up with for affording a kid, he comes up with a doomsday reason why it won’t work. This could be his anxiety talking—or it could be that deep down, he’s making excuses because he doesn’t want a child. Statistically, if you have a kid, you WILL make it work. It might not look like the perfect idealized version your husband wants to plan for, because life doesn’t work that way. But your combined income puts you in the top 5 percent of all American households. That means that 95 percent of American families make it work on less income than you earn. Even in high-cost-of-living Manhattan, the median household income is less than half your combined income.
While you can gather more information specific to your area (Numbeo, census QuickFacts, Forbes Cost of Living Comparison are good tools), I don’t think more data will assay your husband’s worries. Even if you made a budget spreadsheet with tabs for each of the next 18 years and calculations for annual inflation costs indexed to the CPI (which sounds like a fun Saturday night to me), I don’t think it’s really the financial concerns holding him back. It’s possible he just needs to hear it from folks he knows— perhaps a friend or leader in your religious community with kids you can talk to about how they handle tuition while balancing other financial goals.
But there’s something much bigger than budgeting going on if he’s so anxious about affording children on a $200,000 income (which most parents in the world manage to do) that he’s making “jokes” about taking his own life as a retirement plan. He may think finances are his last argument point against having a kid he doesn’t want.
If you get the impression that it’s mostly anxiety talking and he does want a kid deep down, ask him to consider the opposite: What if it goes right? What if you have enough to afford everything you need? What if a child is a beautiful addition to your family? What if you can still go on vacations AND save for retirement AND afford the school of your choice? What if he gets an annual raise equivalent to tuition at a religious school? Would he regret missing out on those experiences more than he regrets the money he hypothetically spent? The best-case scenario might not happen, but the worst-case scenarios probably won’t either. You’ll make hard choices, and you’ll adjust your budget. But you probably won’t end up living on a raft in the Pontiac River eating cat food. If he values expanding your family, he will have to realize that it will have a price—but also benefits. Every choice in life will come with trade-offs, and only some are financial.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My late mother owned a significant amount of property. One was a cabin she rented out in an increasingly developed area. Land prices are booming. “Debbie” and her mentally handicapped son have lived in the cabin for the past 20 years and never had a single rent increase (and never a late payment). She was my mother’s friend.
After my mother died, I sold most of the properties, except the cabin. I informed Debbie that her lease would not be renewed and she broke down in tears. She told me she had nowhere else to go and she and her son didn’t make enough money to live anywhere else. I was still grieving my mother, so I offered to renew the lease for an extra year to give Debbie some time to find other lodgings. Then the pandemic hit. And the state froze evictions. Debbie didn’t pay rent for six months. Both she and her son got sick, but I ended up having to pull out of pocket for the increasing property taxes and put in a new septic system, plus a new roof. None of this is Debbie’s fault.
All my kids are in college, my business took a serious hit, and my wife has illness issues—I don’t want to be a landlord. Debbie has been begging me to renew the lease for another six months. I have offered to sell the cabin to her and shave off the other acreage. Debbie told she has no savings and no family other than her son. Looking into charitable help has done nothing. Everything is on a waiting list if you can even get on it all. I even asked the church my mother attended if I could donate the property with a clause stating that Debbie and her son get to stay in the cabin. The offer was declined—too many complications. My wife tells me we have done enough. I still feel like a complete bastard. Debbie looks a lot like my mom and hearing her cry is like a knife in my heart. I just can’t keep doing this.
Dear Cabin Endings,
I’m so sorry you’re in this stressful situation. From a legal perspective, your best option is to be a heartless landlord and sell the property to the highest bidder. But from an emotional standpoint, the situation is nuanced. Without knowing more about your location and local laws, I’m going to suggest two possibilities you might not have thought of:
1) Turning the property over to a community land trust that focuses on low-income housing. Unlike your mother’s church, this is exactly the kind of donation (or sale) they are set up to receive and maintain. Land trusts contain legal protections to ensure all the housing is affordable in perpetuity. Debbie would then be able to rent from the land trust at an affordable rate (usually set at 30 percent of her income). Depending on the trust, she may even be able to work with them to buy the cabin. The land underneath the cabin would still be held by the trust, which lowers the price (and means it can only be resold to other low-income buyers if Debbie sells the house).
2) Sell the property with an extraordinarily long lease in place for Debbie. This option depends on the local tenant laws. But in this option, you could extend Debbie a 12- or 24-month lease while putting the property on the market. If the area is rapidly developing, you may find a buyer interested in owning it as an income property who would see Debbie’s lease as a value-add.
Good luck, and thank you for trying to do right by Debbie. I hope either of these options gives you some new ideas to try—you deserve to have the stress of being a landlord off your plate, and Debbie deserves a safe and affordable home.
Want more Pay Dirt every week? Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am turning 30 in a few months. I have a steady full-time job, healthy retirement and investment portfolios, and a small life insurance policy covered under my employer’s health insurance. The retirement funds, investments, and life insurance policies all have beneficiaries declared. I am currently unmarried but in a long-term committed relationship and do not have children or nieces and nephews. I rent an apartment and have a small loan on my vehicle. My current job has required me to be fairly mobile (moving every one to three years at this point), but I hope to be relocated across the state and settled for an extended period of time in the next three years and later married. My current job is in an industrial field with higher inherent physical risks compared to a standard desk job.
I have started thinking about setting up a living will and will but do not know how to begin the search or what is appropriate for my current situation. Based on the information provided, is there a specific path I should be looking into more heavily than others? Do estate lawyers offer paid consultations to help you determine what documents are best for you? How does someone go about finding an estate lawyer? How geographically narrow should my search be; should I be looking for an estate attorney in my current city, county, or state especially if I plan to move again in the next few years? When I move, will the established documents need to be refiled with the court in my new location? Once the documents are established, how often should you review them for potential revisions due to life changes? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated!
—Living Life But Want to Be Prepared
Dear Living Life,
It’s great that you want to be prepared. I want to ensure that you understand the difference between a living will and a will. Both are essential documents, especially if you have a dangerous job, but each serves a different purpose. A living will is a document that outlines your wishes regarding medical care and end-of-life decisions if you are incapacitated (like organ donation and when to “pull the plug”). On the other hand, a last will and testament is a document describing how your assets should be distributed after you die. Because you don’t have any dependents, your estate plan will be relatively simple and shouldn’t take very long to put together.
You could do this on your own with legal templates (which you then get notarized), but it’s always best to at least get these documents looked over by an estate attorney familiar with your state laws. A great place to get a referral for an attorney would be a workplace employee assistance program (EAP). Otherwise, research an estate planning attorney licensed to practice in your area on your state bar’s website or a specialized search website like Avvo.com. Depending on your industry, you even may be able to find someone with a specialization in your job’s risks. You should be able to get a consultation with an attorney and ask for references, to make sure they are the right fit before you hire them.
Once the documents are established, you should review them yearly to ensure they still apply to your life. Each time you move states or have a significant life change (marry, get divorced, have a kid, change jobs), make sure an estate lawyer licensed to practice in your new location reviews them to reflect the laws there. I hope you have a long life ahead of you, paying estate attorneys for wills no one has to use.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My partner and I recently began discussing moving in together and have been assessing our housing options. I have a small (but decent) amount of savings, although not more than what would amount to a little less than a 10 percent down payment on a one or two-bedroom condo in our area. He currently lives in a two-unit home shared with his mom, and while she is the sole owner of the property, it was purchased specifically to be a home for her and his family. His understanding of the arrangement was that his contribution to the mortgage would be accessible to him when sold or that she would transfer the title of the house when she retired, and he (and his now ex-wife) would pick up the entirety of the mortgage and own the home. Unfortunately, none of this was put into writing.
Neither he nor I want to continue living there for practical and emotional reasons. I’m also not particularly keen on living in such proximity to my in-laws at the start of a new relationship, and she is financially and physically independent at this time. When he approached his mom about potentially selling the house in the next year or two so we could begin planning, she dropped a significant bomb: She had taken several hundred thousand dollar loans against the home without his knowledge, all of which is gone—including paying her other debts. It’s not possible a majority of this sum went toward the mortgage, and renovations were not made on the home, so the equity hasn’t increased to reflect the now inflated mortgage. Based on recent home sales in the neighborhood, she felt that the house would sell at a loss and that she wouldn’t be giving him any of the proceeds. I’m shocked and frankly appalled at her response.
Given the time they have lived in the home, she is saying she will not make good on the almost $170,000 he’s paid, even though there will most certainly be money from a sale regardless of profit (based on the amount she took against it). I also feel this is a theft of sorts—she feels entitled to use his investment to pay off her own debts without his knowledge. He feels that trying to hold her to the agreement is a lost cause. While I fully understand there may not be anything we can do that’s not fraught with conflict, I’m now faced with having to consider additional measures to protect my finances since investing equally (or more) in a family that exists regardless of me might leave me in a terrible position someday. I suggested he ask to sit down with her accountant to see the full extent of what’s happening, but I know mom doesn’t have to accommodate that request.
Recouping the money would allow us to start our life together on more or less equal financial footing, given he comes with kids. Is there anything to do besides go to court or walk away from this life-changing sum of money? I’m having difficulty seeing past this and know not resolving it will lead to many strained relations moving forward.
Dear Rocky Start,
What a tricky situation! This is another reason to ensure you always get contracts, even with family, in writing. Before proceeding, I would get clear on the numbers. Even if he’s paid $170,000 toward housing costs over the years, it doesn’t mean that $170,000 is all equity. If he’s been contributing to the mortgage, much of that money likely went toward mortgage interest, not equity. Likewise, property tax, insurance, and routine maintenance are just expenses, not part of his equity. Put together an accurate accounting of what he’s actually put toward the equity (use an amortization calculator to see the interest versus principal breakdown). It won’t be a one-to-one accounting, even if he was on the title.
Rather than seeing this as a theft, it’s worth approaching her with empathy over why she made these choices. It might have been shady to not tell her son about the loan, but if he’s not on the title, she didn’t have an obligation to do so (and she may have been embarrassed). Your partner’s divorce may have changed his mother’s retirement and estate planning approach. It’s also worth noting that creditors could have taken out a lien if she didn’t find a way to pay her other debts, so the proceeds from any sale might’ve been reduced anyway.
Your ideal scenario will likely happen outside of court. A court battle would burn bridges, and it would be costly to engage in (possibly wiping out any profit from the sale). It also doesn’t sound like your partner has the most robust case against his mom. If this went to court, your partner’s ex-wife might also have a claim on the property from her contributions when it was the marital home. If the duplex wasn’t part of the divorce settlement or custody agreements, your husband could end up with his proceeds from the property halved.
Your partner will need to get creative with solutions that his mom can agree on. Working with a mediator might be a way to get concerns aired with the help of a neutral third party (not you). If she’s concerned about selling when values are down and having to move when she likes where she lives, there might be a solution. Or she may feel like the house is a significant part of her nest egg and is keeping her financially independent as she approaches retirement—and is embarrassed she can’t be as generous as she had hoped.
They will need to get creative to find an outcome that makes each of them feel their needs are being met. Perhaps he could move out of his unit, and they could agree to turn it into a proper rental, providing a monthly cash flow. This could allow his mother to stay in her unit and hold onto the property through the down market. After two years of rental business income, he could count on that income to help qualify for a new mortgage. Or they could put together a plan to sell the home once she’s old enough to receive retirement income and pay back some of his investment over several years. No matter the resolution, you’ll need to get creative and empathetic; you can’t force her to sell a home she solely owns. You’ll probably need to consider his property rights and where you two choose to live separately. I don’t expect the former will be resolved quickly because there isn’t a “print $170,000 cash” button on the house.
If you end up living together, you should absolutely protect your interests by seeking legal advice. Blended families always come with complicated financial considerations, and there’s no such thing as perfectly equal footing later in life. Not only do you need to ensure that your nest egg is protected, but your partner also needs to plan for his kids’ futures. And if you buy a house as an unmarried couple, make sure you get a cohabitation agreement (as I like to call it, a “punk rock prenup”) and property agreement in writing. This way, it’s clear how any interest in the property will be divided, and you won’t end up in the same situation down the road.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I have been married for over 10 years now and have two lovely children. I have always dreamed of having a large family, and we even agreed on having more kids early on, but due to various circumstances (mostly financial), after our first two children, he opted to have a somewhat permanent procedure done. I was against it, but during an unusually stressful time, I momentarily said “whatever, go for it,” and he jumped at the chance.