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 boyfriend and I started dating about six months ago, but we got serious quite fast—we are in our mid-30s and know what we want, and we are pretty sure each other is it! I didn’t note until recently that we had not yet celebrated any gift-giving holidays together, since both of our birthdays are early in the year. However, I am going with him to meet his family this Christmas—and I just learned that they go absolutely bonkers with gifts! He gives things like a certificate for a full spa day for his sister, pricey tech toys for his brother… You know those commercials where people give each other cars with giant bows on them? His parents have done that for each other! TWICE! (I thought it was an urban legend.)
My family is as different as can be. Several years ago we decided to stop exchanging gifts, and now we might trade a trinket or homemade item but gifts aren’t the centerpiece of the celebration. While my boyfriend can afford this without going into debt, we have talked about saving for goals like paying off student loans, a wedding, buying a house, and starting a family. These things would all be easier if he wasn’t dropping thousands of dollars a year on gifts. While it’s not my place to have an opinion on this yet, I do suspect I’ll start to resent spending so much of “our” money on just his family’s gifts if we combine our lives.
It also feels weird and uncomfortable to give to each family so unequally, but pointless to find some middle-ground budget because it would leave me feeling awkwardly cheap around his family and lavish around mine. How do we navigate this in the future? My boyfriend says it’ll all work out, but this is nagging at me!
—Used to Love His Generosity
Dear Used to Love His Generosity,
It sounds like gift-giving is his family’s love language and they have the means to buy them. It also sounds like he may come from a different socioeconomic background than you, which you might not have been aware of and is making you a bit uncomfortable. If you are getting serious, it’s something you’ll need to discuss sooner rather than later. You might as well have that conversation now.
Be honest without attacking him. Share that because your families are so different, you’re having a harder time than usual processing it. Then ask if he can give you an idea of what gift-giving might look like in the future if you were to merge finances. You can float the idea of setting a gift-giving budget to him and see what his thoughts are. It’s worth noting that the way you merge your finances can still leave money to spend lavishly on his family throughout the year. And buying lavish gifts on a budget can be done with some advanced planning—you both can take advantage of sales and websites like Groupon that sell experiences for a discounted price.
Also, he might be OK spending lavishly on gifts because he currently has nothing else going on financially. Once you set financial goals, he might be motivated to cut back. I would discuss this with him at a different time, perhaps after the new year to coincide with January’s goal-setting theme. These are both discussions that can be had to help set the year, and your future, off on the right foot.
Dear Pay Dirt,
How do I convince my husband it’s time to hire a financial planner? And how do I find one? My parents have one that they have been working with for years and I believe really helped them plan for their retirement and goals. My husband’s father, on the other, had a financial planner that stole a fortune from them and has been prosecuted and found guilty. It was a scary situation to witness and has left my husband with negative feelings that have led him to believe that we can do our own financial planning and be better off for it. I disagree and our financial situation has only gotten more complicated as time passes
For context, we are in our early 40s. He makes $100,000 in his current position plus retirement pay from a 20-year military career and I make $60,000. We have a mortgage on our current primary residence; a mortgage on a vacation house that we rent short term (think Airbnb); he and I are planning on starting a business that we believe will see a profit based on our research (he is putting way more time into the business then I am); and, we have legal guardianship over my 14-year-old niece that we discovered needs a specialized school that has tuition (think unexpected, large, ongoing cost). I also fear that she may need financial support well into adulthood. Lastly, as part of my parent’s planning, they want to start gifting me a portion of my inheritance on a yearly basis in an effort to minimize any inheritance tax that I will have to pay. Money seems to be coming and going from all directions all the time and I think we need help managing it.
Dear Planner Needed,
Yikes! I can understand your husband’s hesitancy in getting a financial planner after that fiasco. Depending on a certified financial planner’s (CFP) payment structure, their ethics can veer into a gray area from time to time. Many CFPs can make a commission off of what products and accounts they can get you to open. So, yes, sometimes they do recommend investments that don’t make any sense or even apply to your situation. This is why I always recommend fee-only financial planners.
Fee-only financial advisors follow a transparent and objective approach that encourages them to act as fiduciaries by having your best interests in mind. They aren’t making a commission off of you and have no skin in the game in whatever you decide to do after meeting with them. The Garett Planning Network offers a great directory as well as a questionnaire to help you find the right fit.
As for your husband, do your research before you approach him again so you can present him all the facts, including details on how you both can find an advisor you can trust. If he’s still hesitant, ask him to at least attend the first meeting and then you can make an informed decision as to where to go from there. In the meantime, check out The Special Needs Planning Guide: How to Prepare for Every Stage of Your Child’s Life, by Cynthia Haddad and John Nadworny. Both authors have children with special needs that require advanced financial planning, so this book can be a good starting point in regard to your niece.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
My partner and I have been married for almost 20 years. We both are very fortunate to work in our chosen fields and have a high standard of living. My income is approximately four times theirs. Until now, we simply had a joint account. I recently proposed opening separate bank accounts, in order to give us more accountability over our personal spending, and also as a way of finding a bit more personal space. I still want to maintain the joint account for the majority of our income and spending, but I think a small amount set aside would help both of us prioritize and make more responsible financial decisions. On the flip side, I would feel less guilty about the occasional impulse buy or frivolous expense if it came out of “my own money.” My spouse reacted very negatively and is sure this is a way for me to hide things from them. Is this a good idea? Are there other considerations I should be aware of? Do many married couples maintain separate accounts?
—Tragedy of the Commons
Dear Tragedy of the Commons,
Money can trigger a lot of emotions, so I can see how this conversation took a wrong turn. I strongly believe everyone should have their own accounts alongside any joint ones. Domestic violence can affect anyone and it’s important that everyone has the financial means to flee a dangerous situation.
But, I’m wondering how you broached the subject. Did you imply that your partner spends too much money and this will help them cut back? How would you feel if these were suggested to you? Especially if you made a fourth of what your partner did? You, too, might wonder if they were keeping something secret from you, like a gambling problem. You also mentioned that you feel guilty about your impulse spending, so I’m wondering if you want a separate account to hide your own issues with budgeting.
There’s also the chance that you approached this conversation in a perfectly reasonable manner and your partner just has their own financial and relationship trauma to work through. I would express to your partner why you feel it’s important that you both have separate accounts, especially when it comes to holding yourself accountable for your own financial decisions. Then open your account. They’re also allowed to open their own account and portion their paycheck however they see fit. I’m sure once you show your partner that your current lifestyle and actions haven’t changed, they’ll come around. If not, then there might be some bigger trust issues at play. Good luck.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I sold our house this past summer in preparation to retire and are now staying with relatives (with whom we can stay as long as we need) in the same town while we look for our next home. Our dilemma is that our daughter and son-in-law live two hours away from us and would like us to move near them. They are self-employed and need to stay local for their business. We like the idea of living near them as we get along great, and if they have any children in the future (they are planning to), it would be fun to be 10 minutes away. But, we really like our current area, we have lived here for 12 years, have friends and other family nearby, and have found a potential place here that feels like “home” and meets most of our needs. We have looked in our daughter’s town, but nothing is quite what we are looking for in our price range. Our concern is that we are being selfish if we stay here and will hurt our daughter’s feelings. She is a mature adult and told us she wants us to be happy, but on a scale of one to ten, would be a seven for disappointment if we don’t move near her. We feel torn as to what to do: Stay here at “home” or move to a strange place to be near potential grandchildren. We feel either choice is wrong and are in limbo.
—Homeless In Colorado
Dear Homeless In Colorado,
It’s nice to have family nearby and if you lived across the country, I might tell you to consider it. But a two-hour drive away isn’t that far. And while she may be planning on having children, they are still hypothetical at this point. So while it would be a nice-to-have, it’s unfair to ask that of you.
I’d stay put and buy your next home where you feel most comfortable. I’d also try to work on a plan for visiting each other more often. Maybe you can make the drive every other month and she does, too. By knowing she’ll start to see you more frequently, she may be less disappointed. If she does bring it up, let her know you’d be happy to help once, and if, there are children in the future. And who knows? You might reassess and decide you want to live closer then, too.
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My husband and I met working at a major tech company. He left with more than $2 million at age 36. On the outside, our life looks great. But he hasn’t worked since we got married nearly 20 years ago, and as a result, he’s blown through all our cash. I knew he was selling off stock but was unaware of the extent until a few years ago.