Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My wife of five years and I are disabled. We split most bills, but she’s out of money by the 10th of the month, which leaves me to pay for everything else—laundry, food, gas. She gets her hair and nails done first with her money. It just doesn’t seem fair. Suggestions?
Dear Perpetually Pissed,
I understand why you’re annoyed by this, since, in your view, you’re effectively subsidizing your wife’s hair and nail appointments. If you haven’t already, you should explain to her why this feels unfair to you, especially since you’re paying a disproportionate share of the bills. Tell her it’s creating additional stress for you. Offer to show her a breakdown of your budget and spending, if you think that’d be persuasive. Ask her for her thoughts on ways she could make it to the 11th with a few dollars left in her account. See if she’d be willing to take on one more tank of gas or round of laundry toward the end of the month or any other small ask to get her moving in the right direction, and so it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
That said, I have no idea what your wife is actually spending on hair and nails, but if it’s a nominal amount, and it’s important to her, you should also consider that what seems like a frivolous expense to you may not be to her. What’s cosmetic to one person may be central to another person’s self-esteem and confidence. Women are also more frequently and harshly judged by their appearance so she may feel some disproportionate pressure to look good.
Either way, you should talk about it. Your wife needs to understand why this feels unfair to you, and you need to find out why it’s so important to her to have those things that it’s her first spending priority.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My partner of nine years grew up without much money and put himself through college with a combination of work and loans. The loans aren’t excessive—about $20,000—and he was paying them back on a regular schedule until he started grad school. At that point, he called his loan servicer to ask about deferring them while he finished his program. He was told that because five years had elapsed between undergrad and grad school, he was not eligible for deferral. (I’m pretty certain this isn’t true.) They also didn’t offer him any type of income-based payment plan that would have worked with his very meager stipend, so he just stopped paying.
I knew none of this until three years ago, when a notice from a debt collector arrived at our home. I was upset but tried to be as understanding as possible; we were both underemployed at the time, so it didn’t feel as though there were many options. I reluctantly agreed to kick the can down the road. Since then, he has started a six-figure job, and we’re in a much better place financially. I have tried everything to encourage him and support him in dealing with his still-outstanding debt, but he avoids it at all costs. We’ve been to therapy, I’ve found lawyers specializing in student loans, I’ve gotten angry, I’ve been encouraging—you name it, I’ve tried it. He just shuts down. He says that I don’t understand the trauma that being poor caused him, and he’s right—I don’t. But this needs to be dealt with! Are there options I’m overlooking? How can I be a good partner but still ensure that he deals with this rather important issue?
—Secondhand Student Loan Anxiety
Unless you have shared assets, this is really your partner’s problem to deal with. And a lot of people do avoid dealing with financial issues because they cause anxiety, so getting angry may actually exacerbate the problem.
If you want to be helpful, you can offer to help him make the necessary phone calls—debt collectors can almost always be negotiated with—and figure out how to resolve it, but if you have separate finances, this isn’t your can to kick, down the road or otherwise. And it’s not immoral to have debt. You are correct that this is a problem to be solved, but it’s a problem that many, many Americans have, and not necessarily because they’ve been irresponsible. So the best thing you can do is help your partner figure out the logistics—if he’s OK with that—and stop thinking about this as your problem, because it’s not.
Unless you do have shared assets and combined finances, that is. Then it could put your portion of your shared money at risk, in which case, you need to approach the conversation with your partner differently. He needs to understand that your shared money could be used to a collect the debt. It would also make sense in this case to do a little research into options for repayment. If your partner’s loans are federal student loans, deferment and repayment plans are often flexible and just a matter of negotiating with the servicer. If they’re private loans, this may be more difficult, but ultimately, the lenders want to be paid back something, even if it’s less than what your partner originally owes. It’s unlikely that the debt is completely non-negotiable.
You may also want to think about why this bothers you so much. Is it because it makes you think your partner is irresponsible? Is it because you don’t have much or any experience of debt yourself, and proximity to it gives you anxiety, even if it’s not your debt? Your partner is trying to explain how this situation makes him feel—he associates it with the trauma of being poor. If you want to find some common ground on the issue, it would also help if he understands why this creates so much anxiety for you.
Dear Pay Dirt,
A couple years ago, shortly before the pandemic, I got two huge promotions within six months, and my salary more than doubled. I was doing OK before that but am now extremely comfortable. My friends and I are all now make roughly the same. The problem is that my friends all now want to spend money on nice things, and I don’t. I don’t want to buy a $10 glass of wine at dinner when I have a $7 bottle at home that I like better. I don’t want to spend an extra $50 for a VIP booth at the bar. I just don’t like this stuff! My friends used to scoff at this kind of spending when we went out, but now they want to pay a ton. Now I just feel like I’m the odd one left out. If my friends ever notice me not buying things, they make a comment like, “You’re making more money, so you can afford it.” I grew up lower middle class, and my family instilled in me the importance of money pretty young, and I still like the feeling of saving money. How do I tell them that even though I am making money, I still don’t want to spend it on things I don’t like? Can I even ask them if we can go back to doing the things we used to do without alienating them or looking like a miser?
—Much Ado About Misera
Dear Much Ado,
You are being very reasonable, but your best shot at remedying this situation is to do more of the social planning yourself. Have a dinner party instead of going to an expensive restaurant. Pick the bar that doesn’t have a VIP section. There are also ways to hang out with your friends that don’t involve large checks. Walks in the park are free. Coffee is cheap. Not all of your socializing needs to take place at a restaurant or bar. You could also opt to skip one pricey weekend to splurge on another.
It’s also OK to set some boundaries with your friends. Explain to them that you’re trying to save money and are just not comfortable regularly spending large sums on going out. And it’s OK to be honest about why. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a sense of financial security you didn’t grow up with.
If you feel like your friends begin alienating you because of it, that could be a sign that you’re just outgrowing some friendships, which is always tough to accept. But you are certainly not the only person who, when blessed with a larger paycheck, chooses not to spend it all on high-end bread and circuses. It’s a big world, and there are other people who think about how they want to socialize and where they want to spend their money the same way you do.
We’re all coming out of a long period of social isolation thanks to the pandemic, and it’s a great time to get out and do new things, and meet new people in the process. You don’t have to forsake your big-spender friends to expand your social circle and balance it with people who value the same experiences you do.
Dear Pay Dirt,
Quite some time ago, a very close friend lived with me. She could not keep up with her rent, and it grew to a rather large sum. She paid here and there—small amounts—and she had to be asked for the money. The sum grew so large that I had to ask her to live elsewhere. She has never brought it up again and has never made any gesture of any monetary kind toward me. What would you do?
I think it would be reasonable to ask for the money that she owes you, but understand that if she wasn’t able to pay it then, she may not be able to pay it now, either. So for your own sanity, you should probably assume and plan for the possibility that you never get that money back.
If you’re still friends, it may be useful to bring it up and then put the ball in her court. Mention that it’s been bothering you and that you’d like to know if or when she has plans to pay you back. Tell her you’re OK with a flexible timetable or a reduced amount, but the outstanding debt feels like a cloud hanging over your friendship and you’d feel better if there was a plan to resolve it. There’s a possibility that she may feel that because she lived with you a while ago the informal statute of limitations on repayment has passed. She may feel resentful about the ask. She may also have no idea that you’re still thinking about this. So you may want to start by reassuring her that you value the friendship and are sympathetic to any financial issues she may have. Give her a way out that doesn’t involve making her feel embarrassed or guilty about her previous inability to pay.
There’s also a possibility that even if you approach the issue compassionately and reasonably, she reacts badly and it damages the friendship further. But if you can’t even raise the issue with her, it’s likely that the friendship has weaknesses that have nothing to do with the money she owes you.
I’ve been happily married for more than 10 years to a great woman, and we have two amazing kids. I still find my wife very attractive, and I enjoy our intimate sessions. There’s one thing that I don’t know how to address. She has a significant amount of cellulite in her thighs, mostly in the back and some on her buttocks. Her thighs are a bit of a turnoff, but not a deal killer. We can afford treatment to remove the cellulite, but I’m unsure how to best approach this option.