I bought a house with my mom. I’ve now learned my grave mistake.
This is part of Help! Wanted, a special series from Slate advice. In the advising biz, there are certain eternal dilemmas that bedevil letter writers and columnists alike. This week, we’re taking them head-on.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. So this week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Nicole Chung, a Care and Feeding columnist, handles your personal finance questions.
Dear Pay Dirt,
About four years ago, I made the mistake of buying a large home with my mother. I also have a school-aged child and am married. My mom helped with a large down payment. The agreement was that the house is mine and in my name. I pay all the bills and the mortgage, and she pitches in with my child and pays a small amount monthly toward shared expenses, but essentially lives rent-free through her golden years.
Living with her has been challenging at best and is threatening my marriage at worst. You can’t disagree with my mother on anything, otherwise, she gets mad and will make life miserable until she decides she is over it, even if she is wrong. She will literally have temper tantrums and engage in the silent treatment for days or even weeks. She expects me to pay for everything above and beyond what was originally agreed upon and uses my house as a drop-in laundromat and soup kitchen for family members—also on my dime (even though we agreed early on that could not happen). Any ask I have (e.g., don’t do laundry during peak electricity times) she ignores and essentially dares me to call her on it (see aforementioned temper tantrums). I have no idea what to do. On a positive note, she can be quite helpful with cooking and dishes, but the bad seems to outweigh the good. Help! What should I do here?
—Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
I hear you, this is really tough. I think it’s important to try to set some boundaries while you’re living with your mother; e.g. non-household members shouldn’t expect to get a free-for-all access pass to your kitchen or laundry room. I get that your mom’s temper makes it hard to make any requests, or believe they’ll be honored. But you do have the right to speak up if you think your current arrangement is unfair or untenable for you, and name what changes you need.
Insisting that your mother do laundry only at certain times of the day feels like overkill, especially given how challenging this arrangement already is. To be able to stand firm on the things that matter most to you, you may need to try to let some other things go—pick your battles and all that. I’m not sure what paying “for everything above and beyond what was originally agreed upon” means, but if you both agreed to a specific financial arrangement and she’s not holding up her end, you can point that out. If the household expenses are proving to be more than you (and your spouse?) can handle alone, be honest and say that you need your mother to increase her contribution. As difficult as she may be, the two of you share a common interest—you both want and need a place to live!—so it’s worth braving the communication challenges and temper tantrums to see if you can improve the situation. (If there is anyone, perhaps another family member you both trust, who can be present to help mediate the discussion, that might help it go better.)
Outside of trying to address whatever financial issues exist, it’s hard to see how this situation is sustainable—you’re very unhappy living with your mother, and doing so is threatening your marriage. Your spouse’s needs and feelings need to be taken into account as well; ideally, the two of you would be on the same page about what you want going forward. I encourage you both to think about whether there are any more changes you can make that might improve matters, even a little, over the short term—whether that’s taking scheduled breaks and date nights and vacations elsewhere, or retreating to your own living space/bedroom more often.
If you really believe your sanity and your marriage won’t survive this living arrangement over the long term, you may need to seriously think about whether and how to tell your mother that it isn’t working. You and your spouse could consider offering to buy out her share of the down payment and helping her find a new place to live. Or you could say that you want to sell the big house you’re living in, pay your mother out of the sale, and find a smaller home for yourselves. Of course, these options may or may not be financially feasible for you right now, and would mean having some very difficult conversations either way. But if you feel that you need to make such a change, think about how you might need to plan, prepare, and/or save up to make it possible.
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,
Recently, my roommate and good friend asked me for a loan in a pinch. They’re a freelancer and have been between gigs at the moment. They asked me to cover about $500 more than I usually do on that month’s rent. I make much more than they do (at least from what I glean from our conversations), and while $500 isn’t insignificant to me, I could swing it that month, so I was happy to help. They swore they’d pay me back as soon as they started booking jobs and getting paid.
Well, fast forward a few weeks, and it looks like they’re bringing in the jobs again. They’ve paid their next few months’ rent in full and have been going out with friends and spending plenty of money when we’ve grabbed dinner/drinks/done other activities together. Yet they haven’t mentioned the $500 once. I feel awkward asking for it back, but it certainly would help. How do I bring this up? Or should I just accept that the money is gone?
—Loaning in Texas
Dean Loaning in Texas,
Yeah, it’s going to be a bit awkward asking your roommate to pay you back, but I think you’re certainly within your rights—that was what the two of you agreed upon, after all. I would keep it simple and straightforward, something like: “Hey, I noticed that you seem to be getting steady work again. That’s awesome! Remember the $500 I loaned you last month? If you can pay me back now, it would really help me a lot.”
If they can and do, great. If they can’t pay you the full amount right away, suggest a deadline or a payment plan that would work for you. For your own sake, I’d advise you not to keep tracking their recreational spending—obsessing over their outgoing is just going to drive you up the wall, and it won’t get a single dollar of your money back.
Want more Pay Dirt every week? Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m (F, 29) entering my 30s and am feeling super discouraged about where I am in my life. I recently ended a several-year relationship that wasn’t right for me. Now I’m one of the only single people among my friends and feel lonely in a different way. I spent my 20s working for nonprofits, which gave me a sense of purpose and lots of flexibility and understanding around mental health but has left me with little savings and nowhere close to being capable of buying a home. I’ve been in therapy for years dealing with the effects of developmental trauma and because of my identities, I don’t feel like I can rely on my family for the help or support I may need. I still don’t know if I want to have kids or not, but I’m beginning to feel the pressure of time.
In contrast, my longest-term friend of 15 years seems like she’s thriving in every aspect of her life. She went to an Ivy, never had student debt, bought a home on her own in her mid-20s, is married and about to have a baby, and just got a promotion at the job she loves. Oh, and she recently received an inheritance big enough to pay off her home and increase her savings. I want to be happy for her—I have been happy for her—but right now I just feel more and more resentful and envious. It seems like so many of these decisions have come easy for her. I know she works really hard and has been through her own tough childhood stuff and she’s very generous to the people she loves and her community. And I know I’ve also had a lot of privileges and opportunities. Still, knowing all this, there’s an increasingly loud voice in my head saying that if only I had the upbringing and resources and identities she had, I’d also have a home, be partnered, be well compensated financially, have a baby on the way, etc.—really all the hallmarks of a heteronormative, Western idea of success. I feel like I spent my 20s clawing my way out of the shame and harm of my upbringing and have had to do so much work to heal myself and stabilize my mental health and find purpose. Usually, I’m proud of that. Right now, I feel grief, resentment, and envy, and like a part of me is getting left behind. Is it worth trying to talk to my friend about it? I wouldn’t even know where to start. We don’t have a very emotionally vulnerable relationship, despite my efforts over the years.
Dear Rueful Envy,
I don’t think you need to or should try to bring these feelings to your friend. This feels like work you need to do and care you need to give yourself, rather than an issue in your friendship that the two of you could talk about and resolve together. I don’t want to tell you that you shouldn’t have these envious, left-behind feelings—feelings happen whether we want them or not—but I think they are yours to own and to deal with, not your friend’s to manage.
The exception would be if your friend has actually said something to make you feel worse: drawn comparisons between what she has and what you have; judged your life or your decisions. You didn’t mention anything like that in your letter, but if she has done something that specifically hurt you, then I think you should tell her that—at least, if the friendship is important, and one you want to keep. You don’t want that kind of pain just sitting between you.
The fact is that your fortunate friend’s circumstances are hers, and yours are yours, and she can’t do anything to change that or make you feel better about the disparity you’ve noticed. I do think it would be best to try to stop comparing yourself to her. Besides, if you look at other people you know, I’m sure you can also find some whose situations are closer to your own—it’s very common to be 29 and making student loan payments, unable to purchase a home, etc.
You’re still young, and you can’t know for sure what your situation might change as you get older. Focus on your own life and what feels urgent to you; what will bring you satisfaction or adventure or joy. Maybe not everything is in your power to change right now, but if there are other things you want to try, other professional avenues you want to pursue, other experiences you want to have, see if you can try to budget or plan for at least some of those things now—not so that you can keep up with anyone else, but just because it’s what you want for yourself.
More Advice From Slate
Can you please weigh in on the subject of “who should one love more” between a spouse and your children? My husband and I recently had an argument (the first of 2020, actually) over this issue. He believes spouses should love each other first and “more” than they love their children. His reasoning is that this love provides the stable base for the family, and our partnership comes before the children.