This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. So this week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Jessica Stoya, a How to Do It columnist, handles your personal finance questions.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My lovely 19-year-old daughter really wants a nose job. She wants one as her nose (my family nose) is a bit big and bumpy. My wife and I don’t believe that she needs the surgery and find the thought of it scary and distasteful. We are also quite appalled by the thought of spending such a significant sum on a pointless vanity project.
We are mostly supporting her through university, and she has some savings (gifted from her grandparents years ago). It is a lot of money, more than we would currently spend on some long desired home improvements/holidays. She has enough independent finances to be able to afford a “travel surgery” in an unregulated market, which is the riskiest solution. She has asked us to fund the surgery near home.
We are instinctively saying no, but… I don’t want to use my relative wealth/power to control her. We have supported her through hair dyeing, contact lenses, and dental braces. I am not sure whether nose surgery is really that different. Is it?
—You Want Me to Pay for What?
Dear Pay for What,
How medically significant were the dental braces? Some tooth alignment is almost entirely about aesthetics, and some are more about addressing misalignment that causes or may cause issues with jaw pain, chewing, the ability to keep the teeth clean, etc. Also, is there any evidence of a deviated septum or other medical reason to undergo this surgery? Depending on the answers to those questions, braces and rhinoplasty might be pretty similar, or pretty different. Hair dye is clearly different, based on cost, temporary nature, and the fact that it doesn’t involve surgery. And contact lenses seem much closer to hair dye than a nose job.
Even if your daughter’s desire to change her nose is entirely about aesthetics, though, resist the temptation to dismiss this as “a pointless vanity project.” It would be really lovely if we lived in a society where what people look like didn’t matter. But it does, in many different ways, which are generally more significant for women. This is likely a lot more complex than vanity.
Your daughter is 19—a legal adult. What she does with her face, and her money is her decision. If she wants this surgery and is aware of the risks associated with traveling for an operation, that is her choice to make. But you might ask her about her risk assessment. Language proficiency is one factor that seems likely to pop up. Having a smooth consultation with a doctor who isn’t a native speaker of your native language is one thing. Having a successful interaction with an airport worker or a waiter in a language that you don’t natively speak is a similar kind of thing. Needing to articulate something complicated and hard to describe, such as “My veins feel like they’re on fire, like an itching burn,” when your brain is foggy is an entirely different scenario and translation apps have a way of failing when situations are sticky. Rather than lay several concerns out for her, ask questions designed to help her think through all the possibilities she may not be seeing, such as whether the facility she’s considering has translators available at all hours.
If your daughter is framing your denial of her request as you trying to control her, do take some time to consider whether you have controlled her that way in the past, and address that if necessary. But I’m not seeing signs of control in your letter. If she decides she’d rather have the surgery in the country she lives in, she can continue to save up. And if you’re worried about her recovering from surgery alone, consider offering to take a vacation to the same region during the time of the procedure.
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 am a single 30-something female with no debt besides my modest mortgage and a decent amount of savings (some liquid, some not). Pre-pandemic, I was an avid traveler and prioritized it in my budget. While I had a sizable income increase in early 2022, expenses from buying a new house in 2021 and inflation, along with travel, ate into some of my savings. I have some friends who are in dual-income situations and different tax brackets than I am who have been pushing for us to go on a trip again since we last went on one in 2019. I was able to get out of going in 2022 and was fine with them going without me, but there are already discussions for 2023 and I am not sure how to get out of it again. My money goals for this year are to rebuild my liquid savings (which are already automated) and I am not yet sure where travel fits in at this stage. How can I make my friends understand that I am not in the same financial place they are and that I cannot commit to anything?
—The Poor Friend
You didn’t ask for my opinion on this, but I do want to congratulate you on being proactive about your finances and keeping an eye on your savings.
You have a whole range of options, from a simple “I’ll miss going on a big trip with you all again this year, but I’m not able to commit to that expense right now” and suggesting some lower-cost trips or activities, to having a big heart-to-heart about your feelings and financial situation. Your own privacy preferences around finances and the social norms within this group regarding talking about money will factor into how you communicate about this. If these friendships turn out to require attendance on high-priced adventures, reevaluate how strong they are. More likely, though, your friends will be open to opportunities to spend time together that are affordable to everyone.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I finally was able to afford a new car. My old one could legally drive itself but was in decent enough shape. My 18-year-old nephew had been looking for an affordable car for over a year. My sister is a single mom and couldn’t afford one for him. My nephew has been working since he was 14 to try and save up for a car. So at Christmas, I drove down and gave him the keys as a gift. He flipped out—cursing, crying, and hugging me hard enough to bruise a rib. I cleared it with his mom. My nephew has to pay for his own gas and pay his mom the difference in the insurance.
But I didn’t factor in my other sister “Lily.” Lily is a single mom of four girls. She, however, gets child support from her ex-husband and makes a good deal more money than the rest of us (her girls attend private school). Lily got pissy. We should have cleared the car gift with her because now her girls would have “expectations” and think they would get cars when they turned 18 from me. Lily’s oldest is 15. Lily asked me if I would be giving away my brand-new car in three years or whether my nephew would be sharing the car.
I told Lily to stop acting crazy and spoiling the holidays. Giving my nephew my old car had zero impact on her girls unless Lily refused to explain things. Lily kept at it and our sister and mom overheard—thus a family feud was born. Our sister called Lily a hypocrite since her girls opened up expensive electronics while her son only got clothes—Lily wasn’t buying him a computer. Lily said it was “different.” We were lucky none of the kids were around, but the days after the holidays were tough. I feel responsible. I drove down with the car because it was Christmas and I wanted to save the cost of a round-trip airline ticket. And I wanted to surprise my nephew. Was I out of line? And what do I should I do now?
Dear Car Guy,
I don’t think you were out of line in giving your nephew your old car. You had an extra car, you knew your nephew could use it, and you gave it to him. Lily’s expectation that you ask her about giving your car to a nephew that she is not the parent of, and her dismissal of the parallels between the car gift she takes issue with and the disparity between other presents her children and your nephew received, are unreasonable. And her expectation that you produce one or more additional cars as gifts for her children when they turn 18 is far beyond unreasonable.
That said, your sister calling Lily a hypocrite and you telling her to stop acting crazy aren’t helping. And, while you don’t say what your mom’s perspective is, I’m curious whether she’s contributing to the emotional intensity or pointing out a pattern of Lily being treated differently. Sometimes people get stuck on the fairness of isolated incidents because they’re encountering a pattern of unfairness in different areas and feel they’re not being heard about that pattern. Other times, they’re having a hard time with mental health, and if that’s the case calling them crazy can really hurt. Neither of these possibilities excuses her behavior, but they might clarify your understanding of the situation.
If this holiday is representative of your family dynamic or Lily’s default way of interacting with the world, do apologize for calling her crazy and then respond to any attempts to bring the car up with something along the lines of “My gift to my nephew is between us, and I’m not willing to have this conversation again” before changing the subject. If this is out of character for her, or represents a pattern that’s been emerging over the past couple of years, ask her how she’s doing—four kids require a lot more than four times the cash, and she may be stretched to her limit in other areas as well.
Under no circumstances should you feel as though you have to find four extra cars over the next several years. Good luck.
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Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m a college student who is graduating very soon and I am planning to take a nine-to-five role that pop culture often labels boring. In contrast, I find the work interesting and was excited to get the offer. The issue is that my family and my entire social circle all started or plan to start in more traditionally glamorous jobs making a lot more money than I will. I was offered opportunities for these paths and I turned them down. How do I square my fears of being left behind monetarily and culturally with my initial excitement for my career path?
—Minoring in Regret
Dear Minoring in Regret,
When I was growing up, my dad often said that the ideal way to exist in capitalism is to aim for work you’re excited about and fulfilled by. In my 18 years as an adult in the workforce, this has held true over and over again. Gigs I didn’t believe in were miserable, no matter how much they paid. Gigs that were in alignment with my values and interests, even when they didn’t pay well, often gave me insight, learning, and connections that led to better compensation in similar work. Money absolutely does give access to a higher quality of life (nutritious food, medical care, a comfortable mattress, and the security of having savings are just a few examples) but once you’re making enough to take care of your needs and indulge in some luxuries, it hardly ever seems to make up for feeling completely disengaged from our work. This is something you’ll likely find yourself balancing throughout your career—sometimes we do take jobs we really don’t want because we have a pressing need to pay for housing or food, and we get through it.
The glamor factor is a different sort of situation. Comparing ourselves to others, and hearing other people draw those comparisons regarding ourselves, is part of life. We can resist comparing ourselves, and we can try not to internalize those comparisons when other people do it, but you will probably still feel bad at some point because of these. In theory, you’ll be meeting other people in your nine-to-five role who are similarly interested in and excited by the work you’ll all be doing. And those interactions with colleagues who you share this appreciation for the field with will hopefully balance out the moments where you’re having negative feelings.
Lastly, no matter how much life experience you accrue, there will never be a way for you to know with certainty how the paths you’re choosing between will work out. And there will never be a way for you to know how your life would have gone if you’d taken different paths from the one you chose. Make sure you’re making enough money to take care of yourself, and remember that you can almost always change jobs.
More Advice From Slate
I’m adopted. I’m in my late 40s, married, have two children, am well-educated and financially secure. A few years ago, I decided to locate my birth parents. My hope was for a connection, but I was willing to settle for medical history and information about my heritage. I sent my birth mother a certified letter with corroboration about my being her biological daughter. I gave a brief personal history, some photographs, and I assured her I was financially stable. I waited a month but she didn’t respond, so I sent the letter a second time. Again, no response. Finally, I telephoned her. I’m sure that phone call was one of the worst conversations of both of our lives.
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