- For Love & Money is a biweekly column from Insider answering your relationship and money questions.
- This week, a reader wonders how to tell their in-laws they can’t afford their expensive lifestyle.
- Our columnist recommends setting a standing house meeting, awkward as it may be.
- Got a question for our columnist? Write to For Love & Money using this Google form.
Dear For Love & Money,
My in-laws were getting ready to downsize but instead offered my family the opportunity to move into their house, which they would renovate to make a separate apartment area for themselves.
With the housing market and rising costs of student loans, we took them up on the offer. Overall, it wasn’t a bad move. But, of course, there are some issues that arise occasionally.
How do my wife and I navigate the stage-of-life differences regarding income? We are on a limited, single income while my father-in-law makes almost six figures. We find it difficult and defeating to feel like we are always telling them we can’t afford certain things or that we can’t contribute to more expensive ways of living.
Any tips for adjusting our budget or having that conversation?
Thankful, But Thrifty
Multigenerational living situations can be as tricky as they are rewarding, and it sounds like you’re currently experiencing a little bit of both.
You don’t give any specific examples of times that your in-laws making more money than you and your wife have been a problem, but I would imagine it comes down to areas where you scrimped before, but now you feel pressured to be extravagant . Or, if they’re buying things without your approval and then expecting you to chip in, they’re effectively forcing your hand.
Something I appreciate about your letter is that you don’t blame the issue on your in-laws’ degree of generosity, but rather on “stage-of-life differences regarding income.” It sounds like you understand and respect their right to live the lifestyles they’ve earned, but you simply can’t participate.
Try and remember that your position on the matter isn’t an offensive one. You aren’t judging your in-laws, or even resenting them. It would be like going for a run with an Olympic sprinter — there’s no shame or shade in letting them know you simply can’t keep up.
Start by setting up a house meeting to talk things through
Here’s what I would do: I would talk to them about scheduling a standing house meeting. This will likely add a layer of apprehension and awkwardness to the conversation the first couple of times, but better a little pre-confrontation anxiety than blindsiding your loved ones with an explosion of pent-up frustration or showing it gradually through passive aggression.
Scheduling the meeting will also give you the opportunity to add all necessary disclaimers to the proceedings — we just want everyone to be on the same page. We want to be transparent. We want open lines of communication. And, we don’t want anyone stowing away grievances. Because if I know anything about either in-law relationships or roommate relationships, there are some grievances being stowed away, which means a standing house meeting is a good idea regardless of your financial situation.
Once scheduled, try to make it fun. Have it around the fire pit — bring drinks, bake cookies — make an evening out of it. Make sure everyone feels relaxed so that no one feels they are under attack. This could even be an opportunity for you to demonstrate how much fun can be had within your income bracket (ie the backyard rather than at a fancy restaurant).
How you might start the conversation could look something like this: “We appreciate the invitation to live in your house. It has saved us so much money and stress, and we talk all the time about how fun it’s been having you all so close. That said, we still aren’t as financially fit as we would like, and it’s really important to us that we use this time you’ve so generously given to us as an opportunity to save and become as financially secure as you are. would love your support in reaching that goal. For us, that means making thriftier choices.”
Here I would get specific, for example: “To save on our grocery bill, we need to buy store-brand foods as often as possible.” Clarify that you don’t want this to impinge on their lifestyle in any way and that you are happy to separate currently-shared purchases. Let them know you simply can’t keep up and simultaneously reach your financial goals.
A few options to consider when you need to negotiate costs
There will be areas where you can lead different lifestyles, but there will also be areas where price points cannot be separated. For instance, if you share the utility bills with your in-laws and they like the house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than you feel is frugal, you will have to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. There are a few ways you can approach these dilemmas.
One, you can do your research and find out what the cost difference really is. Whether we think credit cards don’t count as real money or that forgetting to turn the lights off when we leave the room is going to financially break us — we all have some irrational perceptions of costs that were instilled in us as children. So, make sure you unpack your financial anxieties to make sure the financial pressure you are asking them to eliminate is real and not imagined.
Two, you can compromise. Set the thermostat to the mid-point of your preferred temperatures or try to pick the mid-range option for house updates.
Or three, and this is the hard one — you can use the house meeting as an opportunity to ask how they would feel about dividing your shared expenses in proportion to income rather than down the middle. If they’re the kind of people who believe everyone should pay their own way in life, they may not go for it. But, this is also the life and future of their beloved daughter, so you may find out they are more invested in your financial welfare than you realize.
Rooting for all of you,
For Love & Money