What is my wife actually responsible for in this mess?
April 23, 2010 8:31 PM   Subscribe

EthicalBarteringFilter: what should my wife do after a simple but significant labor-for-labor swap took left turn after left turn and wound up getting freaky?

TL;DR: my wife is being asked to pay a relatively large, unexpected bill related to a casual labor swap. What should she do?

In the beginning, my wife (call her Carol for Google-obfuscation purposes) wanted a small chicken coop. A girlfriend of hers (Alice) offered that her carpenter husband (Bob) will build the coop if Carol will heavily tailor an old wedding dress for use several months hence. Sounds great, right? Carol and Bob sit down to work out the details, spending a long time discussing ways to get materials on the cheap... recycled lumber, picking over the local dump for parts, etc. Everyone seemed pretty clear that if we could afford to not cheap out, we'd be hiring a contractor. Carol's recollection is that they decided they could find materials for under $100.

A couple of weeks later, Bob comes over to discuss some secret modifications to the tailoring job. He wants to surprise Alice with some nostalgic subculture elements on top of the original alterations. Uh. Carol is worried that this is not in fact what Alice wants but it's a super-surprise and so she is hesitant to ruin things for Bob. What follows is a complex series of three-way negotiations between Alice, Bob, and Carol. At the end of the tunnel, Alice and Bob have agreed to supply the chicken coop materials as well, in exchange for some more work from Carol. We have an email from Alice to that effect so we know we're not just misremembering. Still sounds great, right?

The chicken coop turns out to be more involved than Bob thought, and he makes continuous trips to Lowe's for one necessary thing after another. This takes several weeks. Meanwhile, Carol hasn't touched the dress yet. Alice knows this and everything seems cool.

Today, Bob gives Carol what amounts to a bill for all the chicken coop materials. This bill is around $500. Among other things, he bought three $35 hinges. Those three hinges cost more than we initially intended to lay out for the whole thing. Carol freaks out since she was never asked to approve any of this stuff. Bob responds with a complex and (apparently) improvised plan to compare his total hours of carpentry (this is the first we've heard of tracking hours) with hours of tailoring and says that Carol can offset the bill of materials with extra hours and material costs on the tailoring job. It seems totally clear to us that Bob is upset about how much he spent and is improvising at this point, but he is uncomfortably insistent that none of his spiel is open to negotiation.

This whole thing stinks. Carol and I are both kind of non-confrontational and we're having trouble even figuring out on what basis we should try to move forward with this situation. The desirable outcomes are (1) Alice and Bob don't wind up hating us, (2) we don't blow $500 on somebody else's whims, and (3) we don't annihilate the Golden Rule or otherwise behave like jerks. I recognize that these outcomes are may be sort of mutually exclusive and I would like your no-holds-barred advice.
posted by mindsound to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I approve of your objectives.

Have you thought of calling the deal off and letting Carol and Bob sell the coop? A hand-crafted device should be able to get back what it cost, if you find the right buyer. This might break your first objective though.
posted by rebent at 9:01 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like the burden was on Bob to stay under budget. The first time he made that trip to Lowes he should have stopped and called your wife who would have talked him down. To return again and again until $500 was spent without consulting anyone was his mistake. It's regrettable that he made that mistake but it's still his fault. Why he thinks he gets to call the shots at this point doesn't make any sense. I would offer them $100 for the coop + time spent on the dress, give the dress back, and call it a day. If they don't like it, give back the dress and tell them to sell the coop on Craigslist. That way you're not out anything, they can try to recoop their losses from someone else, and everything is back the way it was.
posted by amethysts at 9:01 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

You know, it sounds like Bob might be a bit impulsive (or at least is coming across that way to you). He knows what he thinks is best and it doesn't even occur to him to ask. Given that, I definitely would not go ahead with his requests for tailoring on the dress. Since Alice is Carol's friend, I would suggest that the two of them sit down together and get absolutely clear on the situation. Maybe go in with an agenda, even; "Cost of materials" "Dress alterations" etc. If the specific changes are a surprise, maybe just say to her "Bob had a few additional changes he wanted to make as a surprise to you. I want to get your approval before doing anything to the dress that you haven't specifically asked for."
posted by Lady Li at 9:24 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

What I would do in this situation is pretty different depending on whether I wanted to stay friends with Bob and Carol.

Here's what I'd do if it was really important to me to stay friends with them.

1. Discuss everything in person until you reach an agreement, and *then* document it by following up in an email afterwards. I just wouldn't handle the problem-solving online because it's easy for emails to get snippy, and the snippiness escalates quickly.

2. I would try to frame the problem in my mind as a problem Bob, Carol and I were all in together that we had to solve. Rather than pitting myself and Carol against Bob. I would try to get Bob thinking that way, too.

3. I would try to stay away from "the principle" of things. Because if I were going to focus on principle, I would just walk away from the whole thing since Bob agreed to pay for the materials, and I never approved what he bought. However that will probably end in you guys not being friends anymore.

Instead of focusing on "the principle" I would focus on my interests and what they really were. Yeah, on principle, Carol should not have to put more hours into the dress. But would she really mind doing that? If so, is there something else she wouldn't mind doing? I would try to think about which of my interests in this situation were important to me, whether they were not to pay tons of money .. or not to have to do tons of extra work, or something else. Then try to figure out if there was a way of solving the problem where I wouldn't have to compromise the interests that I actually care about, maybe sacrificing something else I don't care so much about

4. I would also try to get Bob to focus on his interests too instead of "the principle" - in his case the principle he now seems to have come up with is "why should I spend more hours working on her project than she did on mine." But his actual interest here seems to be not being out $500.

So I would just meet up with him and lay it all out. I would let him know what my interests were here. I would ask him for his interests. And then I would ask him for his help in thinking up many ideas for solving the problem as possible that take both of our interests into account.

I would *not* decide on an entrenched position or demand and try to bargain him over to my side. And if *he* started out with some kind of entrenched demand, I would try to, again, get him to see it as a problem we're both in together where we can find a solution we're both happy with.

I would be humble. I would let him know I appreciated his ideas. I would try hard to not let things get heated or personal. If things started turning into "he said, she said" I would try to get Bob to agree to stick to what was said over email.

When it was over, I wouldn't ever barter with Bob again unless all the terms were nailed down in an utterly unambiguous way, none of this secret changes stuff.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:26 PM on April 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

It was a not-nearly-so-complex situation, but here's what I did in a similar circumstance. I'd hired a friend to install something in my house. He did it, really really well. He spent 3-4 times what I thought he should have spent in hours, but it was great.

Then I got the bill. It was $huge. Me not happy.

I thought about it a lot. Finally what I did is tell him this in person:

"Look my Friend. I hired you and I'm going to pay you. I just can't pay what you've charged. It is way beyond the budget I understood we'd agreed to. Maybe I misunderstood.

I really value your friendship. I just can't justify paying the full bill. How much do I need to pay you to have us finish this still friends?"

It worked, I paid him more than I wanted, but less than half what he billed. I've even since hired him (on a set-fee basis!) several times. He's a great friend.
posted by Invoke at 10:00 PM on April 23, 2010 [24 favorites]

Sometimes it helps to break the conversation up into pieces. For instance, you might start by saying to Bob, "I'm not sure what to do about this. You ended up spending a lot more than I thought we had agreed on. I understand the coop turned out to be more complex than we expected, but it seems like we should have checked in while the job was still in progress. I'd like to talk with you about what we can do that's fair to everybody, but right now I need to think some more about what I might be comfortable with."

Sometimes a conversation is derailed because people have an early adrenaline/freak out reaction at unexpected bad news (like a bill that's bigger than they expected), and if you try to keep talking at that point people are talking from that freaked out, "Oh my god how am I ever going to pay that" place, for instance. Giving everybody time to come down from that a little bit before moving on to discussion options can be a good move.
posted by not that girl at 10:17 PM on April 23, 2010

I too approve of your objectives, and also applaud the notions of mutual respect, good faith and trust. I think on those grounds, I whole-heartedly second stoneweaver's wise suggestions.

Having been beaten to that particular punch, I propose a different scenario, purely for the sake of seeing it from a different angle. There seems to be one too many coincidences and surprises. Bob wanted to surprise Alice and he got carried away at Lowe's and it turns out he's been keeping track of his hours and he suddenly has a master plan that will resolve everything.

What am I suggesting? Well, in this hypothetical scenario, Carol got played. Basically, both Bob and Alice wanted elaborate work done on the dress, but couldn't figure out a way to get that from Carol without coming across too strong. So Bob finagled a way to make it seem like Carol now owed him.

Do I believe this? No, I honestly don't. It sounds like an innocent situation that went awry due to lack of communication and false assumptions. Do I think that Bob is acting less than honest? Yes, I do. As said upthread, he knew (or should have known) that his purchases were extravagant. Is he emotionally blackmailing Carol? Well, of course he is.

Whatever the case, I still strongly second (or 3rd or 4th, on preview) stoneweaver's approach.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 10:22 PM on April 23, 2010

Just say you don't have the money. Remind them about the email. No offense, but are these really "friends"? They don't recognize your communication style (non-confrontational) and do all sorts of weird stressful things, like requesting dress alterations. They behave irresponsibly, and ask you to pay for their mistakes.

By presenting you with a $500 bill, they weren't looking for a win-win. They wanted to win.

While I'm not suggesting you behave like jerks, I am suggesting you communicate clearly and dispassionately your inability to pay.

Now, Bob may be the problem. It may be best to negotiate with Alice.

As well, either your or Alice may be more friendly with the couple - you should adopt a good cop/bad cop approach. Alice is the good cop, you're the bad cop. Alice can blame you for being hardnosed, and she can salvage her relationship with the couple.

You, however, may not be friends with them anymore. But your friendship is probably going to be strained anyway.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:04 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Meanwhile, Carol hasn't touched the dress yet. Alice knows this and everything seems cool".
This makes my hinky meter register a little. The guy is slaving away on your project and obviously excited and happy about the dress...but your wife is doing zero...but Alice is "cool with with that" (?) hmm. I'm a little dubious.

I agree with you that the chicken coop builder should have checked with you about costs..but honestly, you thought that materials for a chicken coop would not exceed $105? Really?? A quick Google about chicken coop costs indicate that costs are likely to be no less than $300...(and we don't know what size it is. If it is extra spacious $500 doesn't sound unreasonable to me). Was your wife's work going to be comparable to $105.00 total? It is very unfortunate that costs/time was not properly explored at the beginning of the barter. Of course he would keep track of his time! All people who work by the hour/project keep track of time and of course he would like the barter to be fair and equal. That is a given.

Doesn't it seem like chicken coop builder produced the bill for materials because he sees the handwriting on the wall (progress on dress=zilch?)? One way to make him feel better would be to actually begin holding up your end of the bargain.

Have a meeting and tell the other couple you feel blindsided by costs. Find out why he didn't check with you first prior to purchase. Sit back and listen to the answer. Wife should work on dress!
posted by naplesyellow at 11:21 PM on April 23, 2010

I would definitely check with Alice before doing anything to the dress if Bob has made super secret requests. Bob sounds like he lacks judgment, to put it mildly, and if the dress ends up ruined for Alice's purpose then this whole situation gets much worse.
posted by fshgrl at 12:32 AM on April 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I would email Bob and Alice (because if you're non-confrontational it's sometimes easier to write things down) and just say that while you appreciate the effort that went into Bob's record-keeping you'd like to leave any mentions of money out of the discussion because it's a swap rather than a monetary exchange. Just refuse to talk about money here and don't let yourself get drawn into any negotiations that involve cash.

Tell them you like the chicken coop and that you want to make sure Alice likes the dress just as much. So you're going to want to sit down with BOTH OF them to go over the plans for the dress to make sure you've got the details right before Carol gets to work on it. This is to avoid the situation getting much worse as fshgrl says if Alice doesn't like the "surprises." The surprises are inappropriate here - if Bob wants to surprise Alice he can do so without dragging you into it as you clearly can't trust his judgment (especially $35 hinges wtf???).
posted by hazyjane at 12:43 AM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

You would be in a much better position if Carol had at least started on the dress. Any reason why she hasn't?

Did you point out to Bob that he and Alice agreed to cover the costs for the materials? How did he respond? If you haven't brought that up then you ought to.

It is possible this bill has come because he's built this thing for you and spent a great deal of time and money on the project and Carol has done nothing on the dress. It may have been that when Bob was out buying the materials, he was perfectly happy to spend $500 on the project in exchange for the dress and that's why he didn't check with you over the costs - because if he's footing the bill, its his choice what to spend. But after completing the job and still seeing no progress on the dress, he's decided he's not happy with the original agreement. You can't really judge that Alice seems fine about the dress - she could be all smiles in public but Bob and Alice could be bitching about it when you're not around. I know I wouldn't be happy with a labour exchange where I had completed the project and the other person hadn't done anything.

Did Bob give you receipts or did he just say what each thing cost? $35 for 1 hinge seems excessive!

If it were me in this situation I would finish the dress and return it to Alice and say nothing (and pay nothing) of this 'bill' you've been given. Granted, this may jeopardise the friendship but honestly, do you want to be friends with someone who would agree to do something for free then slap you with a $500 bill?

The alternative would be to make sure the time Carol spends on the dress is equal to the number of hours Bob has spent on the coop plus additional hours that conveniently add up to $500 (or if you're feeling generous, $400 and give them the $100 you originally intended to spend)
posted by missmagenta at 1:45 AM on April 24, 2010

I really, really admire your objectives.

Should it go ugly, though:

Payment terms strictly 14 days
Dress design consultations with Bob

posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:27 AM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could always point out that this was a barter job, and offer the make up the difference in other barter (tailoring work.)

Look, they didn't act like 'friends' but rather, Bob figured, hey, I spent all this money. Actually, Bob figured, "hey, I bet I can make money on this bartering deal." The moment things were out of pocket above the agreement, there's your problem. And yes, even in your non-confrontational manner, you're being taken advantage of.

If it was your mechanic and he quoted $100 and your bill comes to $500, you'd be livid. "Why didn't you call me the moment that it doubled the estimate?" is what you'd say.

And that might be the best way to put it. Something like "Bob, wow, we feel really bad that you quintupled the budget. Let's look at the cost breakdown, could you get the lowe's reciepts? Hmm, yeah, this was meant to be a barter. Hmm, well, I'll cover a couple of hard costs (offer to pay something, like excessive hinge costs)... I guess I could make up the extra in other tailoring work." And of course, at very least, for the itemization, because yes, your friends are taking advantage of you, be very liberal about your itemized time.

Oh, and Carol? Yeah, this morning, start (or start and finish) the work on the dress.
posted by filmgeek at 3:36 AM on April 24, 2010

The responders seem to have overlooked the fact that, under the revised agreement, Bob and Alice agreed to provide materials as well as labor. That was documented in writing. Bob then disregarded this agreement by presenting a bill. I would tell Bob, in diplomatic language, to buzz off.
posted by megatherium at 6:00 AM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like the suggestion above of carefully deconstructing the coop and taking the most expensive items (which seem to be the $35 hinges) back to Lowe's to try and get a refund. Bob still has the receipts, right?
posted by amicamentis at 6:38 AM on April 24, 2010

Carol hasn't started the dress and Bob has already built the coop? $500 does sound like more than I would have spent if I had time to scrounge materials, which does take a lot of time. As for $35 hinges, your door won't sag. I bet the door doesn't sag in a year whereas if he skimped here the door would sag much sooner. I am a master of building on the cheap, and if you have plenty of time, like years, you can acquire good hinges cheaply.

Carol best be one heck of a seamstress. I think it only fair that Bob cover materials cost on the dress. That's how labor exchanges work.

But if I had built a chicken coop as part of a labor exchange and it hadn't even begun, I'd be legitimately pissed off. He's $500 out of pocket, spent a couple of days doing hard work, and has nothing to show for it.

Fix the dress, then talk it over.

Lowes and home depot are very good at accepting returns even without receipts.
posted by mearls at 7:50 AM on April 24, 2010

You two just took two classes from the Community College of Hard Knocks. One was Money or Friends, where you learned how to make poison by mixing the two. The other was Get It In Writing, where you learned nobody (including you two) is always trusted or trustworthy. The tuition for these classes was $500, some naivety and a couple friends. Make sure you get your money's worth and don't take those classes again.

Pay up, then spend some time doing a cost / benefit analysis of why you want to have friends that stiff you, and whether that is related to being non-confrontational yet asking for no-holds-barred advice. Who told you to come in last was best and why believe it?

The Golden Rule is a good tool for bullies. I made you this awesome coop you didn't ask for, give me some money. Better by far is Rabbi Hilel's advice to refrain from doing to others what you do not wish to experience yourself.
posted by eccnineten at 7:57 AM on April 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Let's look at it from Bob's side. Bob agreed to a labour swap with Carol -- she'd fix his dress, he'd build her a chicken coop, and each would provide the materials needed to do their repairs. Bob spent lots and lots of time and money on the chicken coop. That's fine, he thought, I want to do a good job, and it's worth it because I am sure Carol will do a good job on the dress. And after all that, he finds that Carol hasn't even started on the dress. WTF, he thinks, will she finish it at all, or will it all be in a rush? Let's make sure she really does spend a reasonable amount of time on it and doesn't cheap out at the last minute by charging her for the materials, since she's obviously untrustworthy about doing work for other people, though she's fine at getting stuff done.

Bob handled this like a major doofus, but the bad actions are mostly on Carol's part here.

You're not responsible to pay for the materials, but Carol should start immediately working on that dress and make it clear that she isn't going to cheap out on time or effort or whatever materials she agreed to provide, and apologise like hell that she hadn't started yet.
posted by jeather at 9:15 AM on April 24, 2010

I'd finish the dress ASAP then when you meet to give it over, I'd give them $100 for the coop and look really unhappy and say you didn't expect the coop to cost nearly that much and budgeted $100 for it and would have liked to have known in advance if it was going to be a lot more, and you'd like to work out a payment plan for the rest, maybe $50/month? Then I'd not associate much with them until it was all paid off, and would never deal with money or barters with them again.
posted by meepmeow at 9:22 AM on April 24, 2010

Bob handled this like a major doofus, but the bad actions are mostly on Carol's part here.

I think saying that Carol is mostly to blame here is a little harsh. Carol hasn't broken the agreement. Bob has. Bob agreed to cover the cost of the materials and has now presented Carol with a bill for those materials, that's in breach of their agreement, which they seem to have in writing. It was extremely bad form for Carol to have not even started on her half of the bargain (unless there are circumstances we're not aware of) but by the terms of the agreement (as far as we know anyway) she hasn't done anything wrong. The deadline for the dress has not yet passed. I do think Bob is doing this because he's pissed off about the dress, even if Alice isn't but Bob is still more in the wrong than Carol.
posted by missmagenta at 10:14 AM on April 24, 2010

Carol's recollection is that they decided they could find materials for under $100.

Does this mean that Bob agreed to cover the cost of materials (estimated at $100) because he valued $100ish plus the labor involved in construction as equal in value to Carol's tailoring work? Or does it mean that Bob said, "I'll find materials for $100 or so, you'll reimburse me, and I'll do the design/construction work in exchange for your tailoring work on the dress"?

If the former, clearly she doesn't owe the money but it would be wise and kind to suggest he return or sell the materials (or the whole coop) to recoup the cost; if the latter, he should have told her that the costs were expanding but her responsibility is a little murkier. Either way, this should be discussed in person, not over e-mail.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:31 PM on April 24, 2010

In an effort at self-defense, let me clarify a few things:

- Alice does not need the dress until the END of SEPTEMBER, whereas I needed the coop for the chickens in early April. This was understood and agreed upon far in advance. This is not a surprise, nor a reason for Bob to change his mind about the bill.

- Even so, I HAVE started work on the dress. I have spent hours preparing and forming two dress forms of Alice's body, one for the dress bodice, and one an actual plaster cast of her body which takes hours and hours of papier macheing and sculpting and refining. The reason the tailoring/pattern drafting part of the project hasn't begun is because Alice is always busy. I HAVE contacted her several times about getting together to start it and it has not yet worked out.

- About materials: What we agreed upon before, over dinner, was that I would scrounge and salvage the materials for the coop and present them to Bob. This meant I could spend all my own time searching the area's numerous salvage yards and spend what *I* wanted to spend. We even talked about picking up old doors from the dump to use for the walls, just because they would be free, and replacing them gradually as we got the money. Bob was there in person for all of this, so he was well aware of the budget issue. I stated clearly that I didn't want to start keeping chickens in debt, that I wanted them to essentially pay for themselves.

Then came Bob's impulse to super-secret manufacture a whole new dress for his wife. He wanted extra things from scratch like a full-length evening jacket and custom undergarments (a full Victorian corset). In addition to introducing such new projects, he seemed uninterested in altering the existing wedding dress and instead wanted me TO COPY AND CREATE FROM SCRATCH AN EXTREMELY COMPLICATED DESIGNER DRESS (involving transparent inserts in a second full corset, probably another 10 yards of fine silk, and other freakin' complicated stuff) of which he presented me a single magazine photograph to work from.

I was unhappy that he had altered our agreement and astronomically increased his expectations of my work. I said I would not do some of the things, but agreed to others in exchange for some concession/sweetening on their part. We all talked, got it out in the open his wife is now in on it all) and they agreed to cover the coop materials. That's what I have in writing: an email with the line "we'll cover the materials for the coop."

ALSO important is that I do already have lots of building materials myself, studs and hinges and such, which I continually offered to him to use (in order to keep down what I thought were his costs). He used a few shingles of mine, but otherwise refused to use my old, somewhat inferior (weathered but fine) materials and insisted on buying new, top-of-the-line stuff. If I had known ...

I have requested receipts from Bob for the coop materials via (their shared) email and have not heard back in several days, which leads me to believe that he and his wife are having a conflict about it, since she usually responds to email several times a day.

Hope that clarifies things from my point of view a bit.
posted by GardenGal at 8:49 AM on April 27, 2010

Okay, "hasn't touched the dress yet", which was stated initially, is very different from "created two forms already and have been in regular contact to try to meet so I can continue work", and I take back what I said earlier. Given what you've said here, you're in the clear about not paying for the materials, though you should offer that he can take some of your materials for further projects he might decide to do for himself or other people.
posted by jeather at 10:06 AM on April 27, 2010

Yeah, your follow up makes it completely different IMO. Everything sounded much more ambiguous in the OP. Mainly I think it's clear that nothing is going to happen over email. I really, really think you guys need to find a time to meet up and sort everything out in person.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:48 AM on April 27, 2010

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