Barring therapy, how do you isolate your family issues into one question
May 21, 2019 10:39 AM   Subscribe

Short version: Mother-in-law needs money to pay property tax. We want to know why the daughter who has lived with her for 20 years is not paying the property tax. The challenge is how to keep emotions/reason in check and not destroy family relations. More below the fold.

My mother-in-law told us she could not afford her most recent property tax bill on her house which is $2k. We feel bad and offered $500 to help out. This should be the end of the story but we are both second-guessing this decision and cannot see the forrest through the trees. There are bigger family issues to address but where does one begin? Some of the reasons we are second guessing the offer is that it was our daughter's birthday yesterday, and the MIL spent $50 on presents plus $15 on shipping. Our daughter is a teenager and does not need any presents, she would have been perfectly happy with a card and $5. Then my sister-in-law Fedexed a $3 card overnight with $50 in. We are very bothered by this unnecessary gesture, again the kid would have been perfectly happy with less even if it was a week after her birthday. The real rub is that the SIL has been living with the MIL for almost the past 20 years, she has her own third floor apartment in a stand alone house. We have no idea how much rent the SIL has been paying this whole time and feel like if the MIL cannot afford property taxes, she should be renting the apartment to someone who will cover this expense, and the SIL should move. It doesn't feel right to just give $500 and move on, for the underlying anger over them wasting money on frivolous things will be left un-resolved. There is also anger about the SIL being in the apartment and not contributing enough. I am not sure what questions to be asking. I just know that our "gift" is actually a sacrifice for us and I don't want this scenario repeater. What can help us clarify the situation? I need random strangers thoughts on this situation and how we might approach this.
posted by turtlefu to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You shouldn't give money with strings attached. Even to family. You can't demand your mother-in-law evict her child in exchange for $500.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:45 AM on May 21, 2019 [44 favorites]

Depending on where your MIL lives and her age there may be deferment or installment plans for delinquent property taxes, so definitely look into that.

Beyond that, it seems like it's entirely up to you how much you want to make this your problem. It's not clear that anyone even directly asked you for the $500, but if you can't afford to give money, then don't give money. Their living arrangements shouldn't be any of your business; if they're upset that you won't cover their expenses, well then that's just too bad. Don't "help" in a way that's just going to make you feel resentful.
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:57 AM on May 21, 2019 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Your mother in law has two things going on: a daughter that's been living with her for twenty years, and what you consider to be an inability to appropriately budget her money. Five hundred dollars isn't going to change either of those things, not by a long shot, and hanging it over her head contingent that she suddenly wise up, kick her daughter out, stop buying presents and become a stranger's landlord is wishful thinking. You can give her the money, or you can not give her the money, but giving her the money and expecting her to spend that money, along with any other money she has, in a way you consider optimal is a recipe for resentment, because she probably won't. Even if she does use it toward the property tax, if you give it to her with some sort of implied promise from her to fly right going forward, you'll just end up making yourself and, depending on how vocal you are about it, her and her daughter/your spouse's sister miserable.

Think of it this way: I bet if you opened your own books to me, a random stranger, I could point out fifty ways in which I think you are squandering money and for every single one of these ways I bet you could come up with a rationalization that you think is reasonable and that I would consider nonsense. I could tally your bills and find two grand that I could say, hey, if you stopped wasting your money on this and that, you could pay her property tax outright instead of giving her a quarter of it. Are you going to listen to me? Probably not.

Unless they specifically ask you to, don't count other people's money. It will get you nowhere good.
posted by griphus at 10:59 AM on May 21, 2019 [81 favorites]

I spent a while in your position on a somewhat larger scale (my ex-husband gave a lot of money to his family, they made poor decisions about managing it), and I completely sympathize with your feelings, but I agree with the prior answers saying that you can't manage another adult's money. You can give them money or not give them money, but you can't practically use the fact that you gave them money as leverage to make them run their lives better.

Figure out how much you can or want to give your MIL under the assumption that she will do silly things with it, stick to that amount, and try not to let it get to you.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:02 AM on May 21, 2019 [7 favorites]

If you have no idea how much your SIL is paying in rent I don't see how you can possibly blame her/her rent for your MIL's financial holdings. Maybe your SIL pays plenty enough and your MIL is terrible with money. Maybe your SIL pays nothing and in exchange for that she takes your MIL to the grocery store/doctor/keeps her company/eats dinner with her. Maybe your SIL doesn't actually pay enough in rent. Whatever the case, that is between your SIL and your MIL and 100% not your business.

In regards to your daughter's birthday - maybe your MIL felt obligated to send her a present since you just lent her money. Your SIL's present is irrelevant in this since you didn't lend her any money.

If you don't want this scenario to repeat itself, don't offer $500 to your mother-in-law next time she complains about not being able to pay her property taxes.
posted by lyssabee at 11:14 AM on May 21, 2019 [12 favorites]

If your MIL can't come up with $2000, $50 as a gift to your daughter isn't going to make or break her finances. The same goes for SIL. They are trying to be generous. They are trying to be nice. If this makes you angry, don't give them money.
posted by FencingGal at 11:21 AM on May 21, 2019 [36 favorites]

Totally agree that you can't be counting other adults' money. But if you decided to make a substantial and/or ongoing contribution to the tax bill, I think it would be reasonable to want some idea of whether paying taxes was even going to be sustainable with your help.Do you want to deprive yourself for an amount of money that's not going to solve the problem anyway?

The gifts? A lot of people budget along different lines, with major things like tax bills being in one category while gifts to kids, and things like that, are in a different and much smaller one. If they enjoy giving gifts, let them have this pleasure.
posted by BibiRose at 11:27 AM on May 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think you need to better understand your emotions better. It sounds like you and your partner are resentful that you are making an effort to help but neither MIL nor SIL even recognize there is a problem. Resentment often happens, in my view, when there are unspoken expectations that are not met.

Is there an expectation that if your SIL is getting a free ride, your partner should be too?
Is there an expectation that if your MIL is unable to afford her fixed expenses you will step in?

Explore these expectations. Whose expectations are they? Are they being placed on you by someone else? or self-imposed? If these expectations disappeared, how would your emotions change?

I agree with other posters that other people's finances are theirs to address.

But I understand the desire to want to get involved in MIL's finances if you think that you will have to pay for her care and feeding one day, and you believe that financial burden may be reduced if she is more careful with her money now. Can you have a conversation with her about the future and how her financial outlook is for her old age? Getting the facts on the table may help lessen the pressure that is creating some of the resentment.

Lastly, your partner should be taking the lead here - it's their family. Be a place for your partner to get comfort and understanding, but not to stoke their anger.
posted by girlpublisher at 11:38 AM on May 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

I don't know how old your MIL is, but if she's getting elderly, I gently suggest you recalibrate your thinking to recognize how fortunate you may be to have a family member living with her, rather than considering said family member a drain on everyone's finances? Your SIL may not be contributing financially (although it seems like you don't know? For all you know, she buys all of her mother's groceries?) but is she keeping an eye on your MIL, cooking for her, taking her to appointments, keeping her company? Not every family contribution is financial.

Obviously, at some point someone may have to step in to get the finances sorted, but assuming that your SIL is just hoovering up the cash here might be a mistake; getting a carer for your MIL later in life will certainly cost more than these property taxes.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:41 AM on May 21, 2019 [25 favorites]

Best answer: Here's the essence of your question, to which the $3 card and other details are only distractions. "My mother-in-law told us she could not afford her most recent property tax bill on her house which is $2k. I just know that our "gift" is actually a sacrifice for us and I don't want this scenario repeater."

If you will not be giving more money, you should tell her that in advance. Do not link it to any other information, and do not try to justify it. If you say something like, "We cannot help you with the taxes again," she could nitpick your finances just as you did to hers.

Separately, you could offer (once, gently) to discuss her budget to help her figure out a way to ensure that she will be able to pay essential expenses going forward. If she accepts, then you can ask about rental income and mention that your daughter doesn't need expensive gifts, among other things.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:41 AM on May 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you are bothered by birthday gifts to your teenage child, you are in what we call "bitch eating crackers" mode and really need to step back and take a deep breath. (Hey, it happens to us all.)

It doesn't sound like you actually know much of what's going on and are building up a lot of resentment over speculation. I think it's fair for your spouse to gently inquire as to the reasons for the inability to pay property taxes, and to gently moot the idea of getting together to discuss any systematic problems that may be coming up. But it can't be done in a begrudging spirit; however and however justifiably you may be annoyed by the past, it's the past, and you just want to make sure your MIL is okay going forward.

Countess Sandwich beat me to this point but it really can't be emphasized enough: if your SIL is providing any sort of care to MIL--even just grocery-shopping and taking her to the doctor/pharmacist, or being available for emergencies--she is already providing services whose market-rate value would cover even a (modest) Manhattan apartment. Be very very conscious of that, if for no other reason than that if she gets offended and decides to move out, you may find yourself in a worse financial (and emotional!) situation.
posted by praemunire at 11:56 AM on May 21, 2019 [36 favorites]

you are bothered by birthday gifts to your teenage child, you are in what we call "bitch eating crackers" mode and really need to step back and take a deep breath.

Yeah, also as the mom of a teenager, they don’t “not need presents”. Teenagers still love presents, and love spending their own money, and I can’t imagine a teenager who would prefer to get 10$ than 100$. This really seems like it’s not about that, and it’d be a good idea to examine the source of your actual annoyance.
posted by corb at 12:17 PM on May 21, 2019 [13 favorites]

Were I in your shoes, once the tax bill has been paid and you've got a little distance in time away from this, I'd have a talk with MIL along the lines of "we understand that you needed help with the taxes this year and we were happy to help, but we won't be able to make that contribution again in the future. Let us know if you need help writing a budget."

Stick to both of those boundaries. No more money handouts, and when writing a budget nothing beyond actually writing down the budget. No discussion of SIL moving, no discussion of market rent on the apartment, no telling MIL what she "should" do. If she expresses anxiety you can ask her "what would you like to do about that?" but don't give her "shoulds". You can say "have you looked into downsizing? Have you looked into market rent in the area? Have you thought about getting a parttime job?"or offer other ideas, but don't tell her what to do. She's an adult, she's capable of solving her own problems.

If in the course of rhis task you discover that something else is going on like health issues that prevent her from taking care of her needs, well, that's a different Ask.
posted by vignettist at 12:28 PM on May 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Giving a nice present to a grandchild is a source of joy, identity, & connection, no less than buying $50 of shoes or groceries for oneself. In fact more: it helps you feel like the grandparent.
posted by nantucket at 12:55 PM on May 21, 2019 [15 favorites]

It doesn't feel right to just give $500 and move on, for the underlying anger over them wasting money on frivolous things will be left un-resolved.

They sent your daughter those gifts because they want you to know that they don't see you as a bank that just dispenses money on command; they see you as an important part of a family in which gifts are reciprocal and everyone makes some sacrifices to give to everyone else for important reasons. They sent your daughter birthday presents BECAUSE they had to borrow $500 from you. They didn't need the $500 because they are too generous with birthday gifts.

In your shoes, I would try to frame it for myself as, in my wife's family, we don't loan money and then pay it back in a linear 1-to-1 manner. We have a network of giving and receiving that doesn't balance in terms of dollar amounts but does keep everyone in roughly the same standard of living (ie, safely housed, able to weather an unexpected $2000 expense), with occasional token gifts to acknowledge the lack of balance. That's the culture, it probably won't change. Knowing that, if you then decide you don't want to participate in the culture, you know how to say so in the right way. "Sorry, our roof was leaking last month and things are tight for us, too."

One advantage of this kind of family culture is that it usually allows a little more prying than it sounds like you have been doing, like finding out what SIL is paying or if she is paying. The prying might also reveal that there is some other way you could help that would bring more money into the in-laws' home, like fixing a car that would let them take more shifts at work. You can probably also suggest in this type of family that your wife and SIL "gift" mom the property taxes from now on as a "gift from her daughters." If you split it that way, it's about $85 a month for you and your wife.

If SIL can't do that, $2000 is about $170/month, and I would consider whether having two members of your wife's immediate family stably and safely housed is worth $170 a month to you. If the house got seized for back taxes, would you (or your wife) want to help in some way? Consider that whatever that help ended up being, it would probably cost more than $2000 or come with a much larger headache (like having them live with you).
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:04 PM on May 21, 2019 [11 favorites]

Your Mother-in-law is in financial difficulty. Others have addressed the emotional components. This is your husband's mother. Maybe MIL, we're very concerned. Are you getting good financial advice? Can SIL help in any way? Let's talk about this.
posted by theora55 at 6:50 PM on May 21, 2019

If a person is having a hard time scraping up $2000, it's actually really smart for them to spend $50 here and there in an attempt to strengthen their relationships. Building relationships with friends and family who like you and will visit you as you age? That's a WAY better return on investment than paying some bill that will just recur anyway.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:05 PM on May 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Recently two of our elderly neighbors died. Both had adult children living with them (in one case, a multi-handicapped adult). Survivors in both families are planning to clean up the houses and sell them, rather than deal with renters.
I'd take the SIL out for a good dinner as a "thank you" for being on-hand in case of a parental crisis. Just being there is enough (knowing the police had to break into one house after who knows how long is sad.) Like you said, you don't know the arrangement and how your MIL feels about it.
Meanwhile, don't loan money. It's a gift, freely given without strings. Otherwise, expect adults to take out a bank loan or some other method of financial support.
It's okay to choose how you spend your own money. It goes both ways.
And yes, I would give a grandchild or niece a gift rather than looking cheap and neglectful. The financial arrangement is with you, not her.
posted by TrishaU at 1:02 AM on May 22, 2019

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