Category Archives: Money


My aunt lent me money … with one condition

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I desperately needed money so I agreed to her terms, but I find them chilling and bizarre

 Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, Nov 21, 2010

Dear Cary,

Almost 10 years ago my wealthy aunt loaned me some money. I have not seen or spoken to this aunt in many years now, nor have I repaid the money. I would very much like to repay her, or at the very least set up a payment plan so I can begin paying her a little at a time, but so far it hasn’t happened.

I am deeply ashamed that I haven’t picked up the phone or written a letter to at least acknowledge the situation, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to do so. This is partly because of the money and the length of time, but more than that it’s because of the circumstances of the loan. At the time, I was desperate for the money because I was trying to escape my abusive ex-husband, as per his parole officer’s recommendation.

My family has never been close. It is one of those families where there is a history of mental illness and everyone is always not speaking to everyone else. It took a lot for me to ask anyone for a loan at all. I was very scared and nervous about it, and the first relative I asked turned me down, which made it especially difficult to work up the nerve to ask my aunt but I was desperate.

My aunt immediately agreed to loan me the money, but the conditions of her loan broke my heart. Rather than requesting your standard IOU, she made me write and sign a form stating that if I should meet an untimely demise she would get her money back from my estate. At her request, my IOU specified that I might die soon. She was worried that my husband would murder me and she wouldn’t get her money back.

I was so anxious to get away from my husband that I wrote and signed whatever I had to, but I was stunned and hurt. I kept thinking of my own nieces, knowing that if one of them came to me with a situation like that, the very last thing that would ever cross my mind would be concern that I would not be paid back if she were murdered. My aunt did not even so much as ask if I was OK. My aunt does not love me. No one in my family loves anyone else, it seems, and that has as much to do with the fact that I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone in so long as any of the rest of it.

My horrid, vindictive mother insists that I not repay my aunt (her sister) because of what my aunt did, but I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to keep her money as payback for being cruel to me. She doesn’t owe me that money for revenge purposes. I would like to pay her back in full, but I am not interested in a relationship with her, or with anyone else in my family for that matter, including my mother. I have thought about it very seriously for a very long time, and I have decided that they are too far gone. The dysfunction is too severe and too deep. There is not one single relationship there worth even trying to salvage.

I am in serious financial trouble, to the point that I left the U.S. entirely because I could no longer afford to live there. Despite this, it’s been so many years. By now, had I even paid her $10 a month, I would no longer be in debt to her.

I like my new life in my new country, where everyone else seems to be as poor as I am. I am happily remarried and I have two baby sons. I am now a part of an extended family who does love each other very much. My own family is a part of my past that I’d like to forget, but I can’t stop thinking about the money. I need to pay it back, but in order to do that I have to make contact. I have to write or call my aunt and potentially open myself up to even more pain and humiliation.

I am in so much debt. I owe thousands of dollars to stateside hospitals for the baby I recently gave birth to and also for the baby I lost before him. I haven’t even been able to keep up with any kind of payment plan for those bills, and I can’t imagine where I’ll find the money to pay my aunt. For years now, every single time we are tallying up our bills and our debts and trying to figure out what to do about it I tell my husband, “And my aunt … don’t forget I need to pay my aunt.” Invariably he reminds me that it’s not a priority. He has seen very little of my family, and what little he has seen was enough for him to realize he didn’t want to see any more.

When there is so little money, and so much emotional and literal distance between us, I am not sure how to go about even beginning to pay my aunt back. Where do I start? What do I say? Should I just stick to the finances and not mention to her how it felt to realize that she would be willing to take money out of my traumatized and motherless children’s hands? Several years ago when my grandparents were terminally ill and their dryer broke, this same aunt bought them a new one, and she made my grandfather sign a paper stating that she got to keep the dryer after he died.

I keep thinking of things like this, and of the way my family works, and it’s making it so hard to pick up that phone. I have struggled so long to rid myself of the pain that comes with being a member of that family. I don’t know how to protect myself, other than by staying away entirely.

Thank you for your time,



Dear G.,

It’s clear that you feel it’s important to pay the money back. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing right now. I think, rather, the most important thing right now is for you to take care of yourself and your kids.

So I suggest you not think about the money right now, but about the emotional content of what happened when you went to your aunt for help. What happened was bizarre and shocking. Of course, it was shocking that you were fleeing for your life as well. But your aunt’s coldhearted requirement was shocking. I mean, in a way, it was rational. But it was inhumane. It must have felt inhumane to you. It must have felt like some way of lowering you, diminishing you, to treat your life so cavalierly, as nothing more than a ledger line in her budget.

Of course there may be more to the story. Your aunt may have previously lent money that was not repaid and decided on this policy to protect herself. You say there is a history of mental illness in your family so perhaps there is a history of money being borrowed and not repaid. Perhaps your aunt has her share of problems as well. But you came to her in a moment of crisis and were presented with this morbid requirement. It must have thrown you.

So I can understand why you have not been able to touch it, and why to this day it lingers in your mind. I can see why you’d want to close the books on it.

Maybe you can close the books on it without reentangling yourself in this painful and destabilizing drama, at least for now. How? Well, one way might be to write your aunt a letter telling her all about why you came to her and what has happened in the interim and why you haven’t paid it and asking for her forgiveness.

Writing it to her might help you focus your feelings and uncover feelings you may not have realized you have. And it could be a way of saying goodbye to that chapter. You could even tell her, in the letter, that the reason you are writing it is that you just can’t deal with the craziness of your family right now and you just need for it to be over. You could declare it over.

Then maybe read the letter aloud. Maybe read it to a picture of your aunt. Light a candle and lean her picture up against the candle and read your letter to her and, I don’t know, burn the letter, or bury the letter. Just don’t send it to your aunt.

Write it but don’t send it.

Do a ritual that brings you some peace. You could use some peace.

And then, if you still want to pay your aunt back, open a savings account and begin putting money in the savings account. Put in whatever amount you can afford to put in regularly. Give this savings account a name. Call it Aunt Payback or something, so that it’s clear it’s an account to pay your aunt back. Just keep putting money in it. It might take years. But when it’s full, you can send the money to your aunt.

And, to return to that utterly morbid requirement in the IOU, I suggest you put instructions in your will such that if you should die before the payback account is filled and your aunt has been repaid, and if your aunt should indeed show up with her IOU demanding repayment from your estate, then whatever is in that should be used to settle her claim. That way, it’s sort of an insurance fund, so neither your kids nor your husband will be fully liable for this debt, should it come due.

You know, there’s a lot of talk about symbols in psychology and literature. And you hear people talk about what something is a symbol of. And maybe some symbols are like letters of the alphabet, in that they always have the same meaning. But it seems to me symbols are more like tools, or weapons, whatever is at hand for the psyche to serve her current purpose. If we are sad, deeply sad, ineluctably sad about how our family turned out, and if we grieve for a life that will never be, and if we grieve for many hurts and slights and insults received over many years, and if we go through a number of shocks and hurts and upsets and dislocations until we are thoroughly rattled, and we are always wishing that there were some solution that would ease the pain and bring back a sense of ease and delight and calm, then we may indeed come to seize on some object or idea and believe that it is the central object or idea, and that if we can just accomplish that, our other problems will evaporate.

It doesn’t matter what that symbol is. We’ll take whatever is available. For me, once I became attached to a truck and it symbolized everything I needed at the time. At other times I will become attached to money, or to a past event that I feel I must rectify, or to … oh, I don’t know, like a child believing if he gets a train set for Christmas he’ll be happy for the rest of his life and if he doesn’t nothing will console him.

So the work we must do as adults, in untangling all the threads of our tangled lives and emotions, the work is to take each piece and deal with it as it is, knowing that no one magical act can transform everything, knowing that there is no magic fix, but that if we patiently perform the painstaking operation of untangling each thread, we will make progress, and we will find increasing calm and order and hope. So we have to do the hard work of deciding which strings we are going to untangle first and which can wait and which ones we are just going to let go of.

Some strands we just leave tangled. It isn’t worth it. It may be appealing to perform one dramatic gesture that sums up the whole of our voluminous complaints and past injuries and imagine that if only we did this one thing, we would be in the clear. But that’s not how it works.

It’s too bad. I generally want to fix everything right away. That’s my nature. Believe me, it has not been easy to learn new ways of thinking. But I have, to some extent, and I think you can, too.

So there’s two parts to my suggestion. One, I’m serious about doing the ritual, to get to an emotional peace with this event. And then the other part involves practical action, because crazy as it is you apparently did incur this debt and it’s good to do what you can to repay such things and to prevent their becoming a burden on your children or husband, in the case of your death.

And then, do me a favor? Just try to enjoy your life? You’ve been through enough. Find some time to relax and enjoy your life. Don’t let this thing hang over you. Say goodbye to it. Bury it. Burn it. Let it go.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


I should have gone to my aunt’s funeral

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I could have gone, I should have gone, but I thought about the money and my other plans!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 25, 2008

Dear Cary,

I just got done listening to this beautiful essay on NPR. Someone wrote in to say, “Always Go to the Funeral.” I’m writing you because I didn’t go, and I feel terrible about it. My aunt Miriam just passed away. She wasn’t really my aunt. I never knew how she was related to me. I used to call her “Grandma Miriam,” and later it was “Auntie Miriam.” She always gave me good Christmas presents.

I wanted to go to the funeral. Part of me did, at least, but part of me thought of all the obligations and plans I had already made (training course, baseball game, weekend at my boyfriend’s) and I didn’t want to cancel all these things. And then there was the money. I live in New York and most of my family is in New Mexico. I tried the bereavement rates and the discount carriers, and the cheapest flight I could get was $470.

I told myself, “Put it on your credit card. Think of all the useless crap you waste your money on every day, you can afford this.” But I didn’t want to spend the money. And then I thought of the dozens of times I had promised myself, “Always put friends and family before money.” And I asked my boyfriend for advice, and he said, “That’s a lot of money. It’s OK not to spend it.” And I asked my sister, “Is it OK if I don’t go? It’s just so expensive.” And she said it was OK. So now here I am. It is the morning of the funeral and I feel awful. I should have gone.

I could have afforded it. I’m loaded with credit card debt, but I waste my money on so many unnecessary things. This would have been a lot at once, but it wouldn’t be outrageous. Hell, I’m planning a summer vacation in New Mexico where I plan to stay at a fancy multi-star resort. I could have afforded it. And yet I didn’t go. And now it’s too late to change my mind.

I feel so much regret. And this regret makes me turn inward. I look at my life, and I wonder what I’m doing here. I love New York, but things like this make me wonder how I can survive so far away from my family. I miss them all the time. I don’t know what I’m doing in this city, in this job, so far away from everything. I earn money, and I spend it on rent and food. And the food is terrific, but what am I doing here? Why didn’t I go to the funeral? I want someone to say, “It’s OK.” But then I would know that they were just lying to soothe me.

Coulda Been a Mourner

Dear Coulda Been a Mourner,

When we are stung with regret about an action we have taken or failed to take, often our first thought is, Why?! Why did I do that? Why did I not do that?! Why?!

Why is not always the best question to ask. It is often better to first ask, What? For Why? presumes we already know the What? but we often don’t. Not really. Not fully. Not in the deep and lasting way fitting to an occasion we will remember the rest of our lives. Much of the Why? can be answered if we fully explore the What?.

So let’s ask, What? What happened? First, your aunt died. Your aunt died and news reached you — a relative called you and told you, or you received an e-mail. And then what happened? What did you do next? Did you sit down and feel sad? Where were you? Did you feel fearful or conflicted? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it? What feelings came up?

Write about that moment when you got the news. Put aside some time to do this. If it is hard to find the time, then consider the hours or days you would have put aside to go to the funeral, and put aside just a fraction of that time to write down your recollection of events. Put aside, say, just two hours when you can be alone and recollect it. Begin writing and do not be concerned about the quality or accuracy of what you write. Just keep the pen moving, or the fingers typing. Try to move forward in time through the events. Write about how you got the news, and what you thought about, and who you talked to, and what you remembered of your aunt. If things from the past occur to you as you write, put them in, but keep moving forward. Write about the activities you had planned for the period of time your aunt’s funeral would have been — the baseball game, the training course, the weekend at your boyfriend’s. Do not shame yourself for wanting to do these things. They are good, human activities. Write about those activities and how much you like them and how much you were looking forward to them. Also write about the $470 ticket to New Mexico, and your experience talking to airline reservation agents about bereavement fares.

It may help to write this in the form of a letter to a friend or relative. Or you may want to address it to your aunt. If you find you have specific things you want to say to your aunt, you can address her in the course of writing the letter even if the letter does not begin, Dear Auntie Miriam. Just say, by the way, Auntie Miriam, I wanted to tell you this. That way you can say things to her in the letter that you might have wanted to say, and if you want to ask forgiveness for not attending the funeral you can ask her forgiveness. She would probably understand. The dead are wise. But they don’t know everything. She might have been wondering where you were. So just tell her what happened.

Don’t worry about being correct. Just be complete. Put it all down: when you got the news, in what manner the news came to you, what you were doing when you got the news and where you were, who told you, what you felt and what you did. Try to remember the feelings you had and what went through your mind.

When you have written all this, then find a time to read it aloud to a close friend or family member, someone who will not judge you but will thank you and support you. Or, if you prefer, read it aloud alone, perhaps addressing our aunt as you read.

The simple truth is that you are experiencing deep regret and deep loss and you are trying to handle it. Funerals are one way to handle this but not the only way. It isn’t that you made the right decision or the wrong decision. You can’t change the fact that your aunt died and that you did not attend the funeral. This is what regret is like: Something has happened that really, truly, utterly cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. And we played a part in it. We chose a path and that choice cannot be changed either.

You are experiencing the loss of your aunt. But consider this: Losing someone is more like missing their funeral than attending their funeral. So what you are feeling is closer to the raw, irrevocable realization of death than what you would be feeling if you had gone to the funeral. In making this little mistake you have gained something irreplaceable that will serve you the rest of your life. Now you see why we have funerals. They help us get over it. They replace the dead with a convocation of the living. They help us avoid the true irrevocable silence and absence that is death. So it is good to go to the funeral not because we offend the dead with our absence. Funerals are very boring to the dead (they laugh about it later, at the after-party, and they make fun of our clothes). Instead it is good to go to the funeral because then we do not have to face the terror of our ultimate nonexistence alone in our apartments.

So next time someone close to you dies, you will know: Take the easy way out. Charge the bereavement fare to your credit card. Go to the funeral and be among the living. But please know that you are not a coarse, unfeeling person, that you have not offended her, that you are not lacking in human decency. You have done nothing wrong in missing this funeral. In fact, by writing out what happened, you can memorialize this event and honor your aunt in a way that is unique and that adds to her memory.

So think of it this way: Rather than attend the palliative event like the rest of the family, you unwittingly stuck your head out the window of the car and took in a full face of death at 70 miles an hour. Now you know what that’s like. It’s better to go to the funeral. But the funeral is not for the dead. The dead don’t need funerals. We the living do.


What happened to all my dad’s money?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 19, 2008

He remarried, he moved, and now all his savings are gone!

Dear Cary,

I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas where my father gave me news that made me furious. I’m not really prone to anger, which makes this even more surprising.

My mother died in 1999, and my father soon moved to California and remarried a short time after. I had reservations about his wife, but I kept my mouth shut out of diplomacy. I was just glad to see him happy.

He told me this past year his marriage had been difficult, and he had moved out of their house. During my trip to see him last week, he explained that their house was now up for sale. With some prodding, I also found out his life savings is now gone, and that his wife and her family took advantage of my father’s kindness over the course of seven years. Some of this financial help was in money lent to his wife’s son (which was paid back to his wife, not my father), down payments on their house, and the purchase of a car (which has been given to his wife outright). On top of this, when my father needed other forms of support from her family, they didn’t offer the least bit of help. Now, their house is up for sale, and I doubt his wife will give my father his share without a fight. The trouble is, my father is not a fighter, and though he says he is concerned about all of this, his demeanor says otherwise.

First of all, I feel betrayed by my father. I will admit my own selfish reasons — money he threw freely at his new family could have helped me. I wouldn’t have asked him for money unless it was an absolute emergency, but the fact that he didn’t even think of me in this matter hurts. Second, I am furious at his wife and her family. I can’t understand how so many people could take money from one man and then be so unconcerned when he leaves their life. Thirdly, I am angry at myself for not catching this sooner. Would it have helped had I told my father that I had a bad feeling about his wife? We’d talk on the phone about once a month, but he never brought any of this stuff up. My father is 70, and the fact that his life savings is now gone due to his naiveté and a family of parasites doesn’t really seem to bother him. This makes the situation even more difficult for me.

I’m not sure what my question is — I found out about all of this a few days ago and maybe just needed to vent. I mean, I can call a lawyer on my father’s behalf, but the money he gave his wife and her family is gone. I think the best he could hope for is to get half of the money from the sale of the house. Also, I want to call his wife and tell her off and let her know I’ll be fighting to get what’s owed to him, but I realize this may complicate things legally. I want nothing to do with her or her family aside from this financial issue.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Maybe my question is the universal one: What do I do and how do I go on?

Where’s the Money?


Dear Where’s the Money?

Remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

Remember this also: He will never tell you that.

In the swirl of emotion and drama, when it appears that your father has been robbed, that he is a helpless and passive victim of his second wife and her children, when you are tearing your hair out because he will not lift a finger in his own defense, remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

His needs were expensive, as it turns out. But he got them met. And now he is broke. It’s unfortunate but there it is.

Some needs we do not like to admit we have. After a long marriage, a man may not know how to fix himself a sandwich or wash a shirt. He may not know how to sit with himself alone in a room crowded with thoughts and feelings. He may not know how to make new friends, or cry, or walk through crushing grief with a high head. He may not know how to tell anybody how frightened and alone he feels without his wife. He may not know how to ask for help.

But he knows how to give away his money.

Your dad used his money to meet his needs. And now it is gone. It was a real need he had, and he met it the only way he knew how.

We do not always spell out our needs, especially the ones that are deep. Our needs may be perverse or trivial yet they are real. We may have a need, for instance, to appear powerful and nonchalant, untroubled and above it all. We may have a need to feel the indebtedness of others. We may need to be secretive and not tell anyone what we are feeling. That is a need, but it is a need that is a surface need, covering a deeper need. There are other surface needs masking deeper needs. If the gas gauge on your truck is on E, maybe you don’t like the feeling that gives you. Your surface need is to deal with that needle. Maybe you break the glass and push the needle up until it says F. That might make you feel better. But it won’t solve the problem. You need gas. We often get our needs met without solving the problem. Rather than meeting some needs, we need to interpret those needs, or transform them, by digging to the roots — fear of abandonment, fear of being ridiculed, fear of feeling weak and out of control. And then we deal with those deeper needs by building better foundations — a stable financial situation and stable relationships.

One tragic way we deal with fear of losing our money is, paradoxically, to keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of running out of money, we keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of being taken advantage of, we keep giving our money away. In this way, fear of the money running out makes the money run out.

We are accustomed to thinking of money as something we use to meet our needs. One way to deal with that is to turn that around and place ourselves at the service of our money. We can say, OK, as of today, now I meet the needs of my money. What does my money need? It needs to be taken care of! It needs to multiply. It wants to multiply! It wants to earn interest! It wants to be put to productive use!


That’s a good thing to do with things that need nourishing and care. We place ourselves at the service of those things. Creativity, for instance. When we place ourselves at the service of our creativity, it blooms. When we keep asking it to provide for us, it dries up.

There is another angle. Yes, we use our money to get our needs met. And our needs often mask other needs. But the other angle is: People come into our lives and use our money to get their needs met. They have needs and we have needs and there is an exchange of money and need, emotion and need.

It is a common tale: The wife dies, the husband remarries, the new wife takes his money. This happens over and over and over.

And then, when all the money is gone and the second wife is gone, you begin to meet some of your dad’s needs. Your dad is lonely, weak, confused, sad, in need of a sandwich and a fresh shirt perhaps. You begin to meet his needs. The relationship changes. It is painful.

So now we come to the concrete section where you take action. I suggest that you do indeed contact a lawyer and take whatever other concrete steps you can take to get the facts and ensure that your father gets any and all money that is due him. Do not delay. What you need, first and foremost, is a complete accounting of your father’s financial condition and legal status. As to his legal status: Is he married but living apart? Is he planning to get a divorce? What is his status? As to his financial condition: What are his sources of income? What are his assets? Go through all his papers and figure out what his situation is.

This will not be easy.

If it were as simple as saying to your father, “Dad, I want to go through all your financial activities over the past few years so I can understand where your money went, and help you control your money in the future,” and if he would say, “Ah, that sounds like a splendid idea, here are the keys to my file cabinets, and here are all my tax returns, and here are my letters, and the deeds, and mortgage statements, and here is a record of the private arrangements I have made with various of my wife’s family members, and here is my checking account, and, by the way, why don’t you become a signatory to my checking account so you can monitor all the checks I write?” well, that would be nice, no?

But how likely is that? More likely, I would think, your efforts to become involved in your father’s financial dealings will be met with obstacles that range from suspicion, covert resistance and apparent lack of interest to outright hostility and stonewalling. It is a tremendous emotional change for a father to admit that he has maybe made some mistakes or been taken advantage of. It is a tremendous change for him to admit that he now has to let his children look into his affairs, and possibly criticize or question his judgment.

You have to look in private places. You have to get permission. You have to ask for things you have never asked for. Or you have to snoop. You have to ask other relatives for information. You have to ask people your father has dealt with for information about those dealings. You have to talk about and understand financial arrangements and real estate transactions that you have no expertise in. It is hard.

And this is all stuff that some families never, ever talk about, or talk about guardedly, or in code, or in such a way as they don’t ever really say anything. In order to do all this, you, too, are going to have to change. And you are going to have to face that you, too, have some needs that have been perhaps unacknowledged.

But now it’s time for a change. For you to change means you may have to face your own needs — your need for your father to place you first, for instance. He didn’t do that. He met his own needs. He forgot about your needs. And he met the needs of this other woman, not your mother, not your mother who is dead. Not the mother you grieved. He let this other woman come in and replace her. Another need you may have right now is the need to not be so angry at your father that you could strangle him with your bare hands. That need is not being met right now. So you have to face what is behind that anger. What is behind that anger is sadness and fear. Your father has shown his weakness. He has shown his needs. The man you depended on for so long is now the weak one who needs your help. You are seeing the beginning of his decline. A new era is begun. You must be strong and responsible as he slips into being dependent and needy.

You have reached one of life’s turning points, and you are not alone. My advice to you is to begin now, because you could be at this for the next 20 years.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


Homeless, with diamonds


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Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 6, 2004

I’m married to a wonderful man, but he doesn’t seem to share my fear of financial humiliation.

Dear Cary,

I have been spoiled with a very happy life. I am 26, married to a wonderful 34-year-old man whom I love more than anyone in the world. He is strong, supportive, smart, funny and affectionate. We are happy together. We are healthy. We live in a nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood of an exciting city. We are overeducated. We are both from well-off families who funded our very expensive educations so we didn’t have to go into debt. We want to have lots of babies and live happily ever after.

That hasn’t been easy for us, so we are seeing lots of doctors who hopefully will be able to help us make that dream come true. Even our brush with infertility, while upsetting, has been something we are working through together.

I am writing because I am afraid, terrified, petrified really, that we are falling, diving, into a cycle of failure and debt. I am unemployed. Two years ago, we moved back to my husband’s hometown. I still don’t speak the language here very well, although I am taking classes and improving rapidly. While I am generally happy here — I’ve managed to make friends, find activities to keep busy — I have not found a job. I am a clinical social worker, so language is obviously important and jobs are very scarce here. My husband started his own business when we moved. I feel guilty even writing this, but it is a total failure. His income doesn’t come close to covering our rent, and forget our lifestyle. Our savings are gone. The project my husband spent the last six months working day and night on just went to another firm. For the last year, my husband has been looking for a job at the same time as running his ailing business but nothing has come through.

The worst thing is that my husband doesn’t seem to recognize the reality of any of this. Although he is very discouraged by his business venture, he is in total denial about the fact that we won’t be able to pay our rent next month. He just bought me a diamond anniversary band. He wants to keep trying to make the business work. Maybe he isn’t worried because in his heart, he believes his family will give us money. Maybe they will. In fact, they probably will, and so my fears of being thrown on the street are probably unfounded. I see being bailed out by his family as totally humiliating. I don’t know if he would mind.

I’m not sure what to do, or what I really expect my husband to do. Part of me blames him for his failing business, even though I know how hard he is working. Part of me is asking what is wrong with him, that he just can’t make it happen. The other part of me hates myself because I know that he wants his business to work even more than I do and, in reality, I am just as much of a failure in my work life as he is.

Should I encourage him to keep working at his business, to make his dream come true, and just suck it up and consider myself lucky if the in-laws are willing to pay the bills? Should I tell him to find a job, any job, and by the same standard, forget my own failed career goals and take whatever job is out there (McDonald’s if need be)?

Should I just be happy with what we have and not worry if we drift through our lives never reaching some mythical point of career fulfillment?

Spoiled Girl Looking for Direction


Dear Spoiled,

I suggest that you turn to your family for help. Don’t ask for money. Ask for expertise. You need an outside opinion. If your family is successful and well-off, there must be people in it who are knowledgeable about business, no? Or are you royalty? Don’t tell me your family is the kind that just spends money and doesn’t earn it.

You need a sober assessment of your husband’s business plan, so you can form a clear picture of his chances for success. Only then can you decide if the struggle makes sense. Even if your family is royalty, they must have somebody on retainer to balance the books. You need a person like that.

If you went directly to your husband and said you wanted to have an expert look over his business plan, he might feel that you don’t have much faith in his business ability and that you are trying to meddle. Which would be true. So you can try to arrange an assessment on the up-and-up. But you might have to arrange for someone to approach your husband as a potential investor. He could assess the cash flow potential, the competition (who was it who ate his lunch on that last big deal?), and so forth. If he becomes satisfied that your husband has a good business model, he might go ahead and invest. If not, you might want to start looking for a job.

Look, I too have been on the brink of financial disaster, and I know how humiliating it is, and how fear of the future can weigh on you, how you just want to lash out at anyone, find a victim, find a cause, find something you can pinpoint as the source of your anxiety. So I know what that’s like. I also know it doesn’t last. Usually — especially if, as you say, you have resources and an education — you find a way out of it. It might mean taking a stupid job for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the humble regularity of a stupid job can be strangely liberating.

The subterfuge of having your husband’s business analyzed by an outsider may bother you. For all I know, it may be ethically wrong. But I don’t think so. I think you are at a disadvantage because you have no facts; you are vulnerable; there is a lot at stake here, and you need to take steps to protect yourself. If you’re able to figure out what the problem is with the business, you will be protecting your husband as well. He truly may not know what he’s doing. If he’s not a good businessman, the sooner he learns that, the sooner he can get out of business.

The truth is, you’ll probably be fine. One way or another, you’ll get through this. You’ll find a job in your field, your families may help you over the hump, things will work out. But business is not about dreams. It’s about columns of numbers. The sooner your husband realizes that, the better.

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My father’s widow is stingy

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 9, 2005

I know he would have wanted to give me more money, but his will left everything to her.

Dear Cary,

I’m 34. My father passed away a year and half ago. He remarried when I was 15 but started dating my stepmom (SM) when I was 9.

Dad and SM kept their finances separate. My father was known to help his kids out when she wasn’t looking. For all I know, she was doing the same with her kids. My sister, the black sheep, was barely welcome in their house, but my dad still helped her out. Which is why his will surprised me. My dad left all the money in a trust that SM administers. She gets his pension too, which leaves her taken care of for life.

I hate that this bothers me, but she’s been reluctantly generous since my dad died. She spent the first year crying poor. She grudgingly sent me my father’s desk, making it clear to me how much the shipping cost. She won’t ship any other furniture of his to me unless I pay. Meanwhile, she gave her oldest son her Volvo, the second one she’s given him. She’s now moving her youngest son and his girlfriend into her condo at an extremely subsidized rate. Everything I’ve gotten from her since my father died, I’ve had to ask for.

I’m now pregnant with my first child. I spoke to her before I was pregnant about possibly helping us out financially the first year we have a child. I explained that it would make a big difference because I wouldn’t feel pressure to rush back to work. Since I announced the pregnancy, she has offered to buy me a car seat and some maternity clothes but made no mention of our previous discussion. My in-laws, who are very generous, immediately told us how they could help us financially. They constantly surprise us with their gifts. The abundance has been especially comforting since my dad’s death.

I think I feel abandoned by my dad. I think every day that she is not generous with me I feel extra slighted. I honestly think his will was the will of a man who thought he was going to die at 90. He always assumed he would, even after his cancer diagnosis. How do I move on? Do I bring up the finances with her again? It’s making it hard for me to talk to her and then of course I feel money-grubbing.

Just writing this letter is making me sad.

Wanting More


Dear Wanting More,

You say you feel abandoned by your father. Your father may have abandoned you many times in the past, physically, financially and emotionally. But this time he did not abandon you. He died. That is different. That is not abandonment. It is an excused absence.

Perhaps he led you to believe that he would never die and he would always take care of you, so his death does seem like a betrayal or abandonment. But who had the largest loss of all? He is the one who lost his life. His loss was the greatest of all.

It is our job, as the living, to make peace with the dead.

What do we owe the dead? We owe the dead the opportunity to truly be gone. That is one great consolation of death — that, as television ads for the advance purchase of burial plots put it, in death we do indeed settle our “final expenses.” Isn’t that a lovely thought, that there finally is, indeed, a permanent caesura to our endless invoices? Perhaps in this painful weighing of gifts is a refusal to let go of your father completely.

It is hard to make peace with the dead when we are still entangled in their affairs. So I think you need to change the way you think about the money and property your father left. To do that, you may need to face with renewed clarity the fact of his death, its utter finality. He is completely gone. Everything that was once his is no longer his. It is no longer your father’s money. It is his widow’s money. The decisions she makes about how to use her money will be based on her values and the relationship that you and she have, not on your idea of what your father would have wanted.

A person’s will leaves certain instructions about the disposition of his estate, and through that legal instrument the dead may continue to exert an influence over the living. But it is a mistake, I think, to reach beyond his legal instructions and presume “he would have wanted this” or “he would have wanted that.” Indeed, he may have told you many things about what he wanted. But unless they are written down, those utterances lose all force as the last breath leaves his body. The living are left to sort it out with the only tools they have.

Those tools are, it seems to me, our values, our human decency, our feelings for each other and our regard for our own security. Among your father’s strongly held values, I take it, was the belief that parents ought to help their children financially when they can, well into adulthood. Now, the values a person lives by are admirable in two ways. One, they have an inherent validity — it’s clear that society benefits from honest dealings, concern for children, etc. Two, they are seen as admirable because of the esteem in which we hold the person. We look up to our parents and emulate their values. That admiration based on our esteem for the person is, I think, the basis on which we say, My father would have wanted this. In saying so, we are honoring not only his values but our memory of him as a person. We are carrying on a relationship with him even though he is no longer here. We do this out of love for him. That relationship, that continuing love for his memory, is vital and should not be denigrated.

But unfortunately it is not a basis for settling property disputes. Many people loved your father and had an idea about what he would have wanted. Many people held him in esteem and shared his values. But the money now belongs to his widow. It is she who must make the decisions about how to use it. If you can persuade her that the values your father lived by are good in and of themselves, and that she ought therefore to give you more money, more power to you. Perhaps you can construct an argument in which you distill and renew the values he lived by and present that to her. But the argument must, I think, be based in present reality.

As a way of working through this you might ask yourself: What is the importance of those values he held and bequeathed to you? Why is it still vital that parents help their children well into adulthood? How did he balance the needs of children and widow, and how ought that be managed now? What concerns for her own well-being might she have that she has not spelled out? Why, on their merits, are her actions miserly or unfair? In short, what is the right thing to do?

As you think it through, you may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with her actions themselves. Indeed, you may find that there isn’t anything wrong with what she is doing, judging by contemporary standards. If so, you may then be left with only your sadness over your father’s passing. That is a great sadness indeed. In fact, once you think it through, the money may seem the least of your loss, compared to who this man was and what he meant to you.

It is best in life to turn from matters over which we have little control and little responsibility to those matters over which we have great control and great responsibility. Those matters are chiefly the conduct of our own lives and how we care for our own loved ones, whose hopes, like ours, are that we be generous and prosper as long as we can.

Walking on a hillside meadow perhaps one day soon you will feel the wind and it won’t have his breath in it; sitting at his desk one day it won’t be his desk anymore, but your desk. I’m not saying it will happen today or tomorrow, but it is something to look forward to, a state of understanding and acceptance that will make your present anguish over Volvos and car seats seem strangely disconnected from life’s grave and joyous milestones.

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Can I help the handyman who sleeps on a cot?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 20, 2009

This guy in our neighborhood has it rough, but I need to maintain clear boundaries

Dear Cary,

A neighbor of mine needs help. He is effectively homeless, although I think he might have a cot of some sort in another neighbor’s garage. He works as a handyman around the neighborhood, including doing yard work for my family when we need it.

He also sometimes needs money immediately. In the past he has offered to sell us something of little value (which we refused), although recently he asked for $20 and insisted he could pay us back the next day (which he did). A few days ago he and I discussed his coming by to clean out our gutters and we agreed on a price. Last night he stopped by to ask if he could have a $10 advance, which I turned down because I did not have any cash on me.

He is also sometimes late or a no-show (like today) for the appointed time to work. He doesn’t have a phone so I can’t contact him when this happens. I am not a hard-ass when it comes to schedules but I can’t let the dog out when I expect him. I have tried in the past to leave a note for him if he was late and I needed to leave for some reason, but I believe he might be illiterate.

I really want to help him, and that feeling scares me. I believe he has some history of substance abuse and that he might not be in recovery now, in part because until about seven years ago most of my relationships were codependent ones with substance abusers. I recognize the feelings of being pulled in that direction with him.
I try really hard to make my exchanges with him about business. I have established boundaries for our transactions and I try to treat him as I would any contractor, although I sometimes pay him more than his services are worth. But I feel pulled to continue lending him money when he needs it, which I would never do with a contractor. I also would probably terminate a relationship with a contractor who is so often a no-show and so hard to communicate with.

I sometimes think about doing something substantial to get him on the right footing, like giving him a no-interest loan to buy a new lawn mower or even just giving him a small stipend to water our lawn twice a week. I think about looking for an organization that is designed to help him. I also consider the possibility of explaining to him how to manage his money and time better myself. I don’t do any of this because I fear that I’ll end up being an enabler again.

My question is: How do I know the right thing to do? How do I know when it is OK to help someone like him in a way that won’t pull me into the kind of fucked-up involvements I had in the past? Is there anything I can do to help this person beyond just paying him for the jobs he shows up to do?


A Former Enabler


Dear Former Enabler,

I pay attention to coincidence. The first two letters I received this morning concerned the chaotic lives of others and our perceived obligations to them, how we can help and yet avoid entanglement. So I am going to trust that there is some sense in following this.

Here’s how I see it. There’s this guy in your neighborhood. He’s kind of a handyman. He kind of lives somewhere but not always. He’s not all that dependable but he’s around. He can clean out your gutters and mow your lawn and sometimes he asks for money and sometimes pays it back. He can’t really put a long-term plan together and carry it out. But he’s around. Sometimes you think, wow, ought to do something about that guy. Ought to fix him.

That’s where you get into trouble, right? You think, Oh, if I do this for him, then …
Forget the then part. Just do things and let it go. Transactions with him may be “wavy.” They’re not clean and straight and to the penny. His deal is a wavy thing. Times are approximate. Stuff gets done sort of and sometimes it doesn’t get done or it’s confusing or surprising and sometimes you have to redo it but sometimes he’ll hit his stride and outdo himself and it’s amazing. Maybe it’s something you didn’t even want done but it’s still amazing! Something will come over a guy like that in the course of building a gate and it’ll turn out to be the best gate on the block … except maybe it has this one hinge that’s crooked where his mind wandered. He was thinking — as he does from time to time — about why his life didn’t turn out just a little more together, with some money in the bank, a dependable car, something to look forward to and something to fall back on. He’s still scuffling for a dollar. He’ll get by. But he doesn’t have that comfort thing. He’s got a cot in somebody’s garage … and as he is thinking of these things he mismeasures for the hinge and it goes on crooked because it’s getting late in the day and he’s tired and he doesn’t want to start over.

To what extent are we responsible for others? This guy is not a social experiment, he is a member of your community. Do you give this guy respect, do you regard him not as a problem to be solved but as a member of your community, do you respect the stubbornly incommensurate facts of his existence?

A guy with a cot in somebody’s garage may be sad to some. Maybe somebody will get him a room in a house. Then for a while he’ll be a guy with a room in a house. Then maybe he won’t have the room in a house anymore. Some people will say, “Things didn’t work out,” or “Things changed.” They’ll say he’s a guy with a cot in a garage and he had a room in a house for a while but now he’s just got that cot in the garage but he’ll mow your lawn or do some painting, just be careful he doesn’t let the dogs out because he’s not always paying attention, and if you lend him money he’ll usually pay you back but maybe not always but it’s never that much money … but last week he showed up at the house kind of late at night and maybe he’d been drinking but we couldn’t smell anything but he wanted $10 but I didn’t have $10 so I sent him away and I probably should have, like, told him that he shouldn’t be just dropping in on us at almost 10 o’clock at night asking for money but I felt sorry for him and maybe he was hungry but we didn’t want to ask him in, we were getting ready for bed.

People will say he does “inappropriate things.” How bad is “inappropriate”? He’s a guy with a cot in somebody’s garage.

You are on the right track. You know the territory. You have the tools and the understanding to avoid being sucked into this guy’s life. Just do what you’re doing. Set boundaries and be clear about what you’re willing to lose. Don’t wait around for him longer than you want to. If he shows up late and you’ve left already, well, that’s the way it goes. Consider anything you lend to him a gift. Be ready to let it go, whatever your intentions are for it. If he should lose what you give him or sell it for cash, consider it a gift to him.

Give him things but do not give him things with strings attached. It’s the strings that are the problem. If you are giving with strings attached, then you are letting yourself in for disappointment. Give because you want to give, and are willing to give, and have the money to give.

The man with a cot in somebody’s garage stirs many things in us. You wonder: Does he know he stirs all this stuff up in us? Does he know? Is he manipulating us? To what extent?

I have seen firsthand down South how the privileged and the dispossessed who have lived shoulder to shoulder for so many generations manipulate each other and jockey for position to the very limits of their assigned roles. I have observed firsthand the veiled and coded power struggles between still-privileged semi-rural ex-plantation-owner upper-class whites and still-somewhat-indentured blacks living marginal lives of casually enforced servitude. I have seen this. It is of course gravely rooted in political wrongs not just in the past but in the present, but each case is also a personal story of human beings working out what is acceptable and what can they get away with and what can they bear within the confines of their fate. It is people playing the hand they have been dealt. Each thinks about outsmarting the other. They spend decades outsmarting each other. I have seen this with my own eyes and know that it is not simple. It may look simple from outside but it is not simple if you live there. If you go there and think, I am going to fix this situation by giving this man a no-interest loan to buy a lawn mower and start a stable lawn-care business … woe betide you.

You seem to know this. I sense I am just reinforcing what you already know. So use your instincts, and use what you know, and you will be fine.

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I’m in love with a mama’s boy

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, DEC 10, 2002

She not only lives with us but also comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us.

Dear Cary,

I’m in a great relationship with a good man. We have been together for a year now and he is good to me, he treats me with so much respect, and he’s kind to everyone he meets and knows. I’ve never had a better relationship than now. He is a hard worker and has a great job. Never been married or has any children. So that eliminates a lot of drama in our lives. We have the greatest sex life ever! But … he’s a mama’s boy!

It’s just the two of them. The brother died a few years ago and the father has been out of the picture for many years. These two act like they are in love with each other. It’s not your typical mother-son relationship. She is absolutely possessed with him. She’s made the comment to me that whatever is hers, is his. And whatever is his, is hers. And that has included this relationship.

When I met him I lived alone with my two children in a rented house. He began to spend the night, then it turned out to be every night, until he eventually moved in. Things were perfect and life was just great, until about six months ago, when the homeowners sold the house that I was renting. I had to move and it was a great opportunity to move into a place together and split the bills and rent with him.

The weekend of moving into our new house, his mother decides she isn’t happy with her relationship with her boyfriend whom she has been living with for the past two years. So of course the loving man I have invites her to come and stay with us. He lets me know his mother will be staying with us. And I was fine with it, thinking it would only be for a few weeks. Well, those few weeks have turned into the past six months of hell!!

At first she was very helpful. She was out of work because she became sick and was too weak to work. That was the main reason I was OK with her staying with us. She would clean the house every day and have dinner ready when we came home from work and school. We never asked her for any money for rent or bills. She was receiving Social Security at the time and we told her to just save her money and get into her own place.

Now, six months later, she is back to work and has absolutely no intention of moving out. The house cleaning and dinner came to an end. She has even loaned all of her furniture to friends so that she won’t have to pay storage fees each month. She sleeps on my couches and stores her clothing in boxes in a closet. And she has not contributed one dime to the rent, bills, or food for our home. She has never bought a roll of toilet paper, a bottle of shampoo, or a box of laundry detergent. But she does manage to wipe her ass, wash her hair and body, and wash her clothes.

She’s even become so comfortable that she wants to spend more time with us in the bedroom. She comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us and smokes her cigs in my room. When I tell him how much it takes my privacy from me, he thinks I’m just bitching and having a bad day and want to take it out on her.

Anytime I bring the subject up to him he gets his feelings hurt, defends his mother, and tells me not to talk about his mama like that. I ask him how can she not have any shame. And it causes problems between us.

I’m not a cold person, but people like her don’t even want to help themselves, so why should I? I won’t kick her out before Christmas, but how do I make her leave without hurting his feelings and keep the flame between us going?

I realize she will always be in our lives. I’m not asking him to choose between me and his mommy. I’m just asking to live in my own home without her always being right there taking care of him. What it has come down to is that she can’t have him all to herself, so she sure the hell isn’t going to let me have him to myself.

How do I get rid of the in-law without being an outlaw?

In love with a mama’s boy


Dear Reluctant Daughter-in-law,

I think you have to throw them both out. But let’s explore the option of just getting her to leave. First, you would have to speak to her directly. You could not ask your boyfriend to do it. You would have to sit her down and evict her. And no explanation could possibly make it seem just in her eyes. Any explanation you give her would only give her a basis for a counter-argument. If you say it’s for financial reasons, she’ll offer to contribute money. If you say it’s because she doesn’t do housework, she’ll promise to do housework. If you say she’s interfering with your relationship with her son, she’ll promise not to interfere. And then where are you? Then the burden is on you to prove the truth of your accusations. So I don’t think reasoning with her or giving her a long explanation is the way to go. I think you just have to throw her out.

But if you just throw her out, you place your boyfriend in an untenable position. He’s already demonstrated that he has an emotional blind spot when it comes to his mother. He can’t hear criticism of her. He has no judgment in this matter. So if you throw her out, he will see you as the villain who threw his mother out. I think it will destroy any happiness you might have in living with him.

So, strange as it sounds, I think to save your relationship with him, and his relationship with his mother, you have to throw them both out. If he lives separately from you, he can still be your boyfriend and salvage some pride in telling himself he’s simply being mistreated by his woman. He can tell himself that you’re a hard, hard woman, but since he’s taking the hit, he needn’t feel like he’s being a bad son; in fact, it gives him the opportunity to do what he not so secretly wishes to do anyway: to live with his mother and take care of her.

I have a feeling, however, that evicting them might put you in a tough spot financially. Your house probably had lower rent; it would have been reasonable to trade up when you knew your boyfriend would be helping out. So now you may not be able to afford the rent on your new place all by yourself. That is a sticking point. But if you relied on your boyfriend’s income in renting your new place, and he has now broken your tacit rental agreement by inviting his mother in, I don’t think it would be out of line to expect him, who has a great job, to at least help you financially, with first and last months’ rent, or a little monthly assistance for a few months, so you can find a place you can afford by yourself.

It’s much easier for a man to live with the burden of supporting two women than it is for him to live with the guilt of having abandoned his mother. It’s not like the choices are pretty, but I think you have a better chance of keeping him as a boyfriend if you throw the two of them out.


My wife is mean to me

Hi Cary,

When I married my wife, I started my own business (Web development). And since our wedding day, that business was modest and grew slowly, but surely. But never beyond being a modest business.

And we were happy.

The key, however, was that I worked from home and spent a lot of time with my wife I otherwise would not, and I knew when we had kids, that meant spending time with them too.

We are now married for 11 years, and sure enough, I spend every moment with my children (except while they’re in school) and I love that about my life, i.e. it went exactly as planned.

What’s different is that along the way, besides my company, my wife and I decided to invest our saved money in real estate, and while that too has gone wonderfully, it was frustrating (for my wife especially), to work with Realtors. So, my wife decided to become a Realtor herself. And she loved it!

And I loved that she found something she loved!

In fact, she’s so bright when it comes to business (she started her own business as a teenager!), she ate up as much knowledge as possible, and within three years, became a real estate broker. And it didn’t stop there. She added on association management, and now if you look at her business card, without exaggeration she has at least 20 designations. She is even a notary for practical reasons. She has married about five couples. If you were to read her Zillow reviews, what people say about her is nothing short of spectacular.

It’s gone so well that her business long ago out-earned mine, and as a result, she suggested I too get my real estate license.

I did.

And slowly but surely, I put my business on pause to help with hers. We became your typical husband and wife Realtor team.

And even though this meant me becoming No. 2 and literally dumping all praise and focus on her (I’m just not as good a Realtor as she is), I was more than happy to do so!

Combined, her business makes a lot more than mine, and our family has never been so financially stable.

To take things a step further, I started to become a kind of Mr. Mom, too. Because since she is the “star” of the real estate operation, it’s important she court clients, etc., and her presentation is perfect. I especially love the part about how passionate she is about her work, and how much she loves what she does. And I love that part because I love to hear that she’s happy.

Even if it means being the one who takes the kids to jiu jitsu classes, guitar lessons, school, etc.

I honestly don’t care that I’ve swapped my web development day-to-day for a Mr. Mom day-to-day, with real estate as a backup for when she needs me. I’m taking one for the team and I am only too happy to do so.

But then, all of a sudden, especially when I show how happy I am, she starts with things like “I hate being the bread winner,” or “I hate having the pressure of earning all our money.”

And sometimes it gets nasty as in, “Why don’t you do something productive with your life?” or “Why don’t you be a man instead of jerking off all the time?” (metaphorically speaking of course).

This has built up over the past three years. And honestly, I am less than happy now. I am starting to get extremely upset about it.

I thought sacrificing my career for the greater good was being a man. I thought it was being provider. I thought I was doing a really good thing.

But because there’s no salary on the other end, I get no applause. And applause isn’t even what I want. All I want is this nagging to stop.

Appreciation would be nice, but just for the cheap shots to stop would be enough for me.

So, now I look at my life and I ask myself what do I want? I want that autonomy back.

I obviously don’t want to be a Realtor anymore. When I work in real estate or try to, she, as my “boss,” insults me. And often times in front of other employees, which is extremely humiliating.

The worst part is she never apologizes even when she admits to others she was wrong to behave that way. It’s as if she doesn’t want to give me that satisfaction to see that she was wrong.

Is there anything I can do to get her to stop? If I talk to her she has the knack for twisting my words and making everything about her and my fault, and I just can’t compete with her in that department.

We tried therapy, which was working. The therapist sided with me on a lot of things. But then it was getting expensive (according to her — she’s a little frugal, too), so we stopped and now she doesn’t want to go back.

So I am all alone. No one to speak to, no one to help me. I am trying to get out of this rut, but can’t.

Completely Confused: Thought I Did the Right Thing

Dear Completely Confused,

You have lost your mojo. You need to get it back. You can’t get it from your wife. She doesn’t have it.

Where could it be? You have to go look for it. Is it in your pants? Is it in the forest? Maybe it is in your hair. I don’t know where it is. But you have to find it.

Do you know what mojo is? It is the life force. It is the thing you have when you’re getting born and fighting for a breath. It is the survival instinct thing, the love of life thing, the thing that feels pure beauty, that loves water and sky and rain, that dances, that cusses and sings, that says no to bullshit.

There are ways to look for it. Sometimes people go out in the desert. There’s mojo out there. I don’t know why. There is also mojo in garages and in car engines. And in guitars. When mojo departs, it tends to go to places like that. But it depends on what kind of mojo you have. So you need to remember who you are and why you love your wife. You love her for some reason other than the money. The money is bullshit. Forget the money. You could live on sandwiches if you love your wife. You could feed your kids on nuts and berries. They’d get the hang of it. If they saw that their daddy had his mojo back they wouldn’t care about the berries.

What I mean is you need to get down to fundamentals. That’s where your mojo is.

Your wife doesn’t have your mojo. She can’t give it back to you.  She didn’t take it from you. She just noticed that it was gone and became irritable and unpleasant. She’s not behaving well but if you play into that you’re in a losing game. She has to sort herself out. Steer clear of trying to fix her. That’s what got you into this mess, thinking too much about her.

One guy I read about leaves the house for an hour if his wife spews venom. You might try that. While you’re out, have a hamburger. Having a hamburger will tell your mojo that you’re ready for it to return.

Mojo does not like to be treated poorly. That’s why it left you in the first place. If you let yourself be treated poorly, your mojo goes out to the desert or into the engine of a car until you find it again and coax it back.

You might have to go all the way back to being born. Or maybe you only have to go back to when you got married. It depends.

I could say a million things about therapy and family systems theory and cultural models and sexism and our peculiar cultural moment but I have a feeling all that is just thinking and you can’t afford any more thinking. Thinking and trying to do the right thing is what got you into this mess. The only thing that will get you out is to find your mojo.

One more thing. When you find that mojo, keep it close to you at all times. And don’t put it in a jar. That will make it moldy.


Inherited money turned my friends into idiots

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Cary’s classic column from

Since they got suddenly rich, all they talk about is how hard it is to get good help

Hi, Cary –

In a nutshell, the problem is that my three best friends have all inherited substantial money in the past two years. My husband and I have no hope of ever again being their financial equals.

And I’m jealous as hell. So jealous, I don’t really want to talk to them. Their conversations seem to be all about their new houses, their trips, their toys, and things I can never hope to have.

These three are all my best friends — friends of over 30 years whom I went to school with. We danced at each other’s weddings and laughed through college and adulthood together. They have been dear friends and a source of comfort and joy. But I just can’t relate to their new problems (how hard it is to find a good cleaning lady, the price of a designer handbag, yada yada).

We’re not “working poor” — we’re probably in the middle of the middle class — but suddenly they’ve leapt up several notches in net worth, and it depresses me to know I’ll never be there.

I can’t really afford to lose three good friends, but I hate the jealousy I feel every time we visit any of them or they visit us. What’s my solution? Is there one? They are not rubbing my nose in it — I am.

Jealous of the Newly Rich

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Jealous,

If we’re just fine, if we’re just as good as the next person, then why should we care if someone has something we don’t have?

And if we’re not fine, what’s wrong? What do we need to be content in our own lives?

You probably can’t force the heavens to rain money on you. But you can use this opportunity to look at your own life and ask what you can do to make your own life so satisfying that you don’t care about other people and their inherited wealth.

So what do you need? What is missing in your own life? Really. I mean, sure, maybe it’s the Audi sports car that you think is missing. But what is that about? Is it about excitement and fun? Is it about the feeling of being admired? Do you crave the sensual feel of luxury upholstery?

Once you can identify the actual cravings, you can find those things in experience. You don’t need to own an expensive luxury sports car to enjoy some of its qualities. If your friends have acquired expensive luxury sports cars, you can ask them to drive you around. They probably would be happy to do that. Then you can feel the expensively sure and quiet click of the glove compartment and know that you are in the presence of the world’s finest engineering — unless the glove compartment is locked, perhaps because it contains diamonds, or a gun, or both. Then you can enjoy the thought of what is hidden in the glove compartment of the expensive luxury sports car belonging to your old friend who has just inherited quite a bit of money.

Or maybe what is missing is a sense of security. Maybe it grinds you down to have to work so hard, not knowing where the next rent check will come from, wondering how you will maintain your own comfortable existence into old age.

These are real concerns. They are what our lives are made of. They are worth thinking about.

In this way you can allow your friends’ good fortune to enrich your own life, without having to pay the insurance premiums or the inheritance taxes.

Your desires are real and legitimate. You would be wise to pursue their satisfaction. But your jealousy is a perversion of those desires, based in a belief that you can’t have what you want, and that the world is unfair, and you are unloved.

Jealousy is different from desire. Desires can be satisfied. Jealousy involves a painful, grinding feeling of unworthiness. When I’m jealous and it leads to depression, that’s because I feel things are hopeless: I’ll never have what they have, hence I’ll never be happy or loved.

In jealousy we sense injustice: Why should that jerk have a boat? He doesn’t deserve it! If a person worked hard all his life and finally bought a boat, would we be jealous? Probably not. But if his rich mother bought him a boat and he appeared on deck in his captain’s hat and blazer, knowing nothing about maintenance or navigation, we might feel a murderous twinge.

We have no control over who inherits what. But we do have some control over our own lives, and how we treat our own psyches.

The cure is to know that we are loved, and to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. Not having wealth is not a shortcoming. But obsessing over it is. So we forgive ourselves, and we remind ourselves of our own worth.

If I told you to write, “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” on your bathroom mirror like that “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley, it might send you into a real suicidal depression. We have to maintain some dignity! But if you are honest about the things you enjoy, and if you pursue them, and if you give yourself the pleasures you deserve, and if you allow yourself to plot secretly to acquire the pleasures that only you know you want, then you can live a fairly happy life without inheriting millions of dollars.

Self-esteem does not mean self-satisfaction. It isn’t egotism. It is love. And it must come with humility. That means loving ourselves as we are, with our shortcomings.

So my wish for you would be that you change your attitude to one of grateful amazement that your friends could have such good fortune.

Well, maybe that’s a tall order.

OK, how about this:

My wish for you would be that you can continue to love your friends and forgive them for their newfound and boring interest in the challenges of maintaining mundane comforts, and that you would get to the point where can say to them, “Enough talk about the perils and misfortunes of inherited wealth; now let’s grill some ribs.”

Preserve the friendship by being open but lighthearted about this. It’s a touchy subject, and it may happen that at times your true feelings show a little. But that’s OK. As long as you don’t belabor it. Like, don’t get into a long self-justifying drunken spiel about how your friends have become insufferable since they got a little dough. Just rib them about it and maintain your own dignity.

In other words, stop rubbing your own nose in it.

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I grew up poor but my boyfriend has money

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Cary’s classic column from

If we were to marry, could we make it work?

Dear Cary,

I’ve been dating a good man for the last seven months. We have loads of fun together; we’re both creative types who pursue our passions in our own time while working at jobs related to our respective creative fields. It’s a good match. People kind of hate us because we’re such a good couple. I love this man and appreciate how well he treats me. He’s patient, kind, mature, respectful, supportive — all of the things that most of the lads I’ve dated in the past have not been. It’s a pretty healthy relationship, I think.

And yet.

I worry that we will be incompatible in the long run. His family has money — not millions, but enough to afford monthly mini-vacations and second homes and German cars. My boyfriend has traveled all across the world, touring four continents. He owns a lovely house in a pretty swanky neighborhood. His family paid for his private-school education and college. His friends and contemporaries are the types to buy $10 cocktails and $400 shoes (he thinks $200 jeans are “reasonable”). In short, money is not a large worry for my boyfriend, and if bills pop up, he always has a family that can help out.

My family, on the other hand, lives off my father’s Social Security checks and my mother’s $7/hour part-time job. I think they made $18,000 last year. We were never destitute, but we were poor — the kind of poor that doesn’t really register until you’re an adult and you can look back to figure out that the reason Mom gave most of the food to me wasn’t that she “wasn’t hungry” but that we couldn’t afford enough for her, too. These days I’m making an OK salary, I’m paying off student loans and I stick to a budget, I rent in a kind of sketchy neighborhood, I have traveled but not extensively so, and a surprise $1,000 expense can really throw my finances for a loop.

The problem is that Boyfriend wants to do things that I simply cannot afford to do. “Let’s go to Japan!” he’ll suggest. Well, I’d love to go to Japan, but I don’t have the means. I politely tell him that I can’t afford to go to Japan (or, hell, Seattle) right now, and he comes back with a cheery, “Oh, there’s always a way!”

His unwavering optimism drives me nuts, because he seems to think that everybody has had the same opportunities that he has. He’s not a snobby rich kid by any means, but for him, my scrimping and fretting over money (“I should put money aside for a just-in-case fund,” “Let’s make dinner instead of going out,” etc.) is unnecessary. But to me, it’s not. Being poor isn’t just an abstract thought for me; it’s an unpleasant memory, and I don’t want to go back to those days.

I worry that my inner class warrior (and yeah, it’s there) may not be able to handle dating someone who can’t empathize with my situation. It frustrates me that he keeps suggesting expensive trips and overpriced adventures that I can’t afford — when he should know that I can’t afford them. In all fairness, he does sometimes foot the bill for birthday/anniversary trips and whatnot, but I don’t expect him to do that all of the time. Over time, I am beginning to feel poor again, embarrassed that I can’t keep up — in short, I am beginning to feel as excluded as I did when I was growing up.

That’s not what I want to feel around someone whom I care for and who cares for me. To him, it’s not a big deal — he thinks that if we get married, the issue will dissolve, because then it’ll be “my house” too, etc. But to me, it is a big deal, because class is a personal/political issue for me. He has the luxury of not having to think about it while it’s something that really affects me. So my questions are, How do we cross this class divide? How can I help him understand my situation without making him feel like I resent his privileges? How do I explain to him that I don’t really want to live a money-bleeding lifestyle of $25 entrees? Am I nuts to think that $200 is a lot to spend on jeans, or am I just a recovering poor girl who doesn’t know what’s “normal”?

Feeling Like Lula Mae Barnes,

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

Dear Lula,

You sound like you are compatible as people. It’s the money that stands between you.

It’s not a personality conflict but a material conflict. Ideally, your personal compatibility would serve as a foundation for resolving the material conflict. That is, you would like each other enough, and know each other’s weaknesses well enough, and have enough respect, and want to stay together badly enough, that you could work through this to the satisfaction of each party.

But it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. There may be surprises afoot. You may find that his easy affability crumbles when he confronts the notion of actually giving up some control over his money. He is going to have to cede some control of his money to you if you marry. You will have to be an equal partner financially or you won’t feel secure.

He won’t be the only one to be hit hard emotionally by the issue. You yourself may find yourself conflicted and confused in ways that you cannot yet envision. This is an issue that touches us at the core of our existence — not only as individuals, but as political actors as well.

There is of course a class division in America. It is a fact of searing emotional significance to those who can’t afford to ignore it. And it is a trifling matter to those who can — which of course infuriates the rest of us all the more.

Right now, if things get too rough, he can always go to Japan. Money is nice that way.

How would he deal with losing that cushion, that safety valve? Would it tarnish his air of blithe disregard, that low-key air of well-being grounded in the accustomed knowledge that there is always a way out? Relax, he says, things will work out. Well, yes, things will always work out — for him. And presumably things will work out for you if you hitch your wagon to his. But unless you reach a binding agreement about control of the money, he will always be able to unhitch his wagon and gallop off without you when things get uncomfortable. I think that is the issue that you need to resolve.

He may want you to just trust him. I think you will need more than that.

The upside of this is that I’ll bet you would be a very good manager of money. He sounds like he throws it around. I take it there’s not an inexhaustible supply, just a good-size pile. You would do well to safeguard it.

I suggest, in short, though I don’t know exactly how to do this, that you do two things: 1) Tell him that if you got married you would want significant control over the finances — that as a matter of principle you would want to be thrifty rather than spendthrift, and that you would invest the money wisely. Tell him that you want to be in it together equally, sink or swim. 2) Engage your boyfriend politically. Tell him that if you were to marry, you would want to use at least some of his money to contribute to helping the poor.

See a lawyer who specializes in family estate planning, or an accountant. Get as much information as you can about what the issues actually would be if you were to marry. Get things in writing.

And then relax and see if you can’t make a go of it!


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