October 22, 2021

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My parents ruined my credit score: money advice.

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

I am a transfer college student in an expensive area living with my slightly psychologically (and occasionally physically) abusive parents. I have a job that pays well enough for me to move out, which would be the best thing for my mental health, but my credit is in the gutter. Essentially, when I was going to college before, my parents refused to pay the last month of rent for an apartment I lived at without letting me know. I only figured it out when applying for a credit card two years ago or so, and it was denied because of collections.

Now that I’m trying to move out, I’m afraid that no place will accept me because of the rent my parents failed to pay. I can’t tell if they did this so that I’d be forced to be financially dependent on them or what.

They’ve always treated me like I’m incapable of being an independent individual, and whenever I mention moving out, they brush it off. They also regularly threaten to kick me out of the house when I challenge their preconceived beliefs or parenting style. I’m the most helpful of my siblings and have always been diligent about helping with chores around the house, so there might be a bit of a Cinderella situation going on as well. It’s true that it’s expensive here, and if I moved out, I would have to put some of my goals on hold. But my parents’ house is not exactly a viable living environment, and I’m well past the age where I should have moved out. Is it a good idea to try to get them to be co-signers on my future lease? If not, how do I fix my credit immediately? I am not even entirely sure what collections is, let alone how to go about fixing it.

—Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear Between a Rock and a Hard Place,

It doesn’t matter why your parents did or didn’t pay your last month’s rent, but it does matter that you are living with them and need to move out. Now. It sounds like you are one bad day from being put out on the street, and you don’t deserve that.

First of all, do not have them co-sign. It defeats the purpose of moving out to put some space between you guys. You can get an apartment without a co-signer with not-so-great credit—you just have to do some additional legwork. Make a list of which parts of town you would like to live in and start calling apartment complexes to find out what the qualifications are for moving in. Sometimes they will skip a background check if they are a private owner or if you put additional money down as a deposit. You may also need to provide proof of payment of any significant bill you have (like a utility in your name), as well as paycheck stubs. If something seems off or you feel like a potential landlord may be trying to take advantage of you, trust your gut and move along. You will find a place that will rent to you (and that you’ll like) despite your credit mishap, I promise.

Next, your credit. When your parents “forgot” to pay your last month’s rent, the apartment complex sold your debt to a collection agency. Collection agencies that buy debt will go above and beyond the depths of the universe to find you and collect their money. After you’re situated with your living situation, pull your credit reports (go here to get free copies each year from the three credit-score companies) to see which collection agency has your account. Then you can make arrangements with it to pay off the debt in monthly installments or one large sum for a discounted rate.

I also want you to look into getting a secured credit card through a major financial intuition. This type of card allows you to put down a security deposit and borrow against it, rather than borrowing the bank’s money with a traditional card; it’s a less risky way to help you rebuild your credit. Then, if you’re in good standing for over a year, the bank will move you into a traditional credit card, which will further rebuild your credit score. You’ve got this!

Dear Pay Dirt,

My family has lived in a rented house for 10 years in an expensive city. In that time, our place has gone from a slightly pricey option to a giant bargain, but of course we’ve spent/thrown away an incredible amount on rent. We’d like more space, and we’d like to upgrade things, but one more bedroom would triple our rent, and bigger houses in the neighborhoods we love are completely beyond our reach. Everyone—including you—says buying now is insane anyway. We’re pushing 50, and our kids are finishing elementary school, and our needs are changing.

If we stay in this rental, how much is it worth it to spend to make it more livable for us? For instance, our bathrooms haven’t been renovated since the ’80s and are kind of yucky. I’d love to completely relandscape our backyard. I’d even like to knock out a wall or change the closet space. Is it insane to do those things in a rental? Should I approach our landlord and ask him to guarantee he won’t boot us out? We are so grateful to have a great place, but we need space and some upgrades. We’re doing well financially, so I don’t understand how we’re so stuck.

—Going in Circles

Dear Going in Circles,

Upgrades make property value increase, so I understand why you’re hesitant to bring it up to your landlord. Oftentimes, the trade-off of renting an affordable space is living with a lack of updates. Your landlord can’t compete with a shiny new kitchen, so they charge less to make up the difference. Not that I’m writing this from a living room with four different wall textures or anything.

I would look into seeing what you can do first without contacting your landlord. Sometimes a different light fixture, a new faucet or shower curtain, or some removable wallpaper can transform a room. You can recaulk a bathtub or replace a toilet seat yourself for a few bucks. Join your local “buy nothing” Facebook group to look for free plants and outdoor furniture, supplement that with some fresh mulch and a few perennials you love from your local garden center, then spend a weekend sprucing up the backyard. You can also do a deep clean, give stuff you’re no longer using away, and upgrade your storage solutions to create more closet space.

If none of this appeases you, call your landlord to see how he feels about minor upgrades. If something needs a repair, like a cracked bathtub or an oven with broken burners, he should cover it. But if it’s cosmetic, like a fresh coat of paint or a new bathroom vanity, offer to spearhead the project. Ask if he would be willing to split the expense or have some of it taken out of your rent if you handle the project. He’s probably not going to let you knock out walls, but I’m hopeful he’ll be game for a few smaller updates—especially since you’ve been there a decade. If he declines, you have two options. Offer to pay for it out of your pocket if he allows it, and brace yourself every time your lease is due. Or you can appreciate your home for what it is: an affordable home in a part of town that allows you to raise your kids in peace.

Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I have separate bank accounts and split expenses down the middle. We are both good earners, but in the past four years, his salary has tripled. Overall, this is fantastic—until it comes to tax time. Because we were equal earners for the first 15 years of our marriage, we split the tax bill down the middle, but now his high earnings have swollen our tax bill. He contends I should still pay half, “because we’ve always done it that way.”

Me pointing out the ratio of our earnings doesn’t move him. It doesn’t phase him either when our tax preparer unequivocally stated we’re in a new tax bracket because of my husband’s new salary. He can afford to pay more—he just refuses. Facts don’t move him. Any advice for what might?

—Taxing Situation

Dear Taxing Situation,

Oh. Hell. No. Your husband is not over here making all this money and making you pay his taxes on it!

I was initially going to suggest explaining to him why this is no longer fair, but it sounds like that falls on deaf ears. So until he comes to his senses, you are filing taxes separately. Yes, even if you are married, you can file by yourself. Of course, there are disadvantages, but since you are a high-income household, very few of these would apply to your situation. The next time this comes up, tell him you’ve looked into filing taxes separately, and you will be moving forward with this course of action. (Make sure to tell your tax preparer this as well.) This way, you can each pay what you owe without having to fight about it. Perhaps that will finally get him to listen. Otherwise, enjoy your extra funds.

Dear Pay Dirt,

An investment account my grandmother set up for me as a child was transferred over to me because it (or I?) had reached the “age of majority.” Shortly after that process began, my Gramma passed somewhat unexpectedly, and soon I will also inherit $30,000 from her estate. I have no idea how to properly manage this money. I thought I’d use it as a down payment for a house, but the market is too crazy right now, and I’m not traditionally employed, so no 401(k). I’d like to find a financial adviser I can trust to help me, but I’m wary of being taken advantage of because my financial literacy is very low.

—Where to Start

Dear Where to Start,

A lack of financial knowledge does not mean a lack of financial options. I recommend finding a fee-only financial adviser to start. This type of adviser—who you pay per appointment, rather than by commission—will walk you through your different options for what to do with the money. Ask around for names from trusted friends or neighbors, or spend some time searching Google for someone who’s highly reviewed.

Once you’ve made an appointment, you’ll want to discuss setting up a self-employed retirement account, such as a SEP or Roth. You can also ask about different investing opportunities that may make sense for your additional funds—somewhere to park some of that inheritance and let it make more money for you until you’re ready to use it for that down payment. If you don’t understand a term or concept the advisor uses, don’t be afraid to ask! There’s zero shame in wanting to better understand how this works. If you want to do a bit of reading before your appointment, I highly recommend The Automatic Millionaire by David Bach and Get Good With Money by Tiffany Aliche.

—Athena

More Advice From Slate

I moved to my area about six years ago, but I didn’t truly become part of the wonderfully tightknit local community until giving birth to my now 5-month-old daughter. It’s been great getting to know other local parents and their kids, and I was especially excited when one family opened a (much needed) café on our street! The shop has quickly become a neighborhood hub; everyone gathers there for coffee before and after mothers’ group, walks to the park, or play dates, etc.

However, after following the café’s Facebook page, I have reason to believe the owners might be anti-vaxxers. I have no wish to put my daughter at risk before she’s old enough to be fully immunized, especially with the current measles scare. Is there a way to ask if the child running around the business is immunized? And if she’s not, do I have to just give up on my newfound mom friends and play dates? I’m new to the group and don’t want to make waves, but I also believe in science and want to protect my baby.