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My in-laws are terrible with money. What should I do?

Other people’s money decisions affect your own. Here’s how to talk boundaries.

Colorful illustration of a man and a woman silhouettes talking empty speech bubbles at each other across the outline of a simple house. Paige Vickers for Vox
Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

On the Money is a new monthly advice column. If you want advice on spending, saving, or investing — or any of the complicated emotions that may come up as you prepare to make big financial decisions — you can submit your question on this form. Here, we answer two questions asked by Vox readers, which have been edited and condensed.

My husband and I are on the same page with our money, but not with his parents’ finances. His parents, who are currently selling their home to pay their debts, want to put part of the leftover money toward a new home and spend the rest on travel. They don’t have a retirement plan, and my husband is prepared to support them financially in the future. He says that his parents are free to spend their money however they choose. I feel that it is unfair that my in-laws spend their money on traveling and then depend on our money to live.

How can we manage our finances when they are affected by other people’s decisions and actions?

Our finances are always affected by other people’s decisions and actions. Your in-laws are likely to discover this when they complete the process of selling their home, paying off their debts, and finding a new place to live. While downsizing might sound attractive to a couple looking for a quick way to pay off old debts, we’re in a severely disadvantaged real estate market right now. Mortgage interest rates are at a 21-year high, which means that your in-laws may have difficulty finding someone willing to buy their home — and they may end up spending a lot more than they expected on their next living situation, whether they end up buying or renting.

This means that the scenario you currently feel is unfair — the one in which your in-laws get to spend their money on travel while relying on your money to pay the bills — may not actually happen. They might get one long vacation out of the deal, and the money they spend on that trip will have a negligible effect on their ability to live out the rest of their lives without your financial help.

If the idea that your in-laws might get a vacation while you and your husband might not feels unbearable, the first step is to talk to your husband about taking some time off. Seriously. The money the two of you spend on a trip will have an equally negligible effect on your ability to support your in-laws, so make it a financial goal and get it done by the end of the year.

Now that we’ve gotten the “why do they get to play when I have to work” issue out of the way, it’s time to have a conversation with your husband about the amount of financial support he is prepared to provide. You do not specify how your in-laws incurred their debts; was it simply overspending, or were some of those funds put toward your husband’s education? Did your in-laws help your husband rent his first apartment? Did they support him as he built his career? Did they have an unexpected medical crisis that drained their savings and, perhaps, incentivized them to pursue their current travel goals?

Your husband feels financially responsible for his parents, which is not a terrible thing. You should ask him to tell you more about his family and their financial story, if you do not already understand why he wants to take on this responsibility. You should also talk about the difference between “financial responsibility” and “paying for everything” because there might be ways to provide support that still allow your in-laws to carry the bulk of their own expenses. (You’ll probably want to study up on Medicare and Medicaid, for example.) You might also want to consider your own parents’ financial needs, and ask yourself whether you might be able to help both sides of the family.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: Start talking to your husband, right now, about what you’re going to say when your in-laws ask to live with you. Given the current housing market, it’s a much more likely scenario than the one in which they travel the world.

My husband has two kids from a previous marriage. I don’t have kids, and I bought the house we live in before we got married. I pay the mortgage and he gives me money for utilities. Is that okay? Should he contribute more than 50 percent for groceries?

The amount of money your husband puts toward groceries — even during a period of inflation, when grocery prices are higher than anticipated — is not half as important as the legal issues surrounding his residence in your home.

A lot of this depends on whether you live in a community property state, and the rest depends on your state’s tenancy laws, and some of it may depend on the mortgage and title documents associated with your home. I suggest talking to a lawyer to ensure that you and your husband are both completely aware of your rights and responsibilities, since the internet is not likely to provide the depth of insight you might need.

Here are the questions you and your husband may need to answer, both in terms of your relationship and in terms of your living situation:

  1. Is your husband legally building equity in the home? (Does he want to build equity in the home?) (Do you want him to build equity in the home?)
  2. Are his children legally entitled to inherit the home? (Does he want his children to inherit the home?) (Do you want his children to inherit the home?)
  3. Is your husband legally considered your tenant? (Does he want to be your tenant?) (Do you want him to be your tenant?)

Get those taken care of and then you can start talking about whether you’re going to keep your finances separate and split household expenses proportionally or whether you’re going to pool your resources and pay all of your expenses together.

Here’s my advice on handling that conversation, when you’re ready.