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‘I feel like she has joined some abusive cult’: My wife makes $25,000 and only gets 1.5% annual pay raises. What can I do?

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My wife and I have been married for 18 years and met at work in 2000. She is college educated and has worked her entire life with the exception of a few years off when our kids were very young.

For the past 13 years of our marriage my wife has worked for the same employer, and in my opinion, it is an abusive and opportunistic relationship. The company simply does not value her and is taking advantage of her good will.

I have good reason to believe that they are making a healthy margin contracting her out to government projects.

Each year, her company has a sob story about why raises will not be given or will be so small (1% or 1.5%). Each year, she says to me, “They can’t afford to pay me more.” In inflation-adjusted dollars, she makes less now than she did when she started.

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Her employer has furloughed her multiple times over the past 13 years to suit its lack of proper contract management. She stays year after year out of fear, and a form of Stockholm syndrome.

I just received her 2020 W-2, and she made $25,000 last year given her low pay rate and lack of hours. Why would a college-educated professional with 13 years at her current employer continue to work for this amount of money?

I do comparatively well, so she has the luxury of telling her employer to stuff it and finding literally any other job she wants. I asked her to look beyond her job and possibly her profession, and she said, “What do you suggest given that money is not at issue for us as a couple?”

I feel like she has joined some abusive cult. She needs to look for a new job. but I fear she is unmotivated to improve our financial situation, and will just stay with her abusive employer out of fear. What should I do?

Concerned Husband

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Dear Husband,

You don’t say what your wife does for a living, but $25,000 a year is more than $10,000 below the median annual salary in the U.S. Her employer has, more often than not, given her an annual pay increase that does not even keep up with inflation. I can see how this would take a toll on her self-esteem — and, if this job does give her a sense of self-worth and identity, how she might cling to it, fearing that she would not find another job elsewhere.

Beyond your and your wife’s own relationship and psychology, there are issues here that are bigger than both of you, but not insurmountable. Women make an average of 80 cents on a man’s dollar; women of color often make even less. The more people who share their salaries at work, the more empowered employees will be. A culture of sexism persists. Female managers, for instance, are not only underrepresented in tech companies, they’re paid significantly less than men.

In a poll of 1,200 people released last month, more men (81%) than women (75%) said they would rather negotiate for a higher amount and settle for a number in the middle than ask for nothing. More women (57%) than men (51%) say they have never negotiated their pay. And more men (66%) than women (60%) say they would leave their role to find an equivalent position at a different company just to make a salary jump that they won’t get if they stayed at their current company.

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On the other hand, you don’t say what it is your wife actually does, whether she enjoys her work and finds it fulfilling, and whether she likes the people. I wonder if this is something of a “hobby job” for her, or somewhere she likes to go every morning, something that gives her structure and a sense of purpose. It may be that — given that you are financially comfortable and your wife does not need to work — she enjoys her independence and looks forward to going to work every day.

Without more information, it would be better for you to ask questions of your wife: “Do you like this job? Does it make you happy? If so, do you care about the stagnant salary? If it does not make you happy, why don’t you want to ask for more money or leave? What are you afraid will happen? What do you have to lose?” You could even role play to test-drive these conversations, each playing her employer and, looking ahead, each playing a job interviewer for a future position.

You never once mentioned that she is unhappy. Why is it important for you that your wife changes jobs, assuming she doesn’t mind the one she currently has? I suggest you address these questions in counseling together. Even if she does enjoy this work, I agree that she could and should push for more money. It’s a good fear barrier for her to overcome, and advocating for herself while divorcing herself emotionally from whatever response may come is also good practice.

How does your wife see herself in the world? And what does she think her employer sees in her? And what do you see in each other? Who is she without her job, and how does she feel about herself when she goes to work? These are questions we should all ask ourselves from time to time. The world is not bigger than our job that inhabits it. The answers to those questions may provide more than just the key to your wife’s salary negotiations. That, at least, would be the hope.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

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I married the ‘life of the party’ who was a regular at Royal Ascot. But all he does is take his financial troubles out on me

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I don’t know where to start. So I will start at the beginning. I met a man at a friend’s wedding a few years ago. He was charming in that British-man-in-America sort of way (Hugh Grant has a lot to answer for), he told jokes (perhaps too many jokes, in retrospect) and made me laugh (at first). He was the life of the party, with a wide circle of friends and everyone seemed to love him.

He also had a very lavish, conspicuous lifestyle: a house upstate where he entertained his friends at weekends, he sailed in the summer, and he was regularly photographed at charity events on both sides of the Atlantic. He posted photos of himself on Facebook at Royal Ascot for several years (before the coronavirus pandemic). He seemed like the most popular guy in the world.


‘The first six months were good, the next three years? There are three topics: My husband, his business and his family.’

He was a generous man an d financially stable, or so I thought. Of course, his success and ease with which he seemed to navigate the world made him attractive to me, but I fell in love with him, and when he proposed, I said yes. The first six months were good, the next three years? Let’s just say there are three topics of conversation: My husband, his failing business and his terrible family. The pandemic hurt the already shaky family firm.

As his financial troubles worsened over the course of our marriage, he became short-tempered. I attributed that to the stress he was under. He actually shared this business with two brothers, so his expense account and “champagne lifestyle” was being funded by his family as much as actual profit. In fact, it soon became clear that he was neither the brain or the brawn of the operation.

Our life has descended into stress and instability. His flashes of anger appear with increasing frequency, as do his allegations that I am a gold-digger, which conveniently cast me as a villain deserving of no respect. For the record, I always work and pay my own way. (Six months ago, he pushed me and I fell backwards over the arm of a sofa. Fortunately, it broke my fall.)

I have no idea who this man is. His friends, as much as one could call them that, deserted him a couple so years ago when the expense account ran out. He ridicules me, holds the fact that I wanted a child over my head (I’m 38), and last year he did not hide his disgust at the birthday gift I got him (a photo album of our courtship, in addition to a dinner and silver cufflinks) in my face.

I’m exhausted. There is only one person in the world who matters, and it’s him. Some days he’s up and friendly, usually when we are on Zoom calls with family and (my) friends, but when that camera is off you better watch out. I’m living with a stranger. I have no clue what will happen next. His birthday is coming up in March, and I am dreading choosing a gift for him after last year.

What would you get him for this birthday? Any other suggestions about what I should do?

Trapped & Exhausted

Dear Trapped & Exhausted,

A ticket to London, England. One way.

But your situation is quite different from my hypothetical one. I wills say this: I’m not sure it’s possible to know who you married if he doesn’t know who he is himself. Hugh Grant has actually come into his own playing villains and rogues (Jeremy Thorpe in “A Very British Scandal” on Netflix
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Phoenix Buchanan in “Paddington 2” and Jonathan Fraser in “The Undoing” on HBO). In each role, he was playing a man with many faces, but was not who others believed him to be in either role, and I’m not sure Thorpe, a real-life British politician, Fraser, a fictional murderer, and Buchanan, a cartoon villain of many disguises, knew who they were either.

I suspect the same is true for your husband. Is he an amusing socialite and risk-taking business mogul by day and a bumbling, ne’er-do-well, Black Sheep of his family by night? If he doesn’t know who he is and where his own values lie — and value lies — I can’t blame you for not knowing. I do not believe you are a “gold digger,” but I do believe that you bought into whatever it was he was selling to the world: a debonair, bicontinental bon vivant who had not a care in the world and who got by on chutzpah, smarts (let’s assume), likability and talent for navigating “high society.” That’s natural. We tend to believe who people say they are, unless we have reason to doubt them.

For every Jeffrey Epstein or Robert Maxwell, there are a thousand Phoenix Buchanans. Everything and nothing in life is about money. A child is not a bargaining chip. A marriage certificate or property deed is not a life sentence. A birthday present is not a time bomb. Presenting oneself as a success on social media is not real life. It is the 21st Century version of Buchanan’s act at the village fête. When domestic violence or emotional abuse rear their head, the fear persists. When will it happen again? Today? Tonight? Tomorrow? Any moment now? Close your eyes. Imagine your dream life. And choose that.

The door is waiting for you, if you choose to walk through it.

Are you experiencing domestic violence or coercive control? Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. FreeFrom works to establish financial security for domestic-violence survivor and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence supports efforts that demand a change of conditions that lead to domestic violence and coercive control.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

Also see: ‘We’ve seen an alarming spike in domestic violence reports:’ For some women, it’s not safe to leave the house OR stay home

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My brother owes $10K to our late father’s estate. There’s no loan agreement and I’m executor. How should I approach repayment?

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Dear Quentin,

My father passed and I am the executor of his will.

We sold the house and Dad’s assets with my brother’s help. Probate is done. We are ready to distribute the remainder of my father’s estate, but my brother owes the estate $10,000.

He feels that if he had paid this money back before Dad passed, he would still get half back, and therefore owes $5,000. (Dad also told me that he owed the money before he passed.)

My father’s will says his estate should be split 50/50. I feel my brother owes $10,000 to the estate. I do not want to rock the boat, and will do the right thing in order to keep peace.

What is the proper way to split $200,000 in cash when he owes the estate $10,000? For the record, my brother will abide by whatever I decide. Thank you in advance for your help.

Trying to Do the Right & Proper Thing

Dear Right & Proper,

You are right to not look for trouble where there is none.

Given that there is no notarized loan agreement between your brother and your late father and there is money to be distributed, it would seem simpler and faster to have him sign a note now saying he owes the estate $10,000 and deduct the $5,000 from his eventual inheritance. Done and done. He could, after all, say that the loan was only due to be repaid when your father was alive or, indeed, say the loan was a gift. (The subject of countless episodes of “Judge Judy.”)

Your story is a cautionary tale of what could go wrong. “A hug or a handshake is not sufficient to bind someone to loan repayment. Loans and repayment obligations should be spelled out in writing and include repayment terms upon the testator’s death,” according to the Absolute Trust Counsel, a California law firm. “It is the responsibility of the executor to collect the balance due. An estate cannot be settled until all loans are collected and all debts settled or paid.”

“When an estate is insolvent, the collection of outstanding loans becomes especially important. Creditors want to be paid and will pursue all available resources to accomplish that,” the firm adds. “Many times, unpaid loans create dissension among heirs. In some cases, heirs who owe money still expect to receive an equal share of an estate.”

There is a healthy cash sum from which to deduct your brother’s loan: $105,000 for you and $95,000 for him. It could get sticky otherwise.

Thankfully, your brother also wants to do what’s right and proper.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

The Moneyist: ‘Warren Buffett and Harry Potter couldn’t get those two retired early’: Our spendthrift neighbors said our adviser was ‘lousy.’ So how come WE retired early?

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These money and investing tips can help you sail the stock market’s choppy seas

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Don’t miss these top money and investing features:

These money and investing stories, popular with MarketWatch readers over the past week, give you tips about how to navigate the financial markets after February’s bumpy second half and signs pointing to March blowing in with more unpredictable winds.



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