Here we are, twelve years later and the private student loans are still not paid back. My husband and I have now paid back approximately 75% of the loan totals (including using some of our retirement money) because his parents have continued to have financial struggles and we don’t like having large debts looming over us. We have even been putting off having our first child until we believe we are free of these debts (I’m 33 and he’s 31). Finally, six months ago his dad told us that they are finally back on track with their finances and would pay the remaining $3900 left on the loans. This freed up about $1000 in expenses for us each month. Last month, after a lot of discussion and budgeting, my husband and I bought a new car for $35000.
Here comes the catch: Yesterday, his father tells us that he won’t be able to pay back the student loans as he agreed to and that he’d like to put off their helping with payments for another year! When my husband confronted him about this and how it was affecting us financially and emotionally, his dad became upset and said that we “aren’t being sensitive to everything they are going through” (AKA my husband’s sister who is 30, and her two young children, are now living with them after a messy divorce and his parents are paying for their room, board, and expenses). I feel so disrespected and like they don’t care about us at all. It makes it even worse that if his parents had been honest a month ago, when we were discussing purchasing a new car, we probably would have waited before adding this new car payment into our monthly expenses.
Now, in a week, they want to come and visit us (from six hours away) and have dinner at a pricey restaurant to celebrate our niece’s birthday. How do I act? Just act like nothing happened? I feel like that’s impossible because I’m so mad! My husband already expressed his feelings and was guilt-tripped and had the conversation turned around on him. What do we do?? — Ready to Punch an In-law
My initial feeling is that if $3900 is the difference between being able to afford a $35,000 car or not, then you couldn’t really afford it and should have waited. Was that a typo? Or did you mean that $39K is left of the $150k debt? If it’s truly just $3900 left to repay the loan, and your in-laws have now asked for a year deferment in paying it back, I would eat the cost and assume you’re never going to see that money from them. Financially, if things are so tight for you that you really, really need that $3900, then, again, you should not have bought a brand new car and you should look into returning it/selling it and buying something less expensive. Emotionally, the answer is more complicated.
What your in-laws did to your husband when he was 19 was indefensible. They used him and exploited him and potentially ruined his financial life for a very, very long time. You and he are still feeling the effects of their irresponsibility. I don’t blame you — or him — for feeling angry, hurt, and betrayed. But at this point, so many years later and with much of the debt paid off, what if you let it go? What if you and your husband decided that, you know what, you’re not getting any more money from the in-laws and so, instead of thinking about your financial relationship with them, you can focus on the emotional one? Is that possible? And if so, what would that look like? What if, instead of thinking about what they owe you and what they spend money on instead of paying off the debt they owe you, you thought about the benefits of this relationship — especially as it relates to your husband?
Let’s assume your husband loves his parents, and he loves his sister and her kids. Does spending time with them bring him any joy? Does he enjoy their company? Look forward to their visits and catching up with them? Does he like being a part of his nieces’/nephews’ childhood and watching them grow up? If you could put a price on all of that, is it at least worth as much — and hopefully more — than the money still owed you? Maybe thinking about it that way could help you come to terms with eating the cost of the remaining loan.
But maybe your husband does NOT enjoy his family at all. Maybe he simply can’t get past his anger and resentment. Even if those feelings are just temporary (because of the recent backtrack about repayment), you two might want to skip the pricey dinner to celebrate the niece’s birthday — especially if the thought of spending time with everyone fills you with rage. It’s better to skip a family get-together and avoid a potential explosion of emotion than give in to a guilt trip and say or do something that creates a bigger rift than you’re currently trying to navigate. But if there’s a chance you both can let go of your rage — enough to survive a family dinner — I would encourage you to try. Something you could do is take turns telling each other what you would say to your in-laws if you knew there would be no repercussion. Get it out of your system. Get angry, be upset, let it go. Write a letter and burn it. Take a boxing class and let out your rage on a bag or two. When your rage dissipates, what are you left with? A debt that you can hopefully pay off in a year, and whatever you want to make of the relationship with your in-laws. And without the rage, if there’s an opportunity for a loving connection, I think that could be worth the price you will have paid. And if it’s not… well, you can let them go too — but only if that’s what your husband wants.
Also, not for nothing, but if you’re putting off having a child because you think you can’t afford it and then you buy a brand new car for $35,000, maybe you’re using your in-laws and the debt they owe you as an excuse for putting off parenthood that you aren’t quite ready for. There’s a lot to blame the in-laws for… but you not having a child yet seems a little far-fetched.
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.