Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My In-Laws Owe Us Thousands of Dollars”

I am at a loss on how to continue in a positive relationship with my in-laws. Back story: When my husband was going into college, his parents encouraged him to take out federal student loans to pay for his tuition. About a year into college, they talked him (a 19-year-old kid) and his grandmother into co-signing for several PRIVATE student loans (totaling approximately $150,000). The reason for this? Their credit was so bad they couldn’t get approved for the loans and they needed the money to pay off some of their own debt (including to help his younger sister pay for her own college tuition — and she then never graduated). They took two-thirds of the money and left him with one third for his own expenses. They promised to help him in paying back the loans with their paying 75% of the total and his paying the remaining 25%.

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.

43 comments… add one
  • LisforLeslie October 9, 2017, 10:22 am

    I too am confused about the total amount owed. $3900 of $150,000 is a drop in the bucket.

    Going forward, I think it’s clear that you can’t trust his parents’ promises, especially when it comes to money. If you do remain in touch with them, don’t count on them ever giving you money. Don’t count on any life insurance or inheritance. Your husband may want to discuss making sure they have funeral costs set aside, but I doubt they do or would even consider it.

    You and your husband should also discuss whether he feels like he has to be responsible for his sister/nieces/nephews (are there other siblings?). You don’t provide a lot of information but some parents set up dynamics so that one child is the reliable one and the other is the needy one. Parents often expect that their kids will follow this pattern into adulthood and retirement.

    That said, there will NEVER be a good financial time to have a kid. If you want kids, have kids and you’ll figure it out. Aside from insurance, diapers and formula, you can do without a lot of stuff. Clothes you can get at goodwill, TJ Maxx or oldnavy on sale.

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  • wobster109 October 9, 2017, 10:38 am

    Oh this letter makes me mad! I think 39k is probably correct, it’s close to 25% of the 150k original amount. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to forgive and move on. This was 100k that they took from LW’s husband, and 14 years of debt for them. It’s not easy to just forgive 14 years of hardship.

    As to the guilt trips, your husband doesn’t have to take them. Stick to simple, observable facts, and repeat, repeat, repeat. “No we won’t go to Fancy Steakhouse. We can’t afford it. You’re welcome to join us at home for mac and cheese.” Maybe his parents will say, “but this is your niece, why don’t you love your family?” Your husband repeats, “We can’t afford that. This is not up for discussion. We’d love to see little Ava at our place.” If they keep pressing then “hey I gotta go” and hang up. On subsequent phone calls, say “we’ve already talked about this, and it’s impossible”. Hang up.

    Unfortunately I don’t think they will ever understand your husband’s perspective, because they would have to see their own mistakes, and it sounds like they’re too cowardly to admit their own wrongdoing. So I don’t think he should talk about how he feels, because I think the parents are likely to trample over his feelings with how they feel instead. This opens him up to more guilt tripping and being used.

    I think these parents have a dangerous combination of traits. They are A) willing to cheat their own son out of 100k and put him in debt for 14 years, and B) happily oblivious of their own faults (they still think they did the right thing and still consider themselves virtuous people). So although they probably intend to be kind, and are probably well-intentioned, I think he should protect himself by distancing from his parents and keeping conversations short and factual.

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    • Kate October 9, 2017, 11:20 am

      Agree that it’s probably $39,000. He might have taken out like $50K before freshman year, and THEN the $150k in private loans, so close to $200K in total, of which $39k would be about 25%. Still agree with Wendy’s general advice. I don’t think $35K is ridiculous to spend on a car, but it really depends on your financial situation from many different angles, and I wouldn’t have made a purchase like that which was dependent on receiving income from my in-laws at least until that money was regularly coming in.

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      • Fyodor October 9, 2017, 11:41 am

        My take was that 37,500 was 25 percent of 150K so 39K outstanding meant 75 percent was paid off.

  • Leslie Joan October 9, 2017, 10:51 am

    Yikes. Using your retirement money to pay off debt is super expensive, because of the tax penalty that you pay on it.

    Now you understand why his parent’s credit rating was shot to begin with. Whatever debt they had can’t possibly have been in the same undischargeable-in-bankruptcy category as student loan debt. There is clearly some toxic stuff going on there, and some really serious financial mismanagement.

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  • Leslie Joan October 9, 2017, 10:52 am

    And, what Wobster said.

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    Skyblossom October 9, 2017, 10:58 am

    His parents sound toxic. Saddling a young man with $150,000 in debt, most of it for their own benefit, is toxic. I’d have no qualms about cutting them out of my life if it was me. What does your husband want? Do you want these people in your life? If you have children will you want them to be involved with your children? Do they own a house? Can you get them to write a will that leaves the house to your husband as a way to pay off their debt. I’d make sure that they couldn’t do anything with it like a reverse mortgage. Personally, I’d be done with them. I’d definitely not go out to the expensive restaurant. You don’t need to go to an expensive restaurant to show a child that you love them. Lots of people do an intimate family gathering at home with a homemade birthday cake.

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  • dinoceros October 9, 2017, 11:01 am

    This is rough. I personally don’t believe I could forgive this. It’s not just borrowing money. It’s exploitation of one’s kid and their vulnerabilities (his trust, his need for money for school, his naivete). And it’s not like they saw the error of their ways, apologized, and tried to do better. They are continuing to exploit him. Luckily, he is in a position to handle it, but what if he wasn’t? This could have affected him drastically and they don’t seem to care. I couldn’t get over it because it represents a lot more than just not being good with money.

    But I digress. I also don’t really understand purchasing such an expensive car. I get that you guys thought you’d have money freed up, but the parents are not trustworthy people. And even if they were, any type of emergency can happen. They could get sick, you all or they could have unexpected expenses. And if you’re putting off having kids due to finances, wouldn’t the plan be to save up money so that you feel financially ready to have kids? Continuing to spend that money on things that could be cheaper doesn’t seem to fit that narrative.

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    • ktfran October 9, 2017, 11:10 am

      This! You summed up nicely what I was feeling about this letter.

      Shame on your in-laws for taking advantage of their 19 year old son. I don’t think I’d be able to forgive easily either. At the same time, you need to take your husband’s lead on the kind of relationship he wants with his family and support him, as long as it doesn’t put you in further financial peril.

      Speaking of finances, I’m having trouble understanding why you decided to buy an expensive vehicle immediately after the in-laws said they’d pay the remainder of the debt? You know they’re shady/can’t be trusted with money, so why not wait to make sure you’re in the clear? It also doesn’t jive with waiting to be debt free to have children by going into more debt over a vehicle?

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    juliecatharine October 9, 2017, 11:06 am

    I find it hard to believe that people who would steal $100k from a 19 year old-and make no doubt, that’s what they did-have any redeeming qualities. These people are criminals and should be avoided like the shady fuckers they are.

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      Skyblossom October 9, 2017, 11:47 am

      They were predatory. They preyed on their own son for their own benefit and for the benefit of their daughter. They have permanently harmed him financially. The money that he has paid toward this debt is money that could have been invested. The money he and LW have taken from retirement is money they can never make up. The lesser retirement income is something they will always have to suffer. This has harmed his entire adult life. Loving parents don’t do this to their own child. He would have been better off without them.

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  • Anonymousse October 9, 2017, 11:08 am

    This is probably a good time to stop believing what your grifter-in-laws tell you they are going to do.

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  • Anon from LA October 9, 2017, 11:32 am

    I’m really sorry you’re going through this. FWIW, it sounds you and your husband are doing your best to salvage your finances and to deal with his parents in a mature way.

    Yeah, your in-laws are terrible people. Unfortunately, you need to plan your financial future as if you’ll never see a single penny of repayment from them. Because you likely won’t. It’s not right and it’s not fair, but it’s the safest way to plan your future.

    I agree with others here that I wouldn’t be able to forgive this kind of exploitation. You and your husband need to talk about his feelings towards his parents and what kind of relationship he wants to have with them (both himself and the two of you as a couple). The best way to move forward is for both of you to be on the same page.

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  • Sarah October 9, 2017, 11:41 am

    -There really never is a good time to have a child. Also, some people will never feel 100% ready to become parents. Get pregnant now.
    -Return the expensive car and get a cheaper one.
    -Cut out these in-laws from your lives. Or at the very least, keep them at arms’ length.

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      Skyblossom October 9, 2017, 11:48 am

      They can’t return the car. A new car depreciates by 1/3 when you drive it off the lot. They now have a loan with the bank for the car and returning the car wouldn’t make enough money to pay off the loan and they would still need to buy a different car.

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      • RedRoverRedRover October 9, 2017, 11:55 am

        Best they could do at this point is sell the new car, buy a cheaper one, and lessen their overall debt. You’re right they can’t get rid of the debt entirely now.

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        Skyblossom October 9, 2017, 12:41 pm

        Then there is the fact that you can’t return a car to a dealership the way you return a shirt to a store. When you get a loan the bank owns the car and has the title until you pay them back what you borrowed. The dealership is no longer involved.

      • LisforLeslie October 9, 2017, 12:52 pm

        Depends on the dealership. Some give you a grace period now. Personally I think spending $40K that isn’t sitting in your bank account is a bit reckless. It sounds like desire won over sensibility.

  • Ron October 9, 2017, 11:53 am

    The discordant thing about this letter was the complaining about being unable to start a family because of finances and then immediately buying a $35K car. You don’t need a $35K car — not even close, yet that, rather than starting a family, is what you chose as your first priority, when you thought you were relieved of the rest of the debt.

    Not mentioned, other than a brief mention, is what happened to granny, who was gulled into co-signing the loan, along with LW’s husband.

    LW should feel angry at her in-laws. They took advantage of her husband, saddling him with debt for their own use and his sister’s use. This burden became yours, as well as your husbands, and has denied you the life you otherwise would have had. I can also understand not wanting to be part of an expensive celebration of one of their grandkids, when you can’t afford children of your own. Just remember: none of this is the niece’s fault, so you shouldn’t be taking out your anger at her expense.

    Your in-laws have certainly favored their daughter. I wonder if there isn’t more to it than that. Was she a ‘special needs’ child whom the parents felt they needed to do much more for, while they viewed LW’s husband as the strong one, who needed to do his part to help his sister. I’ve seen this particular family dynamic multiple times. My view of the parents is somewhat different if they’ve gone into debt supporting a special needs child, rather than simply choosing to live beyond their means.

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      juliecatharine October 9, 2017, 12:09 pm

      I dunno the sister went to college, dropped out, married, had kids, got divorced, moved in with her parents…not exactly the most together person obviously but that doesn’t mean she has special needs.

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      • Ron October 9, 2017, 4:07 pm

        Except for the having kids part, I have a family member who did all those things and is seriously schizophrenic. Actually graduated college, married, worked very briefly, moved home with parents, moved into and owned a house. Years in court-ordered in-patient psychiatric treatment. There now, in fact.

    • Fyodor October 9, 2017, 12:33 pm

      I dunno. I’ve seen this dynamic before, where the child that is struggling gets a lot of help, whereas the child who is seen as more self sufficient gets none (or is even taken advantage of). It’s not fair, but not unusual either.

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      • LisforLeslie October 9, 2017, 12:39 pm

        As I said upstream – sometimes parents create that dynamic. They push one child to be more independent and one child to be more dependent. It sounds like this has been going on for at least a decade so it wouldn’t surprise me that they’ve always expected the husband to be the family savior.

        LW – your in-laws have terrible credit and limited savings. Do they have any retirement funds? Is your husband prepared to let them deal with the consequences of their inability to save and plan?

      • Anon from LA October 9, 2017, 4:19 pm

        @LisforLeslie makes a great point. Now is the time for LW and her husband to start talking about what happens when his parents grow old with no retirement or financial safety net. How much money/support are they willing to offer his parents? It’s definitely something to think and talk about before it happens.

      • SpaceySteph October 9, 2017, 4:52 pm

        Great point here. LW’s money troubles with her in-laws are not almost over, they are just beginning. This student load is a drop in the bucket compared to when these aging parents reach retirement age and/or experience health issues and have no savings.
        What happens if they lose the house? Are the parents, sister, and her kids all going to move in with LW? I get that things are tight for LW and her husband, but if the parents did come up with those $39k, they all (LW included) would be better off with the parents investing the max in their 401k, IRA, HSA etc vs paying off the loans.

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      Skyblossom October 9, 2017, 12:37 pm

      I think the most common dynamic is to help the favored child even if it harms the less favored child.

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  • Nikita October 9, 2017, 12:33 pm

    These people would be out of my life forever.

    Saddling your 19 year ood son with 150K debt for personal gain is recolting and then not fulfilling their payment duties and whine about their daughter.

    No way, kick them and leave them out.

    FYI it wasnt smart to buy the car before they started paying their debt

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  • Miss MJ October 9, 2017, 12:38 pm

    What the LW’s in-laws did to their son was extraordinarily shitty. But, given the history here, the LW and her husband trusting them to pay back the money when they never have was extraordinarily dumb. LW, I’d probably skip the birthday dinner this year since you’re going to just feel ragey and resentful about it. Going forward, you and your husband have to figure out what kind of relationship you want to have with his parents. I know people with parents like this and they make it work, somehow.

    But, please, in the future, know one thing – and that it that they cannot be trusted with money. At all. Anything you “loan” them will be a gift, anything of value in their possession is liable to be sold and nothing will ever be paid back. So don’t count the cash until the check’s cleared, you know?

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    • Stillrunning October 9, 2017, 3:15 pm

      Be on the lookout, LW. It sounds like your in-laws are in their mid to late 50’s. Given their non-existent financial planning and lack of respect for their son, expect them to turn to you and your husband for help when they figure out they can’t afford to retire.

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      • ktfran October 9, 2017, 3:26 pm

        So true. Or they might turn to him to continue helping his sister. It’s probably prudent for the LW’s husband to start hardening his heart a little towards his parents and sister so he won’t be footing the bill their entire lives. At least financially.

  • Leslie Joan October 9, 2017, 12:57 pm

    Yep. And maybe consult with a financial advisor if you haven’t done that already. I agree with others that it’s a little surprising given their track record that you’d believe anything they said and based on that take on substantial new debt for a new car, when you’re trying to pay down debt and have already raided your retirement savings to do this.

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  • Anonymous October 9, 2017, 1:15 pm

    Het an Eldercare lawyer or an Estate lawyer.
    They should transfer their home into your name, or change the deed to have ypur husband own their house jointly, with your in-laws with your husband having rights of survivorship. Do it now!!
    PS. Forget the expensive dinner. Tell them you can’t afford it bc your husbands parents broke their promise to pay them $3,900.
    That now you & your husband are dealing with financial hardship.
    Get a lawyer regardless for their exploitation of your husband at age 19. If he was under age to drink then he was underage to sign such a large loan. The parents exploited their son financially!
    The parents are real life losers!!!! Take it to court or to Judge Judy now!

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    • dinoceros October 9, 2017, 4:23 pm

      Consulting a lawyer might be good to cover the bases, but having worked briefly in financial aid, 18+ is old enough to sign a loan. His lack of credit history is why the grandma had to cosign, but it’s not uncommon for college kids to sign on to large private loans for college, especially when the parents have bad credit. It’s just that most of the time, the money actually goes toward the kid’s college costs.

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    Moneypenny October 9, 2017, 1:16 pm

    This sucks so hard. What kind of parents do this to their kid?
    I generally *try* to look on the bright side. At least the LW’s husband is the resourceful and responsible one. He doesn’t need to rely on his parents like his sister. Perhaps she got coddled more- but who has the better life and skills now? He does. That’s a win in my book.
    In the meantime, though, get any future promises of repayment in writing. Get it notarized if you have to. Hold them to it. No more excuses. And just know that you can never rely on his parents for anything. If it means they see less of you, make sure they know the reason why.

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    MaterialsGirl October 9, 2017, 1:17 pm

    Yeah this is pretty horrible, although I can understand how attractive a nice car would be after working really hard to pay off these loans. I mean after all that, it would feel like you deserved something nice especially if you were supposed to get a little relief. Unfortunately, those parents, not so trustworthy.

    I would go beyond a financial planner and think about a lawyer as well to protect yourselves. There would probably be records of the use of this money and who knows if they’ve taken out any other credit cards etc in your husbands name? don’t think it’s beyond them to do this. Hopefully his name isn’t on the house or any of their other debts?

    Most importantly, you both need to make sure you’re on the same page with regard to how you react to the parents. Your husband can’t bow to their needs, you’re in this together.

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  • Nadine October 9, 2017, 4:13 pm

    I would just bring up the debt every time you spoke t them.
    ‘Sorry, cant make sunday, have to work my second job to pay down this debt.’
    I’d love to have you visit but guests are out of our budget roght now – because of this debt, you see’
    ‘Oh no, Mrs Jones next door died? How sad. I would send flowers but because of this debt we have decided not to make any extra purchases.’

    Sure its a bit tacky but so is saddling your teenager with hundreds of thousands in debt and not giving a fuck about paying it back. Also it might express some of your rage 🙂

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      Dear Wendy October 9, 2017, 5:07 pm

      I agree with this.

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      Moneypenny October 9, 2017, 6:37 pm

      I really like this strategy.

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  • Brise October 10, 2017, 7:44 am

    Get a lawyer and sue them to get something of their assets, now or later. Don’t let your husband get treated like this.
    And of course, drop the expensive restaurant invitation. What a joke, so typical of irresponsible people deep in debts.

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  • Morecoffeeplease October 10, 2017, 7:51 am

    Personally, this pisses me off so much. If I were their son I would demand to be paid back…that saddling him with 100,000 in debt for the last so many years has been a hardship and that they owe him this money. I would tell them that using a 19 year old kid like this for their own financial gain was inexcusable. And that I expect a month payment of xxx starting immediately. That they would expect their son to take on their debt and expect him to pay it off while at the same time financially helping their daughter is just warped. He need to remind them monthly. And never never trust them again in the future. As they get older and start having health problems they are going to expect him to help them again. It just makes me mad for him.

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  • Stephanie October 10, 2017, 7:59 am

    I think 3,900 was a typo. LW said that she and her husband have paid off 75% of the loan. Which would leave about $39,000 left to pay. And if they are making 1,000 a month payments then it would take them 3 more YEARS to get out from under that debt. I’d be pissed too if I had to seriously adjust major life decisions in order to not have an ulcer from that much debt.
    And I think wendy was a little harsh in saying that putting off kids due to 6 figure debt isn’t reasonable. What if they need to afford daycare? Or they want a parent to stay home but can’t go down to 1 income? What if they need a bigger place to fit the baby but won’t feel comfortable buying until the debt isn’t a factor? 39,000 of private loans with a variable interest rate is a dangerous thing to have if something unforeseen happens.
    I would tell the in laws that they need to make some sort of payment in order to show that we also matter to them. They need to not go out to pricy dinners but tell us that they can’t pay back their own debt.
    Personally, I’d check with hubby and then distance myself GREATLY from them. I wouldn’t be able to look at my parents or my husband so parents after being treated like this.

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  • Brise October 10, 2017, 11:10 am

    They can’t contest the loan’s signature by the husband but they can contest the use of supposed study tuition for other expenses by the parents. The in-laws must reimburse that part of the loan, and if the husband doesn’t want to sue his family, you can, LW, as your own income and retirement funds were used to reimburse their debts. Your taking action will modify the dynamics and introduce some respect of your boundaries, as well as some money back at least. I would never accept to pay for my in-law’s debts, especially with my retirement funds, that is crazy.

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  • Brian October 10, 2017, 2:11 pm

    I’m not sure the in-laws are necessarily scummy, but maybe just bad at finances. They probably genuinely believed they were doing right by everyone with the 150k loan, and thought if they could just get their debt under control, they’d have no problem paying it back. It’s wishful thinking, of course — usually people that get into that kind of debt got there due to bad habits that don’t magically go away with a cash infusion.

    Speaking of which, you’ll want to check yourself to make sure that 20 years from now *you* aren’t just another version of the in-laws. Just getting your head above water and then buying a 35k vehicle is probably the type of decision they were making at your age that got them to the point they thought exploiting their 19 year old was necessary. I’m in my upper 30s and have a net worth of over a million and have never owned a car more valuable than 17k — cars are always just a money sink and the ego-boost of a pristine vehicle is short-lived, so stick to one that does the basic job of getting you from A to B safely and you’ll be golden.

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