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Evil Stepmom

 

Please contact Evil Stepmom at ESM@evilstepmom.org with your questions or ideas about stepfamily living with 17-30 year olds.

 



Dear Evil Stepmom
How Much Did That Cost?

Dear Evil Stepmom,

My wife and I have been married for two years. She has two young adult children, and I have teenager and two kids in college. My problem is that her children always ask us what things cost. They want to know how expensive our furniture was, how much our new carpeting cost, what we paid for her car. I sometimes think they're comparing how much money I make to to their father's income. The worst incident of this happened last Christmas. My wife gave me a beautiful briefcase as a gift. I barely had it out of the box and her kids were asking how expensive it was.

My kids, who know better, were dumbfounded. My wife says she and her ex-husband always talked openly about money and the price of things they had, and that she doesn't see anything wrong with answering her kids' questions. I say it's rude, especially when you're old enough to understand that what something costs is personal information. I'd like to tell them it's none of their business. Am I out of line here? I don't even want a present this year; I don't want to go through that again.

Signed, Hum-Bug

Dear Hum-Bug,

Emily Post would back you up on this one: Asking anyone what they paid for anything is rude, and one simply shouldn't do it. But since you didn’t write to Miss Manners, I’ll tell you what I hear.

Feathering the nest

Young adults are in is the biological process of preparing for procreation. It's an unconscious process; they're not thinking about it and it isn’t an evil plan. Still, young people are in a constant resource acquisition mode during their late teens and twenties. They're working on feathering their own nests and they're becoming aware of the financial burden that creating an independent life will present. Often, whether it's polite or not, they look to their parents to tell them just how expensive grown-up life is going to be. So I'd urge you first to remember that they're in a developmental stage where it's normal to want stuff and to want to know how other people got their stuff and what it cost them.

Keeping in contact

Another factor may be at play here: young adults who’ve recently left the family home sometimes feel insecure about being disconnected. Changes made to the home or the family’s belongings can make a young person feel a little left out, or wanting to catch up and be included in additions, decisions, and changes to the family estate, however humble. I’m always surprised to hear my stepchildren say “Our house,” about their mom and dad’s homes. But that’s good – they still feel roots where their parents are. In the same way, your wife’s children may be using the old familiar chat about what’s new and what it cost to reconnect with their mother and to feel more at home.

Sorting it out in the marriage

It sounds to me as though your issue is about privacy more than money, and that your conflict is with your wife, not your stepchildren. I'm hearing that you consider financial issues to be a private matter between the adult heads of the household, not to be discussed with or around the children (even when the children are young adults). It sounds like your wife, on the other hand, considers money to be a family matter that can be openly discussed with the kids. Both philosophies are fine, they're just incompatible. You and your wife need to reach an agreement about how to discuss family finances in a way that won't violate your need for privacy, yet will give her enough freedom to talk with her kids about money as she sees fit.

For example, you might agree that your financial business is off limits, but she can discuss hers any way she pleases. If one of her children asks her about an expense or purchase of yours, she can direct them to talk to you. And you can be prepared with some non-dollar-specific responses such as: "Oh, it cost a good bit, but I know I'll have it for a long time and I couldn't be happier with the quality." Don't make excuses for what you spend, don't explain yourself, and don't apologize. Just make a statement of fact. "It's a mid-range car/computer/set of clubs, but a good value for the features I needed," and change the subject. Have three responses ready, and you'll be prepared to graciously and politely protect your privacy without attitude or edge.

Now, the hard part

How do you and your wife want to talk about your combined finances and decisions with the kids? New furniture, carpeting, remodeling, and vacations—these are all things kids will see and want to know about. You and your wife will need to discuss each of your values, principles, and convictions around money and privacy before you figure out how you'll convey your thinking to the younger members of your family. What do you believe young adult offspring need to know? What, in your opinion, is okay to share with them, and what shouldn’t be discussed beyond you and your wife? Explain the thinking behind your principles—how did you arrive at these conclusions? Next, look to see where you have agreement. Perhaps you both believe that teaching young adult children financial stewardship is important, but you go about it differently: she talks about what things cost, you act by making economical choices when you buy things.

As long as you agree on the principle, you should be able to find a way to teach your children and stepchildren more about responsible resource management without compromising your privacy. Try to keep in mind how much young adults are learning at this phase of their lives, and be patient with how they go about seeking information. At the same time, work on finding boundaries that won’t leave you feeling violated.

Best of luck,

ESM

P.S. Take care not to get into a "My kids are better because they don't ask," mindset; that will only amp up your judgement and criticism of your stepchildren, and make your wife sensitive and defensive about her brood. This is rarely a constructive place for a remarried couple.
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