Did you know that newspaper editors often lay rough hands on the work of their syndicated columnists? It's true. I noticed this because I have a voracious appetite for newspapers and often read more than one each day. Thus I notice things such as weirdly truncated—or even “improved”—questions and answers in the advice columns. It usually means that local editors cut the column to fit available space or just decided to second-guess the columnist. I'm therefore suspicious when I see a lousy answer in Dear Abby and sometimes take a minute to go directly to the source.
I'm beginning to learn, however, that Jeanne Phillips is perfectly capable of generating her own lame answers. She did it again today:
Dear Abby: I have been living with my daughter and her family for two years because I lost my job. I don't pay rent, but help out with the utilities and buy my own groceries. I also baby-sit for them several days a week. The only money I have is an inheritance my father left me to live on, and it is dissipating quickly.Did you notice how Jeanne glossed over one tiny little item? Her correspondent has been living rent-free with her daughter's family for two years. This seems a rather significant factor to overlook so completely. Let's try rewriting Dear Abby's response for her:
I have met a man and have fallen in love with him. I plan to move in with him soon. The problem is my daughter and son-in-law owe me money. They promised it would be repaid, but when I ask when, they give me the run-around. (They always have money for tattoos, movies and concerts, though.) They also expect me to baby-sit for them on weekends, but that's the only time I can see my boyfriend.
How do I tell them I want to live my own life? I want to be free and not have to worry about them needing me to baby-sit and making me feel guilty about it. I'm afraid they'll say that because I lived with them, they no longer owe me the money. I don't know how to tell them without it turning ugly. Any suggestions would be appreciated. —Frustrated in KC, MO.
Dear Frustrated: I presume your daughter and son-in-law have met your boyfriend? Announce the good news that you will be living with him; it shouldn't be shocking. Ask again for the money that they owe you. Be pleasant, but firm, and don't let it escalate into an argument. If they say they don't have it, ask them to sign (and date) a note promising to repay it at a later date. That will be your proof that a loan was extended. If they refuse, with no proof that you loaned them money, you won't have leverage to force them to pay up.
As for the baby-sitting, do it when it's convenient for you. If they want their "freedom" on some weekends, let them pay you instead of a sitter and work off part of their obligation that way. But insist on cash.
Dear Frustrated: Whereabouts in Kansas City do you live? You can't rent a place for much below $400 per month in your city and even $500 is probably below the average. Twenty-four months times $500 works out to $12,000. Does your daughter owe you more than that? If not, you should really be thinking about forgiving that loan. If so, you should still be considering lowering the amount owed by a suitable amount. You may want to estimate the value of the babysitting services you've provided during your stay, but be aware that neither rent-forgiveness or unpaid babysitting were ever part of a formal agreement. Trying to make it formal after the fact is just asking for grief. A properly appreciative first move by you is the best bet.See? Isn't that better?