I am a former creative director for a global ad agency, and now a freelance writer who bills at $125 an hour. My husband owns a graphic design firm that bills at $175 per hour.
Last year, my in-laws, who have always been deeply involved in social-justice issues, asked my husband and I to help them standardize and expand a successful local program they had founded. The idea was to allow the program to spread across the country, and create a lasting legacy.
My husband is close with his parents as am I, and we were excited and honored to join in their endeavor. (For years we have provided off-the-cuff advice about ways to build it.)
‘We invoiced them for 50% of our hours at 25% of our usual hourly rate, and we did not bill them for meetings or travel.’
But it was of course a crushing amount of work. We agreed that it would involve creating an attractive 25-week curriculum, website, newsletter, PowerPoint presentations, 30-plus supplementary materials and social-media campaigns, as well as taking numerous meetings and traveling to various locations to establish partnerships. The good news was that all of this fell well within our areas of expertise.
Understanding what a huge amount of time and energy this would take, and that we are both working full-time, my in-laws insisted on paying us for our efforts. (They are well-to-do.)
After a fair amount of discussion, my husband and I settled on the lowest amount we could justify. We invoiced them for 50% of our hours at 25% of our usual hourly rate, and we did not bill them for meetings or travel. (Reality has intruded and we’ve netted out at billing more like 30% of our hours at 10% of our rate, but that’s OK.)
The bottom line: We decided to charge $10,000 — that’s what I alone would usually charge for creating a single website.
‘When my husband’s three siblings — all over age 60 — heard that we were getting paid to do the work, all hell broke loose.’
We spent an exhausting but very happy and productive year pulling it all together, working nights, on the weekends and through “vacations.” Between the two of us we clocked more than 1,000 hours. But our efforts almost immediately paid off: We will be launching with a major national partner soon. Three other large nonprofits have shown interest as well. So yay!
However, when my husband’s three siblings — all over age 60 and financially secure — heard that we were getting paid to do the work, all hell broke loose. Each demanded to be paid the same amount and acted ugly to us in different ways.
No, they didn’t help in any way. No, they hadn’t done any equivalent work for which they had not been compensated. But they insisted it “wasn’t fair” and raised such a ruckus that the parents, disgusted and hurt, capitulated and cut them each a check to shut them up.
Now the siblings are also getting paid for tasks that my husband and I have always taken as loving filial duty and done for free: Driving them places, helping take the dock up at their lake house, etc. The siblings’ official party line is “our time is worth something, too.”
Yes, everyone’s time is worth something. The question is, when it comes to family, at what point should the meter start running? I will add that my husband and I once paid more than $1,000 to his brother’s family to board our dog because they had a dog boarding business.
The greed and immaturity we have seen in this situation has changed the way we feel about the family. Any insights you have will be much appreciated.
Daughter-in-law in Connecticut
This is a pattern ingrained in your in-laws’ family system — simmering resentments that build up over time — that’s replaying itself in adulthood in the most unfortunate ways. “How come Simon’s getting a larger slice of cake than me?” Or, “It’s not fair that Mary is getting a tennis racket for her birthday, when I only got a hockey stick.” Or, “I won’t do my chores if I don’t get paid the same amount of money Johnny gets for his paper round.” It could start with slices of cake, competitive gifts, unequal allowances and chores, and end up with bitter recriminations over an inheritance 50 years later.
Your husband’s siblings appear to be looking over their backs to make sure no one has received anything that could be perceived as preferential treatment. There is a method to this sadness: If you and your husband are being paid for providing professional services to his parents and they are not being paid for helping out, does that signal favoritism? If your in-laws are cutting a check for $10,000, what will happen when they die? Will you get a larger share of their estate? Does this set a precedent for some siblings being more equal than others? Probably not. But fear is a terrible thing.
It is hurtful to demand $10,000 or else all chores shall be withdrawn until further notice. But where money is concerned people do the zaniest things. They won’t lift a finger for your parents without putting it on their tab. What a way to live! I have received letters from people who charge their parents for driving them to the grocery store or doctor’s appointments. There’s usually a clear line between being there for the people who raised you, and becoming a full- or even part-time care giver. A family meeting might help to air these issues, and address any imbalance or lingering ill-will.
You fulfilled your end of the bargain and your in-laws paid a small amount for your professional services, effort and time. What your in-laws pay their other children is their business. Don’t allow them to change who you are. Don’t buy into their precious problematic penny-pinching proposition. If your parents feel strong-armed into paying their kids $10,000 for their help with daily tasks, it’s their decision. It might, however, be worth recommending a financial adviser and/or lawyer. This is also an opportunity for them to start planning and managing their elder care.
As to your question about when the meter starts running, I am once again reminded of Harlan Perry Howard’s song “No Charge,” a country song about a young son intending to charge his mother for chores. As she finished preparing supper, the little boy presented her with a laundry list of prices. This is the gist: “For mowin’ the yard — $5/And for makin’ my own bed this week — $1/And for goin’ to the store — 50 cents/An’ playing with little brother, while you went shopping/25 cents.Taking out the trash — $1/Getting a good report card — $5/And for raking the yard — $2/Total owed — $14.75.”
She replies, “For nine months I carried you/Growing inside me — no charge/For the nights I’ve sat up with you/Doctored you, prayed for you — no charge/For the time and the tears/And the cost through the years, there’s no charge/When you add it all up/The full cost of my love is no charge/For the nights filled with dread/And the worries ahead — no charge/For advice and the knowledge/And the cost of your college — no charge/There’s no charge, son/When you add it all up/The full cost of my love, is — charge.” The boy marks his bill “paid in full” and says, “Mama, I sure do love you.”
In the meantime, your husband’s parents must be left feeling sucker-punched and confused by their children’s sensitivity (at best) or avarice (at worst). Assuming they have done their best to raise their kids to value love, respect and service over fear, insensitivity and transactional relationships, your in-laws will likely feel blind-sided by their demands. There is now a vacuum left in their life where their children’s duty and care and honor should be. This presents you and your husband with an opportunity to enjoy all the time you can spare with your in-laws, and with renewed purpose.
This is the chance for you to be the kind of family you wish your husband’s siblings could be.
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