Personal Finance

My elderly mother donated over $30,000 to Democratic campaigns

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Lillian, Athena, and Elizabeth here(It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

My mother is in her early 80s. Before the pandemic, my father handed over management of their investment accounts to me, and as my father declined, my mother handled the day-to-day. My father passed in early 2021. While I controlled all investment transactions my mother still had credit cards. My mother had a health crisis this July and she finally agreed for me to take over. What I found was that starting in June she was making uncharacteristically large donations to political campaigns on her credit card. She was responding to many text message pleas each day from candidates using the ActBlue fundraising platform that supports Democratic Party candidates. Over many days on her credit card bill, I could see an escalation each day… the first was $25 to $50. But then after the first three, there would be $250, $1,000, and $1,500. Each day. (While I didn’t see the texts I have seen the emails they send her that sound like how she has described the texts.) It added up to more than $30,000. This was not typical for my mother nor for my parents when my father was with us. I’ve been doing their taxes for years so I know my mom often donates $25 to $50 here and there, but not thousands and not each day. She knew she was clicking the link, but I think she was taken advantage of… After a few smaller donations did she look to see how big the next was when the requests came so soon after each other?

When I told my mother she had basically donated her car to these causes over the last six weeks she was voracious in supporting these candidates (in other parts of the nation, not where we live), so I didn’t dispute the charges with the credit card company because if they spoke to her she knew she was giving them money. But in her diminished state, she didn’t (and I think still doesn’t) understand how large the amounts were nor that they were out of character for her. At the same time, she isn’t completely incompetent in a legal sense, but she did make this big mistake. For the time being, I’ve made minimum payments to keep her from spending more (she was almost at that card’s credit limit), and by late August she had stopped responding to the texts and requested they stop.

Basically, I feel like she was scammed because of how often they reached out to her and with the escalation of dollar amounts throughout the day. Is there any way to recover any of this money? The small claims court limit in my state is $7,500, which isn’t much. But if I engage with an attorney I could easily spend all the money we’d hope to recover. I’ve thought about writing to ActBlue and explaining the situation and asking them to refund any donations over $999. Is there anything more I can do?

—At Least They Won the Senate

Dear At Least They Won the Senate,

In one of my other jobs, I work with Democratic candidates, but I don’t do fundraising. One of my pet peeves is the approach that both Democrats and Republicans use to solicit appeals digitally—namely, the way they constantly solicit and use hyperbolic headlines in order to meet campaign fundraising deadlines. (Both parties do this, by the way. It is an annoying feature of American politics.)

I hate these tactics personally, but they don’t rise (or sink, as it were) to the level of fraud, and there are plenty of disclaimers on the ActBlue interface and fundraising emails. So your mother isn’t accidentally donating, which she admits herself. The only scenario where you have some recourse is if it’s clear that your mother did not know what she was doing because she was intentionally misled. This happened to some Trump donors in the last election cycle because the campaign changed the default settings on donation appeals to recurring instead of one-time donations and people who thought they were making a single donation were charged for that amount monthly. Unless you believe your mom experienced something like that, it seems like she made a spending decision you don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean she got scammed. You feel like she got scammed because you wouldn’t have spent the money that way, and you wouldn’t have spent as much money. But it seems that your mother knew what she was doing and wasn’t deceived, and the money went exactly where it purported to go: to fund these campaigns. For this to be a scam in any legal sense one of those things would have to happen. Constant fundraising appeals are annoying, but they’re not illegal just because they’re frequent.

You can certainly try requesting a refund from ActBlue, if it’s been less than 90 days since she made her donations. But she’d need a better reason than “I donated at the time, and later decided I shouldn’t spend the money that way.” If they can’t recover her funds, their sites states that they’ll refer you to the recipient of the contribution to request a refund from them. It’s possible that some campaigns may agree to refund some of the money if they have anything left over solely because they don’t want to alienate a donor they want a relationship with in a future election, but that would be unusual.

In the meantime, it seems like your mother feels empowered to make spending decisions like this and you don’t believe she’s doing it in a way that is responsible. That is a problem you can fix by agreeing to some kind of budget, monitoring her spending if she’s OK with it, or managing her day-to-day expenses yourself.

And I appreciate you writing in because I am going to add your letter to my list of examples of why these tactics are bad and can backfire, which I trot out any time I’m in a position to talk about political fundraising. I hate them, too.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I am a late-30s guy who has a good friend “Sally” (mid-30s) who lives in the same neighborhood as I do, the better part of a mile from me. For context, Sally and I date non-exclusively and without labels and have for a few years. She’s been a great friend after my mid-pandemic move to a city where meeting people has turned out to be really rough; introduced me to her crowd, bankrolled evenings out when I couldn’t but needed to get out of the house, passed on information from someone who works in my field after I became unexpectedly unemployed. She’s also a huge animal lover who has watched my beloved cat Noodles whenever I’m out of town.

This has been four times so far, anywhere from a few days to a week. She sits with Noodles for a couple of hours when she’s able, and last year came over after her own family Christmas celebration to make sure he was cared for. The day after Christmas when she woke up to heavy snow, Sally rushed out to make sure he was taken care of just in case she wasn’t able to get back out later. I greatly appreciate this and always treat her to dinner and drinks after. She’s agreed to watch Noodles again for me this year over the holidays but has a request: Find a flight that will get me home before 9 p.m. or on a weekend to make the key trade-off easier when I return. I can copy Sally a key to my door, but I can’t get an extra fob to my building’s door for her, and I am unable to buzz anyone in as my building doesn’t have the capability. Basically, this leaves me no choice but to give her my keys and have her return them.

Unfortunately, Sally’s two elderly dogs make her watching Noodles at her place a no go. I usually get whatever flight is cheapest because I don’t have much choice, and that has meant twice now waking Sally up on a weeknight and having her come down to give me my keys. Sally is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type and she leveled with me that the week I’m looking to return is busy for her and she’s already really anxious about the thought of an interrupted night of sleep. I’m going on a trip and haven’t bought tickets yet but need to soon. I want to do this for her if I can but might (will definitely) need to borrow money from my parents if the tickets in her requested timeframe are more expensive. I think this is worth the loan, but I am struggling with how to talk to the parents and to Sally if they say no and I can’t.

—Noodle’s Dad

Dear Noodle’s Dad,

Sally is being reasonable in her request, especially since you’re not paying her and she’s doing this on a volunteer basis. It sounds like she’s been extraordinarily generous with you on many fronts.

That said, I don’t think Sally and different flights are your only options. First of all, you could just take the cat with you. This might be inconvenient, but the cat is your responsibility, not Sally’s. I have traveled long distances via plane with an epileptic chihuahua and separately with a cat. Turns out, cats are pretty easy—at least compared to epileptic chihuahuas. It’s not fun, but it can be done, and for a fee that is probably smaller than a more expensive flight.

Secondly, surely Sally is not the only person capable of sitting your cat. I am in rural Alabama as we speak, and my cat is at home in Brooklyn, New York. I’m sure there are pet-sitting services where you live, teenagers who babysit who could use a little extra money, and maybe neighbors who aren’t Sally who’d be up for dropping in. It seems like you believe Sally is the only person who can watch Noodles and that puts her in an awkward position, especially if you two have an, as you put it, “no labels” relationship and she’s likely doing it more because she cares about you, however fond she is of Noodles. So if you can, maybe give Sally a break from Noodles duty. I generally think taking out a parental loan to get a different flight seems a bit extreme given the alternatives but do not put the responsibility for figuring out the alternatives on Sally. If your parents say no, it’s not Sally’s job to relent and do something that’s wildly inconvenient for her, and you shouldn’t ask her to.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My brother works weekends. My niece is 9 and not quite old enough to be on her own the entire day so I will come over and take care of her until dinner. I don’t ask for money beyond gas and food. I love my niece and she has been having a hard time since her mom took off and never looked back.

My brother is dating “Emma.” Emma is a single mom with two girls of a similar age to my niece. I have seen toddlers with better manners. I literally can’t stop for gas without them screaming for slushies or junk food. Trying to go run errands is almost impossible because of the constant demands. Emma has never paid me a penny even when I asked for money for events. She will get “back” to me. My brother gets irritated when I ask or I bring up her girls’ behaviors.

He has told me that all three girls are a “package deal” now. I am at the end of my rope. I feel my only option is to quit babysitting my niece and tell my brother to get a sitter. That will cause a huge fight. I love my niece and I don’t want to hurt her but I feel I have no other options. She is already having a hard time with her mom leaving and she really doesn’t like Emma’s girls. My brother and I went through similar trials after our mom died. Our dad dropped us off at grandma’s and never looked back. I work full time and am trying to go to night school. My bandwidth is full. I can keep going on like it is. What do I do?

—Too Much

Dear Too Much,

You signed up to watch your niece, not your niece and two girls you have no relationship with. Unless you want to keep babysitting all three, I think you’re going to have to tell your brother he needs to find other options. If or when he gets angry about it, explain that you are not equipped to watch three kids and it is not your job.

That said, if it seems like Emma is going to be permanently a part of the family, you don’t want a bad relationship with her and her daughters, so I would caution against articulating this as frustration as disdain for Emma and her kids. Kids constantly asking for things while you’re running errands is annoying, but it’s also just what kids do in my experience. (I have a seven-year-old, and I just… say no.) You don’t have to run errands with them, but think about what the relationship looks like if you’re no longer babysitting and are still in their lives.

In the meantime, tell your brother that three kids are more than you bargained for and he needs to find another solution. You can probably find ways to spend time with your niece that don’t double as weekend childcare and continue your relationship with her while he figures it out.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My fiancée and I have both considerable debt, with low-paying jobs, and skyrocketing rent. We both work remotely but she goes into the office a lot. We rent a small studio. My father owns several properties and offered to let us “rent” his one-bedroom condo for what amounts to the cost of the fees and taxes. We would essentially be paying less than a third of the market rate. In three years, we could pay off most of our debts and maybe start saving for a wedding.

The problem is a larger commute for my fiancée when she has to go into the office and she will have to drive it herself. Currently, one of her co-workers picks her up since they have the same shift. She hates driving. I understand that, but sometimes we all have to do something we hate. I did a spreadsheet including the cost of gas and wear and tear on the car and we still come out ahead financially. My fiancée also has the option to switch to working weekends, which is fully remote but longer hours.

My fiancée and I fought. She feels like she is the one being forced to comprise anything and that my father is trying to “control” us by not selling one of his properties and giving us the money. It has been a thorn in her side that neither of my parents will offer to help with the wedding since they are both well off. Hers aren’t. My parents paid for both of their children’s education, car, and rent in our first apartment. After that, they told us we were adults and responsible for ourselves. They didn’t help with my brother’s wedding either. And for the record, we are both women. I feel like we are at an impasse that is impossible to pass. Our lease is up in mid-January. I love her so much and 90 percent of the time we never argue. Can you help us?

—Great Divide

Dear Great Divide,

I think your fiancée really has to decide whether she wants to have a longer commute or longer hours in exchange for something that may benefit both of you but you don’t have to sacrifice for. If you don’t have to commute, you may forget (or not know, if you’ve never done it) how exhausting it can be, and asking her to work longer hours is effectively asking her to subsidize the potential savings because her time and energy are worth something, too—not to mention any career impacts on her job if she took the weekend shift. I doubt that’s included in your spreadsheet.

Regardless, this should not be an impasse; it’s the kind of conflict you will encounter periodically when you get married. It’s great that your dad is offering you a way to save money on housing, but I also understand your fiancée’s suspicion of it given your dad’s stated position that you’re on your own, which he’s contradicting by giving you a very specific kind of help.

At any rate, I think you have to learn to navigate conflicts where you’re unable to reach a perfect agreement. My general rule of thumb in a situation where one partner is being asked to give up something or make some kind of sacrifice, but the other is not, is that the partner being asked to  make the sacrifice decides. Your partner doesn’t owe it to you to do something she hates because you like the longer-term financial prospects. If she chooses to because she loves you and thinks it’s best for both of you financially, that’s a different story. Unilaterally pressuring her to do it while you’re not making any sacrifices yourself is a recipe for resentment, even if she ultimately agrees to it.

Also, I don’t think you believe this, but I want to be clear that your dad’s offer of a discount is not your contribution to the financial situation. It’s your dad’s, and your partner will view it as such because it doesn’t require anything of you. So do not be tempted to argue that yes, your partner has to commute more or work longer hours, but you bring the rent discount to the table. That is simply not true.

Another thing to consider is that your father’s offered discount is not the only lever you have to save money and pay off debt, and it does not affect your income. Longer-term, better-paying jobs for both of you are important, as is the way you decide to set goals together, and what sort of choices you make that lead to bigger expenses (kids, home ownership, etc.). This is a good time to have a conversation about those topics together because the wedding will probably end up being the least important expense you’ll encounter at the beginning of your life together.


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