The Moneyist: My controlling in-laws gave us $5,000 for a new car — after several arguments I want to pay them back

Dear Moneyist,

My husband and I have been together for nearly 13 years, married for 8 years, and have two children together. Right after we got married, we chose to buy a house we saw potential for fixing up and selling when the market got better. We spent every dime we had, even selling my car to afford the minimum down payment for the house.

About a year later, we found ourselves in a tough a legal/financial situation. My husband’s parents stepped in and “gifted” us $5,000 toward the purchase of a used car. We did not ask for the money, but we willingly accepted the financial help.

Since then, we have most certainly gotten back on our feet. We sold that first house we bought last summer when the market peaked and made 175% of what we purchased it for. We’ve gone through several vehicles, and have made other large purchases and/or investments.

I’ve mentioned to my husband, on more than one occasion, that I’d like to pay back his parents, but he insists it was a gift and that they don’t want the money back.

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My in-laws are financially set. My father-in-law is retiring this year, and my mother-in-law hasn’t worked in about a decade because her husband makes a great salary with a lot of bonus incentives. I’m sure they don’t need the money, but it’s something that has been eating at me since the day we received it.

Finances have been a tough subject between us and them since early in our relationship (surprise, surprise). There have been multiple instances where money has been the topic of arguments, either in their disapproval of our spending (like buying our first home), or paying back my husband’s student loans (which they promised to help with, but did not do so in the magnitude which they said they would).

They’ve given us other large gifts since then, like a trip with them to Florida, a new washer/dryer, and they spoil our kids with many gifts. And while this is all appreciated, it doesn’t come without expectations from us.

Nearly two years ago, my in-laws picked a fight with us that included our “ungratefulness” for all they do for us and that we should be showing more appreciation by inviting them over to see the kids more. They mentioned how they give us all these “lavish gifts” and get no sense of appreciation from us in return. I can tell that my mother-in-law specifically uses these things as leverage.

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I don’t see this $5,000 gift as any different, and she will someday hold it over our heads. For the record, we offered to pay our own way to Florida, and told them not to get us the washer/dryer, but they insisted.

We’ve always thanked them profusely for the things they’ve done for us and we gave them an open invitation to come visit the grandkids whenever they want. Since the fight two years ago, they have cut back their gifts to us substantially.

My husband and I agree on our finances, and we have never had an issue between the two of us when it comes to spending/investing/saving. We are in a really good financial place right now to be able to pay back the $5,000 gift. I don’t know how to pay it back or how to convince my husband that we should.

I know they won’t accept cash or a check. I don’t know where they bank so I can’t make an anonymous deposit. My husband doesn’t have a great relationship with his mom and he doesn’t usually talk finances with his dad.

Do you have any suggestions on how we might give them money so I don’t have to hear about it when my mother-in-law is on her death bed?

Clear financial conscience

Dear Clear financial conscience,

Your in-laws sound like good people. They also sound like they can be complicated people. I would say the same is true for you and your husband too. The same is true for all of us. We all do the best we can and, try as we might, we have expectations that can be too high or simply change daily. Your in-laws clearly have expectations about how much time they should spend with their grandchildren. And you may have an idea about how much time you can spend with them, given your schedules.

The problem, of course, arises when a friend or family member decides to “buy time” with gifts. I call it a gift tax. Every time you accept money or a new washer/dryer, you should note that it doesn’t come without strings. It doesn’t make your in-laws bad people, but people don’t lavish gifts on others if they don’t believe there’s some high status/low status dynamic to the relationship. They believe you need their help. They may have been persistent, but no one forces anyone to accept such gifts.

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When you sold your home, you had an opportunity to repay the $5,000 in a way that didn’t offend and say, “We’ve got this and we are so grateful you were there for us.” However, I believe the moment to return the money without any hurt feelings has passed. Returning this $5,000 is neither the sole cause nor the solution to your problem with your in-laws. Nor is the washer/dryer, or any of the other gifts. They complicate the relationship, but it’s too late to “unaccept” those gifts.

The Moneyist Facebook Group has some other novel ways of giving back to your in-laws. Here are just a few: Use the $5,000 to take them on a vacation. Use the money to hire a family counselor, and sit down with your in-laws and tell them how much you love them, and say you want to figure out a way to spend more time together. One group member also noted your dismay that they didn’t pay the amount of student loans they promised. I agree that you can’t have it both ways.

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Thank them for everything they’ve done, tell them how much you appreciate them and how important it is to have them in your lives and the lives of your grandchildren. You may even wish to acknowledge that sometimes you are busier than you would like to be and wish you could spend more time together. Ask them how much time they would like to spend with their grandchildren. You can’t reach a solution if you don’t know what you want and what they want too.

Formalize the relationship so you can make plans and make the time. You and your husband (and children) should all be comfortable with the arrangement. Be kind to yourself. You did the best you could at the time. Be kind to your in-laws. They’re doing their best too. This is story of generosity, love and hurt feelings. Of course, it’s nice when someone wants to spend time with us, but it can be overwhelming if we feel like their demands are more than we can accommodate.

One more thing: There are no bad guys in this story. That is my gift to you.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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