Asking for advice: my parents keep renovating their McMansion, my sister and I have debts

Would those who spend money renovating their McMansions be better served by helping their adult children with that money? From the one seeking advice:

My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy, and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That’s fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy…

My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I’ve had a job since I was 14), and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We’re not asking for any help.

But I don’t want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don’t even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It’s all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.

Advice columnist responds:

But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.

There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”

It does not sound as though the McMansion is the actual problem. Yes, the letter writer is upset because the mom both spends money on their McMansion (which, in the letter writer’s opinion, does not need more work) and then spends a lot of time talking about it. But, it seems as though the McMansion could be replaced by a number of objects or hobbies associated with people with resources. It could be golf, fixing up old cars, buying collectible items, playing bridge, or any number of things that, according to the letter-writer, keep the mom from paying sufficient attention to her kids.

At the same time, the McMansion is a potent symbol here. Since it is such a pejorative and loaded term, it leads readers toward a particular kind of person: one with poor taste in architecture, lots of money, and an interest in flaunting their status through their home. Additionally, who would prioritize their expensive home over the real needs of their children? These are not just parents who happen to live in a McMansion; these are unlikable McMansion owners.

Are McMansion owners on the whole more generous with their family? Do they have money to spare and give it away? Others have argued McMansions are bad for children; it is not clear from this letter whether the advice seeker grew up in this home. Could a whole generation of Americans reveal hurts produced by or in McMansions? Even with the attention they receive, widespread tales of childhood McMansion woes are unlikely given the actual number of McMansions in the United States.

Disapproval of a boyfriend who lives in a van/tiny house?

One letter writer to Dear Prudence thinks that her boyfriend’s life in “a pretty impressive tiny house” may not be approved by her loved ones:

Q. Man with a van: I met a guy online, and we’re far enough along that I’ve told some family and friends, but they haven’t met him yet. Here’s the rub: He is currently living in a van, which he has turned into a pretty impressive tiny house. He’s doing it for thoughtful and responsible reasons. I think it’s cool, but I know people in my life are going to find it off-putting and judge him negatively. I want them to meet him first before I explain this. I also don’t want him to know I’m overthinking this and freak him out about meeting people in my life. Should I get it over with and tell them?

A: I think this is an unnecessary burden you are taking on yourself. Let him tell people. He can explain his thoughtful and responsible reasons better than anyone else. If your friends have questions or politely worded judgments for you afterward, you can handle them as they come, but don’t feel responsible for managing other people’s perceptions of your boyfriend’s living situation. What he does is unusual, and your friends might have questions, and that’s fine. If you come across as desperate to justify his choices, you’ll mostly just come across as desperate.

Prudence suggests the letter writer should take it easy and let the boyfriend explain things. But, this sort of sidesteps the possible issues:

  1. Is the van/tiny house not really that nice? Or, is it simply hard to tell from the outside how nice it is?
  2. Perhaps the family members and friends would see living in a van or vehicle as a negative consequence related to not having a good job or education. If so, is the issue really not the van but rather what it might signify?
  3. I wonder if some people simply wouldn’t react well to tiny houses. They may not understand how or why someone wants such a space. Perhaps they view such housing as transitory, not a long-term solution.

My guess is the issue is #2: living in your van is not a positive status symbol. But, since it is a tiny house, perhaps the couple can throw a party at the van/tiny house to introduce everyone…

Quick tips for living in a microunit

Here are four tips for living in a micro-unit:

Those who live in Tweet-sized units know it takes certain adjustments, and they have advice to offer — wisdom that even McMansion dwellers might find beneficial.

Don’t eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in bed (even if it is in your “kitchen”).

Host only people you like. Really think about how you spend your time and with whom.

Take a zero-tolerance approach to clutter.

The truth is that “micro” — like virtually everything else in life — is relative.

An interesting mix of ideas. I think three and four are most helpful: less space means you simply can’t hold onto as much and living in a small space requires a different mindset that may not take some long to get used to. The first two are quirkier. If you have limited space, why not eat in bed? Is this about keeping some semblance of a “normal” life where people don’t eat all their meals in the bedroom? Didn’t the Romans often eat reclining? The second hints at some different social dynamics. Just like some commentary these days suggesting you really should pare down your friends list on Facebook, having a smaller unit means you have to be serious about who you invite over. And it may not just be about a numbers game of how many people you fit inside; it might also be about who can work with a small space. Imagine a really loud party person; they may not work well in little space.

While much of the interest in tiny houses has been about design or providing affordable housing (and perhaps these goals are mutually exclusive), there will likely be a growing commentary on what it takes to live in such spaces. How might tiny houses really change your whole mindset or won’t it matter so much as these smaller spaces spread?