On being–and paying–upfront

If there are two things I’ve learned from the advice columns, they’re 1) Don’t date married dudes and 2) Don’t expect to be paid for work if you haven’t billed for it.

Both were featured in Annie’s Mailbox today.

LW1 is depressingly predictable:

Dear Annie: I am at a crossroads and need your advice. For the past two years, I have been dating an older married man who works at my office. I started seeing him after my husband and I split up.

Our time together is limited. He comes over to my house once or twice during the workweek and spends some time with me every other weekend when my kids are with their father. We are in contact by cell phone, and I text him throughout the day and evening. We are never together in public unless it is out of town.

My problem is, he has told me he will leave his wife, but he hasn’t yet. When I don’t see him on a night he is supposed to come over, I get angry. He later apologizes, and I forgive him. This has gotten to be our regular routine.

I feel like I have wasted these past two years, but for some reason I keep coming back for more. Should I give up? — P.H.

Le sigh.

LW2, while perhaps less cliche than the “other woman,” is just as common.  Year after year, bitter doctors, lawyers, plumbers, roofers, and interior decorators write letters, complaining that their friends and family are taking advantage of their services in (what’s supposed to be) their off-time.

Thing is, though, most times the person complaining hasn’t made it clear what their services cost them–in time, expertise, or supplies–and therefore how much compensation they require.  For example:

Dear Annie: I respect and love my ex-brother-in-law, “Joe,” like my own kin.

I am a carpenter’s apprentice with excellent skills. Joe, along with several family members, called and asked for my help with some repairs on his home so that he could receive family and friends after his second wife died last year.

I agreed, for a fee, but didn’t specify the price. I told him I’d leave that up to him. The repairs were extensive. I fixed two roofs and the interior ceiling, replaced shingles, patched many holes throughout the house, put up window coverings and painted most of the interior.

Knowing that this is my livelihood and I am currently out of work, I expected to hear from Joe when I finished.

// //
//

I gave him a two-month grace period before I mentioned the money. He responded as if I were being disrespectful of the dead. He yelled at me and hung up the phone.

Now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do I sue him for the repairs or let it go? — Sick and Tired in Connecticut

Should the XBIL have yelled and hung up the phone?  Of course not.  But clearly the arrangements had never been clear from the start.  How do you agree “for a fee,” without saying what the fee is?  How do you sue, when there was no agreed upon payment?  How is it a grace period, if the person you’re gracing isn’t aware that you’re counting down the days until you lower the hammer?

S&T and the XBIL should have reviewed the repairs, and S&T should have given an estimate.  It doesn’t have to be what he would charge a regular customer–of course he’s free to cut friends and family as good a deal as he wants.  But it’s asking for trouble to expect unspoken, unwritten, undecided payment.

Further, as an expert in the field, it’s not fair to ask non-experts to determine how much to pay.  Say the XBIL gave S&T $1,000.  No doubt that’s far less than the value of the repairs.  And yet it also seems like a pretty large sum to pay to a relative and friend doing some fashion of a favor.  Would S&T be affronted to be paid so little, or embarrassed to take so much?

Plus, how should the bereaved XBIL know what the going rate is for window repair and roofing, or when S&T expects to receive a check? Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, but most people don’t want to stiff their loved ones, either.  They just don’t know what’s appropriate.  I expect even if LW2’s phone call had gone well, and XBIL was eager to pay, he still would have asked, “how much do I owe you?”

It’s easy to think that with friends and family, talking about money will be awkward and unpleasant–so it should go unmentioned.  But the awkwardness of telling your buddy how much you’ll charge him to repair his roof is nothing compared to the awkwardness of attempting to sue him for not paying you the fee you didn’t ask for.

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