John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently moved in with my boyfriend, a big commitment to be sure. If things work out, we’ll be married in a year or so. He’s a wonderful person, and we have much in common. The only issue I have (and it’s a big one) is he has the worst taste in decor and furnishings. Honestly, I am no Martha Stewart, but he’s got wooden crates to keep belongings in. He loves his leather La-Z-Boy chair (ugh!) and even has a glass dining table that he sprays with Windex after dinner. I can’t take it! How can I reason with him? My stuff is not going to mesh with his. My tastes run toward Colonial and simple beachy styles. To answer your question, I sampled a variety of young people, married and not, who live together. In almost every case the answer to this problem was perhaps sexist. The women would say, “I make the major decisions about furnishings. I throw him a bone here and there for the sake of comfort and harmony.” And the guys would say, “I don’t care what furniture we have, really, as long as there’s a great couch and a seat I can call my ‘special chair.’ ” One of the women said, “It’s not that my husband has bad taste. He actually has no taste. But he’s got so many good qualities, it really doesn’t matter. Chintz is chintz, and who’s going to argue about a mahogany dining table?” This problem of decorating in a relationship should be way down the list of important issues, because it can be solved by his abdication in this case. He doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about the furniture, as long as he can sit on it or sleep on it. You won. You are in control. And if he were a horrible dresser, you could fix that as well. As far as other areas are concerned, like sex and children and in-laws and money, feel free to write in again when the real rubber meets the real road.
I’m giving a dinner party for 10 people, and I want to make sure it’s memorable for the guests (in a good way). What can I do to enhance the experience, to make it different? First of all, I like to switch up the characters a little and get people out of their comfort zone. Don’t just invite old friends who know each other; invite new people in your life, people from different occupations and walks of life. Just know that in Boston, if you invite people from different political backgrounds, it can be a recipe for disaster. So be careful about raising subjects that can inflame the guests.
I’m also a big believer in toasts and the clinking of glasses all around. If you’re the host or hostess, mention something that defines your old friendship or underscore something special or funny that keeps you friends. It loosens things up. Then between the main course and dessert, as host, I would also tap on a glass and tell the guests, “Just to really personalize this evening, I’d like us to go around the table and have each of you tell us something about your first job after college.” This little game is always a great character study. The responses are often funny, and they tend to teach all of us a lesson about human nature and the sometimes accidental nature of life. “What’s the most embarrassing moment of your life?” and “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten, and who did you get it from?” likewise sparked lively conversation at recent gatherings I’ve attended. Unless you’re an amazing cook, dinner parties should be all about the company and the potential for new friendships. These elements are much more important than the food.
I haven’t tried Airbnb yet, but I do use various travel websites to book rooms at good prices. Often, particularly in New York, I get rooms looking out onto air shafts or construction, and it kind of ruins the fun of experiencing another town. I’m shy about asking for a different room. I don’t want to appear pushy. What? You don’t want to appear to be pushy in New York? The inventors of this game? One of the things I preach to young adults is “You should have more Brooklyn and New Jersey in you.” This means that, even if you’re shy and self-effacing, there are times when you have to stand up for yourself. My first investment company went broke, and we were acquired out of bankruptcy. I was too young to be too damaged by this, and I took my client list and showed up at the new firm. One of their big producers of business said to me, “What’s the deal you cut?”
I said, “I didn’t ask for anything. I think that if I work hard and produce, I’ll be rewarded.”
“Don’t be a schmuck,” he said. “If you ever become someone who really brings in commissions, always ask for perks, for a bigger slice of the pie. If you stand in the back of the room, thinking you’ll be noticed, forget it. You’ve got to be a little tiger if you think you’re worth it. Always have a non-negotiable demand. Don’t be a schmuck.” He was right. Sometimes you have to learn to sharpen your elbows.
I know a very busy couple who are never satisfied with any restaurant or hotel. They have to always work it. But they have a sense of humor. Whenever they check into any hotel, the man will say, “Why don’t you just show us the third room you were taking us to? It’ll be much easier on you.” Take a tip from the pros. If you’re unhappy with something you’re paying for, do something about it.