4 Ways To Discuss Money During the Holidays…Without Family Drama

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Ahhh Thanksgiving… a time when families gather around the big dining room table to eat turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. But somehow it also has a tendency to turn awkward when that one family member starts making everyone feel uncomfortable by talking about politics, money or other controversial topics. While we can’t necessarily help you if cousin Billy starts telling you how you should vote, we can share some tips on how you can discuss money during the holidays without family drama.

Christmas…Isn’t A Surprise – Don’t Let It Sneak Up On You!

I think that I heard that Christmas is going to be on December 25th this year, right? So there’s no reason that you can’t start planning for it BEFORE you get right down to the wire and blow the budget with a ton of impulse purchases.

Believe me – I do understand the struggle. I have 6 kids, and every year, my wife and I tell ourselves that THIS year we’re going to get all the Christmas shopping done by November, and each year, it seems like we’re always scrambling at the last minute. But if you don’t make a plan, the chances of you overspending increase drastically! So now’s the time to talk with your family and manage expectations or look at the holiday traditions you have and decide what is truly important to you.

Manage Expectations About Money and Gifts

One of my wife’s favorite sayings is that “most hurt feelings come from unmet expectations”, and nowhere is this truer than with money, holidays or worse, money AND holidays! If I give you $20, you’re probably going to be super excited, right? Well, unless you were EXPECTING that I give you $100! Then your “free” $20 turns into a major disappointment.

In our family, we have learned that asking people what their expectations are for things like holidays and anniversaries goes a long way into keeping feelings (and budgets!) happy. What we do is before each holiday, birthday or anniversary, we’ll sit down and ask about expectations. What are you expecting and what would you like to have happen? Since neither my wife nor I are mind readers, we don’t always know what the other person is expecting. But once we do talk about it, we try our best to make it happen.

People’s expectations come into play a lot during the holidays since you have years of expectations that are deeply ingrained into many family dynamics, and it may feel mildly uncomfortable to bring up. Still, it’s my belief that it’s better to have those expectations out in the open rather than hiding them (only to result in disappointment when they’re not met!)

Take A Look at Holiday Traditions and Decide What’s Important

Along those lines, now is a great time to take a look at some of your family’s holiday traditions and decide which ones are truly important. A good rule of thumb I like to use is to bring up the Abilene Paradox, where a group of people all decide to visit Abilene (Texas), even though individually, NONE of them actually want to go! 

This happens a lot with holiday traditions – you end up doing the same things over and over each year just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, even as family situations and dynamics have changed. A friend of mine told me of a situation in her extended family where they had been doing a Christmas group gift exchange for years. It started out well but as the years went on, the families got larger, and the kids got older, it started falling apart. Still, nobody wanted to be the one to step up and “pull the plug”. Eventually, my friend and her sister-in-law got together, realized that neither of them wanted to do this anymore, and they ended it gracefully.

Now, this might not happen to you – there may very well be traditions in your family that everyone but you enjoys, so you might end up having to take one for the team.

In our family, we’ve decided that we are much more into “experiences” than physical gifts, and so we try to target our gift-giving towards traveling more and making memories with each other. Your family may be different but you won’t know until you start talking about it.

A Few Ways To “Trick” Kids and Stay Under Budget

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a few ideas I’ve used to “trick” my kids regarding holiday gifts while still staying under budget:

  • Kids (especially younger kids) tend to count their total number of gifts rather than a specific dollar amount. Most of my kids would be much happier with 4 $10 gifts than 1 larger gift that costs $50
  • Having said that, if there’s that one thing that they simply MUST have and have been talking about for months, then that’s the one to get! Just make sure that you talk with them beforehand to help set expectations. 
  • This works better as kids get older, but work with them to set realistic wish lists. All kids seem to make their holiday wish lists but as kids get older, it makes sense to help them set realistic guidelines. Consider having them separate their lists into different budget categories
  • Another idea that has been making the rounds on social media is the “4 gift rule” for Christmas: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read”. It doesn’t have to be these specific categories, but it’s a good framework to help keep Christmas more meaningful along with more budget-friendly.

I hope these tips help give you some ideas on how to navigate talking about money over the holidays so you can be less stressed and enjoy spending time with your loved ones!