If we’ve learned anything in the last few years, we feel more divided than ever on almost everything, and especially on money. I’d hedge a bet to say we’re much closer together than we are far apart, but I can’t deny there certainly seems to be more tension in the air. Tensions that often come up around the holidays.
The holidays are different for everyone –– some of us have large family gatherings across multiple generations, and others decide to celebrate with their chosen family and friends. Regardless, whenever people get together, tough topics seem to surface. So how do we handle difficult conversations around the dinner table (or the football game) without resorting to name-calling and snark?
Set healthy boundaries
It is completely valid for you to decide what you are and are unwilling to engage in money or political conversations around the holidays. But even our best intentions sometimes run dry. It’s so easy for a seemingly harmless topic to devolve into total chaos. One minute you’re talking about the forecast, and the next, a heated (pun intended) debate about climate change and taxes breaks out.
Suddenly your comment about the sunny day has turned into a trail of landmines. In this situation, it is more than OK to either a) leave the conversation entirely or b) gently re-route it with a firm reminder of predetermined rules around politics and money conversation.
If you know that your family is likely to bring up touchy subjects, a great way to set a boundary before you visit is to plainly state what you will and will not discuss. For example, you can head into your stay with a simple “I’d prefer to keep conversation light this week” or even a more explicit “I’d like to avoid political or financial conversations and instead spend time focusing on enjoying our time together.”
When you set boundaries beforehand, you can circle back to them when they’re being pushed. A simple reminder of the agreement or boundary you set with your family can be a powerful tool.
As a reminder –– “no” is a complete sentence.
Flipping the conversation to the positive
Not everyone wants to avoid these subjects –– often, it’s more about making sure that they don’t devolve into arguments. This is especially true if you have a family that likes to know everything about what’s happening in your life so they can give you an opinion on it.
Questions like “how much are you making?”, “are you still living at home?” or even “how much do you have saved?” can feel invasive. A great way to answer these questions without completely shutting down is to respond with a question in return OR give a more neutral answer.
For example, if a family member asks how much you make, you might be able to reply, “well, I’m a software engineer, and most people who work in my field in my city make between $XX,XXX, and $XX,XXX –– are you interested in becoming one?” Suppose they ask about your savings or retirement, and you’re not keen on answering directly. In that case, you can always say, “I like to follow a few different blogs and creators for financial wisdom –– I have a great resource on saving for retirement I can send you!”
You’ve effectively turned the conversation around and have answered honestly without diving too deep into your personal information.
Another great way to flip into the positive is to start this conversation yourself with questions that dive less into specifics and more into goals. For instance, you can ask questions like:
If you want to have better conversations around finances, starting with dreams and goals is a great way to get people to talk without them (or you) feeling invaded or uncomfortable.
What to talk about if you DO want to talk money
I’ve gone over some of the not-so-fun conversations that can pop up around the table, but I don’t think that completely shutting down every conversation about money is always the way to go.
When you’re with family again for the first time in a while, there are tons of great topics you might want to engage in. Things like how retirement planning is going for your family members or some of the exciting things you’re learning about.
The holidays are a fun time to share what you’ve learned over the year, from your big financial wins to promotions or even what you’ve learned in the midst of struggle. A great way to bring this up organically is to steal a page out of every Hallmark Holiday movie and go around the table and say a few things you are thankful for.
It might be cheesy, but keeping with the theme of focusing on the positive, this is a great way to start.
Navigating holiday budgets
Another (possibly unmentioned but implied) conversation we’re all engaging in during the holidays is how to navigate gift-giving or other expenses. There can be shame on both sides of this conversation, whether you make substantially less or substantially more than your family and friends.
Shame and money are tied up in so many ways, and it’s easy to slip into that mindset around the holidays. This is another excellent time to set some firm boundaries or ground rules with your family and friends.
In either situation, an excellent way to handle this conversation is by asking about budgets. For example, if you’re heading to a family gathering where you’re expected to give a gift, ask those attending if they’d like to set a budget range for the gifts. If they list something outside of your budget, a great way to respond is, “I am so glad you’re so excited about giving –– I love to give, too! Unfortunately, that price range is outside of my budget. I’d really like to participate in this year’s gift-giving, and a budget closer to $XXX would allow me to do so. Can we get closer to that number?”
The reality is, they may decline. So, what do you do then? My advice is to do what you can with your budget and make the best of it. We will all go through seasons when we can give lavish gifts and seasons when money is tight. Shame will tell you it’s not OK, but shame is a liar.
You may have to say no to things you can’t afford. It’s disappointing, but it’s better to be transparent and hold your budget boundary than to spend your holidays frazzled or racking up credit card debt.
While you’re navigating holiday spending and holiday conversations, I recommend using Personal Capital’s free personal finance tools to manage your money. Personal Capital is the tool I check daily for tracking my net worth and my progress towards goals like retirement saving and debt payoff.
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