The holiday season is usually a time of joy, generosity and celebration, but the whirlwind of social obligations, family commitments and financial demands can also be draining. Combine these stresses, and quarrels can easily erupt among even the happiest of couples.
Fights about money are already the most common source of discord among American couples throughout the year, triggering an average of three arguments per month according to a recent study by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AIPCA). Add some financial pressure to the holiday mix, and the good cheer can quickly turn to bickering.
Don’t let squabbles about financial matters ruin your holiday. Here are some things that couples often disagree about during the holidays and tips on how to dodge them:
1. “Flying across the country to visit your family is too expensive.” For many, holiday plans include traveling, which can come with an expensive price tag. Even local travel to social events for work or to see nearby family and friends takes time and gas money. Long distance trips can be very costly and fraught with family politics. Clear communication and calendar planning are key to avoiding confrontation. Make a list of all of your family’s social and travel options and discuss them with your spouse or partner. Each of you might have different opinions about which are priorities, but try to make some compromises like discounted lodging and flights or an every-other-year schedule. Remember that it’s okay to say “no” to invitations if the cost – to your energy, emotional health or budget – is too much. You can always schedule a visit to see loved ones later at a less hectic (and usually less expensive) time.
2. “We need to buy gifts for our kids, colleagues and cousins.” Depending on your personal values, traditions and upbringing, you and your spouse or partner may have differences of opinion about whether to buy gifts, who to buy for and how much to spend. Sit down with your spouse early on and make a list of those for whom you want to purchase presents; then prioritize. Discuss where you want to spend the most or least, agree on a general gift budget and divvy up the cash accordingly. But before you finalize your gift budget, ask yourself if you’re spending your money the way you truly want to. It can be easy to overspend on presents that will be quickly forgotten and to get caught up in the shopping frenzy. Make conscious spending choices that are in alignment with your values.
3. “We’re spending way too much on parties.” The AICPA survey indicated that of money fights between couples, about half are a result of unexpected expenses. Holiday spending can extend far beyond the obvious, and can encompass a wide range of costs. Attending parties and social events may lead to the need (or desire) to purchase hostess gifts or new outfits. You may incur higher than normal childcare costs, and even rack up unanticipated taxi or parking fees. Holiday home décor (inside and out), wrapping paper, gift bags and cards can also get pricey. Add all of these items together and you may be in for sticker shock. While surprise costs can sometimes occur due to events beyond your control, in general, careful planning and conversation in advance can uncover expenses you may have otherwise forgotten. When looking at your overall holiday budget, make a list of all possible expenses (if possible, base this on what you spent last year) and discuss what is important to you as a couple. If unexpected expenses threaten to strain your finances, work together to determine what you can do without in the coming weeks to get back on track.
4. “You should have asked me before buying that!” Money is complicated and, unfortunately, can bring out control issues within couples – which can worsen under stress. Partners may monitor and question each other’s purchases. One spouse may even feel that he or she is entitled to make decisions or override the other’s opinion if his or her paycheck is larger. Partners may withhold financial information or even sneak purchases behind the other’s back. It’s important to remember that money should not be used as a manipulative tool in a relationship. Damaging your joint finances can hurt the entire family, so to avoid financial control conflicts during the holidays, communicate as often and as openly as possible. Transparency, joint planning, respect for each other’s’ opinions and frequent conversations can help you stay on track.
De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.