How to talk with family members about money at holiday gatherings

When money comes up at family holiday gatherings, the results can be uncomfortable. Whether it’s your brother asking you for money or you trying to inquire about your parents’ financial stability as they eye retirement, the subject is ripe for awkwardness.

Since it’s a season full of family get-togethers, U.S. News asked personal finance experts how to handle those inevitable conversations. Here are their best tips:

Delay big conversations. If you have to talk to your mom about needing to borrow more money from her, or about how she’s going to afford retirement, then you might want to consider scheduling a date to have those more challenging conversations after the holidays. “Everyone is sensitive about money around the holidays, and it’s an expensive season,” says Sandra Hanna, co-founder and CEO of, an online money community for women. “Put a money date with your parents on the calendar,” she suggests, so you know that after the craziness of the season passes, you’ll sit down together to address big financial issues.

But don’t delay them forever. Margaret Paddock, market leader for U.S. Bank’s The Private Client Reserve, learned the hard way that a lack of family planning can take a big financial and emotional toll. When her mother was diagnosed with dementia at age 53, she and her family were suddenly thrown into the world of understanding Medicare, searching for adult day care and finding support groups. She and her sister weren’t sure if their mother preferred to live in a facility or with her or her sister.

Based on that experience, Paddock encourages people to have those difficult conversations with parents while they are still healthy. “If you haven’t had those conversations with your children, it’s important to talk to them about what your wishes are. Who would you like to have as a trustee or to handle your affairs? Ask your child if they’re interested in taking on that burden,” she suggests.

Adult children should also know where their parents’ primary financial institution is, who their trusted financial, legal and tax advisors are, and where legal documents are kept, such as wills and life insurance documents. Paddock suggests calling a family meeting after the holidays but before everyone has traveled back to their homes. Even a basic meeting can help lay the foundation for future open dialogue, she says.

Bring in outside examples. “It helps to reference something you’ve read in the news or a story to launch a conversation with your parents about the touchy topic of their money,” says Farnoosh Torabi, host of the “So Money” podcast and NerdWallet financial contributor. That helps you avoid saying something potentially jarring, like, “Do you have enough money to retire?” she says.

Torabi says she would begin a conversation with parents approaching retirement by saying something nonthreatening like, “How do you two see yourselves retiring?” Since that’s an open-ended question, it lets them answer how they want to, and it can even lead to a fun discussion. You can let your parents steer the conversation in the direction they want, she says, adding that if you need to, you can mention stories you’ve heard of people downsizing or saving money in unique ways to prepare for the costs of retiring. Then, you can turn the topic back to your parents by asking what they think about that idea.

Prepare older children for any major changes. If you need to have a leaner holiday season this year because of budgeting restrictions, then Bethany and Scott Palmer (who have no relation to the author) from suggest letting your older children know about it. “We see parents blow it when they’re stressed out; they don’t know what to do,” Bethany Palmer says. While a 5-year-old doesn’t need to know the details of your financial situation, older children will notice changes, so you’ll want to assure them that you will still have a celebratory time, but it will involve spending less money.

“You don’t need to scare them about credit card debt, just say, ‘Things are a little tight. We’re still going to have lots of fun and a great Christmas — we just want you to know,'” Bethany Palmer says. “It’s important to be upfront about it, or they’ll wonder.” Talking about the situation ahead of time will also reduce the chances of an outburst around the family table or an uncomfortable question with extended family members about why things feel different this year.

Learn how to change the subject. If Aunt Milda asks if you’ve paid off your credit card debt or when you’re going to find a better paying job, you might just not feel like talking about it, and that’s OK. “If it’s uncomfortable for you, it’s probably uncomfortable for everyone in the room,” Bethany Palmer says. She suggests changing the subject quickly and emphatically with a lighthearted statement like, “That’s an interesting question — let’s talk about it later?” Then ask her to pass you the pie.

Talk about gifting in advance. “Blended families often run into awkward money conversations due to fears of being upstaged in the gifting department. The last thing either parent needs are feelings of competition and resentment around who could buy the better gift,” says Sheri Atwood, founder of SupportPay, a platform that automates child support payments and makes it easy to manage and track child-related expenses. To avoid that problem, she suggests openly discussing budgets, assigning gifts to each parent and sharing costs for the more expensive items.

Talking about gifts in advance can be a good idea in other situations, too, such as when you start dating someone new. Lauren Bowling, the blogger behind L Bee and the Money Tree, says people often worry about giving a bigger gift than they receive, or vice versa, and what that might signal to the other person. The same situation can come up between friends and co-workers, she adds.

To help combat that awkwardness, Bowling suggests talking in advance about your plans and setting aside a time to discuss expectations. Families can also plan a white elephant exchange with an explicit price limit, she adds. “Be upfront with the person you need to talk to, and speak plainly about your needs,” she says.

Talk with your spouse, but don’t necessarily tell him or her to spend less on you. “If you have a debt problem, then yes, you need to talk about it if you don’t want them to spend as much on you this year, but if you don’t, then don’t say anything. You don’t want to squelch their generosity,” Scott Palmer says. Telling your spouse that you want him or her to spend less can ruin the holiday spirit. “The relationship is the most important thing to protect,” he adds.

Suggest alternatives. If your friends and family are proposing dinners at five-star restaurants, but you’re counting your dollar bills hoping to cover rent, then suggest a cheaper choice, such as meeting up for a potluck brunch or coffee date. “You can say things like, ‘I know this is an expensive season; I earmarked by dollars for a few things, so I’m focusing my money on some other places,'” Hanna says, or suggest alternatives without even mentioning money.

A little preparation can help ensure the holidays go smoothly, even if awkward money topics enter the discussion.

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How to Talk With Family Members About Money at Holiday Gatherings originally appeared on

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