How Couples Can Avoid Holiday Conflict about Money and Gifts

Our marriage is a perfect storm. I grew up Christian which means that my year pretty much revolved around Christmas morning. It’s an oft-shared story in my family that I threw up on Christmas Eve 1980 because I was THAT excited about Santa. Further, my mother’s primary Love Language is “gifts” which means that the present-opening portion of Christmas lasted most of the day. I grew up and married a Jewish man whose Christmas memories center around togetherness, Chinese food, and a movie or two. Further, his family’s primary Love Language is “time together,” meaning that celebrations were heavy on food and events and light on presents. You see where this is going, right? Our marriage bridges both a religiously-based cultural difference and gift-based cultural difference. Like I said, it’s a perfect storm.

Even if you and your partner both celebrate the same holiday, ‘tis the season for conflict about how each of you–  and the families you come from– “do” the holidays. I’ve already addressed how an individual’s love language (and the one they inherited growing up in their family) shapes expectations around gifts. But there’s more to it. In this article we’ll focus on the fraught arena of gift-giving, and the complicated feelings about money that get evoked around gift-giving. The more self-awareness you have about your money story, the more you and your partner can approach the inevitable complexities of the holidays with a spirit of collaboration and care.

What is your Money Story?

At one level, money is straightforward. It’s dollars and cents. Earning, saving, spending are about just that! But when you unwrap the topic of money, you find it contains entire worlds of hidden meaning. Money as power. Money as control. Money as worthiness. Money as self-esteem. Money as love. 

My work as a teacher, writer, and therapist centers around helping people become more relationally self-aware. Relational self-awareness is defined as an ongoing curious and compassionate relationship with yourself that serves as the foundation for a happy and healthy intimate relationship. We develop relational self-awareness by being willing to ask ourselves, again and again, “What is this moment with my partner stirring up in me and why?” In an intimate relationship, it tends to be far easier to point our finger at our partner, labeling their behavior as wrong-headed, annoying, or problematic. It tends to be far more difficult to look inside ourselves and figure out what belief, tender spot, or expectation is being activated. And when it comes to money, there’s plenty of activation potential!

In an intimate relationship, there are three money stories: partner A’s, partner B’s, and the couple’s. Let’s focus on your money story. Your individual money story began when you were little, and it began with the simple fact that your family system had a socioeconomic status (SES) that was determined by race, gender, education, geography, immigration status, vocation, generational lineage, and economic opportunity. There was the reality of your family’s financial situation, but because our culture assigns meaning and worth to SES, you undoubtedly watched the people around you make meaning about your family’s financial situation, whatever it was. Kids are pint-sized social scientists, forever collecting “data” from the world around them. When you were a little person, you watched how the big people talked about and felt about money. Or maybe there were no conversations about money at all, which matters too because silence also leaves an imprint. All of your early observations about money live inside you today, shaping your relationship with gift-giving. 

You can practice relational self-awareness by examining how those early feelings about money get activated in the here and now. Pay attention to what bubbles up inside when you and your partner talk about holidays, gifts, and spending. Deepening your understanding of the beliefs and expectations you have regarding earning, saving, and spending will help you engage in a conversation responsively versus reactively.

  • Reactivity sounds like this: “I cannot believe you just spent all that money on gifts! You are spoiling our kids!”
  • Responsiveness sounds like this: “When I know you’re preparing to head to the mall, but we haven’t talked together about our plan, I feel worried and invisible. I don’t want to feel resentful, and I don’t want you to feel controlled. Can we work together to do this differently this year?”

Give the Gift of Agreements

Talking ahead of time about what each of you expect and hope for regarding gifts and spending will help you be responsive not reactive and will reduce the chances of feeling shame, disappointment, and anger. Language matters. I avoid talking with couples about compromises. When we talk in terms of compromises, the conversational frame is transactional– what I get, what I give up, what you get, and what you give up. A sense of me versus you gets reinforced, and inherent in the language of compromise is a sense of winning and losing. I prefer to help couples make agreements. Woven into the language of agreements is a sense that both people are proactively walking toward each other, working together to create a system that maximizes connection and minimizes resentment. 

If you begin your conversation by gifting each other with access into your respective money stories, agreements become the natural outcome. Creating a cushion of empathy for each other’s money stories will help you feel motivated to spend on gifts in a way that honors your partner’s tender spots. 

Work with your partner to create a spending agreement… also known as a budget! Once you’ve made this agreement, stick to it. If you catch yourself feeling sad that you’re not spending the way you want, see if you can shift your focus from feeling deprived about what you can’t get to feeling proud of what you’re doing in the service of your relationship. 

The holiday spending trap is even more intense for parents. Some families find it helpful to implement a Four Gift Rule. Each child receives something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. If you feel a swell of sadness about this idea, use that emotion as a data point. What is that sadness trying to tell you? What is at the root of that sadness? Perhaps when you were little, there wasn’t enough money for gifts, so lavishing on your children is an attempt to heal the little person you once were. Perhaps you work a lot of hours, and giving a lot of gifts is an effort to assuage parental guilt. Attending to the story attached to the feeling can quiet the feeling, freeing you up to make a different choice– one that won’t stir up relationship conflict!

There’s no right or wrong here, and every couple needs to create a system of agreements that will work for them. There may be some trial and error, so be gentle with yourselves. Further, what works in one chapter of your love story may not work in another chapter of your love story, so come back again and again to a curious conversation about what each of you wants and needs. I’ve included some questions at the end of this article to help you and your partner begin that conversation. As you engage in these conversations, remember that conflict about money and gifts does not happen because there are differences between partners. All couples have differences. Conflict about money and gifts happen because partners relate to their differences with avoidance, fear, and control instead of collaboration and curiosity.

Intimacy is Co-Created

Todd and I are approaching our 22nd Christmas as a married couple. Guided by plenty of trial and error, we have created a set of agreements that help us bridge our differences. We will wake up on Christmas morning at my mom’s home– our Jewish children adore their Nana’s nutcracker and gift-filled home. Todd will make a turkey sandwich and head to the movie theater while we open gifts in our PJs. (When my dad was alive, he would accompany Todd to the movies, appreciating the opportunity to be an honorary Jew for a few hours.) Although Todd never felt great about it, he made peace with the fact his kids spent their early years believing in Santa. When it comes to gifts from us to our kids, he has learned to trust me to spend mindfully, finding a shade of gray between nothing and Nana-level giving.

The relational agreements that guide us through the holidays feel far more like acceptance than resignation. As couples therapists are fond of saying, “You can be right or you can be happy.” Intimacy is created in the space between people, so rather than forcing ourselves or each other into some notion of the best way to celebrate the holidays, we have figured out what works for us.

Hold onto the dual perspective that money is about both the concrete and the emotional. Practice financial self-awareness so that you can be clear about the ways in which old issues are getting activated in the here-and-now. Work with your partner to create agreements that maximize connection and minimize resentment. The less stress you have going into the holidays, the more you can enjoy them together!

Questions to Understand Your Money Story 

Use these questions to expand your financial self-awareness and spark a conversation with your partner about gifts and spending.

  • How did your family of origin talk about people who had more money than you? How did your family of origin talk about people who had less money than you? What feelings stir inside of you as you reflect on this?
  • How did the adults in your home talk about spending and saving? What do you remember about how you felt when money was being spent or saved?
  • If your family of origin had a “money motto,” what would it be? (Examples: If you’ve got it, flaunt it; Save every penny because you never know what will happen next; The one with the bigger paycheck has more power in the relationship; Spending is love; Money can’t buy happiness.)
  • Which of your family’s financial beliefs align with who you want to be? What do you want to replicate and what do you want to shed?
  • What did these questions bring up for you? What feels like a new insight or an a-ha?

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