By Maggie Ellis, guest writer
It’s that time of year again. The time of year when my spouse and I are punished for our thrifty ways. How are we punished you ask? By being forced to spend the holidays with our families who are, at best, financial half-wits. (Half-wit is probably generous in some cases. No-wit might be more appropriate.)
We both come from large families that sport an assortment of siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, and even more distant relatives that we barely know. Big holiday gatherings are the norm on both sides and skipping out simply isn’t an option unless we want to hear about it for the entire coming year, which we do not. We prefer to just man up and get it over with.
Of course there are good things about getting together with our families, but when the talk turns to money matters (and somehow it always does), things get dicey for the two of us. See, somehow we turned out to be the only two in this entire group who grew up to be financially responsible. It was a case of growing up responsible in spite of, not because of, our upbringings. Both families tend to be very loose with their money and, as a result, tend not to have any. And they like to complain about it. A lot. Loudly. And they like to try to make us feel bad about our hard-won financial success. If they’re not laying the guilt trip on us, they’re (sometimes subtly, but usually not) asking for money. I’m sure there will be even more joy this year since the economy is in the tank. If ever there was a year to complain about things, this is it. And as a representative of those hated few who have managed to stay solvent this year without too many financial hiccups, I’m sure we’re in for double the fun.
Before you jump on me saying, “Well, if they’re that bad you must really rub their faces in your success. Otherwise how do they know you’re well off?” let me assure you that it’s the opposite. We try not to talk about money, we certainly never boast about how much we have, and we don’t drive luxury cars or wear designer clothes. We are not rich and probably never will be. What we are is financially stable and responsible. This is family though, and even if you don’t come right out and say it, they know. They know that we travel a lot during the year. They know that we flew to the reunion rather than driving. They know that we own a house and two cars. I’m not sure that they know we own them outright because we’ve certainly never mentioned it, but I think they suspect. They’ve visited with us and observed that we aren’t struggling. Since we never complain about money, it’s unspoken that we’re okay. (Hey! Maybe that’s what we need to do: Make up some fake complaints just to throw them off the trail.) It’s family. They know all.
A typical holiday scenario goes like this:
Relative: “Yeah, so I heard you’ll be going to the Grand Canyon this summer.”
Us: “Yeah. Finally saved enough money to splurge this year.”
Relative: “Lucky you. Things have been so bad around here, no one’s been on vacation since 1952. You know Ed lost his job last year and hasn’t found one yet.”
Us: “What’s he looking for? What sort of work?”
Relative: “He doesn’t know. He’ll know it when he finds it.”
Us: “Good luck with that. Pass the turkey.”
Or there’s this popular conversation:
Relative: “I guess you heard that we got foreclosed on.”
Us: “No, I hadn’t heard. I’m sorry about that.’
Relative: “Well, what are you gonna do. After Sam lost his job because he couldn’t show up on time because of his messed up sleep cycles, we couldn’t make the payment.”
Us: “I’m really sorry.’
Relative: “Yeah, we tried to talk to the bank but they just wouldn’t listen to reason. They insisted that we at least make some payment in order to avoid getting kicked out. But we couldn’t make the house payment and pay for Sam’s Durango and my Expedition. You know how high gas prices have been. How’s a person supposed to cope?”
Us: (Mumbling into the food and trying to hide) “I guess it’s hard times all around.”
Relative: “Yeah well, anyway, they threw us out. Can you believe it?”
Us: “Gee, nope.”
Relative: “Heard you all were going to the Grand Canyon this summer.”
Us: “Yeah.” (Getting very wary now)
Relative: “Must be nice. Since you got all that money, think you could push a little this way. We’ll pay you back as soon as Sam gets over his sleep issues and gets a new job.”
Us: (Hollering into the living room) “What’s the score of the game in there?” Then to the offending relative, “Pass the turkey.”
And this gem:
Relative: “Let me show you the watch I got your Uncle for Christmas.”
Us: “Oh, that’s very nice.”
Relative: “Yeah, you won’t believe how much it set me back. Of course, we can’t really afford it, but the look on his face will be so worth it. I put it on the credit card. I’ll pay it off one day. Maybe. But I’ve got to finish paying off that purse I bought in 1997, first. And the Wii I bought your cousin last year. Well, it’s Christmas, right? Gotta splurge. I’m sure you got each other something great.”
Us: “The usual. Some books, a good board game, and a few other odds and ends that we needed”
Relative: “Doesn’t make for much of a Christmas, does it? I mean where’s the fun in that?”
Us: “Well, it works for us.”
Relative: “Yeah, but with your money? Think of the stuff you could give each other. Trips, jewelry. I can only dream about that stuff. Why is money always wasted on those who won’t use it.”
Us: “Oh, we use it. Pass the turkey.”
And on it goes. And no, I’m not making this up. This, or variants of it, happens every holiday season. The relatives either have no clue about financial matters, no work ethic, no priorities, or a shopping problem. Or a combination of some or all of these. Note that none of them is facing true poverty. If that were the case, my take would be different. These people simply suffer from a serious case of financial irresponsibility and “I want it now, so damn the consequences” disease. So if you find yourself surrounded by similar half-wits, how should you handle it? Here are my tried and true methods for surviving the holidays if you’re the only financially sound one in the bunch.
1. Skip out if you can: That’s not an option for us since the financial guilt trip simply becomes the, “You didn’t show up for Christmas” guilt trip, but if you can skip out, I highly recommend grabbing that life-ring and using it.
2. Think like Switzerland: Switzerland is known for its neutrality and refusal to engage in any skirmish. Do the same. If someone tries to draw you into a discussion about money, change the subject. If that fails, offer neutral responses like, “I’m sorry,” or “Uh-huh,” or “Yeah, well, times are tough all over.” Don’t fall for the, “I guess you heard on the news how Company X laid off 10,000 workers” conversation gambit. If you do, you open the door to a thorough analysis of what’s wrong with the economy in general and the particulars of what’s wrong Aunt Emily’s finances. Repeat after me: I am Switzerland. I refuse to engage.
3. Showing sympathy is fine, but beware of crossing over into empathy: When the complaining starts it’s fine to say something like, “I’m really sorry that happened to you.” But steer clear of anything that sounds like true commiseration. The minute you say, “I know exactly how you feel,” you open yourself up to an even longer whine fest and you leave your flank open for, “Since you understand, I know you won’t mind loaning us just a few dollars until Uncle Bud gets a job.”
4. Don’t divulge personal details: Chances are your family already knows enough dirt on you to make you cringe, particularly the close relatives. They already know how well you’re doing and they resent the hell out of you. No need to make it worse by advertising your upcoming vacation plans, or what you bought each other for Christmas, or talking about the sweet deal you just got on that great used car in the driveway. If you divulge anything at all, they will pounce on you and make you feel guilty for your success. They will launch into stories about how they haven’t vacationed since dirt was invented or had a new car since Truman was president. If anyone asks you anything, simply answer yes or no and go no further. If you get backed into a corner, change the subject. “Pass the turkey,” works for us.
5. Do not become an ATM: If you give to one relative, you might as well give to them all. Because they are going to descend on you like a plague of locusts until they have bled you dry. I know. One year, long before we knew better, we gave a little money to a struggling relative that we were both close to. We didn’t expect pay back (we knew it would never come so we just gave it as a gift). Despite our request that the gift remain between us, everyone knew about it within the day. And then they were on us. One by one they were pulling us into alcoves asking for “a little something to tide us over,” or “a little something for the kids.” We turned them all down but of course left a lot of bruised feelings in our wake. To this day, some brave soul will still ask for money and when we say no, pout and say, “Well you gave to so and so.” Yeah. Fifteen years ago. Families have long memories. No matter how tempted you are or how sorry the story, keep your wallet firmly shut.
6. Watch out for the sneak attack disguised as kids: Some crafty relatives will lay the guilt on by using their kids. “Well, we couldn’t get Junior anything for Christmas this year except a pair of socks. Sure would be nice if we could get him a few other things.” They’re hoping you jump in here with an offer to go to the mall and melt your credit card (or, better yet, that you just write a check that they then will spend on themselves and not the kids) but don’t fall for it. It’s fine for you to give what you’re comfortable giving to the kids in your extended family, but don’t be guilted into doing more than that. Ultimately, it’s the parent’s responsibility to take care of their own families needs. Not yours.
7. Spend a lot of time outside: I don’t care if it’s freezing cold, snowing, or raining. One of the best escape strategies is to head outside. Chances are, only the smokers will be out there so you greatly reduce the chances of an ambush. Come in only when dinner is served or you have to go to the bathroom.
8. Don’t offer help or education: If these people wanted help, they would ask for it. This is not the time to offer your best thrifty tips or counsel them on how to better manage their money. When the whining starts, don’t jump in with, “Well, if you just sold your gas hog car and bought a beater you’d save $10,000 per year. Chances are, they don’t really want help. They enjoy complaining too much.
If you do offer help, one of two things will happen. Scenario one: They take you up on your offer and you spend the next year trying to organize a hopeless pile of bills and statements. You devote many hours to explaining financial concepts to them and showing them all of your best frugal ideas. And it all comes undone when Uncle Moron sees the red convertible sports car parked on the lot that he has to have, right this minute. Never mind that he does not have the money for it, he goes in and buys it, sticking himself with a payment he cannot afford and undoing all of your work. He then returns to whining about money. Repeat.
Scenario two: You offer help and are accused of lording your success over “those less fortunate.” Your offer runs through the family grapevine like wildfire and before you know it, you are branded as a rich know-it-all who only came to the reunion to show off to everyone else. Trust me on this. Your help will be neither appreciated nor effective. So don’t bother.
We make a concerted effort to avoid money discussions during the holidays. It never ends well and only ends up making everyone angry and ruining the holidays. As long as we succeed at that, everything is okay. Our families do have some redeeming qualities and we don’t hate them. But it can be hard being the only two financially sound people in a room full of financial half-wits. If you find yourself in the same boat, I hope our experiences can help you craft a better, saner holiday experience. This Christmas, if I look across the road at the neighbors house and see someone huddled under the eaves in the freezing rain, someone who isn’t smoking and has no other obvious reason to be out there, I’ll be sure to wave because I’ll know you’re out there, just like me, avoiding the financial half-wits. Good luck.