How couples can avoid the awkward holiday money conversation

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Hanna Horvath, CFP®

Hanna Horvath, CFP®


Hanna Horvath is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and managing editor for growth at Policygenius. She helps produce the Easy Money newsletter, and owns all growth initiatives for Easy Money. She recently passed her exam to become a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ in November 2020.

Hanna's work has appeared in NBC News, Business Insider and Inc. Magazine. She is regularly quoted in top media outlets, including CNBC, Best Company and HerMoney. She has also appeared on the Money Moolala podcast and All's Fair podcast.

Prior to Policygenius, Hanna wrote for KNBC in Los Angeles and WNBC in New York. When she isn't writing, she's (often) running, (usually) cooking and (sometimes) doing photography.

Published December 3, 2019|3 min read

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Gift-giving season is here. For those in a relationship, it can be an added challenge to find the perfect gift for that special someone. And while you can’t put a price on love, some couples may be keeping their partner in the dark about their end-of-year spending.

According to Policygenius’ second annual Couples & Money survey, 80% of those in a relationship said they would feel comfortable spending money without telling their partner.

Of those, one in 10 would feel comfortable spending more than $5,000 without telling their partner.

Spending in secret

There’s a fine line between financial privacy and financial infidelity, said Ed Coambs, a member of the Financial Therapy Association board and founder of Carolina Couples Counseling. Are you hiding the cost of a gift because it’s for your partner? Or are you keeping the cost a secret because you know you shouldn’t be spending this much?

“I think of financial privacy as the ability to spend money as one desires without having to disclose every financial decision,” he said. “Financial secrecy takes this and extends it into psychological harm.”

Even minor transgressions, like downplaying the cost of a present, can be symbolic of other issues in a relationship, said Megan McCoy, a licensed marriage and family therapist and secretary of the Financial Therapy Association.

“It may mean that you feel unsafe in the relationship to speak openly about money or you potentially aren’t willing to say your wishes, which is a major communication issue,” she said.

Holiday customs make it especially difficult to be financially transparent. In most cases, disclosing the price of a gift is frowned upon. But purposefully hiding the cost of an item because you know it’s over budget is a different issue.

Here's how to prepare your money for marriage.

How to give gifts without financial expectations

Another challenge of the holiday season is preconceived notions about how much a gift should cost.

“Often there is a lot of implicit, undiscussed financial expectations for what is appropriate to spend on gifts,” said Coambs. “Yet this can set up disappointment when those expectations are not met.”

The “right amount” to spend on a present differs from person to person, said McCoy.

“How many times have you felt the need to spend a certain amount of money to show that you care or aren’t cheaping out?” she said. “Spending $100 a gift may feel like a must, even when you truly can’t afford it.”

Talk with your partner about how much you are willing to spend on gifts for your friends and family (and for each other). Staying on the same page financially, especially during the holiday season, can avoid problems down the road.

The same survey revealed that those who thought their partner was bad with money are 10 times more likely to break up than those who didn’t.

Saving for a specific money goal? Consider forgoing the gifts this year, or sticking to homemade presents. Using a budget is also one of the easiest ways to stay on top of your spending. You and your partner can download this one and personalize it to fit your holiday plan.

“It’s also important to figure out what your partner’s love language is,” McCoy said. “For someone, it’s giving gifts. For another, it may just be spending quality time. Communication is part of speaking that same language.”

Image: Aleksander Nakic