Dear Mrs. Riches:
My husband's family is accustomed to very lavish Christmas spreads with gifts a-plenty. Try telling these folks Christmas doesn't come from a store! The trouble is that my husband lost his job recently and so it will be very hard for us to participate in the holiday gift-athon to our usual degree. While I'm just as happy to have a reason to downsize (our Christmas credit card charges have always been ridiculous!), I know my husband will feel humiliated if we're the only ones opting out. In fact, he hasn't shared the news about his layoff with his family and has asked me not to share it, either. I'm just not sure what to do. Help!
Desperate to Downsize
Ah, the joys of being caught in the middle. Instead of being nice and cozy, you're pulled between your husband and his family, between the Christmas "spirit" and the Christmas credit card charges, between old ways of doing things and new realities.
This year it happens to be you and your husband who have drawn the short straw. But my guess is that such a lavish Christmas has been hard on others at one point or another. Whether the hardship is monetary or emotional (living up to such high expectations can be stressful), it's antithetical to the simple enjoyment of family and togetherness.
You know that; I know that. But taking on a whole family's established way of celebrating a major holiday is not for the faint of heart. So instead of dictating to others how Christmas "should" be done, you and your husband need to start with yourselves.
It would be optimal if your husband felt as if he could be honest with his family and in return, he could expect his family to be supportive. In the absence of that, you and he need to come to an understanding about how you will handle Christmas gifts. Tread carefully (layoffs are hard on the self-esteem) but be upfront: "I've been feeling like our Christmases have been getting out of hand anyway. Let's see this turn of events as our kick-in-the-pants to change. We don't have to tell them why we want to change; let's just do it." Whether that means you give a small donation to a charity of your choice in honor of the family, make baked goods and treats for everyone, or suggest choosing names for an ever-larger brood, it's up to you.
One of the worst things you could do as a couple, however, is to turn a blind eye to your current woes and act as if nothing has changed financially. It's time instead to batten down the hatches, trim your budget, and use your emergency fund wisely. You'll also want to study up on how to manage and reduce your debt. In the best of times, managing money with a significant other can be very stressful; in an emergency (and at Christmas, no less), the stress level can skyrocket. You and your husband will need to work together and do your best communicating at a time when he may not feel like talking at all. Look to resources like The Motley Fool's Guide to Couples and Cash and The Motley Fool Personal Finance Workbook to help the two of you stay on track while you're getting back on your feet.
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Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email .