Reader Suggestions On How To Handle Expensive Family Expectations
Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
Families do not always agree. Understatement of the year, perhaps? It’s true, sometimes our blood relatives are profoundly out of step with our own personal expectations and world views. But, they’re family. For quick clarification, today we’re discussing our relationships with our extended families, not our immediate families. If you’re in search of advice on how to get on the same page with your partner/spouse, then check out this post: Reader Suggestions On: How To Convince Your Husband Or Wife To Be Frugal.
A topic that comes up over and over again in our Uber Frugal Month Facebook conversations, as well as our Frugalwoods Facebook page, not to mention the comments section of the blog and my email inbox (A LOT!!!), is a variation on the following question:
Help, Mrs. Frugalwoods! My extended family wants to _____ (go on an expensive family vacation together; buy matching jet skis for Christmas; dine out at Chez Expensive every single week, etc). How do I explain to them that I am trying to conserve my money for a bigger purpose? For my goal of ____ (paying off my debt, reaching financial independence, sailing around the world, adopting 9,000 cats, etc)? It’s not that I don’t love my family, but they expect me to spend so much money and it’s making me uncomfortable.
A conundrum, indeed. Money is a scorching hot, third rail of conversation for most people to begin with–no wonder it’s the leading cause of divorce in the US–and layering on the equally eviscerating dynamics of family relationships can make this topic feel insurmountable. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to be this way.
To be clear, we’re not talking about spending on your values and on things you WANT to spend money on, such as family trips and weddings that you want to attend. We’re talking about navigating conversations regarding expensive events/gifts/vacations that you DO NOT want to spend money on. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with spending money in order to spend quality time with family and I do it all the time! But there is something wrong with being coerced into spending money you don’t have or don’t feel comfortable spending.
Solution #1: Start A Blog (kidding, sort of… )
You may not know this, but I actually started Frugalwoods back in April 2014 with the goal of coherently explaining our bizarre life goal to reach financial independence and retire to a homestead in the woods (which we did back in May 2016) to our families. Yep, I started an ENTIRE WEBSITE dedicated to outlining our financial and life plans to my family. And my husband’s family.
So, I don’t take this topic lightly, but I’m also here to tell you that you probably don’t need to go quite that far in explaining your life decisions to your own family. Although, I must say, it has been quite effective!
Clearly, things here at Frugalwoods, Inc. have expanded beyond that initial goal, but writing out our thinking was an extremely helpful avenue in understanding our own longterm vision and in sharing it with our families. So if you too work best through writing, you might consider a nice email or letter (don’t put yourself through the time-suck of starting a blog… hah!).
What I’ve Learned
Through the process of radically changing our lives, and everything about how we view and use our money, Mr. Frugalwoods and I have learned a number of things about how to communicate (or not) our worldview to others. We are profoundly fortunate that our families understand and respect our choices and they don’t question our extreme frugality and unconventional way of life. And for that, I am grateful! Plus, they’re all reading this so what else am I going to say ;)? No, in truth, we are blessed beyond belief where our families are concerned.
Here are a few tenets Mr. FW and I follow in our communications with not only our families, but also our friends and acquaintances:
1) We’re not out to convert you.
This is perhaps the most difficult–and most important–approach to enshrine in your interactions with others. I like to think of myself as a passive frugal and financial expert in my real life. The zeal and fervor of my belief in the transformative power of simple living and financial independence is all on display RIGHT HERE on the blog and in my forthcoming book. In real life, however? Plenty of people don’t even know this about me. Contrary to what you all might think, I do not walk around handing out pamphlets proclaiming the gospel of frugality.
My close friends and family do read the blog and do know what I do, but plenty of acquaintances simply know I write about personal finance, or that I’m a writer. There’s no need for me to delve into aggressive detail unless people ask for my help. When my real-life friends and family members come to me with a financial question, I am–trust me–OVER THE MOON to help them out and delighted to invest time in their question. However. I am passive and merely a resource for people, not an active frugal peddler.
I had a conversation about this with a new friend of mine who recently discovered the financial independence movement and is now aggressively pursuing this goal with her husband and daughter. She asked me repeatedly how I’d handle different interactions with non-frugal people that she’d encountered (most of whom were her relatives) and almost every time I told her, “It’s not your job to convert them to your way of life. You’ve found an amazing thing that works for you, but it might not be for them. You have to let them come around to this idea on their own. If they are interested, I guarantee they will come to you for advice later.”
She was about to strangle me by the 10th time I repeated this advice, but I think it’s true! You cannot effectively shove ANY philosophy, world view, religion, or way of life down someone else’s throat. The best you can do is live out the shining example of your financial certainty. People will notice. They will ask–as they ask me–how we managed to move to our dream homestead, how we manage to own a rental property, how we manage to both work from home, how we have such a simple, happy life. And I am happy to share with them. But I let my actions and the example of my life speak for me. I am not out to convert, because it makes people uncomfortable and defensive. I know what works for me, but it might not work for you.
Having this mentality at the forefront of any dealings with family is immensely helpful. You are not responsible for their financial choices. You do not bear the burden for what they choose to do with their money. All you can control is how you manage your own money. Remove the pressure you might feel to educate them on their investments, their spending, their savings–it’s not on you. If they ask for your advice, fabulous. But if not? Let it go.
2) Be consistent and firm.
This is also how we parent our two-year-old, but hey, I think it works in this situation too! Mr. FW and I are like a couple of freaking broken records with our daughter. Every time she asks for something, we parrot “what do you say?” and she responds “please” And then after we give her what she wants, we again intone, “what do you say?” and she responds, “thank you.”
Why she can’t just SAY IT THE FIRST TIME since she well knows we’re going to prompt her is beyond us, but we prompt her every single time. EVERY TIME. And it’s starting to sink in… we are, in fact, hearing more and more unprompted pleases and thank you’s. It’s the same story with your financial outlook vis-a-vis your family relationships.
Decide how you want to manage your money and then be consistent and firm in your dealings with others such that they are not surprised by your responses. This is certainly the case for me and Mr. FW–our families already know what we’ll say! It takes a lot of pressure off of navigating any specific expensive event because our philosophy is so deeply ingrained in who we are and so clearly articulated through what we do.
Part of this is that you, first, must know what you want out of life. You must know what your financial goals and limitations are. And, you must be on the same page with your partner/spouse if you have one. So, ya know, that’s a lot of soul searching to do right there. Fear not, I have several posts to help you out with that:
- Uber Frugal Month: The Ultimate Guide To Saving More Money Than You Ever Thought Possible
- How I Figured Out What I Want To Do With My Life (And How You Can Too!)
Once you’ve detailed your longterm goals and your longterm financial aspirations, be firm and consistent in how you communicate them to your family. I like to use the example of being a vegetarian. If a person is a vegetarian, they are consistent and firm about not eating meat. They just don’t do it and so, consequently, their family members are unlikely to try and put a steak on their plate at Sunday dinner.
The family (hopefully) understands and respects that this person does not eat meat. It’s no big deal, it doesn’t need to be a source of contention, and the vegetarian shouldn’t either: 1) have to constantly defend their choices, or 2) try to convert others to their way of eating. Any time you’re struggling with how to explain/defend your financial choices, imagine it’s vegetarianism you’re discussing. Somehow, that is a much less fraught topic (I think, although I’m sure a million commenters will let me know that it is not… ).
3) You alone are in charge of how your children are raised.
A prevalent and recurring quandary I hear from readers who are parents is the immense pressure they feel from relatives to provide for their children in ways that they are not comfortable with. Whether it’s pressure to buy brand new toys and clothes all the time, or expensive Disney vacations, or pricey after-school activities, parents are inundated with pressure to spend money on their kids.
But guess what? They’re your kids. You had them/adopted them and you alone are responsible for how they’re raised. Refer back to steps #1 and #2 in how you explain your choices about your kids, but know that they are your children. It is paramount here to be on the same page with your partner/spouse/co-parent, but whatever the two of you decide is the law. Do not back down from how you want your children raised and do not succumb to family (or peer) pressure.
You have to create the home environment that you feel is best and you owe it to your children to be firm and resolved in the style of their upbringing. No one benefits from a waffling, insecure parent–least of all the parent! The children of frugal parents are not deprived; to the contrary, they are rich with experiences, love, and a focus on people as opposed to things. So divest yourself of that notion right now and don’t feel guilty for not buying the latest iPhone/iPad/talking Elmo-thing for your kid. They will reap far more from your lessons on delayed gratification, prudent fiscal management, the importance of giving back to others, and living a life of gratitude than they will from a new possession. For more inspiration, here’s a Reader Case Study delving into this very topic: Reader Case Study: The Case Of The Over-gifting In-Laws!
4) Be honest, but not rude.
Easier said than done where family is concerned, am I right? I personally, as an almost 34-year-old grown woman, had to call my own mother to apologize for speaking to her rudely the other day. So, uh, yeah, this is not something I have on lock down… sorry, again, mom!
Utilizing honesty, and not rudeness or defensiveness, is a winning approach. If your family wants you to do something super duper expensive that you do NOT want to spend the money on, just tell them. You don’t have to obfuscate, or be weird about it, or make up a bizarre story, just tell them how you feel. If, after that, they don’t respect your choices, it’s really on them and not on you.
How Frugalwoods Readers Handle Expensive Family Expectations
Enough from me! You came here to hear from the real experts–the readers of Frugalwoods–and they did not disappoint with their advice this month. Per usual, I received too many fabulous responses from readers to include all of them below, but you can check out the full conversation on our Frugalwoods Facebook page. And if you’d like to weigh in on next month’s topic, join the Frugalwoods Facebook page. Here’s a rundown on how Frugalwoods readers respond to expensive requests and expectations from their family members:
Sue shared, “This happened to me, my cousin had a destination wedding in Mexico. I just said, ‘Sorry, it’s not in my budget. I love you, have a wonderful time.’ We all survived.”
Lindsay says that for family vacations, “Airbnb or VRBO. Also being firm about the top end of the budget. Eating in as much as possible also helps!”
Lillianna reports that it’s about focusing on what matters to you and not to others, “I love a frugalwoods lifestyle at age 53. If I had not cared about what everyone else thought at an extremely young age, I could have achieved my goals decades ago. Who cares what others expectations are of you. It will cost you so much more money living up to others.”
Emma explains, “Using the phrase ‘it’s not in my budget’ rather than ‘I can’t afford it’ goes a long way to help shut a discussion down if I don’t want to get drawn in!”
Caroline shared this great story, “Just had a very shining example that fits neatly into this particular question. My middle boy, for about 2 years now, has had a near-obsession with learning to play the electronic keyboard (it’s offered at his school and every now and then the music dept do a demo of various things and let the kids have a go and try and pick out the ones with a bit of talent). We are, let’s say, a very unmusically-talented family. On both sides. As far back as the Paleolithic era.
For a while I just said ”oh yes dear” thinking he’d forget about it as 6 year old’s do… he went on and on and on and on. Eventually he went on his own to get the (thick pile) forms and brought them home and stood over me while I filled them in to allow him to try out and THEN when he got accepted, gave my number to the music teacher, poor woman. NATURALLY it’s extortionately expensive to buy a new keyboard of the right sort, no the school doesn’t rent them, they are scarce secondhand… and it’s all very pricey. But the pressure we got from various people to let him do it, to give him a chance, buy a wonderful new keyboard, the latest model, you’ll get years of use from it!! Spare no expense, it’s EDUCATION. It’s OPPORTUNITY… It really was quite pressuring, but with no follow-up as to how this would all be paid for.
We have been like actual hawks, scouring the corners of the internet for suitable secondhand keyboards – gasp – even ones that aren’t the very latest (I know, icky and used and not the very newest thing as endorsed by Whoever) and today, happy day, we got one, for a real fraction of the projected price. One very, very pleased little boy, one extremely lightly-used and in excellent condition keyboard that happens to be an older model and will be completely suitable for AT LEAST the first 2-3 years of lessons and we have averted financial ruin! The trick with the insistent ”get the very best, do it now” types was to say ”okay, good, can I give you my account details?’ This always had the desired effect.”
Jennifer says, “We just tell them we choose to live a different lifestyle than they do and that our priorities are different. It sometimes doesn’t go over well, but most of the time they are understanding.”
Laurie wrote, ” If it is a vacation that we also want to go on we will save up for it or find a more frugal way to go. If there isn’t time or just not something we want to do, then we are honest. Honesty is the best way to handle these situations for us. We let our families know what we are willing to afford and what we aren’t.”
Maluna reports, “We just say no. Period. We did this at Christmas. There was a bit of stress, but we stood strong. After the holidays most said wow…let’s all do this! You have to be firm, focused, it’s a daily process. Thanks to your blogs, it’s working! Thank you!”
Bonnie shared, “Over the many years I’ve been around, raised a family and dealt with family dynamics on both sides, I’ve learned that the only expectations that matter are the ones my husband and I set for our family. I’ve learned to say No and offer no explanation. It gets easier each time you do it. The benefit of living this way is seeing your 35-year-old son raise his family with the same philosophy. I guess he was listening and paying attention all those years .
Steph wrote, “OK, so I’m a solo mum with two kids, I’m also about to start my 4th and final year of my degree. As you can imagine, money is tight, has been for a while. My ex husband is a lot better off financially. (he works hard, good on him.). However my kids were having money expectations. When they go to dads they get the latest, they get takeaways, they go on holidays etc etc. My children couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just go to the money machine like daddy 😂.
So I sat down with them and was completely transparent. Showed them the incoming and outgoing and what was left. I even made a game of it. My daughter added in takeaways as a treat so she had to take that money from food money. That made her realise there was less money for staples. Now that my kids no it’s eased some pressure. And tbh I don’t feel so guilty any more for the things their father can do and financially provide. Because at the end of the day I’m moving forward to be able to be more financially independent.
As well as the children have a stable loving home environment with me. I don’t begrudge that others can afford the flash gear, big cars and nice holidays and yeah sometimes I think it would be nice. But honestly, I am happy being frugal, living out of the garden, and keeping waste management down. I think the thing to remember is we are all different, we have different ways of doing and being and we should all accept that 😊.”
Kathryn shared, “After years of stressing and feeling inadequate, I decided to do what I have to do and spend what I want to spend, and that is good enough. Sometimes gifts are homemade, used or experiences. I do what makes me feel good for every person!”
Kristine relayed, “Regarding gifts, I often get fun stuff from my buy nothing group or pick up nice things inexpensively that I save throughout the year. Never a Christmas rush! I try to end each somewhere between $50-100 in what it’s worth, sometimes more, but never more out of pocket. Now that I’m an adult (and living on my own!), I just say no if I’m not interested in an activity or don’t want to put money there. We can “afford” whatever they want to throw at us, but I’m not particularly interested in a lot of it. If you consistently say no, they stop asking. The only thing is, they stop asking, so sometimes you might miss out on something fun.”
Rachel wrote, “On the vacations, ‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Spending money that way is not a priority for my family.” On the gift giving, you can agree as adults to stop exchanging gifts.”
Gabby shared, “Splitting an AirBNB can be a great way to make a vacation with extended family cheaper and more enjoyable, if they’re open to the idea. You all get to stay in a more comfortable place, split the cost (which is already cheaper than a hotel), and you have a kitchen to cut down on eating expenses. Last year my family split the cost of a lovely cabin for a long weekend together, and each of us provided a home-cooked dinner for one of the nights. It was really fun.”
Susana explains, “I have the luck that my FIL picks beautiful properties for us to stay at and pays for them. We have to pay our own airfare and usually add a week somewhere else while we’re there. No regrets as these have been trips of a lifetime and unforgettable experiences. Luckily, as a family we are all on the same page about cooking in and there is a lot of culinary talent among us so we have enjoyed amazing meals around large tables all of of our own making. When invited on these trips I show up with bells on, if I were invited to say, Disney, I would go with a good old Miss Manners, ‘Thank you for inviting me, but I am not available then.’ One thing I am learning is that you don’t need to justify your lifestyle choices to anyone, even family. If someone is pressuring you to go someplace or do something you don’t want to they are not in your corner.”
Jennifer suggests a direct approach, “Just say no. If they get angry they’ll get over it.”
Caroline wrote, “I’ve realised that being as clear as possible right from the beginning is best, whatever the situation. If people want you to spend a fortune on (say) a big group family thing out at a restaurant, just say ”unfortunately we won’t be able to, we don’t have the budget for that kind of outlay’ and then suggest something else. Key is not just shooting down expectation but suggesting something comparable or fun to take its place. So few people are confident enough to say ”we cannot afford that,’ that when one does, really pleasantly, generally people back off. But being embarrassed to admit things is fatal, big spenders just barrel through and demand ever more outlandish outings/ gifts. Just say ”no, it’s too expensive for us, we cannot afford it.’ They’ll be dumbstruck by your direct honesty!”
Brian shared, “This area is a huge struggle for me. One in-law family member is horrible with money, and loves to spend. Normally not a problem for me, except family outings – for example, he’d suggest 18 holes of golf on an expensive golf course whereas I would rather we all go disc golfing (which our family enjoys, can be played by everyone, and is free). I’m usually convincing enough to persuade everyone out of these outings or, failing that, join up after said event (one of these was a gun range outing I had zero interest in that would have cost a small fortune in). Fortunately most of our get togethers are just gathering at my sister’s house and I can just bring wine or beer (or my homemade cider, yum!). It’s a battle – I’m very interested in seeing how other people deal with this.”
Connie wrote, “My husband and I have been working on this issue for the 41 years of our marriage. Sometimes more successfully than others. We’ve learned:
- We can’t change the expectations of others.
- We have to be ourselves.
- We try to communicate openly, honestly and respectfully. Sometimes that is not possible.
- We quietly do what we think is best for us and our family. Those decisions are filtered through our own ‘world and life view’ while trying to block out the expectations of others.
- It’s hard. It’s worth it.”
Mrs. FW’s Cheat Sheet Of How To Respond
Massive thanks to everyone who responded to this fairly thorny topic. As I was reading through the responses, it struck me that most situations can be replied to with some variation on a set of standard responses. Here are my suggestions for how to respond to expensive requests from family:
- That vacation sounds lovely, but we are saving up to _____ (buy a house, pay off student loans, etc) right now and we just can’t afford to go with you. But I hope you have a wonderful time and I look forward to seeing all the pictures!
- Wow, a Christmas of giving diamond bracelets to everyone does sound lovely, but that just doesn’t fit in our budget this year.
- I agree, going out to dinner at that new, five-start restaurant would be fun, but it’s not something we can afford right now. What if you all came over to our house instead and we had a spaghetti and board game night? Or, swing by after your dinner out and we’ll enjoy some after-dinner cocktails!
These are but a few examples, but you can see how you could extrapolate such responses to include family requests for your participation in expensive:
- Gift-giving (for more inspiration, check out: Reader Suggestions Of Frugal, Fun, Inexpensive, and Festive Holiday Gifts)
- Celebrations (for more inspiration, check out: Our Thrifty And Simple Baby’s First Birthday Party)
- Dinners out (for more inspiration, check out: Frugal Hosting Ideas For Hanging Out With Friends)
The key is that these responses are all direct, honest, unwavering (note there is no room to misinterpret them), and they’re not said with a mission to convert. There’s no mention of the finances of the other person (you may well be much wealthier, but that is irrelevant for this conversation) and there’s no degradation of the idea (don’t tell them it’s a stupid use of their money, even if it is!).
Focus your response on you and your goals/plans/finances, not the other person. And if at all possible, suggest a frugal alternative! No reason you can’t counter their expensive cruise vacation idea with a suggestion to rent an AirBnB cabin in the mountains together. If the goal is quality family time together, then dinner at home or a much less expensive getaway should serve the same purpose. Be confident in your frugality and in your life goals. You will be a much happier person if you live your life for you and not for someone else. I promise.
How do you respond to family members who ask you to spend more money than you’re comfortable with?
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