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  • Jenn Steliga

When you and your spouse disagree on the holiday budget

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

I don't know about you, but I actually look forward to holiday shopping: I love the sights and smells and the overall feeling I get as I set out to buy my friends and family gifts. I also enjoy wrapping presents - with a glass of wine, a cup of hot chocolate or a hot toddy in hand, I get all of my beautiful wrapping paper, bows and ribbons out and make an evening out of wrapping presents and watching Christmas movies in my pajamas. The biggest reason I can enjoy this part of the holiday season is because my husband and I finally figured out how to budget appropriately for this time of year. It took us awhile to get into our own groove, but now that we plan and save throughout the year, there is absolutely no guilt when I shop. There will be no credit card bills in January. What bliss!

But I wasn't always in this place. My husband and I spent years not budgeting for the holidays and then overspending and having to figure out a way to pay our credit card bills after the first of the year. Then I started to budget, and quickly started pointing out all the things I thought my husband should be doing better in order to have a budget. That did not go over well. The whole process felt awful. Something needed to change.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying gifts during the holidays; the trick is to understand the financial price tag associated with this gift giving. Without a right understanding of how much holiday shopping truly costs, you as a couple will then begin to experience a second kind of price tag associated with holiday gift giving – an emotional one.

If you’re just discovering that you and your spouse have a difference of opinion on how much to spend on the holidays, one of the best things you can do is keep your expectations realistic. No one is going to change overnight, and they certainly won’t do so if you’re insisting that they’re wrong and should do things your way. I know how these conversations go … I’ve been there! In my home, I was the one trying to push change immediately on my poor husband. I’m fairly certain that all he could hear was my judgment of him while I pointed out everything he did that I thought was wrong. Not a great way to team up and work towards our common dreams together. Lesson learned though, and we’ve adjusted our strategies. But it took time. Lots of time. So, if you’re reading this and you’re the spouse or partner who wants to agree upon and then stick to a budget even during this festive time of year, remember to focus on the relationship first. Above all else, it’s your relationship with your spouse that must be preserved. The numbers will come later; they won’t come at all if you erode the trust and warmth between the two of you by insisting things be done your way … right now.

Connect, the Re-Direct

While earning my Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy, I came to rely on the work of Dr. Dan Siegel as a go-to source for parenting and connecting with others in our life. He often says to first connect, then redirect. He coined the phrase in the context of talking with our children when they’re in the midst of an emotional melt down; but I’ve found it’s an incredibly helpful principle to use in any relationship, from your colleague at work to your spouse/partner. Here’s what he’s getting at: when someone is upset or confused (meaning they’re experiencing some intense emotions, even if you can’t see those emotions) they’re not going to hear anything you’re saying. Let’s say that your spouse just spent $500 on Christmas gifts and is super excited to show you everything they bought. You, on the other hand, are not so excited that they just went $200 over your agreed upon holiday budget. So, you immediately begin lecturing them that they overspent, the budget is busted, and why on earth did they think this was a good idea? Chances are good that at this point you’re both upset, defensive and in no position to hear each other clearly. But you can stop this cycle by taking a deep breath and first trying to connect with your spouse. Start by acknowledging their excitement (“I can see how excited you are about all the great things you bought for our friends and family”) and staying curious about their experience (“Tell me more about this gift for Aunt Jane”). Tone matters here – well-intentioned words will not help if said with ill-toned non-verbals. After you’ve connected with your partner a little more and the conversation is flowing in a positive manner, then it might time to bring up your concerns in a loving way.

Perhaps you lead with something like this:

“I know it brings you such joy to buy our friends and family gifts. And I love everything you selected. On the other hand, I am concerned about how much all of this cost … it seems to be over the amount we agreed upon for our holiday budget this year. Maybe I got that wrong, but wasn’t it closer to $300?”

Other follow-up discussion points could include:

- It’s ok if we decide together we want to spend $500 instead of $300, so let’s agree where we find that extra $200 in our budget. Can it come out of groceries? Or maybe dining out?

- I know we’ve been working really hard to save for our vacation to Hawaii next spring; I’m wondering if the extra money we just spent on Christmas will have to come out of our monthly savings for that vacation? That might mean we can’t go to Hawaii. What do you think?

These are just a few examples of how you can first connect with your spouse, then redirect the conversation to the heart of the matter. Don’t crush your relationship as you stampede toward the perfect budget; even if your spouse has gone against what you agreed upon, use your empathy and curiosity to connect with them where they are right now. Focus on your relationship and your collective dreams. It’s in that area where you’ll likely be able to find common ground and then be able to discuss the practicalities of making those dreams come true.


If creating and sticking to a budget is a continual challenge in your marriage, it might be time to consider financial coaching. Often times coaching helps you gain a more helpful perspective on what it means to budget, and how the power of a budget can propel you towards your dreams. Reach out anytime for a complimentary 15-minute call to learn more about coaching.

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