Love & Money: Managing Money & Your In-Laws


Over the past few weeks, I’ve received emails and relationship questions from readers who are frustrated with their financial situations, either with their parents, their in-laws, or their own partner. Therefore, the next couple of blog posts are going to focus on “Love & Money.” To kick things off, we’re going to take a look at managing finances and your in-law relationships.

Research suggests that in-laws can be a big source of support, including financial support. Some in-laws are able to give generously and expect nothing in return. Others may not have the money to give, but lend support in different ways. And others still may not only keep track of every gift or small loan, but expect to have a say in your money matters. Readers have expressed several concerns ranging from monetary “gifts” that came with strings attached, financial dependence so great that it’s hard to get out from under your in-laws thumbs, or in-laws that never loosen the purse strings.

Today we’ll look at how to manage these thorny issues with your in-laws without starting a family feud!

Situation 1: The Financial “Gift”

Imagine that you’re buying your first home, a new car, or your new nursery needs decorating and out of nowhere your parents-in-law offer to give you a down payment, or offer to help you deck out the baby’s room. They say that it’s a gift, they’re happy to do it, and it makes them happy. You graciously accept, excited and appreciative.

Fast forward a few weeks, months, or years and you are wishing you never accepted this “gift” because it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Perhaps your in-laws constantly remind you of the “help” they gave you, especially when they want you to do something for them.

Or, maybe they feel that since they helped you with your house or car, they can comment on or dictate what you can and can’t do with it. “Oohhh, you really shouldn’t paint the living room that color, we’d hate it to affect the resale value.”

The Fix: You could bite your tongue, let your blood pressure skyrocket, and slowly lose your mind, or you can face it head on.  Enlist your sweetie pie to talk to his/her parents. It is important that your spouse does the talking, because even if you have a close relationship with your in-laws, they may be more sensitive to straight talk coming from you. Your partner needs to let your in-laws know that although you appreciate the generous gift they gave (stress that part, regardless if it was $5 or $5000), you do not appreciate feeling like there are strings attached to it. They may not even be aware that they’re acting like this, or calling them out may stop them in their tracks.

If this doesn’t work, then you need to come up with a plan to repay them so you don’t “owe” them anymore, or they don’t “own” you. I know it’s an unforeseen expense, but the price of being indebted to your in-laws forever is far greater.

Situation 2: You Need Financial Help

Sure, the economy is bouncing back, but not as quickly as you hoped. As a result, you may have found yourself needing to rely on your in-laws for some assistance to make ends meet. In addition to this being a difficult favor to ask, not setting proper boundaries and developing a concrete “pay back” plan can turn this arrangement into a hot mess before you can say “We need to borrow money.”

When you’re on someone’s pay roll, you tend to have to answer to the boss. Soon you may feel that your parents-in-law are monitoring (and commenting on) all of your behaviors and purchases. “Oh, more beer, great,” or “Wow, you bought a new TV? How did you manage to pay for that?” Soon, your life is not yours anymore and you’re beholden to your in-laws.

The Fix: Treat this like a business deal. Don’t nickel and dime them, or piecemeal small loans together. Instead, ask for a realistic lump sum or a monthly loan amount. Next, establish terms of repayment, in writing. Will payments start as soon as you or your honey find a job? What is time frame of repayment 6 months, 6 years? Will interest be charged? Can you take out another “loan” or is this a one-time deal?

Additionally, you may want to consider including a “no meddling” clause. Seriously, you should explicitly state that since this is a loan, your in-laws cannot question or comment on how you spend your loan money.

Although you may wish your parents-in-law would just give you the money free and clear (and some may), be warned that this has issues too (see Situation 1).

Situation 3: Your Never Get ANY Help

Your in-laws bankroll your sibling-in-laws’ lifestyles, or give them lavish presents while you and your family walk away empty-handed.

The Fix: Although it may hurt or infuriate you that your family gets short-changed, consider it a blessing. Given the potentially sticky situations that can arise, it is better to not have to rely on your in-laws financially. However, if they want to give a true gift, then go for it, but be proud of your ability to stand on your own two financial feet.

Your in-laws may be thinking the same thing. In fact, the lack of financial aid is likely a result of your in-laws’ confidence in you and pride of your financial independence, rather than a dislike or picking favorites (although, this can happen!).

And, don’t overlook the things they do to support you that aren’t financial: help moving, babysitting, or a shoulder to lean on. Those things are worth their weight in gold!


Money and in-laws doesn’t have to go together like oil and vinegar. Although it can be tricky, with the right communication negotiating financial terms with your in-laws can be done without harming your relationship!

Until next time,


JustASquirrel_180RedCircleLogo (2)Don’t miss the next post in the Love & Money series: Mine, Yours, and Ours? Managing Finances in Marriage


In-Law Relationships: A Holiday Survival Guide

When Irving Berlin wrote Happy Holiday(s) he must not have had a job, financial stress, or in-laws! As we’re all aware, the holidays provide us with a time to reflect on and celebrate our relationships, but they also can be extremely stressful. We stress over finances, hectic work and social schedules, holiday weight gain, and our family relationships.

One of the most contentious relationships come holiday time tends to be ties with our in-laws (and our own parents). We struggle over adapting rituals, being included in traditions, and splitting time between our family-in-law, our family-of-origin, and our nuclear family.

Holidays with in-laws (and parents) are stressful for several reasons. First, loyalties are often implicitly tested during the holiday season. Spending a holiday with the “in-laws” may be seen as a betrayal to the family-of-origin. Second, holidays with extended family members require change. Rituals and traditions, which reflect a family’s identity, often have to be modified to accommodate new family members. Third, deviations to holiday norms may elicit uncertainty, which can be detrimental to in-law and marital relationships.

It’s important to manage in-law issues effectively because research consistently shows a direct link between the climate of in-law relationships and marital satisfaction. In fact, a recent project my colleagues and I worked on demonstrated that children-in-law’s uncertainty and dissatisfaction within the in-law relationship is linked to dissatisfaction within their marital relationship.

Additionally, a recent study which followed married couples for 26 years found that couples were less likely to divorce if husbands had close bonds with their in-laws. Conversely, wives that were close to their in-laws had a 20% greater chance of divorce. This doesn’t mean that wives can get away with keeping their distance, but does suggest that we need to be mindful of how we negotiate our in-law ties.

Collectively, these results demonstrate the importance of managing our in-law relationships. The holidays are a great place to start establishing boundaries, creating new rituals, and fostering the development and maintenance of strong in-law bonds. The tips below may help you ensure that your holiday season is merry and bright!

Stop: When we feel uncertain or that someone, such as our in-laws, is interfering with our goals, rituals, and routines we tend to be more reactive. As a result, we may say and/or do things that we later regret.

If you feel overwhelmed or upset over a holiday issue with your in-laws (or your own parents), stop and take a personal time out. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and gain control of your emotions. Pressing pause will also allow you to reflect on what is really bothering you, rather than lashing out at your spouse, in-laws, or parents.

Once you’ve had a moment to cool down you have some perspective on the issue and will be able to more calmly communicate what upset you and why.

Collaborate: Traditions are one of the best things about the holiday season. However, the moment we say “I do” we are merging our families and our traditions. It’s important to be open-minded and have a collaborative rather than self-centered attitude when it comes to holiday traditions.

Be open-minded to trying new rituals that mean something to your sweetie pie and his/her family. Additionally, you may want to introduce your in-laws to traditions that are important to you and your family. They’ll get to know you better and feel included, which in turn may make them more eager to have you join the family fold.

It’s also important to make sure that your parents are open to including your honey bunch in family traditions (and in-laws, if you so desire). If they’re hesitant, stay firm and let them know that you’re a package deal now. You can’t include one without the other. This may end certain family traditions or force them to modify existing ones, but your loyalty lies with your spouse now and you have to present a united front.

Listen: You may have heard the phrase “read between the lines,” but it’s equally important to “listen between the lines.” If your sweetheart or in-law brings up an issue he/she is having, try to listen to what he/she is really getting at.

What is the real reason your mother-in-law is upset that you’re not coming for Christmas? Is it that she may feel like she’s losing her child or that she just doesn’t want to change? Is your wife’s dismissal of your family’s traditions really just a reflection of her hurt feelings at not being included in them?

When you engage in perspective checking and paraphrasing (e.g., “What I hear you saying is…” or “You seem upset that my family…”) you not only make sure that you’re on the same page as your relational partner, but also show that you genuinely care.

Build: Although it’s nice to be inclusive and try to accommodate all family members, sometimes you have to establish boundaries. If driving to four holiday dinners or spending two-weeks with your in-laws is not your idea of a good time, don’t let your family guilt you in to doing that.

Instead, acknowledge their feelings, explain your perspective, and then offer alternative options. Perhaps you celebrate the holiday a few days early or a few days late, or make a one-week rather than two-week trip. But provide multiple options and try to reach a compromise.

If you don’t establish boundaries, you’ll never be rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

Celebrate: With all the holiday hub-bub it’s important to not lose sight of your own nuclear family. Whether you’re a two-some or a family with children, it’s important to create your own traditions and rituals and take time to celebrate with one another.

Wine: Not whine, but wine, vino, the good stuff! If all else fails pour yourself a glass, or two, or heck just take the whole bottle. Everything is better when you’re sitting by a fire, sipping some wine, and thinking of your happy place!


The holidays can be stressful, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Following the tips above will help you want to deck the halls and not each other!

I’d love to hear how you handle your in-laws at the holidays! Tell me your thoughts in the comments!!

Until next time,


“Here’s the Story…”: Holidays and Stepfamilies

About half of all first-time marriages end in divorce. Divorce, however, doesn’t deter people from finding love again. In fact, about 70% of divorced individuals go on to remarry, and many of these remarriages include children, creating a stepfamily. Although Mike and Carol Brady made stepfamily relationships appear relatively easy, anybody who is a stepparent knows that being a stepparent is anything but easy!

Stepfamilies are a complex family form where uncertainty, resentment, and mixed emotions abound. Stepparents are often viewed as “outsiders” and struggle with defining boundaries, creating rules, and establishing their role with their stepchildren.

Research by Tamara Afifi and colleagues demonstrates that all members of the stepfamily can “feel caught.” Stepchildren often feel caught between their new stepfamily and the non-residential parent (the parent they don’t live with).  If a stepchild develops a close relationship with her stepfather, for example, she may feel like she is betraying her Dad. In addition, parents often feel caught too. When stepparents and children argue or don’t get along, parents often feel torn between defending their child and supporting their new spouse. If stepparents bring their own children into the marriage they may struggle with treating their biological and stepchildren equally. Stepparents without children may struggle with their new role as a stepparent versus their role as a spouse.

Stepfamilies also struggle with figuring out how to simply be a family. Research suggests that stepfamilies shouldn’t try to act like a first-time family. They shouldn’t ignore the fact that a previous family existed or try to replace of the original, nuclear family. Instead, they should celebrate their uniqueness and discuss the challenges they experience.

One time of year that may be particularity difficult for stepfamilies is the holidays. Holidays are filled with traditions that are often linked to a family’s identity, who they are, and what it means to be “them.” In addition, holiday traditions provide a sense of security and link families to their past. The formation of a stepfamily often means that holidays are now going to be different, and changes can be difficult for children to handle.

Although most people think of stepfamilies as families with young or teenage children, stepfamilies can form at any stage in life. Adult children may suddenly find themselves in a stepfamily due to later in life parental divorce or the death of a parent. Having to revamp long-standing holiday traditions at age thirty-five can be equally as upsetting as experiencing this change at age thirteen.

So, what can stepfamilies do to make the holidays merry and bright?

Come together: If you and your new spouse get along with your ex spouse(s), why not celebrate as one big happy family?  Media portrayals of divorced families are often negative and overlook the fact that stepfamilies and ex-spouses can co-exist harmoniously. So, invite your wife and her new husband over for Christmas dinner so your children can celebrate the holiday with both of their parents and their stepparent(s), and that way no one feels caught.

Be flexible: If having joint holiday celebrations isn’t a possibility then it’s important to be flexible. Stepchildren now have to celebrate the same holiday with multiple families, and your spouse is likely going to prioritize spending time with his or her own children over everything else. Although you may feel slighted, it’s important not to make your spouse choose between his or her children and you. Be flexible about when and how you celebrate the holidays.

If you typically celebrate Christmas Eve with your family but this year is your spouse’s year to spend Christmas Eve with his or her children, don’t make her feel guilty if she cannot or doesn’t want to attend your holiday celebration in lieu of hanging out with his or her children. Or better yet, invite your stepchildren to join in with your family, which is now their extended family too, the more the merrier, right?

Respect and create traditions: Some of the most successful stepfamilies create their own traditions, but also respect pre-existing traditions. For example, if your husband and his children used to trim the tree wearing matching pajamas while watching Christmas movies, don’t ask them to abandon this tradition just because it was what the “old” family did. Instead, embrace it and join in the fun.  Stepparents shouldn’t try to erase the previous family, respect the family that came before you and your stepchildren will respect you and your relationship.

Also, create new traditions that are unique to your new stepfamily. Starting new rituals that reflect your new family will help bring you closer and help you start to feel like a family.

Open up: Have an open conversation about the challenges associated with the holiday season with both your spouse and stepchildren. Talk to each other about your fears and frustrations. Also, let your stepchildren know that you understand that this can be a challenging time for them and that you are there to support them.

In addition, let your stepchildren talk about their non-residential or deceased parent. Ask stories about holiday memories and traditions. Showing that you support their relationship with their parent will decrease the chances of them feeling caught and show them that you respect them and are there to enhance, not replace their family.

Keep your opinions to yourself: Sometimes post-divorce relationships can be tricky. But, no matter how much you dislike or disapprove of what your stepchildren’s non-residential parent is doing during the holidays (buying too many presents or not enough), don’t say anything about the parent to or in front of your stepchildren. Nobody likes to hear their parents criticized, and coming from a stepparent it can come across as judgmental and damage your relationship in the long run.

The holidays are a stressful time for any family, but stepfamilies face unique challenges that make this time of year even more difficult. By being flexible, talking about the challenges, and respecting and creating traditions, you’ll be rockin’ around the Christmas tree in no time!

Until next time,


Want to participate in a study on in-law relationships? Click here.

Don’t Let the Grinch Steal Your Christmas: Setting a Holiday Budget

Black Friday, Black Saturday (this was new to me this year!), Cyber Monday, etc… Although these days have different names, they all mean the same thing—spending money! And, if you’re like most people in this economy you don’t have tons of it to go around, which can be especially stressful come the holidays. Combine the regular amount of holiday stress with financial stress and you’re having a Blue Christmas!

Not only can money matters stress you out, they can put a strain on your relationship too. Money issues are often a major source of conflict in marriages. Some research even suggests that arguments about money tend to be more problematic and frequent than other issues, including raising children and division of household chores. Conflicts about money also tend to have a longer lasting impact on relationship satisfaction than arguments about other issues.

Interestingly, money is often considered a taboo topic leading people to avoid financial discussions. Failure to talk about finances can lead to arguments when you and your sweetie pie’s spending habits don’t match up or disaster when one partner doesn’t tell the other about debt or financial delinquency.

Although finances can strain your relationship at any point in time, the gift-giving season may bring this issue to the forefront. Not only do you want to find the best presents for your friends, family, and significant other, your honey bunny does too.  In addition, couples may want to feel that their family or friends are getting an “equal share.” If you spend $150 on your mom, your sweetie pie may feel that his mom gets that amount too. But, add in a couple of stepparents, stepsiblings, plus friends, and each other and your holiday budget is about to burst. So, what’s a couple to do?

There are several strategies couples can enact to ensure that their holiday gift-giving budget doesn’t get out of whack:

Talk to one another! Seems pretty obvious, I know; but, many couples don’t talk about money, which can lead to big time trouble. Have an open discussion about where you’re at financially and what is a realistic holiday budget. You may realize that you have more Christmas money to play Santa with or that you need to do a little DIY. But, you’ll never know if you don’t talk about it.

Set a budget! It’s important to have a budget in mind when shopping for holiday gifts, especially if your list is long and you’re checking it twice.  This can get tricky, however, when it comes to buying presents for individuals outside of your immediate family. You and your spouse may agree on how much to spend on each other and/or your children, but have very a different idea of what is an appropriate amount to spend on parents and adult siblings.

Maybe you’re used to spending hundreds on your parents, but your spouse doesn’t exchange gifts with her family. Try to meet somewhere in the middle. You shouldn’t be expected to give up giving gifts to your parents, but your spouse shouldn’t be expected to go along with an extravagant gift is she’s not comfortable with it or if it’s not in the budget.  So compromise and let your finances, not your emotions, be your guide.

In addition, if your gift giving protocol changes now that you’re attached, you may want to give your family a heads-up. Let them know that you and your spouse have decided to tighten your Santa suit belts, so gifts won’t be as extravagant as they’ve been in the past. It’s important to make sure you let your family knows this was a team decision, which it should be, and you and your spouse appreciate their understanding.

Trust each other! After you and your honey have set a realistic holiday budget, stick to it. It may be hard to not buy an extra present or two, but those little add-ons will not only derail your budget, but will also diminish trust between you and your partner. If you ignore the budget you and your significant other set you’re sending a message that you don’t care about what s/he has to say. So be a team player and stick to the plan!

Think outside the gift box! Don’t think that you have to buy everyone a gift or give a physical gift at all. If you have a large extended family try starting a grab bag or Yankee gift exchange.

Also, do something rather than giving or getting something. Research shows that the thrill of a new item wears off rather quickly, but the joy from doing something can last a lifetime. Instead of buying Dad another box of golf balls, why not get tickets to see his favorite band either just you and him or as a family? And instead of buying your wife a meaningless sweater, why not spend that money on a babysitter and have a dinner, just the two of you?  My husband and I, for example, typically set a $25 gift limit and then treat ourselves to a nice evening out. Getting all dolled-up to enjoy a romantic evening with my hubby is better than any material gift I can think of.

But, if you still really want to give a big-ticket item discuss alternative options with your sweetie (maybe a 32” versus 40” TV) or devise a plan to save in other areas (not going out to dinner or buying a new outfit for a holiday party) if you really want to make that big purchase.

Holiday gift-giving can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. By following these simple steps you and your sweetie pie can spend less time fretting about finances and more time hanging out under the mistletoe!

Until next time,



Holiday Season = Holiday Stress?

The trick-or-treaters are gone and you’re finishing off the last of your Halloween candy, so that can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is a few weeks away and so is the start of the holiday season. Although the holidays may conjure up images of family love, togetherness, and tranquility, most of us know that reality does not always mirror fantasy. In fact, holidays can be extremely stressful, partially because of our families!

One issue that tarnishes the holiday season for a lot of couples is how to divvy up the holidays between their two families. Let’s face it, most of us prefer to spend holidays with our own families, engaging in wacky traditions and eating our family favorites. And guess what? So does your partner. Even though your honey bunny loves your parents and your odd ball cousins, he or she would probably rather be in the comfort of his or her own family just like you want to be celebrating with yours. So what’s a couple to do?

Although this may seem like the start of World War III, it’s important for you and your partner to have an open and honest
conversation about your holiday wishes and desires. This is not the time to voice all your dislikes about your mother-or father-in-law or tell your spouse that his or her family is just plain weird. Nope, this is the time to work together as a team and make a “holiday game-plan.”

Holiday game-plans differ by couple and no one plan works for everyone. My husband and I, for example, alternate most holidays based on year. This year Easter and Thanksgiving are with my hubby’s family and next year they’re with mine. Christmas Eve is always celebrated with my family in-law and Christmas day we enjoy festivities with mine. For us, this works wonderfully. For other couples, this would spell disaster.

So, how do you come up with a plan?

Well, the first thing you need to do is talk with your partner. Sadly, this conversation can go from hero to zero in about 6 seconds flat, so how you talk to your partner is important. Research on conflict management offers some guidance as to how to have a successful “holiday game-plan” conversation:

First, timing is everything. Research suggests that the setting has a big impact on the outcome of the discussion. Cornering your sweetie the moment he walks in from work or while shopping in a crowded store is probably not ideal. Instead, try bringing up the topic when you both are relaxed, in a good mood, and have the appropriate amount of time to devote to this discussion.

Second, watch your start up. Start up?! Yes, how you start the conversation will set the tone for the remainder of the discussion. A conversation that starts with a contemptuous start up such as, “I refuse to spend Thanksgiving with your family, so you need to tell your parents that they just have to deal with it” will probably end differently than a conversation with a soft start up such as, “I know we both want to spend as much time with our families as possible during the holidays, so I was hoping we could work together to come up with a game plan.” I know what you’re thinking, Sylvia, this sounds so contrived; my partner will just laugh in my face!

Well, that’s what I thought at first too, but once you and your partner start using language like this it will become second nature and help strengthen your bond because you both feel heard and validated. Plus, research demonstrates that soft start-ups eliminate blame and contempt and help couples manage conflict more successfully.

NOTE: Remember, your tone is important too. Saying anything, no matter how carefully worded, in a condescending or snarky manner will probably have the same outcome as telling your partner where his/her mother can shove that turkey leg.

Third, mind your p’s and q’s. Even though you’re having this conversation with someone you can be yourself with, you still need to be polite and respectful when talking about your partner’s family. In other words, don’t call his mother a big fat #&$%! or don’t call her dad a drunk….well, you get the picture. Even if your spouse has uttered these very phrases in the past, defaming or slandering his or her family is a sure fire way to start a fight.

In addition, don’t insult or criticize your partner. Research suggests that insults and criticism are one of the most dangerous
weapons relational partners can use on one another and it can have disastrous results, both immediately and for your relationship in the long haul. (Get this, some research suggests that for every one nasty comment you make to your partner, you have to say 5-20 nice things to reduce the damage!) So, now is not the time to call your spouse a mama’s boy who doesn’t care about you or tell your partner it’s time to finally “cut the cord!”

Instead, try using what researcher John Gottman calls the X-Y-Z statement, “When you do X, in situation Y, it makes me feel Z”. For example, “When you won’t compromise about Thanksgiving, it makes me feel like my needs are not important to you.” X-Y-Z statements allow you to focus in on aspecific issue (rather than generalize), suggest that change can happen, and express how a behavior made you feel (instead of blaming or criticizing your partner, which causes defensiveness).

Fourth, compromise. Relationships aren’t easy and there is always give and take. You cannot always get your way and you are going to have to make scarifies, that’s life, that’s love. Maybe you have to give up your favorite holiday this year, but you get it back next year.  And remember, you don’t have to stick to the calendar if that will make your life easier. Maybe you can start having a post-Thanksgiving bash the day after, munch on leftovers, and help your in-laws roll out their Christmas decorations. Get creative and start creating your own holiday celebrations as an extended family.

Fifth, make a plan and stick to it!! Don’t let your parent’s guilt you into changing your plans by claiming that Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah is now ruined. Remember, your partner/spouse is your priority now and you made this decision as a team, so you gotta play by team rules.

Finally, don’t forget yourself in all of the holiday hoopla. Be sure to carve out some time for the two of you and, if you have children, your immediate family. My husband and I, for instance, have a fun Christmas Decorating celebration. We get the tree, some fancy adult beverages, a spread of tasty food, and have our own celebration to kick off the season,just the two of us.

But what if my spouse won’t budge!?! If you really can’t come up with a solution, first try taking a break. It’s a myth that you shouldn’t go to bed angry or walk away from a fight. Go to sleep, take a walk (but not a hike!), and give each other some space. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed that we literally stop thinking and start acting a fool (or, in fancy research terms, we experience emotional flooding). When you feel that you’re getting nowhere, tell your partner you need a break to clear your head, but that you want to talk about this again in 20 minutes. It’s important that you verbalize this and don’t just walk away or storm off (that’s called stonewalling and it’s a big relationship no-no).

In addition, during your break don’t think of all the things you’re going to say when you get back in the ring, instead think about how much you love your partner, what drew you to him or her, or a pleasant beach where you’re all alone in a hammock with a cold beverage in hand (hey, whatever works!). The point is, cool down don’t rev up! If after much discussion and time you are still at an impasse you may want to contact a relationship counselor to help you and your honey work through the issues that may be impeding your ability to make a holiday game-plan.

Now, this isn’t just a one sided process. Parents (in-law) also have to compromise too. Next week, we’ll talk about what parents (in-law) can do to make the holiday season joyful for all!!

Until next time,


**Check back Thursday for Sylvia Says: Relationship Q & A

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