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5 Money Conversations You Should Never Have During the Holidays

Flickr via daveparker

The holidays are meant to be a time when we all gather under one roof with family, friends, and food and reflect on everything we’re grateful for.

To some experts out there, it’s also the perfect setting to stage a family-wide financial intervention.

“Spending quality time together happens regularly, but for many [families], including my own, it usually only happens around the holidays,” writes Greg Ward, a certified financial planner who blogs at Financial Finesse. “If that is the case for your family, one thing you may want to do this holiday season is discuss long-term financial goals.”

To help break the ice, there’s even a website, Engage With Grace, that publishes questionnaires that are meant to walk you through dicey subjects like end-of-life care and estate planning, all while you pass around the pumpkin pie.

We wholeheartedly agree that there are important financial conversations every adult should have with their family (and the sooner the better). We just happen to think there couldn’t be a worse time to start opening up cans of money worms than the few days a year when we are all supposed to actually get along. If you want to save yourself (and others) some serious grief, take our advice and avoid these subjects at all costs:

1. Obamacare

Apart from proper turkey-basting technique, the hottest topic around the dinner table this holiday will no doubt be the botched rollout of the new health care marketplace. We’re all for having a good, intelligent debate over the new health care law and what it means for people in your family, but considering how deeply polarizing the topic is, it could be a dangerous one to tackle. 

Instead of stirring the pot, try to steer the conversation away from “This is the worst/best thing that’s ever happened to America,” and make yourself useful instead. Plenty of states are running their own insurance marketplaces without incident and if you have a relative who could use a hand signing up, we’re sure they’d appreciate that much more than a lecture. Someone you know may have been among the thousands of consumers whose policy is being cancelled unexpectedly by their private insurer, too.

If, however, you feel you must square off on Obamacare with relatives, brush up on the facts first. Take a look at this guide from the Washington Post (and our own Q&A), which should help you come up with a proper response for just about everyone in your family.

And don't forget to pick up a good bottle of wine. It's gonna be a long night.

2. Mom and Dad’s estate plan

If life were a Hallmark movie and we were all only children, then maybe you could strike up a conversation about your parents’ estate plan during the holidays and make it out unscathed. The trouble is, this happens to be one of the most emotionally-driven and difficult topics to broach among family.

Less than half of parents surveyed in a Merrill Lynch/Bank of America study published in October said they’ve discussed these types of financial issues with their children. The need to open the lines of communication is definitely there, but the reality is that it will take far more than a few hours after Thanksgiving dinner to sort through thorny subjects like end of life care, health care power of attorney, inheritances and insurance policies. Unless you can carve out quiet time for you, your parents, and your siblings to tackle these matters without the inevitable distractions of holidays, you’re probably better off holding a family meeting once every month or so by phone or webcam.

That way you won’t have to bear all the pressure to sort it out in one visit, and you’ll know what’s going on with your parents’ estate year-round.

3. Personal loans

More than 60% of Americans over age 50 say they’ve been hit up by family for financial help — to the tune of nearly $15,000 a year.

The holidays can be an especially tricky time to navigate requests from family for a loan or a promise to help pay for a major expense. Of course, you don’t want to risk making things awkward for the rest of your visit by saying no immediately, but you don’t want to turn yourself into the family piggy bank either. We suggest asking for time to think about it and waiting to give an answer until the holidays have passed. That way, you can take a look at your own finances first and decide whether it would be appropriate to help out.

4. Your swanky new job 

So you’ve landed the job of your dreams and your bank account balance tacked on another zero. Congratulations. No one wants to listen to you brag about your umpteenth vacation of the year, while others in your family may hardly be making ends meet. Keep the flashy gifts to a minimum, as well. More than one-third of Americans say they stress out most over going into debt during the holidays, and as much as we’d like to deny it, peer pressure from family and friends can make matters worse. Don’t rub it in if you can help it.

5. Stock picking tips

Uncle Roger may think he’s the next Warren Buffett now that the market’s on a tear and his portfolio is doing gangbusters. But the minute he sits down with a cigar and a glass of brandy and tries to impart his stock-picking wisdom to you, try to change the subject.

What works for your uncle won’t necessarily fit your investing needs, especially if you’re doing all you can to save for retirement (and who isn’t?). Just imagine how many awkward holiday dinners people have had with relatives or friends who convinced them to get into in real estate before the housing crisis? And when the bottom fell out and investors fled the stock market during the Great Recession, it turned out that most of them would have been better off if they’d simply stayed the course.

You’re better off taking advice from the “investment gurus” in your family like those talking heads on cable news networks: with a huge grain of salt.

The bottom line

Whether or not you decide to bring up touchy financial subjects around the holidays is completely up to you. If members of your family are dealing with particularly pressing health issues or are in financial straits, then this guide is largely moot. But waiting until the holidays to tackle every money skeleton knocking around in your family’s closet may wind up putting you through a lot more stress than necessary. 

If time is on your side and you’d like to be more involved in your family’s financial planning, then why not use the holidays to decide on a recurring time you can meet throughout the year to check in on one another? That way the holidays can go back to being what they’re supposed to be — holidays.

Does your family use the holidays to talk finances? Let us know: mandiw@yahoo-inc.com