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‘Tis The Season To Argue During Family Gatherings — But This Year, At Least We Can Mute Them

Whizy Kim
·10 min read

Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally-charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.

Last week, we discussed how family holiday gatherings (even virtual ones) can be fraught with tension or arguments, especially when so many people are struggling with money or job loss this year. This week, Refinery29 spoke to readers about the ways in which their family can be judgmental about careers or finances, and how they deal with it.

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Helen, 24, Brooklyn

When quarantine first happened, I moved back home with my parents for four months and ended up saving so much! I was still paying rent back in NYC but I wasn’t going out at all. I really only spend my money on crafts. When I was home, my parents encouraged me to permanently move back home to save money, but I thought it would throw off the life path I prepared for myself (making friends, finding a boyfriend, etc). We would get in major arguments about me wanting to move back to the city and them wanting me to live at home. I am lucky to have a family that was willing to let me in, but after not having lived at home for six years, it was a tough transition.

They were fine with [me living in NYC] before COVID — though a little confused about how I could live in a place this rampant with rats, and how I was fine living in a tiny bedroom with no closet facing a shaftway paying half my salary. Otherwise, they were happy that I was happy. Once COVID hit and I moved back home to escape the city, they were confused about why I would want to move back. They wanted me to live at home and save money/stay out of the city. My mom wanted me to move to Connecticut and stay with either a family friend or sublet a bedroom somewhere. I was confused about why she wanted me to sublet an apartment when she also said she wanted me to save money. There was a lot of arguing for a few months. They told me they don’t approve and wouldn’t help pay any of my security deposit (which they have done previously), but I didn’t really know where they would have approved of me going.

Now that I’m back in the city, I am falling into bad money habits again. I’m not going out to bars/out to eat so I’m saving money in that sense, but then I spend what I would be spending on food on athleisure. I did a therapy session with both of my parents. My dad normally gets upset when I share with him that I bought something new, and I feel like I always need to give him reasons as to why I purchased something. This past weekend I bought two (adorable) facemasks that cost $32 for a set of two. I told him how excited I was. I also then mentioned how I’m selling some of my clothes on Poshmark (mostly so I can keep up with my spending habits) — he said how maybe if I stopped buying things, I wouldn’t have to sell things (true), but I love shopping and buying new things. I give myself reasons as to why I buy things, and I’m a very price-conscious shopper. Yet every time I buy something, I feel like I need to tell him it was cheap before I go into any other details. This is my own money, so I feel like I shouldn’t need to explain my reasons for purchasing something.

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Clara, 31, New York

I’m an independent business owner/entrepreneur. I’m in the creative/design industry, so money is certainly always ‘up for discussion’ amongst my Caribbean/native New Yorker family table. I especially find that it happens because I’m the first of my family in my respective field, so there’s just so much they don’t understand and it results in judgement.

I do have memories of past holiday gatherings where I’ve been in delicate situations and have argued about my life and career choices. And it does leave an impact when considering whether to get together for any group gathering.

This year, because the pandemic has emphasized distance more than ever, I do crave friends and family. But the relief of getting together virtually is that you can mute/leave/tune out in ways that perhaps aren’t possible in real life.

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Anna, 33, Pacific Northwest

Holidays are a great time for family to come together, but I think there are moments when certain subjects get brought up in conversation (like extended family drama, finances, work, relationships) and these topics can divide the family when that isn’t the intention. I think there’s definitely a time and place for everything, but money and finances seem to sneak into every family holiday gathering. This year, we plan to have a virtual family gathering over FaceTime, but in past years, we’ve gone to our parents’ home. There have definitely been situations where my life choices have brought up a lot of criticism from the family, whether it’s how I chose to take out more student loans during pharmacy school to travel to the East Coast, or how I chose to eat at restaurants or go to coffee shops during college rather than making my own coffee or food. I learned to not bring up those pain points as much during future family gatherings.

Each of us in the family have different thoughts on how we should be saving or spending. My brother, who is a very bright person, is always trying to influence the rest of us to buy the next best stock, or else we’re “missing out on a huge opportunity.” He tends to think short-term in terms of gains from stocks, since he has the freedom to do so. Our parents, on the other hand, are big believers in buying one stock that they truly think is going to be a long-term investment (on top of mutual funds). As for myself, I’m somewhat in the middle but am focusing a lot more on utilizing different streams to save and earn (like stocks, contributing more into my 401k, real-estate investments, high-interest savings through my SoFi account).

My husband and I haven’t had the opportunity to buy our first home yet, or really save money since I only recently paid off student loans. Our family didn’t grow up with a lot of money, and each of us have worked hard to get where we are so I think we understand the importance of hard work — but that also comes with the assumption of “not working hard enough.” Once our family brings up finances, I feel like we start to divide. I think I just need to come to the next holiday gathering (virtually) with an understanding that my family has their own perspectives, and I know they want the best for all of us.

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Emma, 23, Montréal

My partner and I didn’t lose our jobs this year, but his parents both did, so he’s had to help them out and that’s [made our finances] tighter as we’re both in school. This year, for the holidays, we’re having small family suppers at most and will try to avoid discussing those subjects, as I feel it will make it awkward for everyone.

His parents both work in the restaurant business as cooks, so their hours and permission to work has been on and off since May because of lockdown mandates of the Quebec government. They put the pressure on my partner to set them up to receive government aid from different programs. They refuse to call Service Canada themselves or go on the website to get answers — my partner has to do it all for them. He also had to help out financially with groceries and other weekly expenses during the time it took for the government aid to arrive.

Most of the conversations with his parents in the last few months have been to ask us questions about the government aid. For the amount he’s loaned to his parents, both my partner and his parents just avoid the subject, but they [would bring it up] as soon as lending money is involved. We’ve tried to find hospital kitchen jobs for his dad, as I have family members working in recruiting for those contracts, but my father-in-law never called back for interview dates. My partner has argued with his dad a few times over this, as his dad hounds him for help finding a job, but then doesn’t bother going to the interviews we help set up. To avoid more conflict, my partner has refused to help his father with more job search.

Also, some family members seem to think that we’ve been in school too long and should already be on the job market and/or working in a family business. According to his parents, because we’re 25 and 23, we should be done with school and start our “adult life” — at our age his mom was already pregnant with him. My partner and his parents immigrated from Mexico, and we often have difficulties trying to explain that things aren’t the same now as 25 years ago, in a different country. I try to explain my point but always end up just nodding to get the conversation over with and then try to move the conversation over to something else.

On my side of the family, my uncle has had his own business for the last 30 years. The only ick is that he barely pays more than the minimum wage, and he’s also known to be an asshole boss. He’s tried to recruit me and my partner a few times to “help out” — that is, to work for little or no compensation, because we’re family. Whenever this happens, we just list off other engagements that prevent us from taking on more work. If we tell him no, he just stops talking to us for a while. He’s a fickle person so we don’t take it seriously, it’s just annoying that any conversation about our studies or work turns into an attempt to guilt-trip us into helping out the family business.

Last Christmas, I ended up having to curtly explain that I wouldn’t work for less than what I currently make. Dinner was a bit awkward after that, but we moved on to other things. Like my partner’s parents, my uncle (as well as his wife and my aunt) don’t see the point in my CPA certification and believe I should enter the job market at the end of this school year as well as lend some of my time to the family business to lower his costs. My mother is on my side so discussions never go too far — it’s just a constant annoyance at family suppers.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

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