Thinking Aloud
Monday, December 11, 2006 VOLUME 3 ISSUE 138  
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Unwrapping the Secret to Talking About Holiday Finances
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by Kerry Patterson

Each holiday season, it’s the same old story. You endure a year-long battle of meticulously protecting your funds—clipping coupons, going without, and otherwise laying down your thrifty, iron fist—only to blow your budget at the first sign of a holiday sale.

According to a recent Crucial Conversations Online Survey, more than 60 percent of people either overspend during the holidays or have a spouse or partner who overspends. Close to half overspend by $500 or more. And a surprising 14 percent overspend by thousands of dollars.

Those overspenders find themselves in good company during the holidays. In fact, the day after Thanksgiving has come to be known as Black Friday—a term coined by retailers who hope that one of the biggest shopping days of the year will push their retail figures from red to black. And every year, just like clockwork, we answer the call.

How did American consumers do this year? According to the National Retail Federation, an estimated 58.9 million shoppers turned out for this year’s post-Thanksgiving Day shopping spree. And those shoppers were not shy with their wallets. These spenders shelled out an average of $360.15 on that day alone, up 18.9 percent from last year—proving that all that decorating, bell jingling, and ho-ho-hoing really does entice us to spend our hard-earned savings[1].

A Silent Night

Now, despite the fact that shoppers are swiping credit cards right and left, few are willing to talk about it with their spouses. Rather than speak up, the majority of people remain silent when it comes to discussing holiday overspending. The survey revealed that four out of five people have trouble speaking to their spouse about their tendency to overspend during the holidays. The majority either put off the conversation for months or avoid bringing up their concerns altogether.

In fact, the survey revealed that conversations around holiday overspending are so unpleasant people will resort to a whole host of tactics to avoid the discussion. Nearly half will either change the subject or hide price tags from their purchases. While others will hide the purchases themselves, simply walk away from the conversation, or claim they are spending their money—not their spouse’s or partner’s.

But the real problem here may not necessarily be the overspending. Okay, spending too much isn’t exactly a habit to write home about, but spending too much and then not being able to talk about it without getting into a heated argument is an even bigger issue. If you can’t talk effectively, not only is your budget out of balance, but so is your relationship and this can be even more costly in the long run.

And why don’t we immediately and honestly discuss our difference of opinion on the holiday budget? Because either we fear we’ll end up in an ugly argument and retire to smug silence, taking the position as the responsible party who lives with an out-of-control spendthrift. Or, we blow a gasket and resort to threats, hissy-fits, and emotional blackmail—reminding us that we should have kept our mouth shut in the first place. Either way we solve neither the spending problem nor the relationship threat.

What is it about the topic of money that makes a conversation so volatile? As soon as we question our partner’s spending habits, they’re likely to view our critique as an attack on their character and almost immediately become defensive. After all, when you address spending habits you’re talking about frugality, rationality, trust, integrity, and other core values. These values are hard wired to our emotions and as our emotions kick in, we lose our tempers, raise our voices, and both people leave the conversation hurt, angry, or frustrated. When our intentions are to please others with gifts, we’re likely to feel victimized and misunderstood.

It’s little wonder so many people will take any alternative route rather than discuss money problems. For most, starting a conversation that will immediately put our partner on the defense eliminates all hope for a good outcome. With one foot in the grave we feel ill-equipped to hold our loved ones accountable to the budget without discouraging their good intentions, damaging the relationship, or coming off as a real “Scrooge.”

‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly

So how can you salvage your budget and preserve your relationship at the same time? Most people will avoid these conversations simply because they don’t know how to hold them but 25 years of research tells us it is possible to be 100 percent candid about your budget expectations and 100 percent respectful to your spouse at the same time. With the right set of skills, you can not only breach this uncomfortable subject, but realign your relationship, and avoid unwanted debt. Follow these five tips to give your spouse the best holiday presents to date—gifts that don’t even cost a dime.

1. Talk early. Don’t wait until your spouse springs for a Harley to discuss limits. It’s much easier to agree on budgets when his heart isn’t set on a new hog. Somewhere after the emotion of last years’ upsets dies down and before the anxiety of this years’ spending heats up, find a time to talk about how you’ll deal with forthcoming holiday spending.

2. Solve the right problem. Many couples can’t align because they discuss the wrong problem. If your spouse agrees keeping to a budget is a priority, but violates agreements, then talk about how to make it easier for him or her to keep the agreement. If your spouse disagrees on the need to rein in spending, focus the discussion there. If you discover your loved one has rented storage units to stuff hidden binge gifts, talking about agreements is useless. The issue now is trust, not spending.

3. Make it safe. The most important key to solving problems with loved ones is to Make it Safe. Communicate your respect and love and let them know you want them to have freedom to express themselves meaningfully. When people think you don’t care or about their values or have lost respect for them, they become defensive and either dig into their position or avoid you altogether. When they know they have your support and respect, their defenses drop and they begin to listen.

4. Be willing to be wrong. Don’t impose your values on others. Be sure to approach the conversation with an open mind. If the other person realizes you’re truly interested in a solution that satisfies them, they’ll be more open to your priorities. Don’t try to make your preferences into a self-righteous stand, and be willing to change your mind if you come to realize your partner’s position is more reasonable than you thought.

5. Make it visible. Once you come to some agreement, agree on a way to keep track of spending along the way. It’s easier to slow to a spending “stop” when you see the limit coming than it is to smash into a brick wall when the credit card bills, home equity statements, and Shylock the Money Lender show up on your doorstep.

Contributed by Kerry Patterson. Patterson is author of the New York Times bestsellers Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations, and an acclaimed keynote speaker and consultant. He is also the chief development officer of VitalSmarts ( www.vitalsmarts.com ) – a consulting firm specializing in organizational performance and leadership training. Patterson has designed and implemented major corporate change initiatives for the past 25 years.



[1] Mui, Ylan Q., “On Black Friday, Fewer People, More Spent.” Washington Post, 27 November, 2006. A03


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