Financial Infidelity: How to talk to your spouse about holiday spending

By Kerry Patterson, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations. Special to USDR.

Each holiday season, it’s the same old story. After enduring a year-long battle of meticulously protecting our funds and balancing our budgets, we blow the bank at the first sniff of pine needles or taste of peppermint candy.

According to our research, more than 60 percent of people either overspend during the holidays or have a spouse or partner who overspends. Close to half said they end up overspending by $500 or more. And a surprising 14 percent say they overspend by thousands of dollars.

A Silent Night

Now, despite the fact that shoppers are over spending, few are willing to talk about it with their partner. Rather than speak up, they go to silence. How prevalent is this silence around holiday overspending? Surprisingly, it permeates almost every household. In fact, four out of five people have trouble speaking to their spouse or partner about their tendency to overspend during the holidays. The majority of people said they will either put off the conversation for months or avoid bringing up their concerns altogether.

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 with your partner 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 moral 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 hardwired to our emotions. So, instead of being on our best behavior when it matters the most, we’re on our worst behavior. As our emotions kick in, we lose our tempers, raise our voices, and both people leave the conversation hurt, angry or frustrated.

‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly

So how can we salvage our budget and preserve our relationship at the same time? Thirty years of research tells us that it’s possible to be 100 percent candid about your budget expectations and 100 percent respectful to your spouse at the same time.

We have spent 10,000 hours observing the skills and habits of influential people who manage to accomplish results others never seem to achieve. What sets these influence masters apart from the rest of the world? When conversations become crucial—when the stakes are high, opinions differ, and emotions run strong—these people know how to step up to heated issues and discuss them in a way that makes it safe for everyone to speak. As a result, others open up, share good ideas, make wise choice, and then act on their choices with conviction.

In the case of holiday overspending, those skilled at holding this crucial conversation find a way to ensure that their spouse feels safe, understands that they are on their side, and realizes that they only want to find a solution that works for both of them. Soon the couple is no longer at odds, but working towards the mutual purpose of sticking to the outlined budget, avoiding unwanted debt, and preserving the year’s hard-earned savings. These seem to be solutions everyone can agree with.

To enjoy a similar outcome in your relationship this holiday season, use these skills to help your holiday budget conversation end successfully. If this conversation goes well, the resulting savings could be the best gifts you’ve ever given your spouse or partner this holiday season.

How to hold crucial conversations on holiday finances with your loved ones:

Talk early.

Don’t wait until your spouse springs for a Harley to talk about limits. Find a time to talk early about how you’ll deal with this year’s holiday spending.

Solve the right problem. Many couples don’t reach resolution because they discuss the wrong problem. For example, if you discover your loved one has rented storage units in neighboring states stuffed with hidden binge gifts, the issue now is trust, not spending.

Communicate with love and respect. The most important key to solving problems with loved ones is to ensure they know that you respect and love them. When they know you support and respect them, their defenses drop and they begin to listen.

Be willing to be wrong. Approach the conversation with an open mind. For example, it could be that the source of your conflict is not a real budget limitation, but that you don’t value holiday gift giving to the same degree as your partner.

Hold each other accountable. Once you reach an agreement, find a way to routinely keep track of spending.

Kerry Patterson is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts – a corporate training and leadership development company. For more tips from Kerry, visit


All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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