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No Money Talk at the Holiday Table, Please

Discussing financial matters at holiday family gatherings is a lousy idea. But you can look for clues.

By Jeff Brown

So there you are, the whole three- or four-generation clan at the same table for a holiday feast. There’s a lull in the conversation, a perfect opening. You reach into an accordion folder and distribute your annual report on the state of the family — who’s making good money and who isn’t, how the grandparents’ mental acuity is faring, an analysis of the youngster’s spotty report cards...
Horrified? So ­­­­­­­am I.
Thumbs Down on Family Meetings
The whole idea of a “family meeting” during the holidays just seems so, so awful, although some experts recommend having one because everyone will be together. In my family, the closest we get to a summit like this is to talk about joint vacation plans, and that’s usually not resolved for months.
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Of course, I’m biased. I hate meetings. One of the great things about my life as a freelancer is that, in my international headquarters a few steps from the kitchen, there are no meetings. In my newspaper days, when I went to meetings constantly, I felt that the people who liked them were the ones you didn’t want to be stuck in a room with: grandstanders, suck-ups, speechifiers and scolds.
So I’m skeptical about the value of turning your holiday gathering into a family discussion about such heavy topics as ways to cut spending or who needs financial help and who can offer it.
We all have ups and downs, so it seems inevitable that raising sensitive topics in a large group will bruise someone’s feelings. Those who need the help don’t want to be treated as losers. Those who can offer it don’t want to be taken advantage of. Some might feel others are ganging up on them. Happy holidays?
What You Can Get From A Gathering
Still, a big family gathering is a chance to update our mental files on what’s going on with our multigenerational family and the blood relatives we don’t see often.
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So, to the extent I want to accomplish anything practical at these get-togethers, I use them to gather information, not to press for action. Suggesting your dad give up driving or offering a niece guidance on college savings? That discussion can happen later in a more private setting.
In my own sleuthing with my mom, son and relatives I limit direct questioning to topics that aren’t too sensitive. I might ask how many miles are on the SUV and get a sense of whether replacing it fits the owner’s budget. But I’m not going to bluntly ask my sister, “Can your family afford a private college?”
My Subtle Approach
Occasionally, very occasionally, I approach these assemblies with a subtle agenda.
Here’s an example: In my extended family, there are many drivers who are quite young and others well into their 70s and 80s. Some are good drivers, some terrify me. I don’t want my teenage son, Dash, riding with the bad ones. So to avoid offense, I once waited for my chance and mentioned, with a laugh, that my wife and I have a rule: Dash can’t ride with anyone under 25 or older than 75.
I also have a couple of 20-something nephews who are starting families. To offer sage advice without becoming the know-it-all uncle, I just say: “A baby! What’s next, life insurance?” If they take the bait, I might give them two minutes on term vs. whole life.
I often feel it works better to talk about myself then see what I can glean from the response. You might try this, too.
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A few possible bait lines: "I just updated my will." "I’ve been moving money from stocks to bonds lately." "To save for my son’s college, I put money into a 529 savings plan." "I’m planning to buy a longevity insurance policy" (a contract that makes fixed monthly payments for the rest of your life beginning at a date you specify) —  "but not until the interest rates that are factored into the payments go higher and make the deals better."
Don’t Overdo It
Of course, too much of this kind of talk and you'll find yourself standing alone in the corner. I mean, longevity insurance as a Thanksgiving or Christmas conversation starter?
You get my drift.
The best a Sandwich Generation member can do during holiday gatherings is to keep your ears open for clues about how your parents, kids and other relatives are doing financially. Just resist the temptation to ask how everyone feels about sending granny to a nursing home.
For the most part, I’d stick with football and what the kids are up to. And be sure to rave about the ambrosia salad.

Jeff Brown has nearly 20 years experience as a personal finance columnist for publications including The New York Times, The Nightly Business Report on PBS, The Philadelphia Inquirer and For the past 11 years, he has been a frequent contributor to Knowledge@Wharton, the business journal of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. With a son soon to start college and a mother in retirement, Jeff lives the sandwich generation experience daily. He and his son and wife live in Yardley, Penn. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JefBrownFinance. Read More
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