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Sandwich Generation: Planning a Family Reunion

Here's how to keep spirits up and costs down at your next get-together with the relatives

By Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown writes a biweekly blog about the Sandwich Generation and the financial issues its members face as they try to help their parents and their adult children. The blog appears on Next Avenue and on the website of the public television show Nightly Business Report. A highly respected financial journalist, Brown brings personal expertise to the subject because he is part of the Sandwich Generation.

On one of our bookshelves is a small picture frame holding a delicate white wafer with a handwritten note: “Dash’s first sand dollar.” It’s a memento from one of our son’s first visits to our “family beach week,” a 20-year tradition that brought together as many as 17 members of three generations: my wife Leslie’s parents, their four grown children and the gaggle of grandkids who otherwise had little chance to see one another.

The family gathering — from an informal, multigenerational vacation to an elaborate reunion — is perhaps the best family gift of all: an experience with loved ones. Now is the time to start planning a summer get-together, since booking a large rental home or a block of hotel rooms can’t be left to the last minute.

Why Family Gatherings Can Be Tricky

For all the pleasure family reunions bring, they can be fraught with potential problems.

  • Families are scattered geographically more than ever these days, so the travel expense and time can be daunting.
  • There can be financial concerns regardless of where your Sandwich Generation members live. Some may be in the money, while others are just scraping by.
  • A tradition that seemed to suit everyone in the beginning might not work as well now that the kids have grown older, the grandparents travel less and the working people's careers have become more demanding. (In our family, beach week at a rental house on North Carolina’s Outer Banks or the barrier island outside Charleston, S.C., petered out as the older grandkids went off to college.)

To help you navigate the shoals of family gatherings and cut their costs, I asked Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine, for her advice. And I've thrown in some tips based on my experience. Below are some questions that might be on your mind and our answers.

(MORE: Top 10 Multigenerational Vacation Destinations)

Is it better for one family member to take control of the planning or for the group to make decisions by consensus?

“Letting everyone have a say probably does not work,” Wagner says. “It does require someone to oversee the details” once the majority has agreed on the location and the date.

Wagner says someone should be responsible to ensure that rooms are booked, deposits are paid on time and plans are clearly communicated to everyone. Grandparents are often good choices to spearhead the gatherings since they have the time and enjoy deference from younger family members.

But the ringleader can delegate chores to others, things like arranging transport from the airport, assigning each day’s cooking chores and planning the dominos tournament.

How long should a family gathering last?

Try to schedule a week, if possible. In my experience, a short rendezvous, like a three-day weekend, is likely to be more regimented than a seven-day vacation. When time is tight, families need to pencil in moments when everyone will be together.

A week allows for a good mix of planned and spontaneous activities and justifies the expense of long-distance travel. There’ll also be more free time, allowing subsets of the family to get together without the others. Also, many vacation properties are rented on a weekly basis.

Don’t extend the reunion beyond a week, though. Otherwise, some attendees may get sick of one another, especially if they’re under one roof.

(MORE: Sandwich Generation: The ‘Fair Share’ Dilemma)

Even a week can open the door for uncomfortable conversations. Our gatherings were agreeable and accommodating, but on a few occasions I had to listen to a political diatribe I disagreed with. I just held my tongue and thought of myself as an anthropologist studying an alien culture. (If your family is full of hotheads who can’t get along, maybe a big vacation-type assembly isn’t a good idea.)

What determines whether family get-togethers are hits or flops?

“It seems like the most successful ones are seriously planned,” Wagner says.

A few outings, sporting events or games and perhaps an awards ceremony can enliven the gathering, but they don’t happen on their own. Some reunions even involve educational events, like arranging financial planning sessions run by a local professional.


After the Roots miniseries, many African-American families started to develop reunion traditions that have grown to become quite elaborate, with sit-down sessions on genealogy and dressy banquets. “If I go to a banquet at one of those I’m naked without a hat,” Wagner says with a laugh.

Though thoughtful planning does pay off, Wagner warns about overdoing it with a minute-by-minute agenda. It’s important to have a balance between scheduled events and free time.

Our beach weeks were at the other extreme. The closest thing to a requirement was dinner, prepared by a different family each night and eaten by everyone around a big table. The nights usually ended in the living room with a movie or Atlanta Braves game on TV.

The key, Wagner says, is to plan a get-together that suits the family’s style — thoroughly organized or loosey-goosey, dressy or casual.

What are the best ways to trim costs?

Since lodging is typically one of the biggest expenses, Wagner says, the organizer should haggle with a prospective hotel or resort over room rates.

It’s often possible to get a deep discount for renting a block of rooms, especially if the event includes a banquet, the most profitable part of the deal for the facility.

One way to keep costs fair is to let the older people with bigger budgets stay at a high-end hotel or resort, while the younger ones gather at a cheaper place down the street.

A family that wants to gather in a big, expensive city full of attractions can also save money by staying in a nearby suburb, perhaps even renting a bus for city excursions, Wagner suggests. “Most large cities have a county close by that’s big on reunions,” she says. Contact local convention and visitors’ bureaus for suggestions on how to trim the reunion budget.

Some families try to keep travel costs about the same for everyone — gathering, for instance, in the middle of the country if people are clustered on the East and West Coasts.

Alternatively, family members who live closest to the destination could cover everyone’s lodging costs, since others will spend a lot on travel.

Parents of young adults sometimes cover their expenses so the kids don’t skip the reunion because their budgets are tight.

In our beach weeks, the chief extravagance was the rental house. It was always big, with a good kitchen, a large dining-room table, plenty of bathrooms and sand and surf just a short walk away. Once the bags were unpacked and the refrigerator was filled, the week took care of itself.

Now it's your turn.

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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