Erica, 26, is a nurse who lives in Baltimore. She finished her degree last year, and although she has a decent job, she’ll be working off her student debt for a while. Meanwhile, her parents are both comfortably retired and regularly fund family trips, including flights, hotels, and meals. Two years ago, they all went to the Grand Canyon, and now, her parents are plotting a vacation to France in September. They’ve even invited Erica’s boyfriend, Marcus, whom she’s been seeing for over a year. Erica loves her family and genuinely enjoys spending time with them, but she and Marcus have limited vacation days and she’s not wild about spending a week of them with her mom, dad, and two younger brothers — it just won’t be relaxing, and they won’t all want to do the same things. Can she work out an arrangement where she and Marcus can split off for a few days, or at least a couple of afternoons? Or will this seem opportunistic and hurt her parents’ feelings? She doesn’t want to turn down the whole the whole offer (it’s a free trip to France, after all), but she doesn’t want to seem bratty or put Marcus in a weird position, either. Should she just find a way to say no and nip the whole thing in the bud? Where can she draw the line — and how much longer can this vacation-funding go on?
When I was in my early 20s, my mom and dad planned a family trip to Mexico with my brother, me, and our respective significant others. It was their Christmas present to us, a kindhearted and welcoming gesture toward our partners, and it backfired spectacularly when I broke up with mine a few weeks before we left. I felt awful about the way I’d ended things, and leaving my folks in the lurch as collateral damage was the crappy guilt cherry on top of the mess I’d made. I asked to pay them back for his flight fees and they refused. I then spent the whole trip thinking about what a jerk I was. My parents had been trying to give us a nice time together, and I’d ruined it.
Moral of the story: An all-expenses-paid trip with your family is way more stressful than anyone intends, especially as you get older and throw partners into the mix. No matter how selfless and cool your parents are, money always comes with obligations attached, emotional and otherwise. What’s more, it has the odd power of converting every choice into a request — for example, if your mom buys your plane ticket but you want a window seat, you have to ask her. (Maybe it costs an extra $50; awkwardness ensues.) And what good is a vacation without that world-is-your-oyster feeling that time is truly your own, free from people you want to please and schedules you have to follow? It’s generous of your mom and dad to foot the bill — and certainly tempting to accept it when money’s tight — but unless you hammer out a few very clear boundaries, it’s time to figure out a way to cut the cord, gently.
You have three options in how to proceed: (1) You could say no to the trip (a week off can be just impossible to coordinate these days!); (2) You and Marcus could try to pay your own way; or (3) You could commence the sticky process of negotiating a patchwork-payment situation, where you and Marcus do your own thing for a few days (and cover all “you” time, financially). It seems like you want to do No. 3 (and can’t afford No. 2), but before you take another step, make sure that Marcus is really on board to sip Chablis with your dad for multiple days, and not just smiling stiffly whenever you mention it. Debating over whether to have dinner at the tapas place at 8 p.m. or that cute little bistro at 6:30 p.m. (mom’s tired, etc.) can be annoying enough with your own family; doing it for days on end with someone else’s — even if you genuinely like them — can be downright hellish.
Which is why some couples rule against it, period. “A number of years ago, my husband and I decided that we wouldn’t go on group family trips anymore,” says my friend Farrah, 33. “As nice as a free vacation sounds, we realized that spending any of our precious free time NOT doing exactly what we want, with whom we want, just isn’t worth it.” Also, she adds, their family dynamics are better this way: “Truth be told, my in-laws drive me nuts, and my relationships with my family members are much healthier when I spend time with them one-on-one.”
Rather than issuing a blanket statement, Farrah and her husband just started saying no. “We never ‘broke the news’ to our parents — it’s more that we consistently declined the invitations, with the explanation that we only have so much time off and that we’d honestly like to spend it together as much as we can,” she explains. “They’re disappointed sometimes, and ever-hopeful, but we see them frequently enough that they can’t guilt-trip us too much. Harsh? Maybe. We love our families, but we love our time together as a duo a lot more, and we are protective of it.”
And even if Marcus wasn’t in the picture, it’s normal to want autonomy during your much-deserved time off — and it feels bad to tell your parents to give you space when they’ve literally flown you across the Atlantic to hang out with them. My friend Grace, 30, struggled with this when her retired parents brought her and her two adults siblings on a cruise. “First of all, I hate cruises, but since they were paying, I was in no position to complain,” she says. “I also really wanted some time to myself, alone, but every day was so planned that it was hard to find that. It was like a game of chess — I’d watch which excursions my family members signed up for, and then I’d pick a different one to do on my own. And then my dad would be like, ‘Oh, you can’t do that by yourself! I’ll go with you!’ And I’d be like, ‘Noooo, it’s really okay.’ But you can’t tell your parents that you don’t want to spend time with them, because they’ve just spent all this money to bring the family together.”
Which is why you need to do it before you say yes to the vacation. How to manage that conversation without seeming like an ingrate who’s being picky about her free trip to Europe? “Start by being empathetic to your parents’ position,” says Dr. Maggie Baker, a psychologist who specializes in family and financial therapy. “You can say, ‘Thank you for being so generous, and for making time to spend together.’ Then explain that you have limited time off, and that you’d love to take a few days with your partner on your own. Be specific about your plan — for example, you could spend Saturday through Wednesday with the family, and then leave for a few days, and meet up with them for brunch before you fly back together. I wouldn’t recommend bringing up money at first, at all.”
Then, if your parents hem and haw about payment (or, as Baker puts it, “weaponize the money,”) you can play that game, too. “If they’re hesitant when you ask for flexibility, be sure to ask why. They might say, ‘Well, we’re paying for this, but you’re not even participating.’ Then you can say, ‘We would like to pay for any expenses that we incur on our own,’” says Baker. “Or they might say something like, ‘We just want to do everything with you, because we love you so much!’ At which point you have to say, ‘I’m not 10 anymore!’ You can have a sense of humor about it.” After all, this is vacation — it’s supposed to be fun. Take their good intentions seriously, but keep a light touch.
After the Mexico debacle, I wish I could say that I never accepted a free trip from my parents again, but the transition was more gradual — and yours might be, too. Ironically, I wound up getting back together with the guy who was supposed to come with us, and we’re now married. (My mom likes to joke that I still owe him a vacation.) He has since traveled with my family several times, but they’ve wisely steered clear of buying anyone’s plane tickets, and we’re all better for it.