This year, my sister and her husband are hosting Thanksgiving at their house in Texas for the first time. I live on the East Coast, so I have to fly to get there and the plane tickets were not cheap (a little over $300 round trip). Now she’s asking me to pitch in $200 to help cover groceries, wine, etc. that she’s buying for the four days that my mother and I will be staying with her. I would have been more than happy to buy some wine or do a grocery run, but this just seems rude, especially since I am making a big effort to be there. What do I do? She’s notoriously cheap, which is why I’m extra annoyed. She’s 30 and I’m 32, and we both have decent jobs, so it’s not like either of us can’t spare $200 in a pinch, but it’s still a lot of money to me.
Reading your letter, my first instinct was, great! Just fork over the $200 and be done with it. Sure, it’s a significant chunk of money, and the cash-for-hosting exchange is a little blunt (and rude, I agree). But it also lets you off the hook for any tricky dynamics or nuanced anxieties over your obligations as a guest. You can kick back, stuff your face, and help yourself to as much wine as you want with the assurance that you don’t “owe” your sister anything in return. The arrangement is clean and simple.
But on second thought, it’s not like your sister is running a hotel. She invited you. And part of hosting is showing generosity toward your guests — especially if they’ve ponied up for a plane ticket to come. That said, she might have genuinely underestimated how much Thanksgiving would cost and is scrambling to cover it, albeit rather gracelessly. But where does the buck stop? Will she do this every time a family gathering exceeds her budget? Will you be tallying up whatever she consumes the next time she visits you? It’s weird to put a price on family time, which can’t really be quantified, even when it involves things that cost money.
Most importantly, your sister’s request genuinely bothers you, so that alone justifies a conversation. The last thing you want is for this to devolve into alternating passive-aggressive Venmo requests every time you get together. So, you two should talk.
To figure out the best approach, I called Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a consultant who specializes in wealth psychology and hosts the Breaking Money Silence podcast. She recommends that you start off by examining why you’re so annoyed. “Before you initiate anything, get clear as to why you’re having these feelings about contributing the $200. What does that money represent to you? How is it different from you just going out and buying the equivalent amount of groceries and wine? Does it bring up judgments about how your sister has handled money in the past?”
You don’t need to mention these thoughts to your sister; in fact, it might be better if you didn’t. But it’s smart to be aware of them before you dive in, otherwise you might find yourself blurting out a reminder that she stole your $80 sweater back in 2013 or some other old gripe that’ll derail the discussion.
Secondly — and this might go without saying — don’t bring this up on or right before Thanksgiving Day itself. Hosting is stressful. And since there’s drinking involved, well, best to wait. If I were you, I’d pay the $200 up front (painful though it may be) and consider it an investment in good sisterly relations. Then make a conscious decision to raise the topic later this week or over the phone after you leave.
In the meantime, try to get the lay of the land during your visit. Even if your sister is a generally cheap person, I guarantee that you don’t know everything about her finances, and you might pick up on some context while you’re there. Maybe her husband has something to do with her pushing for reimbursement. Maybe she’s having money troubles you aren’t aware of. Try to let it go for the time being. If you find yourself getting annoyed (“How come she owns those shoes and that coat but she couldn’t bring herself to pay for our Thanksgiving turkey?!”), excuse yourself for a moment and take a few breaths. The last thing you want to do is waste a $300 plane ticket on a big fight.
When you do decide to talk, Kingsbury suggests picking a quiet moment and then starting off with, “There’s something I’d like to ask you about.” Then, proceed to a question. “If you seem curious about where she’s coming from, and make it clear that you’re trying to understand, you’re more likely to have a productive conversation about money,” she says. “It’s really important not to make them ‘wrong.’ You can have a difference of opinion, but it just means you’re coming at it differently.” Best-case scenario, your sister says, “Oh, you’re right, that was rude of me. I’ll pay you back.” Conversely, she might believe that she didn’t do anything wrong, in which case you can explain that you wish you could have contributed in a different way.
Obviously, you can’t change your sister, and chances are she’s pretty set in her ways. But hopefully, you can come to a better understanding of where that mind-set comes from, and she can grasp why it makes you feel the way it does. There may not be an easy solution, but at the very least, you’ll learn how to talk about money more openly with each other — which will probably be worth a lot more than $200 in the long run.