my two cents

‘How Can I Plan a Family Trip If We Can’t Agree on a Budget?’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

My mom is turning 60 this year, and my family wants to take her on a trip to celebrate. I’m the second child of four and my siblings and aunt are all pitching in. My parents are divorced, and my mom brought us up without much help from our dad, so she hasn’t had the easiest life. I know it’ll mean a lot to her if we go someplace nice together to celebrate her.

However, planning for six people is difficult. Although we all have decent jobs, we also have different financial constraints, and it’s complicated to talk about what we’re comfortable spending. I want to be sensitive to everyone’s needs while also being generous with my mom. Also, travel is really expensive right now — we were thinking of taking her to Puerto Rico, but now I’m not sure if we can afford it. How can we set a budget that’s doable for everyone but also realistic? One of my sisters is super cheap, and I can already tell that she’ll be grumbling the whole time about how much we’re spending, which is going to drive me nuts.

Anyway, how can I get everyone on the same page about what we can spend and how we’ll go about this in a way that celebrates our mom? She’ll want all of us to have a good time, so it’s important that we don’t fight about this. Is there a way to go about it that keeps the peace?

First of all, this is so nice! It seems like your intentions are clear and heartfelt: to treat your mom to a birthday celebration that will make her feel appreciated and loved. Be sure to keep that at the forefront of every conversation with your sisters and aunt as you plan. If things ever get tense or weird, as they inevitably do whenever you’re coordinating something expensive with family members (Godspeed), this is the central point to regroup on.

But before you even start these conversations, make sure that the trip you have in mind is really what your mom wants, not just your idea of what constitutes a fabulous birthday. I think it sounds awesome, but not everyone likes to travel (especially in a pandemic). Have you asked your mom directly about this? You don’t have to give away any surprises, but you could try something like, “Hey mom, we want to do something special for your 60th. Could you help us brainstorm?” Or, more pointedly, “How would you feel if we went on a family trip for your birthday?”

(Of course, your mom probably doesn’t want to cause stress for you or your siblings, so be prepared for her to deflect the offer. This is where you get to say something like, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the arrangements. We just want to make sure that we’re planning something you’d really enjoy. Here are some potential ideas.” Etc.)

Once you’re clear on what your mom is up for, you can take stock of the logistical challenges, specifically in regard to money. It appears that you’re confronting the following issues: (1) Traveling to certain places is pricier than usual right now, (2) your family members have different financial concerns and/or priorities, and (3) you all might have varying ideas about what this event should look like and cost. These are significant hurdles! And not to be a downer, but the pandemic adds an extra wrinkle, especially with Omicron — if anyone gets sick, that could throw a major wrench in the festivities. It might be smart to avoid big commitments like air travel based on that concern alone.

“For many families, celebrations can become synonymous with expensive things and places, which often contributes to greater family disconnect — the opposite of what you are trying to create,” says Bahareh Sahebi, a therapist and faculty member at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “There are many things we fantasize about doing for ourselves or our loved ones, but in reality, those efforts can leave many, including your mom, feeling overburdened, resentful, left out, and even hurt.”

To avoid that, Dr. Sahebi suggests stepping back and asking yourself the following questions: If a trip away from home is the goal, could you go somewhere that’s within driving distance and cheaper and easier for everyone to get to? Is Puerto Rico a place that your mom has always wanted to visit with your whole family, or could you take her there separately at a different time (thus avoiding the expense and hassle of planning with your siblings and aunt)? If she really does want to go with all of you, could you schedule the trip for a time of year when it’s cheaper? Or would your mom be just as happy doing a big dinner party instead, incorporating a larger circle of friends and family (safely, of course)? It’s good to have a vision, but it’s even better to be flexible, especially when you’re managing a group.

These questions will hopefully provide you with a wider range of affordable options that your mom will love. But no matter what they are, you’ll still need to set a budget. And the only way to do that is by asking your family members what they’re comfortable spending. I can’t tell you whether it’s better to have everyone pitch in what they can or if you should all split the cost equally (provided it’s a number you can all agree on). These are things you’ll have to discuss! But I do think it’s important that no one feels overextended, including you.

To kick off this conversation, give everyone some advance notice and make the objectives clear: “To plan mom’s birthday, we need to come up with a budget we’re all comfortable with. Can everyone take a few days to think about what they’re willing to spend and then email me a ballpark number?” (Or, if you think it’ll be easier to discuss in person or on a Zoom or phone call, suggest that instead.)

Based on how that conversation goes, you’ll need to determine whether it’s best to go with the lowest common denominator (whoever names the lowest number sets the bar and everyone contributes that amount) or have everyone pay what they can afford. I would lean toward the latter and trust that everyone can be civil and mature about their differing contributions. But you’ll also need to be prepared to spend more than some of your family members, even if you think they’re being cheap. You cannot hold this over their heads — it’ll poison the whole event. Part of your gift to your mom is to let that stuff go.

If splitting things equally seems fairer, there’s nothing wrong with doing that, either. Money can be awkward to negotiate, and settling on a flat fee makes things simpler. If this means that you won’t be able to afford the blowout trip you’ve been hoping for, so be it! I bet your mom will be happier knowing that the family is having fun rather than gritting their teeth and stowing away grievances.

Finally, think of your budget as enabling you to do something great with your mom, not holding you back from doing something better. This is a subtle but important distinction. And it doesn’t just apply to planning birthdays — focusing on the meaningful things your money can buy is a lot more constructive than getting hung up on the stuff you can’t afford.

How Can I Plan a Family Trip If We Can’t Agree on a Budget?