my two cents

How Do I Host My Family Without Spending a Bunch of Money?

Photo: L. Willinger/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My spouse and I just bought our first home, and we’re excited to have our family here for the holidays. My sister and her boyfriend are coming for Christmas, and then my in-laws are coming for a few days after that (seven guests total). We’re happy to have them here, especially since we weren’t able to see each other last year, and it’s cool to be able to host after years of living in a one-bedroom apartment. However, buying a home stretched our finances, and paying a mortgage still gives me anxiety every month. The down payment took up most of our savings, and we’ve also spent a lot on fixing up little things after we moved in. So we’re just feeling pretty broke right now. The idea of buying tons of food and wine for everyone is making me anxious. I wish there was a non-awkward way to ask everyone to pitch in funds. Requesting that people buy groceries feels a little weird. I don’t want to come off as cheap, especially since we are genuinely glad to host and don’t want anyone to feel like a burden. How do I handle this?

Congratulations on your new home! One of the best things about owning a house — or so I hear — is that you have enough space to entertain your friends and family without drawing the ire of a grumpy landlord or a noise-sensitive downstairs neighbor. If you’ve spent years living in places where this was not the case (as I have, if you can’t tell), then you have every reason to celebrate this moment with your loved ones.

(Here is where I should also say that if you have now put off your holiday plans because of Omicron, this advice still applies for whenever you decide to resume hosting and find yourself in the same pickle.)

While homeownership is an exciting milestone, it is also stressful. A mortgage is no joke. Even if the monthly payments are well within your means, it’s still nerve-racking to have so much money tied up in one place. This is known as being “house rich and cash poor,” and it’s especially common among new homeowners who drained much of their savings to afford a down payment. This is all to say: You are not alone in your anxiety and, hopefully, your family members will understand where you’re at.

There are several ways that you could approach your family members about pitching in so that you don’t have to shoulder all the expenses of hosting seven people (which is a tall order for anyone, in my opinion). How you proceed depends on you and your family’s culture, dynamics, and traditions. You can break from those, of course, but it might help to acknowledge it (“I know we don’t usually do this, but …”). Also, make sure that your spouse is on board with the plan. Ideally, they could handle reaching out to their side of the family so that you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

If I were in your shoes, I would frame it as a potluck situation and assign each guest a category or meal that they should plan to bring, make, or buy (for instance, maybe your sister and her husband handle wine and your in-laws are in charge of appetizers and desserts). Feel free to be direct about this: “Could you bring wine for Friday and Saturday? We’re having chicken and lasagna.” Alternatively, if you want to be more collaborative, you could offer choices: “We’re hoping to split up some of the meal responsibilities. Would you rather be in charge of side dishes or something else?” This means you’ll have to give up some control over what shows up — your sister’s wine choices might not be up to your standards, etc. — but it will still be fine, really!

You also mentioned that you wish everyone could just contribute money. That could also be fine, but there’s a higher potential for weirdness. “If it isn’t normal to speak up about finances in your family, then this might be hard,” says Jamila Souffrant, a financial educator who hosts the Journey to Launch podcast. “That said, some people like to be told what you need. With my family, I could just say, ‘Look, can we split the cost of this meal?’ But not everyone is like that, and you can’t always predict how your family will react to you.”

Still, she adds, it’s worth taking ownership of the position that you’re in and being open with your family members about what they can do to lighten your load. “If you approach the conversation from a place of honesty and vulnerability, then people are more likely to respond in kind,” she says. One way to do this is by asking people what they would be comfortable contributing and suggest cash as an option. For instance: “We can’t wait to see you, but we’re stretched a bit thin right now. To make this work, we’re trying to divide and conquer the food and wine costs. Is there anything specific you’d like to bring, or would you prefer to just pitch in funds?”

Another important step is to actually look at your budget and see how much you’re willing and able to spend on the meals you’re sharing. Then plan accordingly. It could be that hosting doesn’t cost as much as you fear it will. A big pot of pasta is just as fun and welcoming as a fancy roast meat thing, if not even more so. I once went to a party where the host made everyone pancakes for dinner, and it was great! (Google “cheap meals for entertaining” and you’ll find a zillion more ideas.) After all, it’s your house, and the beauty of having people over is that you get to serve them whatever you want.

How Do I Host My Family Without Spending a Bunch of Money?