My boyfriend and I have been together for three years now. We live together and split most of our shared expenses (rent and other bills) down the middle, but our finances are separate. This is tricky during the holiday season, particularly when we’re buying gifts for family members. Both sets of parents live pretty close to us, so we’re celebrating with each of our families (we’ll go to his parents’ house for Christmas Eve and my parents’ house on Christmas Day). The problem is, it’s a little unclear who should pay for gifts. In the past, I’ve gotten my own gifts for his immediate family, but that really adds up. His family is big (two parents, four siblings), and it’s a lot to buy gifts for all of them. My family is smaller (two parents, one sibling). Altogether, it feels like too much.
My boyfriend and I are on the same page that we need to do a better job of sharing the gifting load in a way that feels fair. My question is, what should that look like? What do other couples do? I don’t want to be rude or ungenerous.
My spouse used to get anxious about Christmas for the same reason I love it: My family takes our gifting traditions seriously. On Christmas morning, at least seven of us assemble in my parents’ bedroom to see what “Santa” put in our stockings (random office supplies, candy, a nice candle; there’s always an orange in the toe). Then my dad makes scrambled eggs and we proceed to the living room, where we light a fire and sort through the pile under the tree. My mom reminds us to save ribbon and wrapping paper so that it can be reused; my dad makes sure we write down who gave what for thank-you notes. By the time we’ve opened all our stuff and sampled the caramels my cousin sends us, it’s usually time for a nap.
For me, this annual ritual is deeply comforting. But my husband found it stressful, especially the first few years we were together. (Something about pressure to deliver in front of a crowd of my closest relatives?) So, a few years ago, I just started buying gifts for everyone and saying they were from both of us. Initially, my husband would Venmo me for half the cost; now our finances are so intermingled that we don’t bother. (Conversely, he’s in charge of all gifts for his family, from us.)
You could try this strategy for a year and see how it goes (splitting things on Venmo, or not). But my bigger point is this: Exchanging presents is supposed to be fun and celebratory. If it’s stretching you too thin, financially or otherwise, then you’re right to change something. Traditions are meant to connect people, not strain them.
Plus, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by how many presents you have to get, especially for your boyfriend’s family, other members of this group probably are, too. In my experience, most people are relieved to dial back the gifting pressure at holidays, but don’t want to sacrifice the spirit of generosity or offend anyone.
So, to answer your question: No, you don’t need to pay for gifts for your boyfriend’s family. But you’re wise to zoom out and come up with a better system, more generally, that preserves the warm and fuzzy parts of gifting without draining your savings or goodwill. I spoke to several couples about how they walk that line.
1. Before you start shopping, establish a budget.
This sounds obvious, but I think a lot of people skip this step and launch themselves straight into a shopping frenzy (usually prompted by the flurry of sales and Black Friday emails that bombard us this time of year). Instead, you and your boyfriend should take a look at what you can each comfortably spend, and use that to shape your plan. It’ll also help you communicate with each other in a more concrete sense, in terms of what costs you’re willing to share.
On a related note, you should also divvy up who’s in charge of shopping. In addition to costing money, gifts take time to find, buy, wrap, and keep track of. For a lot of couples, that labor falls disproportionately on one party (often the woman) without much discussion. Be conscious of the value of your time as well as the money you’re contributing.
2. Consider a family-wide Secret Santa.
When gifting starts to get out of hand, this is the most straightforward solution, and also the most popular — several people I know do Secret Santa with their extended families. It works best if one central person quarterbacks it (say, whoever’s hosting the gathering) and sets the ground rules, like a $100 spending maximum.
Other ingredients for a successful Secret Santa: Do your research, and don’t spoil it. If you’re matched with your shy brother-in-law, ask around (quietly) for what he might like. Half the fun of any kind of gifting scenario is the anticipation of a surprise, on both the giving and receiving side.
3. Try a gifting rotation.
My friend Eva does this with her 18 (!) in-laws: They all take turns giving gifts to different family members. (For instance, this year, she might be in charge of getting a gift for her nephew; next year, her sister-in-law, etc.) This is similar to Secret Santa, except everyone knows their gifting partners in advance. The benefit is that you rotate through different people, so you won’t get stuck shopping for your awkward uncle-in-law two years in a row.
You can also try this with whole family units if your group is especially big. For example, you and your boyfriend could be in charge of getting gifts for his sister’s family one year, and his parents the next. This strategy works particularly well when there are young kids involved, since one-on-one gifting gets more unwieldy.
4. Do themed gifts.
A great way to make shopping easier (and less expensive) is to create guidelines. My cousin’s family has a rule that they only give gifts that can be “ingested” (chocolates, wine, cheeses, CBD gummies). Other themes: books, pajamas and/or cozy sleepwear, kitchen supplies, etc. I’m a firm believer that people are most creative when they’re given boundaries, so this makes gifting more playful and less about who’s spending what.
5. Ask people what they really want — and return the favor.
Every year, my family members circulate a group email with our respective wish lists (books, a new sweater, whatever). We include a range of price points, and even links to specific stuff along with preferred sizes, colors, etc. Some people might consider this awkward, but I think it’s a great example of how it’s kindest to be direct: You’re more likely to appreciate a gift that you’ll actually use, and think of whoever gave it to you when you do. Plus, no one feels shortchanged when they get what they asked for.
A crucial element of making this work — along with most of the other ones listed above — is who initiates it. For instance, it might be weird for you to suggest Secret Santa to your boyfriend’s family after knowing them for just a few years. But he could do it, or talk to his siblings about it and see what they think. Sometimes family members are more open to change than everyone anticipates. And with good reason: The best way to preserve a tradition is to keep it flexible.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org