Dear Wayne and Wanda,
This will be my third Christmas with my girlfriend. I spoiled her pretty good the first two years but this year is going to be different. I work in hospitality and have basically been unemployed this entire year and I just don’t have the money to spend. We don’t live together and we don’t talk frankly about our finances — we have our own money, we pay our own bills. I’ve mentioned how hard this year has been, and she’s remarked on how “lucky” I am to have gotten the “big unemployment checks.” I’m not sure she understands that she’s not going to have big fancy gifts this year.
On top of that, she has family here but for various issues — health reasons, people’s jobs not being super socially distanced — she did not spend Thanksgiving with them and will not be spending Christmas with them either. She’s really sad about it, and I don’t know how to help. We had Thanksgiving just the two of us, and it was fine, but I know it was a hard day for her. With Christmas coming up, I want to make it special. How do I do that, especially when I don’t really have any money? Any ideas would be great.
Most of us are going through something this holiday season, whether it’s strained resources or separation from family or gloominess over the loss of our usual traditions. Your girlfriend is very lucky to have someone who’s stepping up and looking out for her. Unfortunately, it sounds like she’s hoping a lavish gift under the Christmas tree will save the day. The only way to curtail her certain disappointment is to be honest.
Just because you guys don’t share household expenses and bank accounts doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open about your financial reality. Rather than dropping hints and ignoring her remarks, sit down and explain your current financial situation: times are tight, this year was tough, and your gifts will reflect that in their modesty. This conversation will also put your relationship on a more open path of understanding each other’s financial situations down the road.
With smaller gifts, and it being just the two of you, 2020 stands to be a very different holiday, but that can be a good thing. When will you ever again celebrate Christmas as just a pair? When are you free of the burdens of hosting huge soirees, preparing massive meals or hitting holiday parties every weekend? Think of it this way: you’re free! 2020 is a chance to do the holiday entirely your way. Rather than be glum about the loss of normalcy, try to embrace the opportunity to turn Christmas on its head and have some fun with it during this weird, one-off year.
Fine, I’ll play the Grinch here. Showering your girlfriend with fancy gifts on Christmas Day will, at best, just be a temporary distraction from the confusion, frustration and depression she’s experiencing. And spending every cent of your “big unemployment checks” on gifts will, at best, simply meet her unrealistic expectations while throwing you into a dreadful hole of debt. And that’s what Christmas is all about!
Wanda is right: The best gift you can give your girlfriend and yourself right now, and for the future, is honest communication. Talk with her about where you’re really at financially, where she’s really at emotionally, and how this holiday season will be unlike your first two together. You’re receiving those checks because you are, indeed, unemployed. You are there for her so she can be OK with not feeling OK right now. And while your trees won’t be buried under gifts this Christmas, you two can still make this a special holiday season because you’re healthy and together. While life remains complicated, suddenly everything between you two is clear. That’s a gift that will keep on giving.
Oh, another present that is free and will fill everyone with holiday cheer: finding fun and safe ways to regularly connect with her family. Set up times to exchange cookies and — affordable — stocking stuffers from doorsteps and driveways. Connect virtually for days and nights of toasting, sharing stories, opening the stocking stuffers, and enjoying and playfully judging the cookies. Yes, it isn’t the same as being there, but the experience of literally seeing each other’s smiling faces and hearing each other’s happy voices is so powerful and comforting when you’re physically apart.