How to Handle Buying Holiday Gifts When One Partner Earns More Money

As if you needed one more thing to stress about during the holidays


'Tis the season to give. Seems simple enough, right?


Sometimes, holiday gift giving can be downright complicated — or even stressful. How much do you spend? How many gifts to you get? Who do you give a gift to? It can be a real headache, and it can get even more complicated when your partner makes a lot more money than you, or vice versa.

So, how exactly should you handle holiday gift giving this season when one partner earns more than the other? This is extremely common, after all, as the University of Minnesota and IPUMS-USA (a database of individual responses from the U.S. Census Bureau) reports that in male/female marriages alone, married men have an average salary of $80K+ compared to married women who have an average salary just over $50K. (Hmm...)

On top of this, the National Retail Federation reports consumers will spend an average of $1,004.24 this holiday season (a 4.1% increase from 2017) and that’s no small chunk of change.

So, BRIDES spoke with Kelly Lannan, Director, Young Investors at Fidelity Investments for her expert insight and advice.

Have a Conversation

“Any time you’re dealing with exchanging money or gifts with another person—whether it’s in a romantic relationship, or with friends or family—it’s best to have a direct conversation about it,” says Lannan. Acknowledging it might be a little awkward, but she says that more times than not, both parties will actually feel relief by talking it out.

The conversation can begin with one partner divulging their overall holiday budget, and a dollar amount of what they were planning to spend on the other. “This often opens the door for the other person to share what they were planning. And if they hadn’t thought about it yet, this is a great time to have the discussion together,” she says.

If both sides agree, it’s perfectly reasonable for the budgets to be different, it’s more a matter of making sure both partners are comfortable.

Experiences Instead of “Stuff”

A great approach when dealing with an income disparity within a relationship is to purchase an experience together, suggests Lannan. “According to Fidelity’s 2018 Millennial Money Study, 28% of millennials say after a rough week, buying some sort of entertainment (movies, dinner out, concerts) would bring them the most joy,” so she says that coming up with a total budget together and then thinking about something you’d both enjoy doing together could be a win/win.

“It could be dinner at a new restaurant, a play, or simply spending the day together doing budget-friendly activities: museum, visiting a neighborhood known for their holiday lights and decorations, making dinner together or finding a cause to volunteer your time,” she says. Whatever you decide, the most important thing is that you make the decision together.

Having these conversations and revealing your intentions and expectations are key to the foundation for a healthy relationship. “The holidays can be a stressful time, and your relationship doesn’t have add to that,” Lannan says, so having these financial conversations can help minimize that stress.

Plus, as an added bonus, if it’s the first time you’re having these types of conversations, it’s a nice kick-start to have them on a regular basis moving forward. Then, you can use the New Year as a time to set financial goals and resolutions as a couple.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is to remember that the holidays are about giving, and that does not have to come in the form of spending a lot of money.

Lannan says, “When you give a gift, it should be something that brings you and the other person joy, not something that causes stress, or will bring you debt in the new year.”

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