How to Handle Awkward Family Financial Talks

Everyone has that off-the-cuff relative who asks inappropriate questions around the dinner table. Whether it’s about finances or your personal life, how you answer could make the difference between moving on and enjoying the meal or starting a family feud.

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“Take a deep breath and really think about your answer and try to keep a smile on your face and your tone in check,” recommends Diane Gottsman, corporate etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas.

Family gatherings can be stressful enough, so etiquette experts suggest being prepared with responses if you expect probing financial questions.

“Some people might just be genuinely concerned and interested in your well-being when they ask what seem to be insensitive questions. Keep that in mind when you respond, but have a response ready so you can just end the conversation right away before it gets too uncomfortable,” says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore.

Here’s how the experts recommend handling probing financial questions to prevent awkward conversations and long-term family damage.

Have you found a job? Keep your answer short and sweet. Gottsman recommends saying, “‘You know Uncle John, I am currently not working, but I have lots of irons in the fire and you will be the first to know when I secure a job.’ That should end the conversation.”

On the flip side, if you want to ask how a relative’s job hunt is going, Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick from The Etiquette School of New York suggests going with something more relaxed and non-specific that allows the recipient to respond how he or she is comfortable. “Ask something like, ‘how is everything going?’”

How can you afford that?/How much did that cost? If a family member inquires about your spending habits or financial means, Whitmore advises responding along the lines of: “I just have a keen eye for good deals and plan all my purchases in advance to find the best gifts at the best price.” She adds that keeping a smile on your face will help smooth over any uneasiness, but to remember you aren’t compelled to discuss your finances with anyone.

Gottsman suggests answering the question with a question, such as, “Well, why do you ask?”

Has your housing situation improved? The recent financial crisis left many homeowners underwater or in foreclosure, a tough situation for anyone. “The best response to a question about housing struggles would be something like: ‘We are still working on it, thanks for asking. How are your children?'” She says keeping your answers short and then changing the subject should make it obvious that it’s not an appropriate talking point.

How are you doing paying off your student loans? With outstanding student loan debt topping $1 trillion, it seems like this topic is always in the news, but that doesn’t make it acceptable dinner conversation.

“You are not obligated nor should we be talking about finances at the table or anywhere else,” says Gottsman. “Here’s where you can be a little be assertive, and say something like ‘I am so pleased to have such a great education and I am doing fine and working hard.”

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