Six Tips to Keep Your Family From Busting Your Budget

We all have bad influences in our lives when it comes to spending and debt, but it can be especially tough to stick to your financial goals when the pressure comes from your family.

Whether it's your brother constantly asking you to go in on expensive gifts, or your daughter pushing you to spend money on something you can't afford because "you deserve it," it's easy to fall off the financial wagon when the people who are supposed to love you the most are the ones pushing you to make poor choices.

Holly Johnson of Indianapolis knows firsthand what it's like to be a misfit in a family of spenders. Johnson, 32, says she and her husband make a modest living and are extremely frugal, but they like to splurge on the things they really enjoy, such as vacations.

"When we go somewhere, we like to go somewhere awesome," she says. "That makes it tough because our family will say, 'How come you don't have money to go out to dinner, but you can go on vacation so often?' They don't understand that if we did all the stuff they asked us to do all the time, we wouldn't have money to spend on vacation. That creates some tension."

Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist, says it's natural to be uncomfortable when you spend time with people who have a lot more or a lot less money than you, or who simply who have different spending philosophies. The discomfort is heightened when the differences are within your own family, he says.

"It all comes down to the animal instinct of wanting to stay with the herd," Klontz says. "When you spend time with people who are out of your financial comfort zone, your brain gets the message that you don't belong to the group, and a lot of psychological and social forces do their best to bring you back to that comfort zone. That's why wealthy people go home to their middle-class families and pretend to poor."

It's also why even the most frugal savers find themselves spending more than they mean to when they're with their free-spending families.

The good news is, with courage and a little foresight, you can stick to your budget even if you're surrounded by relatives who just don't get it, experts say. Start with these six strategies:

  • Speak up. Tell your family about your desire to be more frugal so they'll be less likely to pressure you into unwanted spending or tease you about your choices. "It's best to have the conversation when things are going well, not as a response to some kind of financial request," says Klontz, co-author of "Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders that Threaten Our Financial Health." "If there's something they do regularly that is undermining your good habits, be specific about what it is and ask them to change." As part of the conversation, explain your financial goals, whether it's to pay off debt, buy a house or retire early.
  • Suggest lower-cost alternatives. Saying "no" is less awkward if you're prepared with a counterproposal, says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in New York City. If your father wants to celebrate a birthday in a pricey restaurant, for instance, invite the family to your house for a potluck instead. Instead of a high-spending adventure, suggest heading to a YMCA camp or state park. Also, remember that sometimes it's OK if not everyone contributes equally to everything. In other words, you can stay in a less expensive hotel on the family trip even though everyone else is in the nearby five-star resort, or maybe you cover the cost of the DJ at your parents' anniversary party and let your high-earning sibling pay for the food.
  • Line up an ally in advance. Before a situation in which you'll be under pressure to spend, choose one or two relatives who are likely to be sympathetic and call them, says Mary Gresham, a clinical and financial psychologist in Atlanta. Share your financial limitations and ask them to support you. "It's a lot easier to talk to just one or two people as opposed to telling 10 people at once," Gresham says.  Later, those people can step in on your behalf if everyone is pushing you to order dinner, not just an appetizer, or when the group is mocking your old, paid-off car.
  • Make it tough to overspend. If you find yourself regularly overspending in certain situations, like every time you go shopping with your sister-in-law, figure out a concrete way to remind yourself of your financial goals during your time with her. Maybe it's sticking the credit card bill you're trying to pay off in your purse, or writing your budget for the day on a sticky note attached to your credit card. Another option: Leave the credit card at home and just bring cash.
  • Find some support. If everyone in your family is out of your financial comfort zone, seek out a few like-minded friends who can encourage you in your money-related goals, Gresham says. You can hold each other accountable, share your triumphs and setbacks and ask for their advice on family issues.
  • Don't commit. Never agree on the spot to buy or participate in something that costs a lot of money. "Saying, 'I need to think about it' lets you press pause and gets you out of an uncomfortable situation," Clayton says. Then you can regroup and figure out how to say "no" gracefully. ("I'm sorry, that doesn't fit into our budget" works well.)
  • Though Johnson's family now understands her frugal lifestyle, there are still some awkward moments. "My sister used to love to have a big birthday party every year at an expensive restaurant and everybody would bring a gift," says Johnson, who blogs about saving money at "For a long time I was resentful about it. Finally I grew up enough to just say, 'I'm sorry, I can't do it anymore.'" The hardest part, Johnson says, is letting go of any guilt you feel about saying no. "When you're honest with your family and give them boundaries, often they do get over it," she says. "I know I will always be made fun of by my siblings for being cheap, but now I just don't care."