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For Michelle Argento and Brendan Diamond, bickering over holiday spending usually kicks off as soon as the Christmas tree goes up and lasts until they pay off their credit card bill in February.
While she’s a self-described “giver,” he doesn’t get her need to buy presents for everyone and his brother. “It’s a culture clash that drives us nuts,” Argento says. And tensions increase when the final tally arrives: Last winter the Chicago couple charged $1,630 over the holidays, more than twice what the average American spends.
Sound familiar? “People put good financial sense on the back burner around the holidays,” says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. And when couples need to face the music in January and pay down debt, she says, “that ugly finger of blame can come out very easily.” Nurse your holiday hangover as a team with these steps.
Take the blame together. Regardless of who spent what, accept that you’re both responsible. “You might not have swiped the card, but you were likely complicit, either by putting all the gift-giving responsibility on your partner or for not starting a discussion around a holiday budget,” says Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist in Lihue, Hawaii, and the author of Mind Over Money. What’s passed is past, so move forward and focus on getting out from under.
Design a support system. Keep from getting on each other’s cases by making a payoff plan. Start by moving the debt to a card like Chase Slate, which offers 0% for 15 months with no transfer fee in the first 60 days. Then set up auto-payments to zero out the debt before the no-interest window is up, and use the ReadyForZero app (free) for an occasional nudge to good behavior. If you make a larger-than-normal bank deposit, for example, the app sends a notification suggesting an extra payment.
Cut expenses independently. Rather than try to pare, say, $300 from the family budget, assign each other a goal of $150 from personal expenses. That way you can both reduce spending as you wish—as opposed to how your mate insists.
Along the way, schedule (free) celebrations, like a marathon of your favorite TV show on Netflix when you’ve paid off half. “Having something to look forward to helps you stay on track,” says Kate Northrup, author of Money: A Love Story.
Work it off. Budgeting gives you the blues? The alternative is to raise extra cash. On evenings and weekends last winter, Argento and Diamond picked up jobs running errands via Craigslist and TaskRabbit. Their hustle got them back in the black before spring arrived. Now they plan to make it a tradition—ahead of shopping season. “It’s no longer about me buying gifts for my friends,” says Argento. “It’s about us using our business to pay for gifts together.”
Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money and the author of the book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. More of her columns and videos for Money.com: