How to financially navigate the holidays as a divorced parent

Divorce and the holidays: What it means for your finances

Hank, a recently divorced parent of a teenage son, finds the holidays tough going this year. He’s eager to spend quality time with his kid, and wants to be generous, yet he’s still feeling the financial strain of his recent divorce.

“I want our Christmas to feel special, especially since I know Trevor will be celebrating with his mother and her family as well, and I don’t want our time to feel second-best,” he said. “But when I think of everything there is to buy—I don’t even have a Christmas tree stand, let alone ornaments—plus gifts and food, I start to feel a little sick to my stomach. And at the end of the day, we’ll still be spending Christmas morning in my minimally furnished condo. I’m afraid Trevor will be disappointed.”

It’s no news flash that the holidays can be taxing, but for divorced parents, this time of year can be particularly difficult to navigate. During the holidays, many of us fall into the trap of spending out of guilt, anxiety, compulsion, and maybe a desire to re-create the past—and if you’re a divorced parent, this temptation can be especially strong. At the same time, your finances, like Hank’s, may still be in a 12-step recovery program, and one extravagant holiday could be enough to send you back into financial rehab. And if there’s a new partner in the picture, that can add a whole extra layer of complication, expectation, and financial and emotional obligation. (I’ll write more about that in a future column.)

While I’m not going to lie to you and say that this is easy peasy, I can assure you that the holidays will be easier if you follow the four tips below.

  1. Make an honest budget right now. The sooner you evaluate your finances and make a realistic plan for the holidays, the better. Given your current financial landscape, you simply might not be able to afford to celebrate the holidays this year the way you have in the past, and the sooner you let go of that expectation, the better. Sit down and figure out what you can afford to spend without going into credit card debt. I encourage you to tap into your nerdy side and actually make a spreadsheet with categories for everything—including Christmas cards and candy, as well as gift budgets for each child, allotments for holiday food, etc. Then stick with those numbers, no matter how painful it is at first. If you want to spend more in one category than you’ve budgeted, you’ll simply have to spend less in another. It could force you to put time rather than money into your gifts—or to be extra-creative about finding deals. Hank told me with pride that he’d discovered he could get 12 holiday cards—glitter and all—for $1 at a dollar store.
  2. Plan the holidays with your children. If your children are old enough, have a conversation about what you will do over the holidays, so they know what to look forward to (their favorite aunt’s visit) and what not to expect (multiple expensive gifts under the tree). Invite your kids to tell you what’s most important to them about celebrating the season—sometimes their answers will surprise you. (Maybe it’s your town’s hokey tree-lighting ceremony, which you thought your tween had outgrown.) Your ex might be planning to do some of these activities with your kid, which will require some coordination. And that leads me to my next point.
  3. Don’t try to outshine your ex. Let’s be honest: Even if you had the world’s most amicable divorce (and many of you have had anything but), there’s a very human impulse to be the better parent, the cooler parent, the more indulgent parent. Resist that urge. Not only will it put you in a bidding war for your kid’s affections that can tempt you to overspend, it will also be difficult for your kid. Your mutual goal should be for your child to feel loved and cared for by both parents. Plus, if you’re not careful, you can encourage the unhealthy mentality in your kid that money is a concrete expression of love. Instead, if at all possible, cooperate with your ex—not only in coordinating holiday pickup and drop-off times, but also comparing notes on gifts, so you don’t both buy the same thing. Maybe the two of you can even chip in together if there’s one special gift your kid wants.
  4. Don’t attempt to re-create the past. In your anxiety not to feel that you’ve lost anything through your divorce, you may be tempted to try to celebrate with your kids “the way we always have.” Of course, in the wake of a divorce that’s not possible, and if you try, the contrast between Then and Now may be painfully clear to all of you. It can also bankrupt you. Instead, use this holiday season as a chance for you and your kids to come up with some new traditions—whether that’s stringing popcorn and cranberries to decorate the tree, ice skating, cooking a dinner together, or heading to the movies after the presents are unwrapped.

In the end, what’s important is that, whatever you do, the emphasis is on love, not money. Because when your kid is grown, what he won’t remember is whether you spent $60 or $260 on him for the holidays. He’ll remember the time you spent together, starting…now.

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