Four tips for separated families at Christmas

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Money and Life
(Financial Planning Association of Australia)

Celebrating Christmas can put extra pressure on separated families. Get expert guidance on taking care of festive finances and wellbeing during or after divorce.

The festive season can be a time when many families struggle to stick to a budget and keep the peace. For couples who have separated, or are going through a divorce, trying to keep traditions going and enjoy time with family can become an even bigger challenge, from a financial and emotional perspective.

As a founder member of MELCA, a service offering personalised support for couples to divorce without going to court, Tricia CFP® has played a significant role in helping separated couples navigate the emotions, conflict and pressures that can arise at Christmas. “It’s not Christmas itself that creates the problems,” says Tricia. “But what it can do is bring many of our fears about the future beyond the marriage out into the open. For some parents, they’re scared about not being able to be the parent they want to be for their children. There are also likely to be concerns about financial security. At Christmas we typically feel the pressure to spend money so everybody can enjoy themselves. If you’re feeling uncertain about your income, now and into the future, this can dial up the anxiety that your seasonal bills for gifts, food and experiences are more than you can afford.”

Addressing communication challenges

According to Tricia, one of the biggest challenges for couples going through separation is encountering the same communication problems and conflict that have led them to change their relationship status. “No matter how sincere your intentions are to keep things amicable, if there’s been conflict in the past it will be hard to avoid in the future,” says Tricia. “And while many people, and their respective legal counsel, might treat a divorce settlement as a business deal, it’s never going to be that simple. If you don’t acknowledge and manage the feelings involved, things can escalate very quickly into a fierce dispute over finances and parenting arrangements.”

This is why the support team at MELCA includes a psychologist as well as lawyers and financial planners like Tricia. “They can guide couples away from communication patterns that have been charged with conflict in the past,” says Tricia. “If you’re anticipating extra strain on your family and finances as Christmas approaches, try to be aware of the conversations and situations that are going to trigger frustration and anxiety. There are four tips to keep in mind, which can help you minimise conflict in your conversations and work towards an outcome that’s practical for your finances and sensitive to both your needs.”

1. Be prepared

Tricia stresses the importance of having conversations about Christmas early to take the pressure off you and your financial situation. “Try to put your heads together on your Christmas plans at least a month out,” says Tricia. “The sooner the two of you can get this on your agenda, the more time you have to agree on what works best for you and your children. It also gives you time to talk to kids, and extended family so you can manage their expectations around gift-buying and schedules for who will spend time where.”

2. Be realistic

While you might place high priority on respecting family traditions, try to make sure you don’t over commit and over spend in the process. “It may just be too much to have two completely separate Christmas celebrations on the same day,” says Tricia. “It’s likely to leave everyone feeling rushed and probably quite overindulged. Tempting though it may be to outdo your partner with gifts and food, this puts a lot of pressure on your budget. It can also leave little space or opportunity for your loved ones to acknowledge emotions they may be struggling with as they experience a post-separation Christmas.”

3. Be committed to co-parenting

Instead of being determined to do things your own way, Tricia suggests separating parents take a co-parenting approach to spending money on kids, including their Christmas gift budget. “When a couple have been growing apart prior to separation, we’ll often see that a parallel parenting arrangement has already emerged in the family dynamic,” says Tricia. “This might manifest in everything from curfews for teenagers to whether primary aged kids can sit in the front seat of your car. But it’s generally much better for all kids, and your finances, if you can find common ground in how you parent after separation.”

“In an ideal situation you’ll put money into a pool that’s dedicated to the kids and both parents agree on ground rules about what it can be spent on. And if you can make this work throughout the year, it makes sense to continue buying Christmas presents from both of you from a joint budget, instead of competing with each other in the gift-buying stakes.”

4. Be kind to yourself

Christmas is a busy time for everyone. Balancing end of year work commitments with your family and social schedule can be extra challenging when you factor in your new family situation. So it’s more important than ever to make time to look after yourself and avoid seasonal burnout.

“Christmas is a time when you can expect to feel extra vulnerable about your changed situation,” says Tricia. “Self-care will help you stay on an even keel when feelings of hurt and anger come up. When you’re well rested and calm, it’s easier for you to keep negative reactions to these strong emotions under control. It’s just so important, both for your family and for your own sake, to not overdo it with spending too much money or running yourself ragged to try and make sure you have the perfect family Christmas.”

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