AS YOU MAKE decisions about giving for the holidays, you might run into the problem facing a reader who asked me to weigh in on a dilemma she's having with her sister.
Throughout the year, I've been answering readers' questions about their experiences mixing family and finances. The following is a case of financial jealousy that might rear its ugly head during our annual ritual of gift-giving.
The background: Two married sisters have similar household salaries. "Generally, my husband and I are frugally minded, and we don't have kids yet, so it may seem like we make more. She [the other sister] is not frugally minded, so she often feels like they are bleeding money, when they could probably cut back."
The conflict: Their parents tried to make sure they helped each child equally - same spending on college, weddings, etc., according to the sister who wrote to me by email. But the sister who corresponded is concerned about a situation in which she received a generous monetary gift and her sister didn't. Two years ago, she says, her godfather, with whom she is very close, gave her and her husband a gift of money to help toward the purchase of their first house. "It was a generous gift but did not make or break our home-buying experience," she said. "We bought a house we could afford and used his gift to replenish our savings."
Her sister, who has different godparents who did not give her money when she purchased her first house, has brought up the money a few too many times. She keeps fishing for how much money her sibling received and has assumed the godfather provided the entire down payment.
I wanted to know how the sister found out about the gift because, generally, you would not want to share such information and certainly not brag about it.
"I didn't tell her, but I think she asked a leading question to my husband," the sister responded. "He didn't realize she didn't know. But he never told her an amount."
I pressed the sister who wrote to me. Could it be that she is making too much of harmless, albeit nosy, questions?
I've only gotten one side of the story, but nonetheless, based on the tone of her sister's remarks, there seems to be some deeper issues at play.
More evidence from the sister being pressed: "Just recently, I complimented a gift my godparents had given my sister for her birthday, and she said, 'Well, they gave you a down payment for a house, so it doesn't really compare, does it?' We bought the house two years ago, we hadn't been talking about my house or anything, but she still made the snide comment."
She went on to write: "To put a fine point on it, I think it is easier for her to point to the onetime gift of money we received as why we are able to live in a bigger house (although within our means) and live in a 'nicer' neighborhood (she told us that it was nicer). When in reality, it's several choices we made (one car, saving for a down payment, etc.). She's also made comments about student loans, as we both went to grad school. She is still carrying her loans, but I've paid mine off by having lots of roommates for years after graduation."
The dilemma: "Should I just tell my sister the exact amount of the gift and put it to rest? Or is that just feeding the jealousy monster?"
What I think: I would not give the inquiring sister any details. It's none of her business how much you've received. Besides, this isn't about the money. It's about her sense of entitlement. The sister is also probably trying to rationalize and mask the mistakes she's made as a result of her bad decisions or poor money management. It's a typical case of her projecting her own failures onto her sibling and feeling deprived, even though they both started out with equal resources and privilege. She has driven herself to such a jealous state that good judgment fails her. I suspect details won't deter her envy.
Still, her sibling is sympathetic. "I understand I hit the godparent jackpot," the one sister wrote. "I feel badly that my sister doesn't have a similar relationship with her godfather. But then, she has blessings in her life as well - supportive in-laws, beautiful and smart children. I think we won't get anywhere in trying to keep score of gifts and blessings."
Exactly. You can't keep score and shouldn't try because life isn't fair.