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We have a mother in law who always makes uncomfortable comments about things we've purchased, such as our TV. We're a single income family with two children living in an apartment. We have no debt and are saving for our first home and for our children's college.

These comments especially seem to upset my wife, who has guilt issues, who had to deal with this growing up and never wants to spend money on anything.

I want to try and figure out a way to handle this going forward so our kids aren't affected. When she says something critical about our things how should we respond?

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I highly recommend both you and your wife read "Boundaries" by Dr. Henry Cloud. amazon.com/Boundaries-When-Take-Control-Your/dp/0310585902/… –  Dave Nelson Jun 1 '13 at 13:04
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5 Answers 5

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Assuming that you are not spending beyond your means, I'd be inclined to bluntly explain how you can afford the things you do (e.g. putting away a little each paycheck to save up for big purchases, budgeting your income with certain portions earmarked for the types of purchases she comments on, simply making enough above your regular expenses to be able to afford to splurge occasionally, supplementing your income with investments, etc.).

If you're teaching your children specific financial lessons (if not, I find this blog to have some fantastic suggestions), share this with your MIL, and explain how your purchases are in keeping with the lessons you're teaching your children.

If she doesn't take the hint, though, and persists in making negative comments (entirely possible; some behavior, particularly criticism of children, can become so ingrained that it becomes nearly reflexive), you may have to make her uncomfortable with your responses before she'll be able to evaluate whether she needs to change her behavior. Its important that you do this without offending her (or your wife!) if you want to maintain a relationship.

To do this, you might try putting the implied criticism back on her.

Explain why the purchase wasn't actually a problem (as above), but then take it a step further, assume that she's merely projecting her own problems on to your family, and offer to teach her how to apply those same lessons to her own finances.

If she says something like "that TV must have been too expensive" or even "I can't believe you wasted so much money on that TV", you can reply with something like "it really wasn't that difficult since we planned ahead for our purchase, and saved up for it. I've been teaching our children about the value of setting aside a little bit of money as part of long-term planning for big purchases, and this is a concrete example for them. If you'd like, I could give you some pointers on how to manage your finances like this, too."

On the other hand, if you are at or close to the limit of what you can afford, it may be a bit difficult to present it this way (and you may have to give some serious thought to whether her criticisms have some merit). In this case, you may have to simply say "we've decided that this purchase was worthwhile; if you disagree, please find a different way to express it, as you're coming across as being very critical and it is upsetting."

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That's great advice. We have no debt and are saving for our first home and for our children's college. I'll keep this in mind next time this comes up. Thank you. –  Ryan May 31 '13 at 19:42
    
I agree, you have to have your "ducks in a row" before you can rebut. –  Ben Jun 11 '13 at 18:21
    
The phrase "If you'd like, I could give you some pointers on how to manage your finances like this, too" is passive-aggressive, and changes the tone of your explanation (which is pretty good) into a presumption about her. –  Marshall Anschutz Jan 27 at 16:58
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@MarshallAnschutz I'm not a huge fan of passive aggressiveness, but it does have its uses. The context of my suggesting that approach is a fall-back, in the event that polite, non aggressive, and direct conversation doesn't work. Its not about making presumptions about her. Its about making her recognize that her comments are intrusive and unwelcome without invite direct confrontation. –  Beofett Jan 27 at 17:52
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I'm not sure I can get behind this. She isn't owed an explanation as to whether or not you can afford a TV. She isn't even owed an assurance that it didn't come out of a child's savings. I think your last line should actually be the first line. "This was our decision to make and we made it; we welcome your feedback but not if it's going to cause drama." –  corsiKa Jun 17 at 19:55
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When we were newlyweds, my wife also had trouble spending savings. Her parents had drummed into her over and over the importance of saving, but never taught her when it was okay to spend or not. I think that's because they are somewhat impulsive spenders themselves, and feel guilty themselves, so they project that onto their children.

What we did was instead of one savings account, we split it into several categories: retirement, children, clothing, vacation, gifts, health, auto maintenance, home maintenance, and Christmas. We also have individual "allowances," which we can save up to spend on whatever we want without having to ask the other. That's where things like TVs, hobby supplies, and new cell phones come from. That helped immensely in helping my wife feel better about spending, first because we planned that spending all along, and second because she knew we weren't sacrificing future things we needed to be saving for.

So keep in mind your mother-in-law can't see all the planning you do behind the scenes to be able to afford something. Especially if she tends to spend impulsively herself, she is likely to assume your purchase was impulsive, and is legitimately worried for you about the consequences that inevitably follow spending beyond your means. Shedding some light on your planning might help assuage her fears, if you're willing to forego the privacy.

It may also be that she has different priorities than you, or is worried yours are misplaced. She may be thinking that if you could afford a new TV, then you would have moved into a house by now, or got a bigger car, or some other expense she deems more important. If she brings up priorities like that, perhaps it would help to explain it in relative terms, like "We saved $100 per month to get the TV, but we'd need $500 a month more to get into the house we want. We're not sacrificing a house to get a TV."

That being said, I prefer the "none of your business" approach of, "We're doing fine. You don't need to worry about our finances. We've got it under control and prefer to keep the details to ourselves."

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Your mother-in-law is crossing boundaries. The best way to establish boundaries is to answer with few words (your script) and try not to veer from them. Try a genuine "Thanks for the input, Mom" or "Thanks for worrying about us" or just a "Hmmmm." This acknowledges that she is trying to be helpful without defending your position or assigning any value to her comments. Stick with your script - the first few times you do this she will try to wear you down, but stick to your script. She will learn.

There is a brilliant book about changing patterns in relationships by Harriet Lerner called The Dance of Anger. It is a classic - your local library probably has it or they can borrow it for you from another library (there are 3000+ copies listed in the World Catalog). It describes how every relationship is a dance, and if you don't like how the dance is going, you have to change your steps. The book is ostensibly written for women (because perhaps women have a harder time with boundaries), but is useful for anyone. The thing I appreciated most about the book at the time I read it was that it gave you example after example, so by the end of it you really felt you could do this.

While this would be greatly helpful in your relationships with your mother-in-law, establishing boundaries will also improve the relationships your children have with her (they will have boundary issues with her too if you can't steer things otherwise). It will also help you in establishing boundaries with your children, who I promise you will go through stages of nagging to get what they want!

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I know my answer is tardy but I'm going to set this out here anyway.

We have a mother in law who always makes uncomfortable comments about things we've purchased,

And then . . .

These comments especially seem to upset my wife, who has guilt issues, who had to deal with this growing up and never wants to spend money on anything.

So... based on this, it sounds like YOUR mother-in-law (mil) which would be her mother.

Your wifes past? Your wifes mother?

Yeah, I hear baggage. We all have some level of baggage with our parents. Part of that baggage for many people is that the desire to not piss the parent off in some way, is stronger than the desire to show that "I'm a fucking adult with my own checking account so stop dinging me about my spending habits!!"

The way my wife and I deal with it, is that I let her deal with my parents, and I deal with hers. The opposite doesn't have that same desire and it's much easier for them to just outright say what needs to be said.

What you, the son-in-law, would say tactfully to the MiL would come off completely differently if said by the daughter. Tell your wife that the next time it comes up, that she should just let you have the conversation and then you tell her, point blank...

This was well within our budget. We're adults and it's our money and actually, I'd appreciate it if you just let the whole thing alone.

If the MiL can't take such a simple, tactful statement without being put off in some way, then your problems are much different than just her being nosey.

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That's great advice - thank you. –  Ryan Oct 18 '13 at 17:34
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In my case, my mother always comments in the quality or low price of what we purchase. She thinks we should be able to buy nicer (more expensive) things. In my case, the problem is that she puts too much value into stuff.

After many years or this, I've learn that the answer is; "yes we can afford more expensive things but it makes us happier to have a healthy savings account in case something goes wrong."

Also, some minimalistic reading can help you have other answers. http://www.theminimalistmom.com/

Good luck

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