How do I tell my mother-in-law that I don’t want to do her Christmas shopping?

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  • For Love & Money is Insider’s bi-weekly column that answers your questions about relationships and money.
  • This week, a reader asks how they can stop buying their mother-in-law’s gifts for their children.
  • Our columnist says there is only one thing to do: say “no” to his mother-in-law.
  • A question for our columnist? Write to For Love & Money using this Google form.

Dear for love and money,

How do I get my in-laws to take responsibility for their holiday gifts? Every year, my mother-in-law gives me money to do her Christmas shopping and pack my children (her grandchildren) because I know what “they want”.

It adds an amount of stress and time management to what is already a very stressful season. But because of the financial support, I don’t feel like I can say anything. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Accidental-Personal-Shopper


Dear Accidental Customer,

It’s an open secret that around the age of 21, the most wonderful time of the year turns into the most stressful. I’m a born romantic, so I tend to stick my head in the snow and scream “it’s magic!” even as I run around the city burning cash to create this “magic”. My kids love it and I always say I love it. But my God, if my in-laws made me talk about their holiday magic in addition to mine? I would melt like Frosty against the sun.

Aside from the terrible comparisons, I would say no to my mother-in-law. No is a harsh word for many of us, especially in complex relationships like the ones we share with our mothers-in-law. There are so many layers to this relationship. We want her approval, acceptance and for her to move and make room for us in her family. Because if she doesn’t, we have to choose between leaving or fighting with the whole family for a place at the table. Most of us have wonderful mothers-in-law, but the quality of character of our in-laws has little to do with the complexity of our relationships with them. Our desire for approval, love, and acceptance from our in-laws can motivate us to engage in strange and unusual behavior — like erasing our ability to say “no” to even the most absurd requests.

And, to clarify, her asking you to do Christmas shopping for her grandkids is nonsense. How many movies have we seen where a boss tells his assistant to buy his apology present or his children’s birthday and Christmas presents to signal to the public that this person is freezing and obsessed with his career? This is because the whole nature of gift giving is about the emotional, mental and physical energy associated with it. When I open a gift from a loved one, I imagine them thinking of me and deciding to turn that thought into something that will make me think of them fondly in return.

There are limits to this, of course. Especially with age, doing anything, let alone hanging out in the mall for a long afternoon, can become difficult. If your mother-in-law has asked you to do her Christmas shopping because she can’t get around or access online shopping, the best thing you can do is oblige her. But you said his reason was that you know what your kids want.

That’s why I think the kindest thing to do – for yourself, your kids, and your mother-in-law – is to gently say “No” to her.

If she doesn’t know her grandchildren well enough to know, or at least make a solid guess, what they want for Christmas, this is her chance to get to know them better. Asking kids what they want for Christmas is a fantastic way to hear what they currently like and why. His relationship with his grandchildren will not fail to be enriched by this exercise. And if getting to know her grandkids isn’t her priority, that’s her problem, not yours. If she decides to make it your problem by giving her money or gift cards, which will still leave it up to you to make the shopping spree easier, you can at least do it during a less stressful season.

To clarify, I don’t think your mother-in-law is asking you to pick, buy, and wrap her gifts to make your kids naughty or even lazy. I’m sure she means it when she says it’s because you know what your kids want. I’m sure she also feels like it eliminates the possibility of your kids getting duplicate gifts, and generally makes it simpler. But that doesn’t make your stressful season any easier, and it’s time you gently told him that.

You mentioned that the reason you did this task for your mother-in-law despite your refusal is because of her “financial support”. I don’t know if you meant that she supports your family financially in other areas or if you just meant that since she hands you money and asks you to spend it on your children, telling her “no ” is embarrassing. Since I don’t know otherwise, I’ll assume it’s the latter.

A lot of communication is in tone, which is lost through email and text messaging, so I suggest you have that conversation with her in person. I would pull her aside and say something like, “Hey, I know for the past few years you’ve been giving me money to buy the kids’ Christmas presents, but this year I’m overwhelmed with all my responsibilities and I won’t have time. I asked the children to make lists for you. Call me if you have any questions.

If she expresses doubt, take the opportunity to build her confidence as a grandmother. Maybe all she really needs to hear is, “The kids love you. They’ll love anything you give them!” Because it’s true, these are children who receive objects that they did not have before and that we have specially chosen for them by their beloved grandmother. They will love whatever she chooses for them.

Rooting for you all,

For love and money

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