Miss Conduct

When family and money mix

Different budgets on a shared vacation, plus, when being a bridesmaid would break the bank.

Lucy Truman

My family is planning to visit my sister-in-law and her family in England. She is separated from her husband and lives on a tight budget. We want to do things together, but she doesn’t want to because it’s expensive and she doesn’t want us to pay for everyone — or even ourselves! How do we graciously tell her that we can, and want to, pay for her and the kids? Not extravagant stuff, just typical amusement park admissions and such. We only see her children once a year, and we’d like everyone to have as much fun as possible.

J.F. / Somerville

Look at the situation from your sister-in-law’s point of view. You only see her children once a year, but she has to live with them the rest of it. She might have her reasons for wanting to keep their expectations modest. That said, it is your vacation, so a happy medium should be attainable. (But do be careful about dubbing expenses “extravagant” or “typical.” These things are relative.)

Insist on one big blowout, at your expense, for Brit-Sis and the kids, as a good-guest recompense for their hospitality. Putting it in these terms ought to make your sister-in-law more comfortable —even if she isn’t putting you up, she’s still helping out with logistics and whatnot, so you’d feel terrible if you didn’t take them out at least once, right? She simply must let you! (Assuming your sister-in-law is your husband’s sister, talk to him first — spouses should be on the same page, and he might have insight as to her feelings.) Also, visiting doesn’t mean you’re surgically attached. Brit-Sis and family have their own local lives to lead, and it’s all right to take off for a day without them.


But this vacation, I suspect, isn’t merely a mandate for fun-fun-fun. If the annual visit is primarily about fostering relationships, don’t pack every moment full of touristy activities. Let yourselves have time to be together. Amusement parks have their place, but so do outdoor games, cookouts, and other less pricey pleasures.

My half sister, 18 years my junior, asked me to be one of her bridesmaids, although we’ve never really had a relationship. I declined, because I don’t feel comfortable with it and because my husband is out of work, making the expense a hardship. My entire family is furious. My mother called screaming and now refuses to speak to me. My half sister keeps texting me to reconsider, saying I have hurt her. Must I do this, or can I do what is best for me and my family?

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A.L. / Newburyport

Is this how your family always reacts when you don’t fall in line? Because expressing disappointment is one thing, bullying is something else. Instead of screaming and then freezing you out, your mother could have offered to help you with the expenses.

Your family’s reaction has shown that they are more interested in controlling you than in sharing an experience with you. That’s a heavy, costly lesson to absorb. You don’t need to add the price of a bridesmaid’s dress on top of it. In your most kind but firm way, let your sister know that your decision is final and offer your sincere wishes for her happiness. Apologize for disappointing her and leave the door open for a future relationship. Then do what is right for your immediate family, and don’t feel one iota of guilt about it.

 Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

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