Smart Money Podcast: Holiday Travel and Giving Money Advice to Family

Liz Weston, CFP®
Sean Pyles
By Sean Pyles and  Liz Weston, CFP® 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion of what holiday travel will look like this year and what you should consider before leaving home.

Then we pivot to this week’s question from Kelly in San Francisco. They write, “I've been thinking a lot about the financial health of people in my immediate family, particularly people who aren't naturally financially minded or haven't prioritized financial success as a life goal. Ahem, my brother. This isn't a topic they will bring up with me, but I want to help them avoid issues later in life, like not having enough saved for retirement or having an emergency fund. Is there a good way to broach the subject and offer help? Or should I just butt out?

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

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Our take

You may think your motives are pure. You just want your family member to be financially healthy! Or maybe you’re worried that if you don’t step in now, that person could become a financial burden to you later.

But offering unsolicited advice is risky. If someone hasn’t asked you, offering your opinions could be perceived as pushy, rude or critical. Plus, you could be on a power trip, thinking that the other person should listen to you because you’re “better” with money. In reality, there’s no one right way to handle our finances, and just because something works for you doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for someone else. Your family member’s definition of success may look different than your own, and their financial goals may be different as well.

If you still want to give money advice, ask first if the other person wants to hear it. If they do, consider talking about how you struggled with a similar issue. For example, you could say, “I knew I needed to save more, but it was tough until I tried the 50/30/20 budget.” Alternatively, you can start the discussion by asking your family member for advice on a topic where they’re an expert. That way, your conversation becomes an exchange of ideas rather than a lecture. But again, get their permission before you give advice.

Even if they seem receptive, keep in mind that they’re an adult and get to make their own choices. If they’re not receptive, nagging won’t change that. For the sake of your relationship, you may need to butt out and hope for the best.

Our tips

Make sure that your advice is welcome. Giving unsolicited advice is always risky, so ask first if your family member wants to hear your thoughts.

Find common ground. Talk about a financial challenge you’ve faced, a decision you've had to make or how you've handled a situation similar to what the family member is experiencing.

Know when to let go. Sometimes you just need to butt out and let people make their own choices.

More about family and money on NerdWallet:

Sean: Welcome to the NerdWallet's Smart Money Podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Sean Pyles.

Liz: And I'm Liz Weston. To have your many questions answered on a future episode, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. Or email us at [email protected].

Sean: Hearing from all of you is always such a joy, so please keep your questions coming.

Liz: And hit that subscribe button to get new episodes delivered to your devices every Monday. If you like what you hear, please leave us a review and tell your friends.

Now, we've got one more plug before we get into the episode. We've asked you this before, but we want to know how the pandemic has changed how you've handled money. What lessons have you learned about money in 2020? We're working on a special episode about all the money lessons we learned this year, but to make this happen, we need to hear from you.

Sean: And we already have heard from some of you, but we are greedy and we want as many stories as possible, so please keep them coming. And because I'm an audio-focused kind of guy, I love to hear you. So that means sending a voice memo or leaving us a voicemail on the Nerd hotline.

Liz: This episode, Sean and I answer a listener's question about when it's OK to give money advice to family. But first, in our This Week In Your Money segment, we're talking with travel Nerd Sam Kemmis about what holiday travel will look like this year.

Sean: Hey Sam, welcome back on the podcast.

Sam: Hey Sean, it's great to be here.

Sean: Last time we talked, you gave us the scoop about how folks could travel safely during the summer. A lot has happened since then. One thing that hasn't changed is that we're still in the middle of the pandemic. So, we wanted to bring you back on to help us understand what people should know about traveling safely this holiday season. So to start, what do you think should be top of mind for would-be holiday travelers?

Sam: There's sort of good news and bad news about holiday travel that we're hearing. The bad news, I think most people know about, which is that the pandemic is getting much worse. It's spiking and it's looking like Thanksgiving and Christmas might be the worst time for it so that traveling at those times might be a pretty terrible idea.

The good news, if you want to put it that way, is that there is some evidence coming out that air travel may not be as dangerous as we thought early in the pandemic. The CDC basically made a statement that the ventilation on airplanes is really good, but of course there have been some questions about the CDC. But then there have also been a few other studies that have shown that it seems like the ventilation system in aircraft really pushes particulate matter down to the ground, which is what you want. And so there were some studies where they put mannequins on planes and had them spew particulates everywhere.

Sean: Right. I saw that.

Sam: Yeah. And it showed that in theory, particulates shouldn't be traveling through the air cabin. It's an idealized case. It's with the mannequin wearing the mask mostly. And so in the real world, we still don't really know what's happening. My big frustration is we don't have that, kind of, that piece of evidence, which is, are people actually getting sick when they get on airplanes or not? We don't know.

Sean: And I tend to gravitate to the worst news around this stuff. I mean, there was a woman who died on a flight from COVID in July, and that is just my nightmare scenario. And people who were on that flight didn't find out about it until it was published in news articles in October. I'm just skeptical of any big company that's trying to tell me that their product is safe so I spend money on it.

Liz: Yeah.

Sean: Airlines are maybe the biggest one doing that right now.

Liz: And you have to trust your fellow travelers to keep their masks on. And I'm a little bit cynical about people's ability and willingness to do that.

Sam: Yeah. So other things with the holiday travel is thinking ahead about what you're actually going to need to do once you get there. If you do decide to travel and you are visiting family, you want to make an isolation plan when you get there. Which means booking a hotel or an Airbnb or something like that, and then getting tested. And we've got all sorts of questions about whether there will be enough tests around the holiday.

Sean: Right.

Sam: Everyone's going to want to go and get tested and then see if they can hang out with family. So, there's just a ton of question marks.

Sean: And just to be extra safe, you might want to stock up on a new puffy winter coat and some gloves because the best advice would probably be to see your family outdoors, which in November, can be pretty chilly.

Liz: Yes.

Sean: So it seems similar to over the summer, the best way to travel right now is by driving. Is that still the case, Sam?

Sam: Yeah. I mean, we're feeling a lot better about air travel, but driving is still a lot safer. I mean, if your only exposure is getting gas or maybe you run into a bathroom, you're probably pretty safe.

Sean: So, I would love to hear from you guys what your personal holiday travel plans are or are not.

Liz: You want to take that, Sam?

Sam: So my plan had been I'm heading back home to Montana next week and I'm actually going to be flying and then driving.

Liz: Sam.

Sam: Making sure I get double exposure, then I'm going to be staying there through December. That's sort of the extent of my plan. So, I won't be traveling during the holidays per se, but I will be around family. But Montana is looking terrible. I mean, it has a lot of COVID.

Liz: Yeah, bright red.

Sam: Yeah. So I may just be hunkered down for a couple of months. And then of course it's like zero degrees there right now, so I don't know how I'm going to hang out with my family.

Sean: And Liz, what about you?

Liz: Well, we know we're not traveling for Thanksgiving. That's a given. My father-in-law is going to be 93, so we're trying to be super careful. We haven't decided about Christmas. If we do decide to travel for Christmas, everybody has to isolate for two weeks before we go up there. And then we need to do the test that takes longer. The one that takes two or three days to come back rather than the one that's much quicker, because the one that's quicker isn't as accurate. But even if everything goes well and we go up there, we have to figure out how not to be the way we usually are, which is crowded in a room together for hours at a time.

Sean: And it's hard when you're visiting your family to not be affectionate. You want to give them a hug and sit next to them on the sofa. And that's not as much of an option this year.

Liz: Well, and I've heard from some of my friends that their parents are still not with the program. You know, they get angry about their grandkids not visiting or not hugging or whatever. They're not taking into account the risks that they're facing, I guess.

Sean: To me, it seems like the word of the year is "compromise" around travel. I was going to have my mom come out for Thanksgiving. It's been a tradition — she flies out from Florida. But she has asthma and is over 60, so that's just not a viable option this year. And then I was going to drive down to see my sister in central California, but the drive is pretty long and again, cases are spiking. So I think that we're just going to hunker down for Thanksgiving. Christmas is a question mark. We might go see my partner's family in Northern California. But because he has a big family, we might just be seeing a few of them, not everyone. I'm trying to think of some creative ways to still see my family while not actually being in person with them. Like for Thanksgiving, I'm planning on just having a Zoom line up for hours so people can hop on if they want. We can have a drink or a bite to eat together, even if it's virtually. But that way we can share that moment together even if we're not in person.

Liz: Oh, that's a great idea. I like that.

Sam: I guess it's an opportunity to get creative. My take is, like, holiday travel always sucks.

Sean: Yeah.

Sam: In some ways, it's sort of a good excuse to skip it and try something different.

Liz: Yeah, exactly. And you don't have to see everyone. That's the other thing is that we don't have to all be together at the same time. It can be staggered or you can just say, “OK, there's one year to make sure that we're able to gather. Next year, maybe we'll just not do it.”

Sean: And for people who are in the same cities, I heard this great idea on the radio show, The Splendid Table. They did an episode all about this. One woman was saying that she and her friends are going to make their signature dishes for each other and then drop them off at their doors. So that way you can kind of have a shared meal, even if it's just little bits and pieces, and you're not actually eating at the same time, but you're still eating the same food. I love that idea too.

Sean: Sam, do you have any final advice for those who might be considering traveling or taking a flight this holiday season?

Sam: If you do decide to travel, just making sure to book flexible travel. Plans are changing all the time and we don't know what it's going to look like in a couple months. So book with an airline and a hotel that offers a flexible policy. There are two airlines that are still blocking middle seats through December, and that's Alaska and Delta.

Sean: Let's get to this episode's money question, which comes from Kelly in San Francisco. She writes, “I've been thinking a lot about the financial health of people in my immediate family, particularly people who aren't naturally financially minded or haven't prioritized financial success as a life goal. Ahem, my brother. This isn't a topic they will bring up with me, but I want to help them avoid issues later in life like not having an enough saved for retirement or having an emergency fund. Is there a good way to broach the subject and offer help or should I just butt out?”

Liz: No and yes.

Sean: When I saw this question come in, I was so excited to answer it because it combines two of my favorite hobbies, which is helping people manage their money and also over-analyzing family dynamics. I can't wait to get into this. On this episode of the podcast, to help us talk through this sticky, sticky question, we're going to talk with Sara Rathner. Let's get into it.

Liz: Hey Sara, welcome back to the podcast.

Sara Rathner: Hey, thanks for having me back.

Sean: So our listener Kelly has an issue with her brother's financial management, namely his lack of financial management. We want to talk about how we can help someone help their brother and maybe talk about what good financial management looks like. This seems like such a timely question. We're getting into the holidays and I'm sure this is bound to come up at folks' dinner tables. What do you think would be the first step for someone who wants to help a loved one like this?

Sara: One of the many interesting conversations that I'm sure will come up at holiday dinner tables this year.

Sean: Yeah.

Sara: What was said earlier is so true when it comes to helping a loved one who hasn't asked for help and doesn't seem to be in a particularly bad situation — they're just managing their life in a way that's different than you choose to manage yours — there's really not a lot that you can do. Because if you did say something to somebody who just isn't really seeking your advice, it's a really great way to torpedo your relationships over time. And I don't think anybody seeks to do that on purpose.

Sean: But by the same token, at least in my personal experience, I know a lot of people who aren't very financially savvy because they never had this education and now they turn to me or they expect me being Mr. NerdWallet to help them with their money. And this is true of my siblings as well. And so I feel a little obligated to maybe butt in to people's business sometimes and help them, especially if they have debt, they don't know how to manage it. What do you think about that?

Liz: Sean, the big difference there is that they're asking you, right Sara?

Sara: Yeah, that's huge. And I get those questions a lot. The number one question I get is, what is the best credit card? Because I write about credit cards.

Sean: Right.

Sara: My answer is always, it depends. And then it turns into this long Q&A, where I start asking them about their history of the credit cards and what they might be looking for in their next credit card. And so many questions about money are actually questions about interpersonal relationships, about values, about family, about goals, about anxieties. They have absolutely nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of financial management and everything to do with all these other things.

Sean: This also seems like a question that might be about self-preservation as well, because I can see Kelly being a little concerned that maybe 20 years down the road, the brother's going to come along and say, “Hey, I'm broke. I need to retire. Can you please help me maybe cover my rent for a couple months?” So I get that concern where you want them to be self-sufficient in the long term. So, let's just say for the sake of argument that it's maybe not the worst idea for Kelly to tell her brother what to do with his money a little bit to start. So, how would you begin to have that conversation with someone who does need some help and maybe isn't totally aware of it?

Sara: That's really interesting because that shows how differently your experience can be from somebody who was raised within your own family.

Sean: Yes.

Sara: And you sometimes see parents treat their children differently. They might have a child who's always been very independent. And so the parents don't really feel the need to coddle and enable them and continue to provide for them financially long after a person typically is working and people to provide for themselves. But then they might have another child who always just kind of needed an extra boost, an extra amount of help, guidance, enabling, whatever you want to call it. It depends. And so parents really pour their energy and their money into keeping this other child afloat because they just don't seem to have the ability or desire to support themselves. And that can cause a lot of resentment in between siblings, because there's a lot of issues with parental favoritism or the perceived behavior of favoritism. We're going to dive deep into psychology here today. I'm very excited about this.

Sean: What I'm here for. I'm all for that.

Sara: Yeah, I'm here for this. Let's do this. I'm not a psychologist.

Sean: My parents are, so I can pretend that I am.

Sara: There you go. So I guess it can create a lot of resentment. And you might have resentment on the part of the “responsible sibling” who feels as though eventually the burden of the “irresponsible sibling” is one day going to land in their lap. I know people who are going through that. They might have a sibling who has dealt with just the inability to hold down a job, maybe addiction issues, inability to support themselves, to pay their own rent, things like that. And some of these situations can be really dire, especially when you're dealing with addiction issues and things like that.

Sean: Right.

Sara: You might want to go to your parents and say, “I know you're still supporting my sibling financially. I know that you're mortal because we all are. I need to talk to you about what's going to happen, what you think might happen when you're no longer able to help my sibling out — either because you yourself are elderly, no longer working, maybe, you know, living in an assisted living facility— just physically unable to continue to care for your adult child the way that you used to. And after you pass away ... ”

I mean, how is their estate built? Is your sibling who has never been good at money management going to inherit a massive lump sum of money that they'll blow through in less than a year? Is there no inheritance at all? Are parents just sort of assuming that the responsible sibling is going to take up the mantle? These are all conversations that you should be having while your parents are still of sound mind. Because if you wait, one day, you're going to have a sibling knocking on your door with two suitcases in their hands and you were not expecting this.

Liz: We've gone way down the path of maybe this is like a serious situation that's going to blow up. Pulling it back a little bit and looking at what is at stake here. And I would love to be able to talk to our listener to find out exactly what's going on because it's not entirely clear, because it could be, my brother spends too much on credit cards or he buys cars he can't afford. Or it could be, he's living beyond his means. He's got a huge credit card debt.

The scale of the problem can be all over the map, which is why I keep coming back to, did anyone ask? And that's the hardest thing for those of us who are good with money or know something about money. We think we can tell other people what to do and they should listen to us. And as you said, Sara, we don't know their life. We don't know what's important. We don't know what might be best for them. We think we do. And we'd love to offer our opinion. Sara, have you had a situation where you tried to offer advice and it just went sideways?

Sara: I mean, I think we all have. And so you just sort of learn over time when advice is welcome. I don't like to say when to keep your mouth shut. But it's really like, when do you think advice is welcomed by the other person, when you think it might even be helpful? And, like, when my advice is actually based in the other person's reality instead of my own.

For example, let's say your brother, the listener's brother, really likes to always drive a new car. So they're leasing expensive luxury cars. And so to the outside view, it looks like they're spending all their money on a car. Oh, my God, do you have any money left? To people leasing these $700-a-month cars, like, what are you even doing? You don't know what else this person spends their money on, on a day-to-day basis. And so maybe they cut back in other areas of their life because that luxury car brings them a lot of joy. But from the outside, it looks like they're spending too much money on cars. Maybe to you cars aren't important. So you always view them as a frivolous purchase or a frivolous thing to lease. You would much rather just get some workhorse car you could drive into the ground, and that's, that's your right. But you're driving a car into the ground because you value other things. And so you're spending your money maybe on vacations or a bigger home because you're spending less money on your car. Everybody makes these decisions.

Sean: OK. I keep going back to the question of when it's OK to help. And maybe I'm just a pushy person, but I am tempted to find the point at which Kelly can sit down with her brother and just say, “Hey, I care for you. I am maybe a little concerned for you. I would love to just make sure that you are set up for success.” And have a positive spin on it. Don't make it patronizing, but say, “Are you saving for retirement? Do you have an emergency fund set up? And if not, let's talk about some really simple things that you can do today over this Thanksgiving holiday when we're stuck in this house together.” And maybe get everything going, so there's not a concern in part for Kelly's sake, but also ultimately for the brother's sake. Do you think that's ever OK, or is it really just butt out?

Sara: It could be OK. Maybe one way to sort of bring it up in a gentle way is to talk about a financial decision you yourself made recently. You know, what question were you trying to answer in your own life? What research did you do? And what decision did you make? There are lots of things you can bring up over Thanksgiving. Like, “Oh, interest rates are down. And my savings account interest rate went down, so I decided to move my money into a different account so I can make more interest."

Liz: That's a great idea. You're basing it on your own situation. You're sort of building in the, "we're in this together" kind of thought. And I would add just one thing, which is to ask, would you like to hear what I think about this? Would you like to hear what I've done? Would you like my advice? Any kind of question that gets some buy-in. And they have the chance to turn that down. “No, I'm not really interested in talking about that.” And if that happens, then obviously back off. Sometimes people will feel forced to say, “Oh yeah.” Because it's rude to say otherwise, but at least you've got some buy-in to move forward. Do you think that's an approach, Sara?

Sara: Yeah. You could even ask for their advice on something.

Liz: Ooh, I like that.

Sara: Say, “Hey, you know, I haven't traveled in a while.”

Liz: You have siblings. I can tell.

Sara: Yeah. Like maybe, “I haven't traveled in a while. I'm sitting on this travel credit card. I'm not using it. Like, what do you think I should do?” Get their philosophy on this stuff. They might surprise you. Maybe they have expertise you didn't know they had and you can learn a lot, or at the very least they can say, “You know, I actually don't know that much about credit cards now that you mention it.” And maybe that's an opening.

Sean: That makes me think about the other part of Kelly's question, which was about financial success. Kelly said that the brother hadn't really prioritized financial success as they do in their life. And that makes me think about what the definition of financial success is and how that can vary from one person to the next. So, what do you guys think about that?

Sara: I don't like to think that success in life moves in a straight line. I mean, that can come with career success, too, in general.

Sean: Yeah. But it's not defined by money necessarily.

Sara: Yeah. Plenty of people, they work to live or they do something they love that's not necessarily super profitable, but they get so much joy and so much meaning out of what they do that money is secondary or even tertiary to their life. And that's totally fine. And it can change for you over time. Your priorities shift based on what you need out of money, and out of your career, and out of your life, and what your family needs and who's in your family. That can change. And that's OK. And sometimes circumstances change those things for you. Maybe you lose your job and it causes you to reconsider your priorities. And that happens too. And that's why I don't like to think of this as this like, "you put in and you get one out or you're supposed to put one in and you get 1.5 out." It doesn't really work that way.

Liz: Yeah. And I think there's also a point to be made that you should ask yourself first why you're offering the advice. Because sometimes it might be cloaked in the idea that you want to be helpful, but maybe you do want to impose your idea of success on your sibling, or maybe you just want to feel smart. That's something I wrestled with a lot, and I'm trying to stop giving unsolicited advice. I saw this great T-shirt. Had to do with parenting advice, but it said, “Thank you for the unsolicited parenting advice, said no one ever.” And I think it applies to money as well.

Sara: Yeah.

Sean: Yeah, absolutely.

Sara: I'm sure a lot of parents right now are ... they're dealing with so much that the last thing they really want is one person telling them what they think they should be doing when they're often barely keeping their heads above water. And so giving people advice about anything, especially something as personal as money, can be really hard because you don't want to hurt another person's feelings or make them feel like they're doing everything wrong or they're somehow inferior to you. And also, who are you to say that you are superior to them in terms of money management? You just don't know. Especially with a subject like money where people, we don't walk around with our net worth written across our forehead.

Liz: No, I've got it on a chain here.

Sara: OK. You must have to like alter or pop the numbers in and out every day as it adjusts.

So, there might be a lot that you don't know that a person just hasn't let you in on because it's just not something that they want to share with other people. Or it might not be something they just want to share with you because your relationship just isn't there. And they just don't see you as somebody they can talk to about those things. And that's fine. I mean, relationship dynamics are interesting, especially among siblings. Like there might be somebody else in their life that they feel more comfortable going to about those types of subjects. And that's totally OK. And that's just the reality of some relationships. It's really difficult to talk about money. It's really scary. People like talking about all sorts of juicy subjects, and then they're really secretive when it comes to their money.

Liz: The one thing we haven't talked about is the idea that if somebody asks you for money, all bets are off. You can tell them what you want.

Sara: Yeah. Anytime there's a financial entanglement between you and another adult, whether it's your spouse or your sibling or your parents or a business partner, a neighbor that you lend money to, that's when you want to have money conversations. And you're not putting necessarily all of your financial cards on the table, but you are talking about things that are important to the financial deal that you have. You want to have a little bit more of a conversation about what is this money for? How much do you need? Is this the only money you need? Are you going to come back for more later? And then how much can I afford to give you without making it impossible for me to afford my bills?

Liz: Yeah. And that's a whole other conversation.

Sean: Yeah. We can save that for another episode, I think.

Sara: Yeah.

Sean: Sara, do you have any final advice for Kelly or anyone else that's in a similar situation?

Sara: Really it's just going back to, before you talk to the person, give yourself the time to think about, have they asked for my advice? Do they seem receptive to it? Do we already have the kind of relationship where we give each other advice on random stuff all the time? And if you do, then that means that that advice might be very welcome and a very normal part of your interactions. But if there's some reason they don't bring it up to you and maybe you haven't had the best luck in the past talking about certain subjects with your sibling, then maybe for the sake of your relationship, you just need to realize, there's only so much I can do. This person is an adult. They are the expert in their own life. And if they ever need my financial help, we can have that conversation, but that's a different conversation. And it's OK to just let it go.

Sean: Yeah. Sometimes that's the best thing you can do when talking with a loved one about something very difficult, is just let it go. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Sara. I always appreciate it.

Sara: Thank you.

Sean: Now, let's get on to our takeaway tips, and I'll start us off. First up, make sure that your advice is welcome.

Liz: Next, find common ground. Maybe talk about a financial decision you've had to make or discuss how you've handled a similar situation.

Sean: Lastly, know when to let go. Sometimes you just need to butt out and let people make their own choices.

And that is all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] and visit for more info on this episode. And be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Liz: Here's a brief disclaimer thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Sean: And with that said, until next time. Turn to the Nerds.