“Don’t you look at that bank account!” Nancy yelled from upstairs last Christmas season.  “And don’t touch my phone, either!”

It is Christmas time, and that means my in-depth account reviews are on hiatus.  I am not allowed to review the line items in our checking account register online (and neither is she).  During the Christmas season, we make a departure from our regular oversight of transactions so that we can preserve the secrecy of gift-giving as much as possible.

It’s vital that you be on the same page with your spouse.  What does that mean?  It means sharing your goals, desires, hopes, dreams, and fears.  It means both of you being engaged in the discussion and decision-making process surrounding your personal cash flow.  It means coming to agreement about a spending plan for your money every month with explicit detail.

Well that takes the fun out of it!  How are we supposed to surprise our spouse if they know exactly where all the money is going?!

We’ve run into this problem over the years.  If we don’t do anything outside the budget without the other person knowing, how can we buy birthday and Christmas presents?

Having been on a strict budget the last several years, we do a few things to keep the surprise in Christmas, even though we’re on the same page the whole time.  Maybe they can help you, too.

1) Trust each other.

Generally, your marriage won’t work without a basic level of trust.  Deep trust takes time to develop and you must be on the same page about your goals, hopes, and dreams.  Having shared those, you have to trust each and every day that your spouse isn’t going to go out and make decisions that will work against those goals and desires that you share together.  Christmas is no different – you have to trust that they’re going to make responsible choices in order to move forward.

2) Don’t make a major financial decision.

I always laugh and shake my head at these luxury vehicle commercials in the holidays – the Lexuses with the massive bows on top are hilarious.  It looks great in the commercial, but imagine your spouse’s reaction when you say, “Merry Christmas, here’s your new toy and the $479 payment on a 48-month lease!”

December to Remember

One-way gift giving (without discussion) is a poor context for making a major financial decision, including car purchases, boat purchases, home renovations, large vacations, and even something like a pet that would obligate you to long-term expenses.  For us, if the gift is more than $200-300, we don’t give it without discussion.  Purchases that large obligate too much of your cash flow for you to make that decision on your own.  This number could vary for you depending on your income and net worth, but that’s what we’ve settled on.

3) Discuss a budget for gifts for each other.

This year, Nancy and I are saving money for a “babymoon” trip before Baby Ray arrives, so we are limiting our gift giving for each other to stockings only, and we set a budget for those.  In past years, we’ve set a budget for stockings for each other and for 1-2 good gifts.  If we want to supplement the budgeted money with our own blow money, we’re welcome to do that.

We’ve supplemented with blow money many times for gifts that went beyond what we budgeted for gifts for each other.  I would say there’s maybe a bit of an unspoken expectation now that we will use a little bit of our own blow money for gifts for each other.  It’s not explicit, but perhaps expected; and I don’t mind one bit.

4) Keep a personal kitty.

From time to time, I’ll get birthday money, Christmas money, side project money, or a bonus.  I’ll stash at least some of that away, and I keep some money on the side that is “my” spending money aside from what I get each month from our budget.  Primarily, I use this fund for my own larger purchases.  But it also allows me to supplement what we have in the budget for Nancy’s gifts or keep something “off the grid” if I need to make doubly sure she doesn’t see evidence before Christmas.

5) Place a moratorium on bank account reviews and viewing each other’s emails/texts/etc.

This is what Nancy was getting at.  From Black Friday through Christmas (Black Friday through 12/31 for Nancy – her birthday), we don’t look in-depth at the checking account.  We don’t check each other’s emails.  I’ll check bank balances to make sure nothing has gone awry, but since we trust each other (#1) that neither person will make a major financial decision (#2) and we’ve discussed a budget for gifts (#3) and our lives overall, we can do this without destroying our finances.

So that’s how we keep the surprise in Christmas, even while sticking to a budget that both partners have designed and execute.  Being on a budget requires intentionality.  Maybe it’s not as fun as running around willy-nilly and buying whatever we see.  But it’s also not as financially devastating.

What do you think?  How do you keep the surprise and fun in Christmas while being intentional about your finances?