'I always let my sister pay for our parents' Christmas gifts. Is this a problem?'

Lizzie O'Leary

Welcome to "Asking for a Friend," Grow's money advice column. Got a question for one of our money experts? Email us at getgrowing@cnbc.com.

Dear Asking for a Friend,

I am the younger sibling of two girls and my sister is six years older. Because of our age gap, she has always bought Christmas gifts for our parents. We decide what they will be together, and we just say the presents are from both of us (and the dog, of course).

Now we are adults and earn comparable amounts of money, but she still pays for most of the gifts. I do pay for some of the smaller presents but she handles the bigger purchases. Is this a bad thing?

On the one hand, I could be more assertive and say, "I'm going to pay for at least half this year," or "Venmo me for half of what you spend on Mom and Dad," but on the other hand, I do feel like this is the family dynamic everyone is comfortable with and I shouldn't disturb that.

My sister likes being the responsible one, and she always has been more responsible than me. I also don't mind letting people take care of things for me.

What do you think I should do? Insist I pay, or just let it be and feel a little guilty?


Bratty, but self-aware, younger sister

Dear Bratty but Self-Aware:

I'm glad you specified that your family has two girls, because I would have wondered if you were my little brother, writing in disguise.

You don't say how old both of you are. I'm guessing, since you don't mention it, that neither of you is partnered or caring for children. There's something else you don't say here, which I'm quite curious about. How does your family talk about money? It can be very easy to not have those conversations, or to default, as you two have, to roles that were established at one point in your lives that maybe are less relevant now.

I suspect you won't love my answer, but it's this: You need to talk about money. Not necessarily because Christmas presents are important, but because life is going to present you with some larger financial challenges that you and your sister will have to solve together.

Let's break this into two parts: The present issue, and The Other Stuff.

You need to talk about money. Not necessarily because Christmas presents are important, but because life is going to present you with some larger financial challenges that you and your sister will have to solve together.
Lizzie O'Leary
economic and policy journalist

First, presents. You say your sister likes being responsible. I get it! As the oldest, I've enjoyed my share of "Ugh, they can't do anything without my help" moments.

I think you can let her do the heavy lifting of organizing, buying, etc., but yes, since you have the money, you should volunteer to pay. She'll still feel responsible and you'll feel less guilty. Bonus: She'll see you as more of an adult. Congrats on earning enough that you can do this!

Now for the trickier stuff. I think the two of you should talk about how you might see yourselves handling various responsibilities in the future, especially when it comes to your parents. It's not a fun conversation and it probably feels a long way off, but it's more and more common for millennials to act as caretakers in some form.

I'm not trying to be a downer, but this stuff can come up sooner than you'd think and it is so much easier to handle, both financially and emotionally, if you have discussed it early and openly. Do you see yourselves spending money on them? Just being there emotionally? Do you even know what their plans are for retirement and later life?

One of the weird joys of being adult siblings is learning what your sibling can do that you didn't realize, and learning that you can lean on them and be a team as you move through life together. What a gift, to be able to give your sister that joy.

You've got this.


Lizzie O'Leary is a longtime economic and policy journalist. She hosts the podcast What Next: TBD at Slate, and is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Prior to that, she created and hosted Marketplace Weekend, and worked as a correspondent for CNN and Bloomberg TV. She has also served as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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