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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I know it's early, but my problem is Thanksgiving. For the past several years we have included four other families for Thanksgiving dinner in our home. Their children are married now, and including their spouses and stepchildren, the number of guests is now close to 30. I feel it is too many and would like to downsize.

One family is my son's in-laws, whom I consider to be family. Another family hosts everyone for Easter, and I would still like to include them because we're close and we spend holidays with them.

The other two families are not as close with us anymore. We have never been invited to celebrate a holiday in their homes. They could cook for their families, and I feel like I am being used. I would like to tell them, after Thanksgiving is over this year, that we plan to have a smaller gathering next year. That will allow them ample time to make other plans. My husband agrees. How do I do this without causing a rift, since two families will be included and two won't? -- THANKSGIVING QUANDARY

DEAR QUANDARY: Because you are feeling "used," why not draw the line now? If you do, the two families will still have time to make other plans.

The way to handle it would be to say: "This has been a year when everyone has had to cut back, and we are no exception. That's why we are limiting the number of guests we will be entertaining this Thanksgiving. We wanted you to know so there is enough time for you to make other arrangements. The parties have simply become too much work and too expensive to continue."

If those folks are friends, they'll grasp the economic reality and won't resent your honesty and pragmatism. And if they don't, they weren't real friends to begin with.

DEAR ABBY: I'm a 42-year-old female physician. I have been dating an engineer for some time who is currently unemployed. He's a good person, gentle and affectionate. However, he won't introduce me to his mother. I'm not sure why. The subject has come up several times, and he keeps putting it off. She's his only living family member.

Should this raise a red flag? We're both from India and he lives with his mother, which is common practice. -- M.D. IN A MUDDLE

DEAR M.D.: If the man is financially or emotionally dependent on his mother, he may be afraid that she will disapprove. Or, it could have something to do with the fact that he's unemployed. Whatever his reason, he owes you an explanation if you've been seeing each other for an extended period of time. And yes, it is a red flag. Bright red.

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend of several years has just told me he won't marry me as long as I have student loan debt to pay off. I have always been upfront with him about the amount of money I owe. It's a sizable sum, but my credit is good.

He says he loves me but cannot, in good faith, start a life with me owing that much money. Abby, am I wrong to think that student loans should not stop two people who love each other from getting married? -- LOANED OUT IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR LOANED OUT: No, you are not. And furthermore, I suspect that rather than the money being the issue, it's that your boyfriend has had a change of heart.

To receive a collection of Abby's most memorable -- and most frequently requested -- poems and essays, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $6 (U.S. funds) to: Dear Abby -- Keepers Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in the price.)