It’s said that “receiving gifts” is one of the famous Five Love Languages, and while it’s certainly not my love language (“acts of service” all day every day, please!), you’d assume it was both of my daughters’ based on the number of gifts they get this time of year. I could not even begin to estimate how much money has been spent on presents for them over the years. And don’t even get me started on how much clutter these gifts create in my home.
Despite regularly going through and donating toys, my children’s collection of playthings continues to build. My husband and I are very fortunate to have the means to afford extras for our kids, but combined with very generous grandparents and aunts and uncles, my kids have more toys than they know what to do with. Still, for every birthday or holiday, they accumulate more.
But this season, things are going to be different.
Lessons in Overconsumption
How many toys does a child really need? Any parent of little ones knows that the vast majority of trinkets our kids acquire go untouched. They collect dust in a cubby bin for months while our children gravitate towards the same regular, faithful toys they always play with. And it’s not until you’re about to toss an unloved item into a donation box that the kids suddenly remember it even exists—at which point they declare that you can’t give it away because they can’t imagine life without it. At least that’s how it goes in my house, and the situation is getting out of hand. (Apparently, my daughters have learned nothing from Toy Story 3.)
This problem isn’t new, but I’ve always had a hard time reigning in my own holiday shopping and setting boundaries with family members when it comes to gift-giving. Every time I’ve come close to disrupting the cycle in the past, I’ve convinced myself that a birthday or Christmas without lots of presents will be a letdown for my kids. But, I’m beginning to realize that even though my intentions are good, all I’ve really been doing is exposing them to that unhealthy rush we get when we have something shiny and new in our hands. I’m not teaching them to appreciate the things they already have, or talking to them about what overconsumption does to our planet. And if I want to ensure they don’t grow up to constantly chase the short-lived thrill of buying something new, I have to start setting some boundaries. Now seems like a good opportunity to do just that.
Inflation and Budgeting
This year, in addition to my children’s general overflow of toys, there’s also the financial aspect of holiday gift-giving to consider. We’ve all been feeling the effects of inflation, from the gas pump to the grocery store to clothing and shoes for the family. According to the U.S. Labor Department, the inflation rate has hit a record 7.7% over the last year, but for many American families, it’s felt like even more. If we had a little wiggle room in our savings accounts prior to this year, it’s long gone by now. For my family, specifically, that means we have to create a Christmas present budget—and actually stick to it.
I have to confess that I am, once again, the problem. Every year, my husband and I work together to create a gift budget for every family member. We build a spreadsheet that tracks every present and tells us how much of our holiday savings is left for each person (though, if you’re not the spreadsheet type, apps like EveryDollar or Mint are also great for money management). And every year, I go over our holiday budget for every person I shop for. In my mind, spending an extra $10 on our nieces and nephews isn’t so bad, and our parents raised us, so if they want something a little outside our budget then we will make it work, and stocking stuffers shouldn’t be included in the bottom line, should they? Before I know it, I’ve overspent by $250 and I am contemplating whether or not Santa needs to leave that $4 bag of treats in the cat’s stocking on Christmas morning—as if that’s where the problem lies. (Don’t worry, Coco always gets her treats.)
I’d love to say that my constant overspending is because I am just so generous, but that’s only half the truth. As much as I hate to admit it, in the past, I’ve willfully ignored our holiday expenses because I don’t want to accept that we can’t afford something that I feel like we should be able to at this point in our lives. My husband and I are in our mid-to-late thirties, we’ve been working good jobs and making decent salaries for decades, and it is extremely frustrating when aunts and uncles shower my kids with gifts, but our bank account only allows us to give their children one or two presents each—and that was before you consider the out-of-control inflation we’re experiencing today. It’s a combination of “keeping up with the Joneses” and frustration and embarrassment that we aren’t as well off as other families our age. Of course, the trade-off is that we have much better work-life balances than most families, but it’s hard to focus on that when I’m having to remove a LEGO set from my Amazon cart because it will put us $3 over our spending limit.
This Year’s Plan
Unfortunately, most of the responsibility—and blame—here falls on me. I am the one who has to change my spending habits this year, and I am going to have to accept that this might result in some disappointed kids and loved ones this holiday season. But, if A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas have taught us anything, it’s that gifts are not what the holidays are all about, right? (Please tell me I’m right.)
Now, to put it into practice. First, I have committed to sticking to our Christmas budget—which is even harder this year since it’s smaller than in prior years and the amount won’t go nearly as far thanks to inflation. Knowing this, I started planning well ahead of time, and have already purchased a good chunk of presents from the clearance aisles at Target and Walmart over the last few months. Once I hit the magic number for each recipient, I will stop shopping for them. Period. It doesn’t matter if for $7 more I could get them an “even better” gift, I have to behave as if we can’t afford to spend an extra $7—because we really can’t, and that’s OK. Not to mention, I can’t imagine any of our family would want us to end up with credit card debt over our annual gift exchange.
Next, we’re going to be making some changes in an effort to manage my girls’ overflowing stockpiles of toys. While we are certainly letting our daughters provide their input, ultimately my husband and I are the ones making their gift lists this year, and we are being very mindful of keeping each list balanced with things they need and things they want. We know our daughters well, and although their eyes go wide every time they see a Barbie Dreamhouse in the store, their dad and I know they will be just as happy to find art supplies, stuffed animals, and other reasonably-priced gifts that are tailored to their personalities and interests under the tree.
On Christmas morning, each girl will find some fun playthings waiting for them (we aren’t monsters!), but they’ll also be unwrapping necessities like shoes, water bottles for school, hats and gloves, and gift cards for next year’s family trip to Disney World. Additionally, we are adding a lot of books to their wish lists and encouraging the extended family to consider gifting experiences—like trips to children’s museums—instead of flooding them with toys.
There’s no doubt that this Christmas is going to be different for many families this year, including my own. And just because it’s a big adjustment for me doesn’t mean it will be disappointing to my kids. My children will feel as loved as ever, and I will get to avoid the buyer’s remorse I usually experience from overspending. Add in some hot cocoa and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, and I know that it will be pure holiday cheer in our home this year.