I often mention my kids on here, but I don’t really talk about them directly too much. They don’t make the decision to write about their lives on The Simple Dollar – I do. I try to keep that privacy in mind on their behalf. (Sarah and I have a pretty clear understanding at this point as to what’s appropriate to talk about to an audience of thousands and what isn’t within our marriage.)
Having said that, the reality of my life is that I wear the “parent” hat a lot. They simply take up a lot of my time, my thoughts, and my energy. Caring for them, making sure they’re safe and secure, doing what I can to teach them how to be functional adults, spending quality time with them – that adds up to a lot of time and energy. It’s a journey that a lot of parents follow.
For me, the challenges of following that journey are never more apparent than around the holiday season.
Simply being children in the modern world – going to school each day, having friends, having a moderate amount of screen time, going to after-school activities – fills them with a lot of different ideas, and many of those ideas are manifested in terms of wants and desires, and those wants and desires come out in full force during the holiday season.
Before we get going, I want to be absolutely clear that I don’t think it’s inherently wrong for people to want things and I don’t think it’s wrong for children to want things for the holidays. That’s a completely normal reaction to our internal lives and to the world around us.
The problem is that the holiday season, particularly for children, seems almost designed to push those wants and desires into overdrive. Children are encouraged to make “wish lists” and are constantly asked what kinds of things they want for Christmas. The desire to want things is not only accepted this time of the year, but it’s often encouraged both by marketers and by those who want an easy route to a child’s heart.
The challenges presented by that are numerous. It teaches children poor lessons about wish fulfillment and greed and wants and desires running rampant. Beyond that, it can really pressure the budgets of parents and pressures them into having to make some really challenging emotional and parental and financial decisions.
Like a lot of parents, we want our children to have a wonderful holiday season, but at the same time, we’re frugal people. We’re fairly careful with our money (much more so than the average American, but perhaps not always as careful as our ideals would like us to be) and we want to instill good values and self-control in our own children.
The last several holiday seasons have been a series of challenges and trials in that regard. For the last eight holiday seasons, we’ve had three children under our roof, ranging over those years from infancy to on the border of the teen years. We’ve seen all kinds of interests and desires come and go over the years and we’ve learned what kinds of things really work and what kinds of things really don’t.
Here’s what we’ve learned about being frugal parents during the holiday season.
Set Clear Goals
Before you even start interacting with your children during the holiday season, spend some time thinking about the goals you want to achieve this holiday season regarding your children. How much do you intend to spend on each of them? How are you going to keep their focus off of just the things that they want? What do you want the holidays to look like?
Encourage other people who are involved in the raising of your children to think about those things, too, and then share your thoughts. Try to set some goals that you can all agree on.
For example, Sarah and I have a dollar target that we’ve set for each child and we’re deciding on gifts together for them with some principles in mind. We’re also working together to try to minimize conversations about the “gimme gimme gimme” aspects of the holiday season.
Whatever specific goals you might set depends on you. The value comes from actually thinking about your goals in advance, setting specific goals, and sticking with them throughout the holiday season.
So, for example, you might decide that you’re going to spend a total of $200 on your child for the holidays and that you’re going to subtly discourage talk of things that people want and focus instead on talk of thinking of others when you hear such conversation come up. Remind yourself of those goals throughout the season and they’ll be fresh in your mind when key moments come up.
Talk About What the Holidays Are Like Without Gifts
One practice I’ve found really useful is to have a few conversations with our family as a whole about what the holidays would be like without any presents at all. What would we do? Where would we go? Would it still be fun? (Of course.)
During these conversations, I try to steer the conversation into specific things we would do that everyone would enjoy. We could visit family members. We could roast chestnuts. We could make cookies. We could go caroling. We could have a giant snowball fight. We could make a giant snowman or an entire snow family. We could go sledding. We could do something together for charity. We could visit Grandma and Grandpa. We could make a giant batch of hot chocolate.
The goal is to initiate conversation about all of the enjoyable things that can be part of a holiday season without presents, and once the ideas start rolling in, they often roll in like a flood.
One great way to channel this conversation into something tangible is to simply make a list of the ideas and try to fill as much free time in December with all of the ideas as you can. You’ll find yourself doing things like going on a walk in the park to collect pinecones or making cranberry scones or finding a great hill to go sledding on.
This process reinforces the idea that the best part of the holiday season has nothing to do with receiving gifts. It has to do with other fun things, done together, that don’t have to involve spending money.
Limit the Requests for Gift Ideas and Filter “Help” for Relatives Through You, Not the Children
One challenge that we often face is that we often don’t just come up with gift ideas for ourselves for our own children, but are asked for ideas by grandparents and aunts and cousins. “What do your kids want for Christmas?”
While such requests are fine, they’re sometimes also directly transmitted to the children, which turns their focus back to a long list of “I want this” and “I want that,” which is part of what we’re trying to avoid in being frugal parents. Not only is that an expensive route to go down, it also doesn’t encourage our children to keep their inner desires calm and to look for other joys in the season.
Our usual approach is to simply filter the requests for gift ideas through us so that our children aren’t continually brought back to the idea of trying to continuously think about things that they want to get.
Instead, we try really hard to build a long list of ideas ourselves, figure out what ideas fit in our budget, and then share some of the remaining ideas with relatives. The reason? This keeps our children from being inundated with requests for wants, so they don’t have to sit around thinking about more and more and more things that they want.
Ideally, we don’t want them to actively think about their wants at all beyond what comes up in ordinary life. That requires paying attention to what they’re saying and doing on a day to day basis. We’ve found that if you’re watching for that, you can pick up on lots of gift ideas pretty easily and never have to engage them in an “I want…” mindset.
Don’t Browse for Wants
If your children are put into a situation where they need to generate a “holiday wish list,” try to make sure that such a list is done without the aid of some sort of tool that enables them to browse for things they want. Have them come up with ideas on their own, away from catalogs and web browsers.
Why? Catalogs and web browsers will just stick ideas in their head based on what they happen to see in the moment. Those ideas usually aren’t lasting wants – they’re just items they happen to desire in the moment.
The solution? Don’t let them browse specifically just to find things that they want.
Instead, if they do happen to find themselves in a situation where they are requested to come up with gift ideas, let them do it entirely on their own, without guidance from catalogs or Amazon. Give them a piece of paper and a pen and some time to think about it. The ideas that come out of their head are far more likely to be genuine wants and result in more meaningful gifts that they’ll actually enjoy instead of the random thing they spot in a catalog.
(As I noted earlier, the best way for frugal parents to handle this is to just watch and take notes over time and never put them in the position to make a “wish list,” but sometimes grandparents ask anyway. If that happens, try to avoid catalogs and websites.)
Establish Low-Cost Traditions
We have a handful of holiday traditions established over the years. Every Christmas day at home, we roast chestnuts (the first attempt was comically disastrous and is brought up every year). Whenever we visit my wife’s parents, we make lefse (a Norwegian thin potato bread – think of a tortilla or a crepe and you’re close). We wear pajamas all day long on Christmas day and usually take a pajama-clad family picture. We have a holiday dinner at some point that involves Norwegian meatballs (or a vegetarian equivalent). If there is snow on the ground, we intentionally go sledding on that day.
Those kinds of little, repeated traditions bring a certain consistent familiarity to the holiday season, tying the past to the present and to hopes for the future in a very simple way.
Establishing a few traditions that don’t cost anything or cost very little, particularly if those traditions are ones that can easily be repeated year after year, is a great way to establish a meaningful holiday season with deep family ties that will last and last without having to open up your pocketbook.
Find your own traditions. Look for things that are meaningful to you and also meaningful to your children and make those things into a regular part of your holiday season.
Include Charity As Part of Your Holidays
One great tradition to establish with your family is to include some sort of charitable effort in your holiday season. This type of tradition keeps the focus firmly on giving rather than receiving and can provide a meaningful experience for all involved.
There are many charities that will accept a few hours of help during the holiday season. Talk to your family about the type of charitable work that would be most meaningful for them, then call around in your community for opportunities for service during December.
You might find yourself stocking shelves in a food pantry or serving meals in a soup kitchen or washing clothes in a clothing pantry. You might find yourself cleaning up a public park or helping to clear snow for people unable to do it for themselves. You might find yourself reading books aloud or singing songs at a retirement home.
Whatever it is that you choose to do, do it from a place of giving to others. Your life already has infinite abundance – it is good to share some of that abundance.
Make Homemade Gifts for Others
One great way to keep the holiday season low cost and meaningful is to actually make gifts for people, and the process of making gifts can easily become a family project.
You can bake bundles of cookies for family members. Make the dough and form the cookies together, then wrap up the bundles together, too (while perhaps sampling the results along the way). You can do the same for homemade candies.
You can make photo cards by simply taking photographs of beautiful things, making prints of those photographs, and then affixing them to the front of blank stationery cards with rubber cement.
You can make jars of various canned goods – pickles, jellies, jams, preserves, salsa, and so forth. Make the items together, then go through the simple canning process together, too.
The possibilities are endless! The best part? A homemade gift conveys a great deal of meaning because it involves an investment of time and care, not just money.
Get Fewer Presents, But Strongly Desired Ones
In the end, you’re likely still going to buy presents for your children during the holiday season.
Our experience has been that the best holiday seasons tend to involve a small number of highly desired quality gifts rather than an abundance of gifts. You are far better off buying just one or two or three gifts that they’ll really love and will use extensively than piles of gifts that may be left practically unused because other items are attracting their attention. It’s much easier to give each gift some quality time and attention if you’ve only received a few gifts than if you’ve received a small mountain of gifts.
This year, our children are receiving roughly three presents each from us. Those presents are high-quality items that they’ve really been wanting, but the number is relatively small. At the end of the day, however, each of those gifts will be deeply appreciated and repeatedly used – there won’t be extra gifts set aside that are basically forgotten. Each gift is impactful and meaningful and doesn’t fall prey to diminishing returns.
All of these strategies circle back to one key principle: it’s about the time spent together, not the stuff. Every time you take a step away from things and take a step toward shared time and shared experiences, it’s a net win in terms of having a meaningful and relatively inexpensive holiday season.
If you apply just one principle, it’s that one. Spend time together and de-emphasize the stuff.