Christmas Race to Greed and Debt

I love the holidays. Mostly. I come from a big family with lots of traditions and events. It can get complicated and I usually resent all of the running around, but nothing replaces the feel of a packed home with lots of chatter and good food. Since becoming an adult, almost every aspect of the holidays has gotten better for me. I can choose how many events to go to instead of being shuffled all over creation. I can even host events in my own home!

But since becoming a parent, one thing about the holidays has weighed heavily on me: The Christmas Competition. Every year the same scene plays out before me. I feel pressure to make sure there is a full load of presents under the tree. I am reassured that the quantity matters much more than quality. “Kids enjoy the experience of opening presents far more than they remember what they were given.”

Each year, though, a passage runs through my head from the very first installation of the Harry Potter series. It goes like this: As Harry looks on, his cousin Dudley surveys his birthday haul.

Dudley, meanwhile was counting his presents. His face fell.
“Thirty-six,”‘ he said, looking up at his mother and father. “That’s two less than last year.”
“Darling, you haven’t counted Auntie Marge’s present, see, it’s here under the big one from Mommy and Daddy.”
“All right, thirty-seven then,” said Dudley, going red in the face…
Aunt Petunia obviously scented danger too, because she said quickly, “And we’ll buy you another two presents while we’re out today.”

I feel, more than anything, that this is what our Christmases have become. A competition with ourselves to see if we can provide more and more every year. Not only does it ignore the reality of finances, but it sets our kids up for attitudes of voracious greed. I know because I was one of those kids. Somewhere between age 7, when I was given a dollhouse that had been my one true wish, and age 15 when the newest jeans and stacks of cds were common place, I lost myself. I lost my sense of gratitude.

I simply do not want this for my kids. But there are other pressures too–internal ones that tell me my kids will be heartbroken and disadvantaged if we don’t break the bank to over-indulge their fleeting whims.

No matter where you fall on the consumer spectrum, I know that I’m not alone in this awkward dance. Thankfully, my husband and I not only agree on our desire to scale down the gift-giving extravaganza, but we have also agreed to a plan of action.

1. Instead of buying a ton of toys to fill up space under the tree, we have agreed to purchase one large toy for outdoors that both kids can enjoy for years to come. We batted around ideas like swing sets, Power Wheel trucks (2-seaters of course), and trampolines. In the end, J decided they would most enjoy a Power Wheel because we have a park very close with a swing set and Grandma has a trampoline, so he made a very wise decision.

2. With three sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins galore, we simply do not need to get a bunch of little things. They will get plenty. Instead, they will each get one small gift in addition to the large present.

3. Both of the boys have birthdays within a month of Christmas, so we kind of had to implement a money limit on birthday expenses too. Surprisingly, this has tuned me into my own thriftiness and dedication to spending our budget wisely. We have only $30 dedicated to each child for their birthday gifts, and only $10 extra for decorations and the like. Granted, my mom helps out a tremendous amount in this area, so it makes it much easier. Regardless, it has been tricky, and takes some coordinating to make sure they get the things they really want without going overboard.

4. Instead of making or buying gifts for me and my husband, this year we have decided to either have the kids used that money to build a donation bag for a local food pantry or start a coin collection that will be donated to St. Louis’ 100 most needy program. This year, we do not have the means to adopt and provide for a family, however, my J is a master loose-change collector. Last time we emptied his “treasure box,” he had $41. I think that would be a great tradition to establish.

To some of you, I’m sure this sounds extreme, but truthfully, it ends up being more fair to the kiddos in the end. Instead of getting a whole pile of stuff in the winter, J gets a reasonable amount. Then, throughout the year, he is able to earn toys and video games through his chores and work around the house. Similarly, Cub gets a steady stream of hand-me-downs and occasional surprises. Trust me, these children want for nothing.

There are other techniques that work for other families, too. Some people rotate out toys or save up gift cards. These just don’t work for us. We have zero storage space at the moment-no, not even in closets, and I lose gift cards routinely. So, this is what’s working for us.

I don’t want the kids growing up feeling burdened by out limited financial means, but I do not want them growing up without respect for it either. We are not trying to keep up with the family down the street. We are going to do the best with what we have and provide needs before wants. Extras will then be saved up and spent wisely. I think that’s the best lesson we could teach them anyhow–to live within their means.

I just want them to grow up happy with what they have instead of constantly striving for more. I want them to see gifts as rare and wonderful, not as expected. I want them to understand that someone worked very hard and saved money just for that gift with just them in mind. It’s a big deal to me. I can only hope it translates well. What do you think?

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