It’s no secret that the holidays are one of the most stressful times of the year. From preparing for holiday parties to dealing with bustling airports, it’s no wonder that 1 in 3 Americans experience “Festive Burnout” before Christmas even arrives!
But one of the most underappreciated causes of stress is gift-giving.
Yes, there is no greater joy than giving thoughtful gifts to those you love, especially your children, but gift-giving can easily be a budget buster – and busting your budget during the holidays can amplify your stress exponentially.
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So why is gift giving, which should be joyful, so stressful? Consider the following reasons:
- Fear of Disappointment. We love our children so much that we would do anything to make them feel loved and appreciated. No parent wants to see their child disappointed or let down on Christmas morning, so the temptation is to overcompensate by getting more (or more expensive) gifts.
- Having to “One-Up” the Previous Year. The concept of “lifestyle creep” applies to Christmas presents as well. If you’re not already familiar with lifestyle creep, it’s the idea that as your income increases, so does your baseline quality of life. For example, if you get a raise, you might find yourself eating out more (instead of saving more money) because of more cash flow. In other words, your costs increase as your income increases, which is why many high-income earners still struggle with balancing a proper budget.
Well, the same applies to Christmas presents. Each Christmas sets the baseline expectation for the following Christmas. You might feel the pressure to have to one-up the previous year, but in an economy where prices are rising and wages are stagnating, this isn’t realistic, nor is it a healthy mindset.
- Conflating Material Items with Love. Because gifts are a tangible, physical way to express love, it’s all too easy to conflate material items for love itself. Even though we know it’s the act of gift giving that allows us to express our love for our children, we can fall into a self-inflicted trap of assigning a dollar value to that love. This can easily lead to overspending, as no one wants to short-change the love for their child.
By understanding these potential triggers, we can acknowledge them when we feel the need to overspend and make the holidays bigger than what our budgets truly allow.
As adults, we have an easier time rationalizing and understanding these truths, but our children may not see it the same way.
So that raises the question: how can we set realistic expectations with our children when it comes to Christmas gifts? How can we make sure it’s truly a joyful celebration for all without fear of disappointment?
How to Keep Your Child’s Gift Expectations Realistic and Practical
There are many strategies and tactics you can implement to keep expectations for gifts realistic and down to earth. You can try one or all of the following ideas. Not every idea will be right for every family – and that’s ok! What matters is that you find the idea that is most likely to resonate with your family.
Tactic #1: Talk About It, Starting Young and Early
Even when my son was young, we talked about the limits of money. It doesn’t grow on trees and there’s not an unlimited reservoir we can tap into. To simplify Christmas gifts, I realized I had to have an honest, open conversation with my son early.
Setting realistic expectations when your kids are young is much easier than when they’re older.
But here’s the key: keep it positive.
Kids have the uncanny ability to pick up on our emotional cues. If we feel bummed about finances, they’ll feel bummed about it. If we feel stress or disappointment, they’ll begin to showcase those feelings as well.
Instead, this could be used as a positive teaching experience to explain why it’s important to maintain a good and healthy budget. For example, it allows you to go on vacation other times of the year. It allows you to have the budget for gifts for birthdays and costumes for Halloween. By exercising healthy spending habits during the holidays, you can enjoy other treats throughout the year as well!
Tactic #2: Practice Minimization Throughout the Year
If you go over the top for other holidays, then it’ll be extremely obvious if you’re cutting back for Christmas. Instead, practice minimization throughout the year to help set your child’s expectations for the winter holidays.
Consider all the other times of the year when we also give gifts:
- Valentine’s Day
If you give your child multiple Easter baskets, for example, then they’d likely be disappointed with just one Christmas stocking, if you catch my drift.
By practicing minimization for other holidays and gift giving events like birthdays, you can better set expectations for Christmas.
Tactic #3: Focus on Memories, Traditions, and Gratitude
Yes, young ones will always look forward to gifts under the Christmas tree.
But what if we could also teach them to look forward to other things that the holidays have to offer as well?
Consider the following activities, which also make for great traditions and memories:
- Build a gingerbread house – that you get to eat once it’s finished
- Bake cookies for Santa Claus together from scratch
- Put up the Christmas tree together while listening to your favorite holiday playlist
- Go “camping” in the living room for movie night – with hot cocoa and LOTS of marshmallows
There are so many activities that you can turn into yearly traditions. After a few years, your kids will look forward to these moments as much as (if not more) than the presents under the tree. In other words, focus on the true “magic” of the season. They may not appreciate it now, but one day, they’ll be grateful for these awesome memories that they shared with you!
Tactic #4: Volunteer Together
While you can volunteer any time throughout the year, there are even more opportunities the closer we get to the holidays. From volunteering at food kitchens during Thanksgiving to singing carols at your local hospital, there are many ways that your entire family can give back to the community.
This accomplishes several things.
First, you teach your child the importance of being a good citizen of the community and to help those in need. Second, this is also an opportunity for you to slowly instill gratitude into your child for what your family has. After all, many children might not realize how lucky they are to have parents who love them and can afford to get gifts for them!
By volunteering together, you’re helping your child understand that gifts aren’t everything.
Tactic #5: Discuss the Meaning of Christmas, Even if You’re Not Religious
It doesn’t matter what religion you are or if you’re even religious at all. I think most people can agree that the spirit of the holiday season in general is about giving, gratitude, and love.
This tactic isn’t as much about shifting expectations as much as it is helping your child come to appreciate and love the true spirit of the season.
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Tactic #6: Shift the Focus from Receiving to Giving
Even if you try all of these tactics, you might find that your child is still disappointed on Christmas morning. We’re all human, after all…
Nothing lifts a child’s disappointment more quickly than the satisfaction of giving to someone else.
Emphasize giving to grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings – or charities, toy drives, and food pantries. The more excited your child is about giving, the more likely they are to view Christmas morning from a different perspective: one of giving rather than receiving!
These are just some of many ways to set expectations for the holiday season. Are there any successful tactics you’ve tried that aren’t included above? Let us know in the comments below! You never know who your comments might help!
If you enjoyed this article and want to connect with other parents experiencing similar journeys, I encourage you to join our community on Facebook at the TBM Family. It’s a great way to connect with like-minded people, find inspiration, and share encouragement as we navigate our own financial lives together.