How to Help Your Kids Enjoy the Holidays Without Splurging on Them

Spending Time (Not Every Dime) Together for the Holidays: If your family is feeling the pinch of the economy, you may have decided to cut back on holiday spending this year. Cluing your kids in on your plans will help keep them from being disappointed and can even make this year just as magical and cheerful as holidays past.

In the midst of our lousy economy, many families have decided to take holiday spending down a notch and cut back on the shopping and gift-giving. After all, it’s a tight economy, jobs are scarce, and the holidays can be pricey. The last thing you need to do right now is dip into those hard-earned savings. But many parents facing a toned-down Christmas find that their biggest concern is not how to cut back this year, but how to prepare their kids for fewer presents under the tree. It’s all about the timing, and now is when you should start prepping your kids for a back-to-basics Christmas.

The worst thing to do is to announce to your kids on Christmas Eve, “Oh, by the way, Santa won’t be able to make it this year.” Making that last-minute announcement will come as a shock to your kids after weeks of anticipation and excitement. It’s best to tell them now, but regardless of when you tell them, be prepared for your kids to protest.

At first, the thought of fewer presents might not sit very well with your kids, but by explaining your situation to them, you will soon find that your kids will understand. Cutting back this year will take a little effort, but with a little planning you may discover that it not only saves money, but also takes a lot of stress out of the holidays—and it can even make them more enjoyable. The silver lining to spending less on the holidays is that you will help your kids understand the real meaning Christmas: it’s the people, not the things, that matter. Besides, this is a great way for your kids to learn that the gifts with the most value don’t cost a thing.

Here are a few tips to help you on your quest to cut back while still enjoying the holiday merriment and magic of Christmas.
• Set a budget. Start by taking an honest look at your family’s finances. Based on your situation, decide on a holiday budget that is affordable. Write down that amount and pledge to not spend one penny more. Above all, do not dig into your hard-earned savings. Financial security is far more important to a child than some pricey present that is all-too-quickly forgotten (or broken). And if cutting back makes you feel guilty, ease up on yourself. Children are much more resilient than we credit them for. And remember, you are teaching your kids a valuable lesson.
• Share new expectations. Pass your new holiday plans on to your kids by simply explaining that everyone will be receiving fewer presents. Kids don’t have big expectations about the holidays unless we build them. A calm, matter-of-fact approach usually works best. If you are asked the “why” question, just be honest and say it’s because money is tighter. Use the “birds and bees” talk guidelines: provide details that are age-appropriate and only on a need-to-know basis. Your kids don’t need to hear dismal financial details or all about your mortgage bills. Just give your kids a heads-up enough time in advance to keep their expectations in check as the holiday season approaches.
• Reframe Santa. Over the past several decades, kids have grown to believe that the guy from the North Pole can grant any wish. I think Santa’s “magic giving powers” are the product of manufacturers wanting parents to buy more-more-more, causing the holidays to become a consumer buying frenzy. So take Santa’s magic down just a notch and tell your younger kids what our grandparents were told, “Santa decides what he will bring to each child. He has so many boys and girls to deliver packages to. It’ll be fun to see what will be under the tree.” You don’t have to take all the magic out of Christmas, just don’t build false hopes that Santa is guaranteed to bring everything your child desires.
• Cut out the holiday fluff. When it comes to the holidays, the extra little purchases here and there really tend to add up. Think about all of the holiday paraphernalia you purchased last year—gift cards, ribbon, wrapping paper, greeting cards, postage, table decorations, etc.—and get your kids involved in helping you make them instead. For instance, your older kids can create holiday cards via the computer by typing up personal greetings, scanning photos, or decorating with online holiday images and emailing them to friends and family to save on stamps. Your kids (young and old) can create wrapping paper by decorating brown butcher paper or grocery bags turned inside out with drawings or cookie cutters dipped in tempera paint. Even younger children can make tags for presents with index cards and holiday stickers from the dollar store. Get creative with your kids. Not only will you save money, you’ll bank some fantastic holiday memories in the process.
• Make the holidays for the kids. It’s expensive enough to buy gifts for your kids, but when you consider purchasing gifts for everyone else that you know, (friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, etc.) you can quickly blow your holiday budget before you even get to purchasing gifts for kids. Instead of shopping for that mile-long list of friends and relatives, forgo the gift exchange and put that money towards the kid gifts. Your friends and family will understand and might even be relieved that they won’t have to buy you something in return. After all, most of us wouldn’t really miss receiving another tie from Aunt Harriet or bath powder from your sister.
• Draw names. If forgoing the gift exchange with your extended family is not an option, you could propose that instead everyone draw the name of just one family member to buy a gift for. You could also set a ten dollar gift limit. This goes for both adults and kids. Having a price limit will make sure that kids have to be creative in their gift-giving and will teach them about sticking to a budget.
• Check out thrift stores. The best gifts don’t always have to come wrapped in their original packaging, and you don’t have to pay full price to give someone a thoughtful gift that they will love. When shopping for gifts, don’t overlook the dollar stores, garage sales, book sales at the library, thrift stores, discount stores, and e-Bay. By shopping around, you can find great sale items and perfect stocking stuffers at greatly reduced prices.
• Emphasize together time. Suggest that family members give the gift of time to your kids instead of purchased gifts. Have a family outing to a zoo, skating rink, or to the beach. You can even go berry picking or kite flying. Teaching your kids a specific skill such as how to fish, bake an apple cobbler, knit a scarf, or throw a football is also a fantastic way to give your “time gift.” The point is that you are spending time together, and whatever you choose to do, being together often proves to be more memorable than opening up that “it” toy or electronic device that will soon be forgotten.
• Suggest handmade instead of store bought. While preparing for that gift exchange, specify that a certain number should be no-cost items. Doing so makes Christmas less consumer-driven and brings back the true spirit of giving. Aside from crafty ideas, remind your kids that coupon books are great gifts that they can share with family members. These coupons can promise to call Grandma once a week, pledge to bake cookies for Grandpa, or vow to take out the trash for Mom sans nagging.
• Make kids prioritize. Not only have the holidays become too consumer-driven, but they’ve also become way too pricey. And kids really don’t need all that
stuff! Once you decide on a price limit that is affordable, show your kids how to prioritize their holiday desires. You could start by specifying how many presents your child will receive and give each child the same number of index cards as the number of gifts they will receive. The card sizes can change depending on the size (or price) of the gift. For example, give one 5” x 8” size card and two 3” x 5” cards to represent the more expensive gifts, and then give smaller cards to represent the two less expensive gifts. Change the number and size of the cards depending on what you feel is appropriate to your family values (and your checkbook). Then ask your kids to write, draw, or cut out the items they want most. Older kids can look up items online and get an estimate as to whether or not their item is affordable.

In the end, remember that the holidays are really meant to be about love, togetherness, and wonderful memories. “Cutting back” this year may actually just be a blessing in disguise, a way to help your kids understand the true meaning of Christmas and bring back the real magic of the holidays. 

About the Author:
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an educational psychologist, former teacher, and mom. She is recognized for offering research-driven advice culled from a career of working with over one million parents, educators, and children. A frequent Today show contributor and recipient of the National Educator Award, Michele is the author of 22 books, including Building Moral Intelligence, No More Misbehavin’, and her latest release, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. She also appears on Dr. Phil, The View, CNN American Morning, and The Early Show, and has been featured in numerous publications, including U.S. News & World Report, The Chicago Tribune, Redbook, Family Circle, Parenting, and Child. She is an advisory board member for Parents magazine and she writes the blog “Parenting Solutions” for NBC’s iVillage. For more information, visit

About the Book:
The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, September 2009, ISBN: 978-0-7879-8831-9, $19.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.