Everyone moans about the rush of the season and about having too much to do at this time of year, but buying gifts can be fun. Credit card bills in January can be staggering, and you know this. After all, you’ve lived through a few Januarys by this time. But buying—especially for your kids—can be sooooo much fun.
You don’t want your kids to suffer the disappointments you had. You want more for them, and you’re probably too aware of the moments when you’ve not been the greatest parent. Parent-guilt is almost as universal as Catholic-guilt. Guiding a helpless infant into becoming a well-adjusted adult is a huge job, complicated by our own struggles and short-comings. Parenting is one of the hardest things we do in this life.
Especially at Christmas or Hanukkah, parents tend to throw financial caution to the wind and buy! The real challenge is to keep the buying about the kids. Everywhere you turn, there’s advice on how to keep the budget under control this time of year, but that’s hard. Not only do relatives and friends expect gifts, but your kids are making lists of things they must have and can’t live without, things their friends already have.
You can feel pressured to measure up—to your kids’ expectations and to their friends’ parents’ generosity. You want your kids to feel loved. You want them not to feel like dorks, so you try to get them whatever all the other kids have. Or what seems really cool to you.
In general, we tend to buy emotionally. Feelings are all tied up with the whole gift-giving thing. Sometimes, our feelings about ourselves. Sadly, we often buy for others what we think they want or what we’d want if we were kids or what we actually want now, regardless of our ages. Parents buy their kids video games they want to play, cars they want to drive and clothes they’d want to wear, if they still had sixteen year-old bodies.
Few other times are as easy to project your unfinished business on to your kids than gift-time. You load up the back of your SUV and use your credit cards till they’re hot to the touch. We forget to be aware of what the kid needs. If children don’t grow up with an understanding of money, it’s probably because we parents are trying to be Santa Claus year round. It’s easy to want for your own kids what you wished you’d had yourself.
Whether this means getting a parent-loan for them to attend a expensive out-of-state college, buying them a new Mustang as their first car or getting them every toy known to man, parents can give their kids too much. You love them, but are you thinking about what’s good for them when you hit the malls?
We tend to forget that children can be overwhelmed by stuff. They lose any concept of appreciating what they have if they have so much they can’t find it in their rooms. The real challenge as a parent is giving your children what they need. Knowing what they need is hard. When it comes to the gift-giving season, we want to feel good. We want to see happy, excited faces as they rip open wrapping paper. Most of us, go for the convenience foods of emotion—we buy stuff.
When you give a gift to a child, try not to focus on the wrapping-paper-flying-through-the-air frenzy. It is a bitter moment a month later when you find the gift you chose, bought, wrapped and are still paying for, at the bottom of the closet with the hundred other toys that don’t get played with. January can be harsh for reasons other than the the weather and the bills that come.
Love your kids by not overwhelming them. Love them by practicing good financial habits yourself. After all, they may go to college someday and it’d be nice if you could help with that without hocking the house or going massively into debt.
Make the gifts about the recipient. Get your kids moderate Christmas or Hanukkah gifts. Get your spouse and your friends thoughtful, reasonable gifts that won’t have you filing bankruptcy in six months. Make the gifts about the person receiving them, not about you.