Budget Busters: Christmas Spending


Every year it happens. The catalogs arrive. My children—who didn’t even know they needed a whole truckload of toys—suddenly become convinced that they, in fact, do. And the ensuing weeks are spent begging, whining, and listing off the many things their hearts desire. As a parent, it never gets easier to navigate between their lists of wants and needs, deciding what can stay and what can go. We want to give them everything, yet we know we shouldn’t. At Christmas more than ever, our hearts stray towards the thought of their little faces lighting up as they find something they never expected waiting for them that morning. And then the budget busting begins. 

I have found that, with six kids to buy Christmas for, it got easier and easier to scale back—simply out of necessity. I started observing what they really enjoyed receiving and what they really played with. I noted that some of the things they got were truly a waste of money and cut out those things with ease and no regrets. A few tips I have learned are:

  • Only give kids what they asked for. Don’t go buy a bunch of things you think they might want as a “surprise.” The biggest surprise, then, is on you when that credit card bill comes in the mail. It is best to just stick to your guns and realize that they won’t miss what they never had.
  • Begin to cut back little by little. If you have been doing too much and you know it, you can do a little less this year, then a little less the next, and so on until you have effectively scaled back.
  • Shop ahead. Instead of saving up all your shopping for between Thanksgiving and Christmas, start collecting things all through the year. Look for creative ways to save money. One time a friend of mine and I were traveling over Labor Day weekend and discovered that Cracker Barrel was having a wonderful sidewalk sale. We were able to pick up great gifts for lots of people on our list at deep discounts. We stopped at every Cracker Barrel between North Carolina and Florida to find the best deals. We still laugh over that little adventure! We were pretty proud of our finds. I also buy presents at the Scholastic warehouse sale. Check www.scholastic.com to see if there is one in your area. Twice a year, they put everything in the warehouse on sale for half off. This includes not just books but art supplies, kits, posters, games, etc. You do have to be an educator to get in, but homeschoolers are included! I also pick up art supplies and kits using my Michael’s coupons. My friend Holly confessed to me that she only spent $30 total on her two boys last year by picking up their gifts at yard sales! And everything she bought was still in the box!
  • Start the three present rule, based on what Jesus received from the three wise men. We started this years ago, and I love it! I tell my kids, “If it was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for you!” Who can argue with that? A good rule of thumb for this is based on the three gifts that Jesus received: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is the frivolous or fun gift—the big ticket item they have their heart set on. Frankincense symbolized worship, so this is the spiritual growth gift—a Bible, a book on being a godly kid, a Christian video, or something of the sort. And finally, myrrh is the gift that symbolized death—what Jesus was sent to do. This gift is a practical gift around what the child’s bents or talents are. It could be special supplies for an artist or a microphone for a singer, etc. This could also be something practical like an item of clothing. Three items, plus gifts from family members, plus trinkets in their stockings is still far more than what many children in this world will see in their lifetime!
  • When you are talking with your children about Christmas, ask them what was their favorite gift they gave this year instead of what was their favorite gift they received? This helps the focus to stay on giving and not receiving, and gets them thinking in these terms at a young age.
  • Instead of more junky toys, suggest what I call “experience gifts” from the grandparents. Experience gifts are great because they afford your kids an experience they will never forget—and most times the memories last much longer than the plastic toys that break or get lost. Some experience gifts we have given or received are:
  1. Gift certificates for manicures (great for tweens and teens)
  2. Starbucks giftcards with a promise to take them to get a special drink
  3. Disposable cameras with tickets to an event
  4. Magazine subscriptions
  5. A coupon detailing a special day just for that child—lunch out, a movie, etc.
  6. Passes to activities they enjoy—rock climbing, roller skating, golf, bowling, etc.
  7. Passes to a local theme park or zoo.
  8. A gift certificate to a favorite restaurant
  9. Science kits—check out Treasure Box Press (www.treasureboxpress.com) or Insect Lore (www.insectlore.com) for some great ones
  10. Kitchen utensils with a certificate for a cooking class
  11. A gift for the whole family— a new computer or family membership to a museum
  12. A camping kit for the adventurous type—rope, flashlight, canteen, pocketknife
  13. A beauty kit for the princess—hairbrush, lotion, barrettes, ponytail holders, lip gloss, styling products, etc.

One year, my grandmother gave each of my children $10. As we were deciding what to spend their money on, the suggestions were coming from everyone. Suddenly I had a burst of inspiration. What if we took all the money and put it together? We could splurge on a great night eating out at our most favorite restaurant—the Japanese steakhouse (where they cook all the food in front of you). You can imagine how expensive it is to eat there for a family of eight, but by putting all our money together, we were able to do it—and have a fantastic time together in the process! Though I couldn’t tell you one single thing any of my children received that year, I will never forget that night out. That was money well spent, in my opinion!

Sometimes it is easy to miss the point—especially when we look at the gift giving craziness all around us. I will never forget one Christmas standing in line at the post office behind a woman whose arms were laden with packages, while even more were on the ground at her feet. As we moved closer to the front, she would awkwardly kick the packages ahead. Just to make conversation, I gestured at the number of boxes and said in jest, “That’s why I just send gift cards!”

But my humor was lost on her as she gestured to her purse. “Oh,” she said, “I buy those too! I have 65 gift cards in here to mail out!” 

I have never forgotten that encounter, as I tried to wrap my brain around how much money this woman had spent on those gifts. Even if she only bought ten-dollar gift cards, she would have spent $650 just on those! And those were just for her family that lived out of town! I went home and shared my story with my husband, who shook his head. Christmas can definitely be a time of going a bit crazy with spending and giving. 

Don’t get me wrong. Gift giving is a wonderful thing. I just think that too often we do it for the wrong reasons—because it is expected, or we are guilted into it, or because we want to make a good impression on someone. And yet, as we are trying to have joy at Christmas and focus on Jesus, where exactly does buying a lot of stuff figure in? How can we give intentionally, joyfully? This is an important question to ask ourselves as we endeavor to enjoy our Christmases without going broke. 

*This month’s column is an excerpt from Marybeth’s ebook, A Recipe For Christmas Joy. To order your copy, go to www.proverbs31.org.

©2008, Marybeth Whalen

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