Help a Reader — Ideas for Lowering Kids’ Gift Expectations When Money is Tight

by Katy on November 1, 2012 · 61 comments

The day after Halloween has replaced the day after Thanksgiving as the official start to the holiday shopping season. Sad, but true.

However, just because we’re into the holiday season, doesn’t mean we’re obligated to head to the mall and open a vein.

Non-Consumer Advocate reader Penny recently asked this question on our Facebook Group: 

“We are living on one income this year, like so many. Can I please have some ideas on how to make my 17 and 10 year olds not feel deprived this Christmas when it comes to gifts. My ideas are so lame.”

I’m glad Peggy brought this question to light, as I doubt there are many of us who aren’t trying to figure out how to give our kids a great holiday without breaking the bank.

I’ve always thought that buying for older kids is at once both harder and easier than for little kids. Babies could care less about gift giving, toddlers are happy with hand-me-downs presented as gifts, school age kids are flexible and teens have the ability to see the big picture.

However, teens are also prone to wild mood swings from sweet to insane, so you just never know.

Here’s what I would suggest to Penny:

  • Look around the house to see if you have unused stuff to sell. Remember, crap out, money in!
  • If you’re wanting to give a big ticket item, ask family members if they’d be interested in chipping in. Better to get the one gift you want rather than a bunch of small stuff you don’t.
  • Make or craft a gift by hand. One Non-Consumer Advocate reader responded by writing that she was sewing a quilt for her daughter made from her meaningful old T-shirts.
  • And most importantly, have an honest conversation with the kids about your money situation. They might be less gift-centric than you think. They might even be a source for some great holiday ideas!

Now you, what ideas do you have for Penny? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary November 1, 2012 at 8:56 am

When I was in high school, my mother instituted a policy of handmade or second hand gifts only to be exchanged among immediate family members. After a week of grumbling, we got really into it.


Sarah November 1, 2012 at 9:20 am

I’m not there yet with teens, but I do have several young adult nieces. You could get a gift certificate to Savers (Value Village in Canada) or a local consigment store. Shop with your teen on the after holidays 50% off sales.

They can pick out wonderful, name brand clothes for themselves at a fraction of the price. Personally, I guide many people to my favorite consigment shop and my husband usually gifts me with a Savers certificate.


paula November 1, 2012 at 9:30 am

Gift Cards!! You can save these up all year long for the purpose of giving them at Christmas. I don’t use Swagbucks, but many of the blogs I follow suggest redeaming points to purchase gift cards. Some restaurants offer a free $5 when you purchase $20 in cards. Buy the $20 for the Office Gift exchange, and keep the $5 to be combined with other gift cards for the kids! Be Creative in finding these Gift Card deals.


Sister X November 1, 2012 at 9:31 am

As a former (reformed?) toy and gift crazy child, I would suggest that emphasizing family traditions, and togetherness, is the most important part of the holiday season. For me, it was right around the age of 12 when I realized that what I loved most about Christmas was simply having all of my family together. For Penny’s family, with a 17-year-old, there will almost certainly be big changes next year and you might not get to spend as much quality family time. Explain the financial situation (at those ages they should be mature enough to be somewhat understanding, especially the older child) then come up with some cheap activities to do as a family–have a cookie baking day and deliver some of the treats to friends and neighbors, watch favorite holiday movies while drinking hot chocolate or mulled cider, things like that. Those are the things your kids will remember and cherish.
Also, you can follow the four gift rule: something they need, something they want, something they’ll wear, something they’ll read.


Courtney November 1, 2012 at 9:36 am

We are cutting back this year. Partly that from July until later this month (when rent from our old house starts coming in) we have had two house payments. Also, just because of the ridiculousness that the holidays have become. I saw on a blog that I follow they use a policy of something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. That is what we are going with this year. It’s so hard being a parent and being bombarded with everything revolving around Christmas and the constant “I want, I want” from our kids. I feel like this will establish a good guideline for buying. Plus if the kids know ahead of time they will hopefully put some more thought into what the REALLY want. I am sure our generous families are going to go overboard as usual. I do my best to limit that but at some point I just have to throw my hands up and let it be.

Last year my husband wanted some cookbooks for Christmas. My sister couldn’t find them in any stores but eventually came across them at a used bookstore. She gave him a whole stack of exactly what he was hoping for. She apologized because they were used!!! I had to laugh at her.

I knit and I will make a couple Christmas gifts. But it doesn’t save me any money. Decent yarn is very expensive and it takes hours to make one thing. I do it for people who will appreciate it and because I enjoy it.


Elaine in Ark November 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I’m one of those people who love handmade gifts! Especially if someone says that they thought of me while they were making it.

I did counted cross-stitch embroidery until I developed arthritis in my thumb joints and wrists. I would give anything to be able to stitch again!


Trisha November 2, 2012 at 8:09 am

Courtney, I too saw the “4 things” idea on Pinterest! We will be adopting this for our kids this year. They get so much from their aunts/uncles and grandparents. We are trying to instill giving rather than receiving this year. 🙂


Beth November 1, 2012 at 9:45 am

I’m going to follow the four gift rule for my toddler this year. I want to spoil him, but at the same time, I don’t want to go overboard because our income is low right now. Our dilema now is to figure out how to tactfully request that the extended family stop giving him plastic crap made in China. Yuck!

As Sister X said, family traditions and togetherness are really what matter most and bring lasting memories. My favorite Christmas time memories are when we all loaded into the car and drove around looking at Christmas lights. Of course, gas was much cheaper back then!


Renee CA November 1, 2012 at 9:48 am

Eons ago, when my kids were teenagers, they did not like getting several small gifts that they really did not want, realizing that if all the money spent on those gifts were put together they could have gotten something they really did want or could use. My mother-in-law hated giving money because she felt it wasn’t personal and the kids would just spend it carelessly. One year I did ask grandparents if they would contribute to a stereo/boom box for one son as we couldn’t afford the whole thing, so they did give money and he was so happy to be able to get what he really wanted.


Carolyn November 1, 2012 at 10:13 am

Perhaps the family can focus on doing inexpensive activities during the holiday season. For example, my town has a free outdoor ice rink. An old acquaintance of mine talked about how his family would serve food at a shelter during the holidays. See what the kids are interested in.

Of course, as an organizer, I love Katy’s stuff out, money in approach. If you have more time than money, you can make some fast cash on eBay, Craig’s list or selling to consignment shops.


kris November 1, 2012 at 10:15 am

It always seemed to be feast or famine at my house with the holidays ~ we’ll have a couple of really great years financially, then some bad ones. One year I just had to explain to them the situation and told them what the limit was and they would have to let me know what they wanted based on that figure. (Luckily 3 of them have a birthday right around the holidays so if they have a big ticket thing they want I tell them I’ll hold their Christmas $$ from their grandmother & they can combine it with their birthday $$ so they can purchase it.

The most important thing is that once we did that, regardless of how well our financial situation was, we stick to that figure year after year. That way we avoid the whole ‘but last year I got something that cost ___, why can’t I get something that cost that this year?’ syndrome.

I certainly think a 17 year old is old enough to understand and I’m pretty sure the 10 year old would be too.


Raven November 1, 2012 at 10:16 am

I think talking with them is the most important thing, and letting it be known that lowering Christmas expectations is part and parcel of the rest of your life. My siblings and I never had high expectations because we watched Mom & Dad the rest of the year struggle to keep the heat on and food on the table–we knew we weren’t getting Power Wheels or a Barbie Dream Castle. We still adored Christmas, recycled decorations, homemade cocoa, and all. My folks did the “lots of smaller presents” approach usually, and included things in our stockings like candy and inexpensive lipgloss. Between opening 12 packages and pouring out our stockings, Christmas always felt abundant.


Kailey November 1, 2012 at 10:29 am

Make your own personal coupon book for things they aren’t usually allowed to do or eat or whatever that they can use whenever they want.
It will give them soemthing to say at school because the real sting will come after Xmas when everyone starts asking, “what did you get?” That’s what they need to be prepared for.
I think what was mentioned before about having an honest conversation about the money situation is a must but there should be some emphasis on getting them to see the big picture. If they aren’t on board ask them what they got last year for xmas. Chances are they won’t remember everything, which is a good jumping off point to start a converstion about “crap” and how it’s not important and not worth the money, time or stress. Flow into why they should appreciate the baking sessions, the homemade gifts and visiting with family. That way when they go back to school they can talk with real enthusiasm about not just xmas morning but the entire holiday and experiences they had. They will have more entertaining stories then merely listing crappy filler gifts.


Alice November 1, 2012 at 11:13 am

I think this is great – both in how to illustrate that the bonanza of past years isn’t something that they’ve necessarily valued, and in strategizing for how to deal with the school side of things.

If they’re resistant to the downsizing, the only additional piece I’d throw in is asking them to strategize with you – if they really want 1 big present that’s outside of the budget, maybe they’ll save up their $$ for the next couple of months so that they bridge the gap, and still get The Thing wrapped up under the tree. They might also be able to shed light on what traditions they’ve really enjoyed, so you can focus your time and $ there. Anything that gives them some decision-making power can help them be more invested in whatever route you take.


alexandra November 2, 2012 at 4:57 am

Alice and Kailey, your responses were both Very well said! Thanks for posting. I got a lot out of both of your thoughts.


Jen November 1, 2012 at 10:38 am

You could try giving gifts that linger throughout the year. One year, we did a “Book of the Month Club” for our daughter. Basically, we just went out once a month and bought a book that we thought she would like, wrapped it and stuck a number on it (1-12). We could spend what we could each month and she got a gift that extended throughout the year.

With older kids, you could do books, or music, or movie tickets.


Katy November 1, 2012 at 10:53 am

Great idea!



ledith November 1, 2012 at 11:00 am

I think talking to them about the financial realities will help enormously. I LOVE the one book a month for a year concept, as it makes it more affordable for the parents and keeps reminding the child all year long about Christmas giving. How clever, I wish I had done that with my kids. We did something similar in the food vein—both kids like work intensive foods (Indian and Chinese). We gave them each a coupon book with 12 coupons for their favorite meal. It had to be turned in three days before they wanted the meal, just to give me time to shop, but they seemed to really like that. One year the son asked if he could instead invite over 11 friends for one big Indian meal, as he had been talking about Indian food and none of them had tasted it. It was wonderful for me to watch him joking and interacting with 11 teeenaged boys and girls, all eating heaps of food I’d prepared. It has been several years now and he has said more than once that it was one of the best gifts he has even received.


claudia November 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm

That is just lovely. Thank you for posting.


Pollyanna November 1, 2012 at 11:21 am

I’d definitely talk to them (they are probably already in tune with the economic situation), and find out what item is really important to them, then try to work towards that. Around that, you add the experience type items (family togetherness, an activitym, an inexpensive treat with friends), add some Goodwill or thrift items (books, and maybe you’d be lucky enough to find a great clothing item), and add the coupon/future item(s) as suggested, add any extended family gift/contributions…it will hopefully all come together and be awesome! Here’s a wild hair idea — Maybe even something like stock in a favorite company — Coca Cola? Disney? Harley Davidson? Facebook? !! They could then watch the stock market and gain a whole new financial insight into investing!!


Linda in Indiana November 1, 2012 at 11:38 am

I, too, suggest being honest with them. Ask them what is most important and if you can not afford it, you can not afford it. Then tell them what is realistic. This may sound harsh, but it is something that is much better learned at home than going bankrupt as an adult because you were not taught limitations. Then work together to lay out a plan on how to have the best Christmas ever. What do you all like to do together that is inexpensive? Plan to do that. What about cooking and baking together? Can you barter with others and maybe get a used widget that your child wants in exchange for something they would really like to have? What about Craigslist or ebay or Freecycle? You might be surprised how close you all grow during this special season. I wish you the best.


Claire November 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm

My grandparents often gave their grandchildren family heirloom-type gifts, which cost them nothing! Nothing they gave us was of great monetary value (only sentimental value), but we loved the gifts they picked for us. This tradition started when we were around 10 and were old enough to appreciate their meaning. My grandmother once gave me a greeting card that had been passed down through 4 generations of women. My brother was given a vintage pocket watch my grandfather got as a child. Both were accompanied by hand-written notes giving the story about how they acquired these items, why they’ve saved them all these years, and why they wanted us to have them.

This type of gift completely depends on what you already have, what you’re willing to give up, and if you think your kids will like it or able take care of it. Maybe you’ve got some old jewelry or watches, vintage clothes, funky artwork, etc. that your kids could use or display in their rooms. Be creative! It’s a great way to actually put those old family keepsake or sentimental items to use (why stash them away in the attic anyway?), while giving meaningful gifts to the next generation.


Superdaisy November 1, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Wow, what a beautiful tradition! I hope your family has continued the storytelling.


John Benton November 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Our family has always been creative. My wife is a florist and very artsy. We were able during some good times to accumulate tools for my workshop and a small electric kiln and potters wheel. One year later I lost my job and had to live on my wife’s income. My son, ten years old at the time drew a crude snowman. We traced the design to a pine board and I cut it out with my band saw. We affixed it to a base and painted it to look old. My wife showed it to the owners of the flower shop she worked at and the owners ordered a dozen of them. My wife made all kinds of stuff out of ceramics with Christmas themes. My son was old enough to cut out the snowmen with my band saw. I created all kinds of wood working projects. We worked together in the evenings and on weekends while listening to seasonal music. Our objective was to accumulate a lot of stuff to sell at a holiday bazaar in Pendleton Oregon over the Thanksgiving weekend. We sold out. The money afforded us the trip which was a little mini vacation staying in a nice motel with a swimming pool. We also had enough profit to purchase the computer that my son wanted for Christmas. To this day my son relates this was the best time he ever had during the holidays.


Katy November 1, 2012 at 12:57 pm

That is a wonderful story, thank you so much for sharing!



greenstrivings November 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm

These are wonderful ideas and stories. I hope to use some of these gift ideas with my own children. I just wanted to add that when I was 10, I was on the receiving end of the “money is tight and we won’t have many Christmas presents this year” talk, and I wasn’t traumatized or even upset– I think my response was, “Okay.” We still celebrated, had family over, had a nice meal, got dressed up and used the nice china; it was Christmas. So what if stocking presents were toothpaste, socks, school supplies, and a candy bar? They were presents! We were unwrapping stuff and eating coffee cake! What I remember is not what, exactly, I got, but things like, that was the year that one grandmother forgot to put tags on the presents, so she’d squint at them and say, “that’s for your father”, and he opened it and exclaimed gamefully, “new mittens! and they’re pink!” and she said, “no, no, it was for [female relative aged 8]!” Much hilarity, and we all ended up, more or less, with the right gift.

Sorry for the rambling. The take-away is, I think, that the holiday is about the experience, not the stuff.


Erica November 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I believe, at their ages, she should talk to them directly about what is happening.

Last year, no one in my family had money for gifts. Instead, we poured our extra cash into an overwhelming dinner, dug out some old board games and watched Holiday movies.

There were a few gifts exchanged, but nothing exciting.

This year, money is still tight for most everyone. I purchased some fun little trinkets on clearance last year and will be handing them out as “prizes” as we win games. They are things people will use, and they’ll get to pick which one they want. Stuff like, bath salts, body wash, lip balm, cozy socks, etc.


tna November 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I don’t remember any specific gifts I received as a child. I do remember the traditions we had. The night we trimmed the tree we made homemade donuts with various toppings and hot spiced cider served in copper mugs(tinsel fights yeah). Christmas morning there were booby traps set all over the house so we couldn’t sneak into the room with the tree and see our presents. Of course, as children, our mission was to get past all the traps and be found innocently sitting on the couch by the tree when our parents woke up in the morning. My favorite trap was the jingle bell spider webbed doorway that we had to work as a team to take down and not wake anyone up.
Stuff is just stuff, but good times are awesome.


Sister X November 2, 2012 at 9:39 am

That is an AMAZING idea! I love it! My husband’s parents have always (and still) made the big Christmas gift into a scavenger hunt. Last year was my first year joining the tradition. There were no limits to where they took us! After the first four clues my husband and I realized that our gift was the same, and it ended up being down the hill at Grandma’s house. We had to throw coats on over our pajamas, boots on our feet. It was hilarious and fun, and I know that Christmas tradition stands out in my husband’s mind as one of the best things his parents ever did for him and his brother.


Libby Gontarz November 1, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Make it all about shared special experiences that say Christmas. Scour the newspapers and city info websites about upcoming free or low-cost events, performances, parades, etc. Make it a point to go to midnight mass at a nearby Catholic church that does the cool stuff–carols, dance, incense, manger scene, etc. Even if you’re not Catholic (or even Christian), it’s a great special occasion treat. Invite friends over for a hot chocolate, popcorn, tree-decorating party. Let the teen help you make the list of fun things to do for the younger sibling. My husband and I learned that no matter how many gifts we gave, the last comment was always, “Is that all there is?” So we decided less was enough. And you know what–it was! Make it about doing and being. By the way, serving someone else during the Christmas season is a great way to feel the wonderful warm fuzzies inside.


Lois November 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm

I set a dollar amount and let my boys know what it was. I asked them to tell me what they really wanted and if I didn’t have enough I suggested to family to contribute a little towards it so my sons could then buy what they wanted after the holidays. I think it’s important to start young. I was the oldest child in my family so I reminded my boys each year that it wasn’t about the presents, it was about having everyone together as my siblings weren’t working yet and couldn’t afford presents. It worked and my kids were happy with what they got, even later as teens. One way I saved money was to cut out buying Christmas cards. You read them and then toss them, it’s too much money to be tossed out. If I wanted to say something I wrote a short note with the present, it meant much more than any store bought card.


Constance November 1, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I grew up poor. There was never any question about our financial situation, but my mom and dad, though they were divorced, each talked to us straightforwardly about the situation. I think this made all the difference in the world. We just didn’t expect much, though it did mean a lot to not get token stuff, but a good pair of shoes or whatever it was that we really needed plus a stocking every year with chocolate. My mom taught me how to thrift. My grandmother taught me about compound interest. And my dad wrote me songs and made killer rice and bean burritos with homemade salsa. These are the things I remember at age 46. My parents told me the truth and taught me the value of money and being thrifty. I am totally debt free, own my house (on a teacher’s salary) and getting ready to semi-retire to England with my hub. I’d say that was a pretty good cumulative Christmas gift! My advice is teach your children how to be thrifty.


crystal f. November 1, 2012 at 4:49 pm

I get a magazine subscription for my teens ( and in laws and hubby) , Redbox has online certificates you can buy and my kids pick out 1 a week.
Books at a thirft store are good, journals and nice pens at the Dollar store or a craft box filled with supplies from there.
Also one year I had them pick out an activity they wanted to do with 1 friend and it had to be under $40 ( for activity and food) picked bowling, one picked a drive in movie with KFC ( coupons used for both) and one picked a sleepover using our Netflix and bought a bunch of junk food to eat all night.


Shannon November 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Get in line now to order holiday movies or new releases from your local library! My kids love movie days with popcorn and cocoa, especially when we have a little free time at home. Another fun thing might be to check out local free things…in our town we have a historical village that opens for free around the holidays which is so fun. Also there are a lot of free concerts around town, like at churches. We also like to go on winter hikes. Basically we have had good luck with explaining the financial need, and personal desire, to scale back the stuff, and spend more to doing things together. Sometimes we can even get the kids in on it and have them generate ideas. I think it bonds us as a family when we present it that way. Much better than just saying no, we can’t afford it.


Superdaisy November 1, 2012 at 6:34 pm

I grew up lower middle class–and every few years my dad would be on strike for most of the fall–and knew that most years my parents couldn’t give me fancy gifts like my friends got. My mom always opted for the honest discussion route, being clear about how we were spending our money that Christmas, and emphasizing that our vacation was to be considered the big Christmas gift for the whole family. She tried to give us little special inexpensive things that were either practical (socks, craft supplies) or shiny (chocolate, barrettes) so that we would have a number of gifts to open even if nothing was actually pricy. But I guess my sister and I were low-maintenance kids: we liked books, doll clothes (even homemade), and Sculpey.


Amanda November 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm

We had a discussion with our 8, 6, and 2.5 year old (ok, we left her out, she’s clueless about the expectations of Christmas anyway!) We explained how they had a ton of toys and many children aren’t as fortunate. They offered to have Santa give their allotment of gifts to those children. The hardest part was telling my in-laws who spoil them rotten!! It was like I slapped her in the face when I limited it to 1 gift/kid and none for us. I told them only handmade items. Pinterest is a great resource for ideas!


HeatherS November 2, 2012 at 2:04 am

I agree with those who said that you should discuss your situation with the kids ahead of time. My 12 year son has been talking about wanting a specific item that cost almost $300! This is actually very unusual for him as he never requests something this expensive. As much as I would like to buy it (Lego Mindstorms – robotic Lego set) and see the education value in it, it’s just not happening on a normal year and this year is tighter than normal. I checked around for cheaper prices and when I realized that it could not be done, I let him know that it was just not in the budget. He was a little disappointed but understood. We discussed options like him paying for half and that would be his Christmas/birthday gift but after I pointed out that the one gift would be all he was getting and the Christmas morning surprise factor would be ruined, he decided against it. I would rather he be a little disappointed now than on Christmas morning.


anexactinglife November 2, 2012 at 4:57 am

HeatherS, I like your example because teens often do ask for expensive things like video game systems and cell phones. Even if parents scrimp and save for them, they still have to deal with the games needed – and the cell phone contract – talk about gifts that keep on taking! I think Lego Mindstorms is great but not at a household level – it would be a great thing for a school to fundraise for!


Stephanie November 2, 2012 at 3:50 am

My husband was laid off yesterday and there are many good suggestions here. I am not looking forward to the discussion with the moody 11 year old (his big gift for the past few years has been a three day ski pass and that is just not possible right now)but the two little ones will be thrilled with the pajamas and books we already got them for the holidays. I shop year round and all three kids are getting fleece pajamas, books and a few little things because we already have them. Thrift stores, book sales and Craigslist are great- most of their gifts are secondhand but look brand new/still have tags. We spend a lot of time with family and friends during the holidays and that is important, doesn’t take a lot of money and builds memories.


Katy November 2, 2012 at 5:49 am

Just laid off yesterday? I’m very sorry to hear that.



Jen November 2, 2012 at 9:18 am

I’m also really sorry to hear that. Eleven is a hard time to understand these things (my daughter is 11 going on 16). Do you think that family members would contribute to a 1-day ski pass? Sometimes when there are things that one of us (me, husband, kids) would like, but are outside the normal budget, our parents contribute a little. The burden of expense is spread out and the (grand)parents are happy to give something they know will be used and appreciated.

Also, I think some ski places (in the northeast at least) discount certain days or times of days…just a thought I’m sure you’ve already considered.

It sounds like you’re already thinking creatively and positively. It’s the memories that matter, right?


stephanie November 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Normally we would suggest that but the extended family is paying for preschool for at least a few months and we are not willing to ask for extras. If it is closer to the holidays and they ask what the 11 year old would like then we will mention a ski day.


Bonnie November 2, 2012 at 5:45 am

Every few years I make each of my kids a photo album with pictures of themselves throughout the year and their friends, pets and events. I don’t scrapbook, but that would be a good idea too. I just buy a $1 little album that holds about 25 pictures and I print out a bunch and put them in chronoligically or by category. They always love these and they cost me next to nothing. They keep them by their beds and still look through them years later. I don’t know any other gift that they still look at or go back to after several years; so I think this one is a hit.


Shanda November 2, 2012 at 8:02 am

I have three young daughters (2, 4, and 6) who have very low expectations which is great since we have two mortgages and pay cuts to cope with. We don’t watch television so they don’t even know what to ask for. What they do ask for is very generic, like baby doll clothes. Because of that, I’m able to find good deals and sales. They also love handmade presents. My 6 year old actually prefers handmade because she says the time and effort someone put in the present make it worth more than anything from a store. We always try to make some of their presents from leftovers we have at home or scavanged materials. The reason I can get away with all this is because I’ve always had age appropriate financial discussions with my children letting them know what was a realistic expectation and what was unreasonable, greedy, or wasteful. They’ve also been taught the value of time and handmade. It has gotten me into sticky situations a few times when they tell their (spoiled) cousins what they think about having five American Girl dolls and wanting a sixth. Children understand more than we give them credit for. Be honest and open and figuring out what they really want from a holiday goes a long way. Each year, every member of my family chooses the one thing they want to do the most during the holiday season. My oldest daughter always chooses looking at lights. My husband always chooses making cookies. The others change each year. We focus on the season, on family, on time together, on traditions, on the Advent, and on the handmade. When you get your children on board, the season is is joyous and they never notice the lack of “stuff.” They remember the cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning and the happiness of being together. There will always be hard questions after they’ve talked with other children and realize that other children in their class got an iPad for Christmas and they got a set of blocks to share with their sisters but we just continue our truthful discussions and remind them of the fun they did have.


Katy November 2, 2012 at 8:09 am

It’s so much easier to appreciate the special things in life when you’re not overwhelmed with stuff. And yes, when you have a situation of “five American Girl dolls and wanting a sixth.” they do just become stuff.



Jo@simplybeingmum November 2, 2012 at 8:49 am

Not directly related to broaching the subject with children but I wanted to comment about expectations.
I can’t really comment on the US and other countries, but in the UK the economic situation seems to be reigning in a lot of people’s spend generally, even if they themselves aren’t directly affected by pay cuts etc… We live in uncertain times and a subconscious tightening of belts seems to be occuring. As a reluctant consumer myself for a few years now, it’s been interesting to experience no longer feeling awkward when saying ‘we’re reducing spend this Christmas’. It’s also been easy to suggest to others to cut back on what they gift us, without it sounding as though I’m the Grinch!
It may be we are moving toward a different time, where expectations are lower and there is more appreciation for the simpler things in life. I can hope anyway!


patti November 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm

When I quit working my son was age 10. I told him that we would have a much smaller Christmas than we had had and you know what? He was happier with that than when he was inundated with gifts. After that, he would give us reasonable gift ideas (say in the $20 range) and we would usually add something more that he totally didn’t know about which would thrill him. We also added more family activities (since I had more time) like riding around looking at the lights, doing hot chocolate and stove top popcorn, baking cookies, etc. We also stayed overnight with some homeless families at our church which showed him what a “small” Christmas was really all about. Now that he is in college, we are even more frugal because we are trying to pay for that but I still have found ideas to make his Christmas special. I am knitting him a pair of wool socks and have found a craft to make him: a board cut out of plywood with eight sides, covered with felt, decoupaged with playing cards. He can set it on a table and play poker or other card games. (from the book “The Big Ass Book of Crafts”by Mark Montano). There are some other crafts in there that boys would like such as duct tape furniture. Sorry about the title, but a really great book!! : ) I know you will find a way to make this Christmas as special and meaningful as all the others and maybe even more so!!


Trish November 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm

I have a question too, please. How do I endure Christmas this year, when last week my husband told me he no longer loves me and I am moving out tomorrow to go live with my daughter in her 1 bedroom apartment? I am taking only boxes, leaving all my furniture as there is no room in her place. She is in college right now, and I have been unemployed for 1 1/2 years. I am 55. I don’t have a car, and now I have to try to find a job in November! I feel like my world has collapsed, and have no Christmas spirit at all. How do I find it again?


Katy November 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Concentrate on your life one day at a time, and don’t let yourself give even one thought to Christmas.

I am very sorry to hear that your life is so difficult right now.



Trish November 3, 2012 at 3:32 am

Thank you. Sorry for unloading on your wonderful blog. I read you every day that you post. Yours is the only one I have kept up with, it is so real. I know I will get through Christmas, it’s just that it was my best time of year, and now, who knows? I guess it is true that life is always changing.


greenstrivings November 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm

I am so sorry for what you’re going through. I’d like to encourage you to consult a lawyer about what your husband’s obligations may be in terms of spousal support. Depending on where you live, I don’t think he can actually throw you out of your home. Did you co-sign the mortgage or lease? Do you jointly own a checking or savings account? I know it’s hard, maybe even seems impossible, to think about these things now, but please, protect yourself. I’m thinking of you and hoping you get through this all right.


Trish November 5, 2012 at 4:26 am

Thank you so much for your kindness. We were living in an apartment, and he was paying the rent, and I could not afford it, so the one to leave was me. We did not have joint accounts, which is probably better, as I have some CDs in IRAs and my daughter is the beneficiary, not him. I am sure I will survive, but the heartbreak is killing me. My first marriage ended at 17 years when my 36 yr old husband left 36 year old me for a woman who was 18. It took 9 years for me to try again, and I have been with this man for 15 years, and it happens again. I am 55, alone, and all I ever wanted was to be loved, like my 82 year old mother, who is in her 61st year of marriage to my wonderful Dad. What happened to my generation, that we lost all respect for marriage? I am a throwaway wife, and cannot do anything about it. Divorce is too easy, no one wants to work at a relationship anymore. I was raised for a world that no longer exists. I just have to learn to be alone and adapt. I am sure many others are worse off than I, and I need to think of them, but right now, it is difficult. I have never written so publicly about my pain, I apologize to all who think I am just a pity party. I am trying, but baby steps are all I can manage right now. You are all very kind and I thank you.

Lisa Thompson November 12, 2012 at 9:13 am

This would devastating no matter what time of year, but I can see where it is especially hard now. Try to take comfort in the fact that you have a daughter who loves you and is supporting you in your time of need. Try to enjoy the non-monetary aspects of Christmas – holiday specials on TV, Christmas carols, perhaps your city/town has a downtown tree lighting or other free festivities, etc. Best of luck to you in your job search.


Trish November 12, 2012 at 9:26 am

Thank you for your kindness. Unfortunately, things got worse this week, as my daughter is going to join the USAF, and is giving up her apartment, and I can’t stay as I cannot afford the rent, so I have to find somewhere to go. Then Sunday, my Mother collapsed at church, and she is in the hospital, we don’t know yet if it was another heart attack. If she dies now, I don’t know if I will make it. They say you are never given more than you can handle, but my plate is full right now. I am praying for the strength to hold on.


Katy November 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

Trish, I am so sorry to hear how difficult your life is at this moment. Please know that you are loved, and that life will get better.



Amanda @ The Scacchi House November 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm

My husband and I have decided that gifts will NEVER be the focus in our home. We have a one-year-old daughter and we want her to grow up this way. Our rule is that she will get one gift from us (her big gift) and a small gift from Santa. We can decide as a couple to give one gift to each other if our budget allows. We may also allow our daughter to give us a small gift when she understands the concept of giving. I grew up in a household where Christmas was ALL about the gifts. We want to spend our money and energy on experiences as a family. It’s the memories that last a lifetime, not the stuff.


claudia November 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm

I love that phrase, “improving our focus” and plan to use it! Thank you!


Bethany@OurSoCalledLife November 4, 2012 at 4:29 am

We focus on the fun, rather than on the stuff. Our gathering centers around a White Elephant auction, where Grandpa’s wig and a hideous sculpture called “The Swamp” make annual appearances. Somebody always puts a Nerf gun or marshmallow shooter in everyone’s stockings, so an all-out war must follow. We keep the meals simple but stay up late playing cards. It’s complete craziness, and we don’t feel like we’re “doing without” by not having lots of gifts. Instead, we’ve just improved our focus.


Diane C November 4, 2012 at 9:48 am

So sorry to hear about your situation. Sad as it is, in this world, there is also always someone who is worse off. Find those people and do what you can to bring them cheer. It will help you more, believe me. One example would be to walk to a convalescent hospital and ask to meet someone who never has visitors. If you are tongue-tied, bring a magazine such as Guideposts or Reader’s Digest and offer to read to them. It will cost you nothing but time and the return on your investment will be priceless. Best of luck to you.


Katy November 4, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Because of privacy laws, you have to know the name of a hospital patient before being admitted.



Chelsea November 8, 2012 at 9:36 am

I saw this idea on and thought it might help. The author says she likes to space out gift opening:

“Henry opened one gift on Christmas Day and when we returned home he opened one gift, or set of of gifts, once a day (he ended up with three days of gift opening).

I can imagine this makes each gift higher impact and reduces the need for quantity. Also, three days of opening presents!


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