Make holiday gifts count, without going broke

Healthy finances - November 2005


Susan Beacham

To me, it feels like holiday gift purchasing is a yearlong pursuit. Just before the kids started school, my parents, the kids and I spent the day in Oak Brook helping Grandma and Grandpa shed a few hundred dollars on November and December birthday presents and the girls’ holiday gifts. It was a beautiful day outside, and we should have been soaking up the "free" fun of fall. But, alas, we were shopping in anticipation of the holidays.

The problem with this "early" shopping technique is that everyone, including me, finds themselves in December adding to the presents that were already bought and stored earlier in the year. That is how holidays get downright scary.

The marketing professionals are sharpening their tools and messages right now, and slowly, ever so slowly, we are going to feel the pull of those messages. Case in point: I received my first holiday mail-order catalogue in August.

So, how do we avoid overspending during the holidays? After all, we are good people. We do not mean to do anything but make our friends and family feel loved and remembered. Here are some ideas to help you both limit spending and find an alternative to filling your kids’ closets with more things.

Set written rules for holiday spending

• Establish a per-person limit within the family. Set it at whatever is appropriate for your household budget—be it $10, $20 or $100—and stick to it.

•  Make a game out of refusing to pay retail price for anything. Focus your attention on the sales and discounts offered during the season.

•  Purchase gifts all year long (finding the good deals) and keep a detailed list so you don’t forget what you’ve already bought.

•  Consider not giving gifts to adult siblings and in-laws and focus your budget on their kids—your nieces and nephews—instead.

Give experiences—not things

Another option is to skip buying things altogether and instead focus your time and money on making family memories.

"I think all of us are drowning in ‘stuff,’ " says Susan Beck, marketing director at the office where I work and the mom of two college-age kids. "Witness the growth of storage lockers. It’s just another place to keep stuff. If I were to advise parents of young children, I would advise them to give their kids experiences that would promote learning, family together time and growth, and great memories instead of more toys."

Beck suggests parents create a coupon book with an activity for every month. Not only will you be doing things with your family, your kids will have something to look forward to each month, Beck says.

One month it might be a trip to a special museum event. Another month it might be a short out-of-town trip to see something special, such as the Amish community in Indiana, or a visit to see a special relative. If you can afford it, another month you might see a kid-friendly Broadway show, such as the "Lion King." In the summer, you could take an overnight trip to the Milwaukee Circus Parade or a day trip to a local water park.

The activities don’t have to be expensive, either. You could take your child to his favorite ice cream parlor for dessert, or take the family to the zoo for the day. And if you plan ahead, you can take advantage of museum free days and other special deals.

The list goes on and on, and reading Chicago Parent and Going Places magazines offers even more possibilities.

Once you have your coupon book ideas, Beck suggests creating 12 little packages to go along with them—"little hands need something to open," she says. Perhaps a little toy lion, a baseball, an American Girl accessory, a video of Grandma saying she can’t wait to see Johnny—the possibilities are endless.

This means Mom and Dad need to put on their thinking caps and get creative, but the payoff will be worth it. And what fun to put something like this together.

And it’s not just for kids, either. One year I did something like this for my husband, Michael. He loves planes, so I arranged a trip—without the kids—to Seattle to tour the Boeing plant. We still talk about that trip. We used frequent flyer miles for the plane tickets, found a special weekend hotel rate and were gone for two great days. An adult field trip. Cost: nominal, because of the miles. Impact: priceless.

So, this holiday season, gather around the family table, set the rules and write them down. Everyone signs and no surprises in January. You will find that giving opportunities to create family memories beats traditional store-bought gifts any day.

Susan Beacham is the founder and CEO of Money Savvy Generation, a financial education company that provides innovative products and services to help parents and educators teach children the skills of basic personal finance,  E-mail her at [email protected]


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