When you can't afford the Christmas that the kids expect

Too Much Christmas

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Daughter Expects Too Much Christmas

I have been living frugally for more than 9 years, but I now have a dilemma. I am earning a small amount of income and have more bills than I do income, but I have managed to keep my head above water. However, I have an 11-year-old daughter who no longer is into toys but likes expensive games, movies, and clothes. I've already told her that the older she gets, the less she'll get. How do I buy her Christmas gifts on very little income when I have less than a month and a half to pay for bills and get gifts? How do I make it look like more than it is?
P.F. in Livonia, MI

Limit at Three

I know of one family that limits their gifts to three per person. The reasoning is that this is how many gifts that Baby Jesus received from the Wise Men at his birth.
Kris W. in Gilbert, AZ

It's About the Spirit of Christmas

It is harder and harder to meet growing kids' expectations of the "perfect" Christmas. We also have a very limited budget, yet don't want to "deprive" our kids. Our solution is to get them involved in the whole process.

Ask them to list three items they would dearly love to get. Explain that you will choose one of them, within your budget. Now stick to it! As a parent, it is very hard to not give your kids everything they want.

You can also add inexpensive gifts of items they may need, like clothing, books, toiletries, special snacks and school items. I find books at thrift stores and electronic games at used video stores. These come with a 30-day guarantee.

It may be too late this year, but my holiday budgeting strategy will work for next year. Buy gifts all through the year, as you come across good sales or bargains. Put the gift away with a little note for which person on your list it is for. When December rolls around, you should have most of the list covered.

Remember that it is not the price of the gift, but the spirit in which it was given.
Shaunna P. in Fargo, ND

Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Everyone's circumstances are different, but here are some ideas for dealing with an 11-year-old's Christmas:

  1. Give time, not "stuff." Coupons for time with you are valuable; they can be for different things throughout the year for both free and low-cost activities (time at a park, bowling or skating using coupons, etc.). Have a birthday party for Jesus, complete with a cake that she bakes and frosts herself. Get movies and Christmas CDs from the library and listen/watch while you spend some time together making a batch of cookies or stringing popcorn for the tree (or the birds). Read some Christmas stories together.
  2. Your child still wants some "stuff" and chances are you aren't going to pick the correct clothes, so give her either cash or a gift certificate and let her pick what she wants herself. Cash will let her use the money at any store, including stores like Salvation Army or Goodwill, where she can stretch that money.
  3. If you have relatives that buy her gifts, perhaps they would also like to give gift certificates. If they all choose the same store, she can pool them to get the more expensive items she wants. Some families won't do this, but if yours will and is able to do so, five $20 gift certificates will give her some serious cash.
  4. If you qualify, you might want to sign up with a charitable organization to see if they can provide help with toys, food, presents, etc. I'm not sure how you would feel about doing that, but it's an option.
  5. If you think it would help, start putting "I'm blessed that" slips in basket during the month of December. These can be profound "we have each other" or as simple as "it snowed today (or didn't snow, depending on how you feel about it!)." Maybe they'll be silly like "I wore matching socks today and didn't get confused when I was getting dressed" (save that for a day when you're really struggling with why you're blessed!). Sometimes reflecting on what is good in your life helps with the stuff that isn't great.

Your child knows you are struggling financially and she will someday appreciate all that you do for her, but today probably isn't the day. She doesn't want to feel poor and telling her that others are worse off either financially or in their general family situation probably won't help much. She's 11 and she wants an expensive Christmas like some friends have, but please don't go into debt to give it to her. You'll pay for it far longer than she'll remember it! Give her time and some valuable, if hard, lessons in restraint and resisting temptation.

Finally, your attitude is also important. If she sees you moping, she's going to feel sorry for herself. Adopt a glass half full attitude and she'll pick up on it. Maybe Pollyanna is one of the movies you should watch together to help get that attitude!

Coordinate Gift Certificates with Relatives

One year we gave my daughter horse back riding lessons for Christmas. We wrapped a helmet and made a fancy certificate for her to open on Christmas morning, but we did not have to pay for the lessons until they started. This could defer some of the cost of Christmas without putting it on a credit card.

We have also bought things on eBay. We bought my son a video game system that wasn't the latest but still was popular on eBay for much lower than retail price. It also included five games that previously sold for up to $50 each. Kids will sell their games pretty cheap when they have "finished" a game, so check with neighborhood kids before investing in a new game for a game system.

This might also be a year you could whisper to relatives to please give cash or gift certificates for your daughter. If they coordinate the gift cards, your daughter could take the combined gifts to purchase a larger gift after Christmas. My son is trying to do this, as he wants a different game system. Relatives might be relieved to do this as kids are harder to buy for when they get older. They can even put a note in with the gift certificate that says "toward your new Ipod" that might make the gift more exciting when she opens it up.

Know Where to Shop

Try to shop at ebay.com, Half.com and Craig's List for your daughter's presents. I found almost perfect video games for my son from Half.com and saved 75%. Additionally, he never once balked at the "used" status since it meant more presents for him!
J. Brown in Yelm, WA

Create a Meaningful Christmas

After living frugally for most of her life, it's hard to believe that her daughter wouldn't understand that expensive gifts are not only unlikely, but also not the way her mother shows her she loves her. I recommend this reader go to the library and get the book Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli. It's full of ways to examine your Christmas traditions and create a holiday that is meaningful to your family. In the book, they ask a man they met from Mexico, who had been living in the U.S. for a while, how the American Christmas seemed to him, and he answered, sadly, "In Mexico, we had Christmas. In the United States, you just have presents." I'm afraid he's hit the nail on the head for most of us.

Gift-of-the-Month Club

Give envelopes with a "Gift a Month" in it and the envelopes are not to be opened until that month!

  • Enjoy dinner at your daughter's favorite fast food place.
  • Give a Jamba Juice certificate with a trip there to talk and enjoy a healthy drink.
  • Take a trip to the movie theater to see a cool new movie (check ahead to see when a good one is being released).
  • Visit the beauty parlor for a haircut and manicure together. Do this before her birthday month or other holiday month.
  • Shop for new clothes (with a gift certificate) the month before school starts.
  • Provide a picnic in her favorite park for her and three of her friends.
  • Go for a walk on the beach, collect seashells, and follow by a trip to soft ice cream place.

You get the idea. It would spread out the money part throughout the year, and teach her that it is not the cost of the gift, but the time a loved one spends with you that is important.

You could "wrap" each envelope in its own box (12 presents) for under the tree. Of course, you should have one gift for her for Christmas.
Sue in San Jose, CA

Living Better Tip: Simple Christmas Ideas to Beat the Bah Humbugs

Make a Movie Basket

You mentioned your daughter likes movies and here is an idea for making a single movie look like "more." You can purchase a previously viewed movie that your daughter wants and then dress it up in a movie basket. Line your basket with shredded colored comic papers from your newspaper, and add microwave popcorn, popcorn seasonings, a plastic or tin bowl for the popcorn, a mug with chocolate mixes, and some candy canes. A small tin containing cookies could also be added. You can make up the chocolate mixes, popcorn seasonings and the cookies. Check online for the recipes and the tags to go on them. If you don't want to spend the money on a basket, you may want to go with using only a large popcorn bowl as your base. The bowl and cups plus the wrap can be purchased at a dollar store, cutting down on the cost.

Be Motivated. Be Creative.

My daughter just turned 18, and it seems like I was in your shoes for the last 7 years! It's really important to set her expectations now because this situation only gets worse, and the older they get, the more expensive their taste gets. It also doesn't help that there are parents that give $500 + gifts when you're hoping to scrape together $100.

One thing that I learned is that my undivided attention and time spent with my daughter is something that always seems to mean a lot to her. One year I found a local high school production of the "The Nutcracker" and we got all dressed up and went to the performance like it was a Broadway opener! We worked together to make a luncheon of special treats for ourselves afterwards, and I pulled out my best china.

Once we did a "spa day" where we went to a local beauty school for services. You can really get creative if you try. My daughter is into basketball and swimming, so I tracked down gym and pool time at the local high school and we went together. She really liked that and we both got some exercise.

I think that one of the best gifts that you can give your daughter is to teach her the value of things, and that's really not easy. To help teach her how to get the most for her money, teach her how to comparison shop.

If you can establish the "one big gift" concept, your life will be so much easier, and it will help her learn to prioritize all the things that she wants.

One year my daughter wanted this one certain camera. I had heard about it all year! I tracked it down. A local drug store had it at a really good price on one of those 5am Day-After-Thanksgiving sales so I was able to swing it. I got the word out to the grandparents about what I was buying, so they could get some of the accessories as their gifts.

Living Better Tip: Making Frugality a Family Affair

The Teachable Moments

You have a wonderful opportunity to teach your daughter about getting value from her money. Instead of buying her the actual gift or gifts she wants, try giving her a certain amount of cash to spend as she likes. Be sure to wrap it inside a box so it looks festive, and you can always add a few small "stocking stuffer" gifts to give her something to open up and enjoy immediately.

Then, help her use that cash gift wisely. If she's into things like books, CDs, video games and DVDs, tell her that, yes, she could go to the mall and pay full price or she could look up the same items on Amazon.com and Half.com to find them at a far better price.

If she's a makeup diva, show her how drugstores often have half price or buy-one-get-one-free sales, and also encourage her to give cheaper brands a fair try (many drugstores offer refunds for makeup you're not happy with). But if she's a diehard fan of high-end department store brands, encourage her to at least seek out sales and promotional gifts with purchase.

Use the same type of ideas for any type of items she wants, from clothing to electronics. Help her see that with her money, she could buy one big, special item or several smaller things, and that she can have a whole lot more if she's a patient and smart shopper. Of course, another bonus for giving cash instead of pre-buying a gift is that she can shop those great after-Christmas sales

Think outside the box for creative and less expensive ways to get what she wants, including thrift shops, yard sales, Freecycle, and even buying from or trading with friends for items they don't use any longer. Consider other options like borrowing a book she'll likely only read once from the library, or renting that hot new video game from the video store to see if it's really worth buying.

Tell her that it's her money to spend as she wishes, but that you're there to offer guidance if she wants it (and to place any online orders). If she ends up taking your advice and gets a whole lot more for her money, she'll have learned a valuable lesson. And if she blows it all on a frivolous purchase, well, that was her choice, and she'll learn from that too.

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