My husband and I have two kids, ages three and five. Every Christmas my parents shower them with so many expensive gifts that we are thinking of renting a storage locker. My husband and I are doing OK financially, but we are teachers, and we can’t hope to match this spending. The real issue is a philosophical one. I appreciate my parents’ generosity, but we want Christmas to be simple. We want our kids to get a few carefully chosen gifts instead of a blizzard of plastic gizmos and tech toys. Last year I tried to talk to my parents about this, and my mom said she got it, but at the last minute she bought a bunch of over-the-top gifts. What can I do to get my parents to stick to a modest budget without coming off as a Grinch?
First off: You’re not alone. I’ve talked to lots of parents who are surprised—and frankly, a little annoyed—that their parents are so extravagant with the grandkids when their own childhood Christmases (or whatever holiday you celebrate) were more low key. Often, Grandma and Grandpa are living out the holiday fantasy that they couldn’t give their own kids back when money was tighter. Moreover, they’ve forgotten that the holidays should be about cultivating gratitude and family bonds, not materialism. After all, they’re not raising their grandkids, so they might not be focused on this kind of messaging, and—maybe more important—they don’t have to take home that remote-controlled fire truck with a siren loud enough to make the neighbors’ dogs howl.
Or perhaps lavish Christmases are a family tradition, and your parents get indignant at the suggestion that things be done differently, taking it as a criticism of the way they brought you up. You say your mom initially agreed to the limits, but then compulsively busted them. To me that indicates that she may have feelings of fear or anxiety tied up with gift-giving.
Whatever the reasons for your parents’ excess, if you want Christmas to be different this year, you have to talk to them and address the problem head on, or nothing will change. Your resentment will grow. And you really will have to rent that storage locker. Here are five tips for having this delicate but important conversation.
1. Get on the same page with your spouse. This is superimportant. He needs to support you. And he needs to ask his own parents to follow the same rules. Presenting a united front to all family members—no matter whose blood relation they are—is crucial.
2. Have the talk early. Any time you want to change a family money pattern—and especially around holidays, which involve so much sentimentally driven spending—the earlier you tackle the topic, the better. You don’t want to give your parents time to zero in on the “perfect” $150 gift before you speak up.
3. Make it about values, not just cost. If money is tight, by all means, say so: “Since my boss cut back my hours, our Christmas budget is $50 a child. I’d appreciate it if you and Dad could stick to the same budget.” The challenge, though, with making your request only about what’s affordable is that your parents may see no reason to honor the same spending limit. Instead, emphasize what you want to teach your kids: “It’s important to us that our kids learn to appreciate what they have. Remember that stuffed mouse you gave me when I was seven? I took it everywhere with me. I’d like my kids to experience that sense of a having a few special toys, too. That is why we want to limit the gifts they get for the holidays.”
4. Get your kids to buy in. “Kids can be very pragmatic, and honest communication about gift-giving works,” said Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook and the forthcoming book No More Mean Girls. She notes that it’s adults who tend to get caught up in price tags. “When you explain to your kids that you’re setting a budget of $15 per gift this year so it’s time to get creative and think of inexpensive gifts that will bring happiness to their cousins, for example, kids tend to rise to the challenge,” Hurley added. If you bring your kids along for a holiday shopping trip, give them only cash to spend. With no “just in case” credit card backing them up, they’ll have to make tough choices.
5. Emphasize experiences. It could help your parents to let go of budget-busting fantasies if everyone focuses on a family outing, like a day at the zoo. If your parents want to get everyone’s ticket and pick up lunch, why not? Letting your parents know that your kids would really like to see the visiting pandas gives them an outlet for their generosity that doesn’t involve Toys R Us.
If, in spite of the groundwork you’ve laid, your mother runs out on Christmas Eve and raids every store in the mall, play it cool. I recommend waiting until after the holiday to discuss the issue, rather than confronting your parents around the tree. “Take a deep breath; this about them, not you,” Hurley said. Whenever you do have the conversation, she said, “The best thing you can do is remain calm and remind your relative about your concerns. ‘I shared my financial constraints with you with the hope that we could spend a little less this year while still having fun as a family, but I see that you went over budget. In the future, I would appreciate it if we can come to clear terms and stick to them,’ is an honest but calm way to approach the problem.”