There’s something special about watching your children’s surprise and joy on Christmas morning when they discover that Santa has left them gifts under the tree. If you’re the sort of person who pays attention to small details, you’ve likely added to the magical moment by drinking some of the milk and nibbling on the cookies that were left out the night before.
As parents, we go out of our way to make the holidays special for our children. We do so because we remember how special our parents made it for us, or because we want to give our kids more than what we had. But many of us let Santa go overboard on Christmas — and I think it’s unnecessary. Before you call me the Grinch or Scrooge, hear me out. Especially during the holidays, learn why you shouldn’t spoil your kids.
Money Isn't the Point of Santa
Forty-five percent of parents surveyed by T. Rowe Price in 2018 said they try to get everything on their kids’ holiday wish lists no matter how much it costs. And nearly half said they never stick to their holiday spending budget.
Santa likely plays a big role in all this overspending. As any parent knows, even if you tell your kids that they can’t get everything they want for Christmas, they’ll likely respond with, “Well, then I’ll ask Santa.”
That line of reasoning doesn’t work in my house, though, because I don’t let Santa spoil my kids.
I Don't Want to Blow My Budget
I understand why parents would want to spoil their kids at Christmas. However, that joy you get from watching them open their gifts will quickly be replaced by remorse for blowing your budget. The T. Rowe Price survey found that 59 percent of parents feel that they spend more over the holidays than they should. Some even tap their retirement accounts or emergency funds or take out payday loans to cover holiday spending.
It's Important to Think of the Future, Too
So, I tell myself that as fun as it would be to give my kids everything they want, I don’t want to jeopardize our family’s financial security to do so. If I overspend during the holidays, I’ll have less money to pay for activities that they enjoy during the year. I might not have enough cash on hand to cover an emergency — and emergencies are bound to crop up when you have kids. I’ll have less to put in savings for their college education and less to stash in my retirement account. I certainly don’t want to rely on my kids someday to help me cover costs in retirement because I didn’t save enough.
I know you’re thinking that Christmas is just once a year, so blowing your budget won’t hurt your finances that much. But, if you set the precedent when your kids are little that Santa gives them whatever they want, you’ll be blowing your budget every year.
How I Keep Santa on a Budget
I avoid blowing my budget by keeping Santa on one. From the time my kids grasped the concept that they could ask Santa for gifts, I let them know that he wouldn’t buy them everything on their wish lists. In fact, I’ve always told them to expect just one or two items from the man in red.
Then, they get only a couple more items from Mom and Dad — plus a few stocking stuffers — because we don’t go overboard, either.
Tell Them You're Starting a New Tradition
If your children are used to getting everything they want but you don’t want to overspend this year, tell them that you’re starting a new tradition. They can ask for four gifts: something they need, something they want, something to wear and something to read. This gift-giving strategy used by many parents can help cap the amount you spend by limiting the number of gifts that your kids receive.
Also, prevent your kids from feeling like they need to have all the latest toys and gadgets by tossing retailers’ catalogs and advertising circulars before your children see them and start asking for everything inside. They won’t ask for what they don’t know exists.
I Don't Want My Kids to Feel Entitled
A big reason why I don’t let Santa spoil my kids is that I don’t want them growing up thinking that they can always get everything they want. If there’s anything I’ve learned as a personal finance journalist who has interviewed numerous money experts over the years, it’s that kids will not learn to be responsible with money if they feel entitled.
If the sky is the limit during the holidays, that can easily become the norm year-round, because your kids will quickly learn that they get what they ask for. Spoiling your kids in childhood could lead to them counting on you for handouts as adults.
So, I tell myself that it’s okay to say “no” to my kids — even during the holidays. And, because they don’t get everything they ask for, they appreciate what they do get more.
How I Keep Santa From Letting My Kids Feel Entitled
In addition to letting my kids know that Santa won’t get them everything they ask for, I have conversations with my kids about the items on their lists. I ask them whether they’re requesting certain items because they really want them or because their friends have them. Or, maybe they’re asking for things they’re not really interested in because they feel like they have to add things to their lists.
The latter tends to be more common in my house — especially with my oldest daughter. When I’ve asked her what gifts she wants, she has said she didn’t have anything in mind but would try to think of something. I’ve told her that if she doesn’t really want anything, she should consider giving a gift to a child in need instead.
It’s important to point out to your children that the holidays are about giving, and that they should think about what they can give to others — not just what they want Santa (or Mom and Dad) to give to them.
I Want the Holidays to Be About Memories, Not Gifts
So, you spend a lot of money on gifts from Santa to create a magical moment on Christmas morning. But years from now, how many of those gifts will your kids actually remember receiving? I can count on one hand the number of Christmas gifts I remember Santa bringing when I was a child — and one of those wasn’t even a gift I received. It was a big stuffed unicorn that I was jealous my little sister got, even though I didn’t even like unicorns (and somehow it was passed on to my kids and is collecting dust in a storage room in my garage).
My best holiday memories don’t revolve around the gifts I got — they’re about the time I spent with my family. I remember decorating Christmas cookies every year with my younger sister. I remember caroling with my aunts, uncles and cousins one Christmas — perhaps because the adults had a few too many cups of eggnog and thought that serenading the neighbors was a good idea. I remember my family hosting an annual brunch and inviting my dad’s bachelor brother over, so he wouldn’t have to spend Christmas morning alone.
I want my children to have the same sort of holiday memories. They’ll forget the gifts Santa brought, so there’s no need to put a lot of money into them. Instead, I’m better off investing time in having fun with my family.
How Santa Can Create Memories
To avoid overspending on stuff that will be forgotten in a few days, consider telling your kids to ask Santa for something fun they’d like to do as a family. Maybe they could ask for tickets to a sporting event, a day at the amusement park, an evening at the ice skating rink or a coupon they can give to Mom and Dad to spend a day with them doing an activity of their choice.
You could forgo gifts altogether and use your holiday budget to take a family vacation instead. Give the kids some trip suggestions, and then tell them to agree on the one they want and ask Santa for it. Santa could even leave a printout of the hotel reservation or plane tickets under the tree. And you could print out and wrap a list of the fun things you’ll do on the trip — courtesy of Mom and Dad.
Christmas Is More Than Just Gifts
The key is to make Christmas less about the gifts and more about the memories. This will help you avoid blowing your budget, racking up debt and hurting your finances. It will help prevent the kids from becoming spoiled. And, hopefully, it will help your family create shared experiences that you’ll be talking about for years to come.
Click to find out why you should have a special fund for Christmas gifts.
More on Saving Money During the Holidays
- 48% of Americans Make This Costly Mistake When Holiday Shopping — Do You?
- Your Complete Price-Matching Guide: Target, Walmart, Best Buy and More
- Holiday Tipping Etiquette — Here’s What You Need to Know
- Watch: Treating Finances Like a Game Will Help Get You Rich
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Grace Lin contributed to the reporting for this article.