As Christmas is fast upon us, I have been surprised to see many people discussing which very costly gifts are best to purchase for their children. As someone who has never spent that much money on a gift for any of my children, I am beginning to think perhaps I am a scrooge. But when I dig down into my reasoning for being what others might perceive as a cheapskate, I feel it is my duty to try and proselytize others to my form of thinking – rather than jump on the “keeping up with the latest and greatest” bandwagon. The following are some of my core reasons (in no particular order) for not spending oodles on my kids and are things I hope will at least cause others pause when considering whether a costly gift is in their kid’s future.
1) Financial stability/avoiding debt. I never have and never will purchase gifts with money I do not have. I will not ring up a gift for my child on a credit card that essentially puts our family into financial bondage for the next several months until it is paid off. Don’t get me wrong – I am not anti-credit card. I just advocate for never charging anything onto your card that you can’t pay off before it accrues interest – costing you much more than you originally thought you were going to pay for it. If I don’t have the money to pay for it, it doesn’t belong under my Christmas tree. Placing things under my tree that I can’t afford is a form of coveting, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that coveting is not good.
2) Emergency preparedness. In recent years we have seen many natural and man-made disasters tear through the lives of everyday people like ourselves. For those who share my belief in the teachings of the LDS church leaders, we have been told that “The revelation to produce and store food may be as essential to our temporal welfare today as boarding the ark was to the people in the days of Noah.” (Ezra Taft Benson). Until I feel my emergency food and supply storage is up to snuff, I cannot in good conscience spend large sums of money on items that cannot meet my family’s needs in times of trial. Is your supply sufficient to provide for your family for twelve months of the unexpected? A layoff? A debilitating accident that leaves you unable to support your family financially? A natural disaster? Maybe I sound apocalyptic, but there were many who rode out hurricane Sandy who said the main thing they needed access to in the immediate aftermath was edible food. The disaster was so terrible that it took weeks, and in some cases months, for some areas to have the roads cleared out and be made accessible. Perhaps you missed the news clips of individuals and families rummaging through dumpsters looking for food because the stores had either been destroyed or the shelves had been wiped clean and no delivery trucks were able to get through. I saw those clips and I will not soon forget them. I would hate to look at my starving kids in a scenario like that and say, “I’m sorry, but I felt it was more important that you thought I was a cool mom for getting you _____ so I didn’t have money left to plan for the unexpected.” I love my kids enough to say no to the pricey gifts and yes to planning and preparing for their protection, comfort, and ultimately their survival.
3) Emergency cash supply. In addition to having food and other supplies, most decent financial advisors say it is in your best interest to have 3-6 months’ worth of cash stored away - enough to cover all your fixed expenses in the event that something unexpected happened and you suddenly had no income. In today’s economy, a sudden layoff is not uncommon. You cannot foresee traffic accidents or other physical incidents that could result in sudden disability or predict serious health-related surprises. Before shelling out for the hottest cell phone, tablet, uber-pricey doll, etc., please ask yourself if such a purchase supersedes your family’s financial security. After all, luck does favor the prepared. If your emergency cash supply is not at the minimum 3 month recommendation, what on earth makes you feel that you are financially stable enough to be spending tons of money on gifts?
4) Charitable giving. I will begin the discussion of this topic with a quote from CS Lewis in Mere Christianity: ”I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare…If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us,… they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.” We are not charitable if we are simply tossing our scraps to those in need. Charitable giving means truly giving. How can someone who calls themselves a Christian feel that they are doing their part to follow the Savior if they are heaping the things of the world upon their children while neglecting to care for the needy, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.? Let’s say you buy some expensive toy or electronics or whatever the hot item is at the moment and average $271 per kid on Christmas morning (*apparently that is the average amount that was being spent per child in 2012 in the US, according to this. All I can say is that some people are spending insane amounts to balance out the fact that I probably spend less than $30 per kid for my family of 5, and my husband will be lucky if I spend that much on him – I’ll talk more about how I do this and still have an amazing Christmas later in this post). Ok, where was I? Oh yes, $271 per child – enough to feed a family of four for nearly two weeks on the “Thrifty” meal plan according to this. I would hope that at some point during the season of giving, everyone would pause and think of those who are truly in need. Can you in good conscience spend this kind of money on your kids while dropping only your spare coins into the charity bucket in front of the store? Let’s say you have 2 kids and are blowing just $100 on each one, do you feel like you still have room in your budget after spending that much for meaningful giving to someone who actually needs it? According to the American Research Group, the average adult shopper in each home surveyed is planning to spend $801 this Christmas. How much of that is going toward something more than spoiling already well-provided-for youth? You want to get into the spirit of Christmas? Give. And give in a way that makes a difference – by giving to someone who actually needs. Now don’t go patting yourself on the back for being charitable just because you pay your tithing. Tithing is really paying off a debt to God for granting us all the blessings that we have. If God didn’t see our tithing as a payback for what we received by his hand, why would he say that holding back our tithes is robbing him (see Malachi 3:8-10)? So, excluding tithing, how charitable have you been –really? I cannot in good conscience purchase my kids more stuff they don’t actually need until I have done my duty to share of my abundance with people who have real needs. Not sure where to find someone in need? Ask the principal at your child’s school if there is a family you can “adopt” for the holidays. Talk to your ecclesiastical leader – guaranteed they know someone in need and can probably make suggestions as to what would best meet their needs. Perhaps a coworker was recently laid off and could use a surprise package for their family. Really listen as you interact with people and be observant. Often needs are expressed in subtle ways during every day conversations or are visible if you are really paying attention. For example: I had the opportunity to spend last year’s Thanksgiving with family members who live in another state. One morning I needed something out of my parents’ room and tried to slip in quietly since my dad works nights and sleeps during the day. I noticed that his window coverings did very little to block out the light and invited my siblings to go in on a gift of black-out curtains for my dad. It was an opportunity to give something that helps his quality of life, but I never would have thought of it if I hadn’t been observant on that occasion. That same Thanksgiving weekend I also was able to visit my brother at his home and saw him go to his garage where he worked as a mechanic. He was wearing thread-bare sweats over his clothes and appeared to be freezing in the 28 degree weather, but said he did not want to get his good winter coat covered in grease. I took mental note of the need to make his work more comfortable during the long cold winter months and got online to find lined coveralls rated for cold weather. When I discovered they would be over $150 for a good pair, I again invited my other siblings to go in on the gift with me – which they were all happy to do. Another opportunity to give a gift that mattered, and to share that gift giving experience with my siblings, because of being observant. Now these two examples are of family gifting, but the idea of observing holds true for charitable opportunities as well. And, as a last little thought on this topic: It may sound strange, but we have generally spent more on giving to people outside our family than on gifts for our own kids. We have almost always done our charitable giving anonymously (whenever possible), which adds to the excitement and brings a sense of Christmas magic to whomever we have helped.
5) The meaning of Christmas. Somewhere along the way, the actual meaning of this day has been minimized (and to some, completely lost). Please, someone, explain to me why the birth of the Savior means kids somehow need or deserve expensive gifts. If we buy into that, we are not truly honoring what this day is supposed to mean. Christ was born to be our exemplar and Savior. He taught us how to live – with love towards God and towards our neighbor (meaning all mankind). He asked us to follow him. He spent his time visiting the sick, lonely, poor, blind, maimed, feeding the multitudes (both physically and spiritually), etc. He says that if we love him, we are to feed his sheep and walk in his way. Want to teach your kids the true meaning of Christmas and really feel the spirit of the holiday? Take them to visit an elderly home-bound person. Your ecclesiastical leader could probably name at least a dozen lonely hearts that would welcome some Christmas cheer. Take your kids to a food bank and volunteer. Find a church that is serving meals to the homeless and take your kids to volunteer to help serve or wait tables. Go to the cancer ward or pediatric ward of your local hospital and visit, sing songs, tell stories, and show love to people who won’t be sitting around the Christmas tree in their own house this year. It will do a lot of good for our kids to see that there are people out there with much more pressing struggles than they have ever had to deal with. If you and your kids are animal lovers, go to an animal shelter and volunteer to walk dogs and help in whatever ways are needed. Maybe you’ll even find a pet to adopt as an early Christmas present for your kids (and for the pet that is saved from an unpleasant, but likely fate). If your kids are too young to be allowed to serve in some of those more official volunteer opportunities, select a name off your school’s giving tree and involve your kids in making an amazing Christmas package for the individual or family you selected. Pick a family you suspect is going through hard times and have your kids be “spies” as they are playing with the kids from that family to listen for and take note of specific needs you can meet. Then take your kids shopping for that family and have them help you ding-dong-ditch a package for them. Perhaps you learn they have outstanding medical bills that are a stress. Rather than buying your teen another Apple product, tell them the situation and ask them if they think their upgraded smart phone is more important than helping someone in need. Your kids will surprise you with their capacity for empathy, if you give them opportunities to develop it. Maybe what is needed is a service, rather than items. If you have the skills, help mend a fence or broken vehicle – and take your kid along to help. Offer to babysit for free for a stressed or overworked parent and have your kid help. Make a meal together with your kid and deliver it to someone who has been ill or recently had a baby or other significant event in their life. If you know someone who doesn’t drive or is having car trouble, offer your services as chauffer for a day to help them get some errands and holiday shopping done…and bring your kid along to help or have them babysit while you provide the transportation. As mentioned in the last section – people in need are not hard to find if you take a look around and ask. One of my own best memories of Christmas is from my early teen years. My mom took my siblings and I downtown to a warehouse where a local news station was organizing toys for their annual foster kid toy drive. Mounds of wrapped packages were organized by gender and age (such as girl gifts – ages 5-7, boy gifts – ages 14-16, etc). We were given an “order form” listing the gender and ages of foster kids in a particular home and we got to run to the respective mound and compile gifts into a box for that home. Things were very tight financially for my own family at the time, but this was a way to get into the spirit of Christmas that didn’t cost our family anything but our time. We volunteered to help with that program a couple years in a row, and I still remember it and the amazing way I felt knowing I had helped make Christmas a little more cheerful for kids in foster care. There really are so very many ways to serve and bless others, if we are willing to take the time to discover them.
6) Kids need our time and attention WAY more than they need the fancy toys we toss at them. Seriously, there is no better gift you can give your kid than the gift of yourself. If you want to really give your child something meaningful, give a gift that guarantees together-time. What kind of gifts do I mean? Tickets for just you and your child to something they are interested in. Perhaps a children’s museum, musical theater, ballet, concert, etc. Give them a package with all the materials and tools needed to complete a project together AND days and hours marked off on your calendar for when you will work together to get it done. Sign up for a class you can do together where you both are learning something new (photography, cake making, dance, art, electrical engineering,…whatever) and let them unwrap the syllabus or receipt from the purchase or a funny picture clue as to what the gift is. Plan a day trip for just the two of you and let your kid unwrap the itinerary. Maybe you’ll go on a hike, bike ride, scavenger hunt through the city (some city’s visitor center websites offer scavenger hunts), swimming, site seeing, ice skating, bowling, or to an old-school arcade. It will mean a lot that you have taken the time to plan and make arrangements for such an excursion. In the end what really matters is that kids get the message that they are important to us. No matter what the commercials have you believing, this is NEVER measured by the size of the price tag on the gifts we give our kids. (Veruka Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a perfect example of that!) Our nonverbal communication provides 80% of the message others receive (thank you, Speech 205, for that tidbit), so the only way our kids are truly going to believe the message that they matter is if we SHOW them with our time. Think outside the box. Yes, it takes more effort and time and requires actually paying attention to what ways our children would enjoy spending their time, but that effort and time send the message that your kid is worth more than a lump of money and a quick trip to the mall. I really try not to buy something for my kids just for the sake of buying something – even if they really want it. I have tried to develop a habit of asking myself if the gift in question gives something of myself and will facilitate further interaction and quality time between the two of us. If not, then it is definitely not worth hundreds of dollars.
To those who are thinking my kids are going to be empty-handed and miserable on Christmas day, I will share what gifts are in the works for them. There are basically only three gifts total for my three kids. First, my husband and I found a few Disney movies on sale at Costco for about $14 each. Since our kids only watch 1 movie every other week or so, this is a pretty special gift. (*Maybe I’ll get around to writing another post all about limited screen time and try to convert people to my thinking on that topic as well – some other time) Second, my kids are pretty obsessed with the movie How to Train Your Dragon. My husband and I made their Halloween costumes and they dressed up as Astrid, Hiccup, and Toothless the dragon (I promise this is relevant). When making the Toothless costume, we found a pattern online to make a large plush Toothless doll and converted parts of the plush into the costume for our littlest guy. We kept the original pattern and instructions and bought enough material to make both the costume and the actual plush. We spent about $30 for the fabric and stuffing we will use on the plush, which is way cuter than the official Toothless plush you could buy in the stores at one time, though I’m not sure they are even available anymore. The finished project will be about 3 feet long from nose to tail, and we are pretty sure there will be some stoked kids on Christmas morning. Lastly, a couple years ago I made “table forts” for my nephews similar to this. My kids have been asking me to make them one as well, but I have been dragging my feet because our table is oval-shaped, making the project a bit more complicated than the simple rectangle-shaped table forts I made previously. This year I bought a king size flat sheet at a thrift store for $5 and will make them their fort. After sewing it all together, I will cut the windows with pinking shears and ask my artistic sister to decorate the thing with my colorful sharpie markers. The kids will probably spend the rest of Christmas day in their fort once they have opened all their gifts (our few, as well as those from extended family) and we will play in there with them, giving them our full time and attention. In total, we will be spending about $90 on our three kids, once we factor in a couple small stocking stuffers. (*Thought - perhaps one of the reasons that they will be thrilled with their gifts and not feel deprived stems back to our very limited screen time – including almost no access to television commercials, so they don’t get all hyped up about whatever item is being marketed to kids at the moment. I’ll have to muse on this thought further when I get around to that other post.) I am looking forward to hearing the ultra-happy giggles on Christmas morning as my kids enjoy gifts that my husband and I put time, thought, and effort into, more so than simply swiping our credit card. In addition to these gifts, we will be spending the Christmas season involving our children in service and charitable giving – teaching them the true meaning of this season. I encourage and invite everyone who happens upon these words to do the same.
Merry Christmas and God bless.
*This is my personal blog that I have almost exclusively used as a family journal of sorts, and therefore encourage readers to respect my space and avoid posting rude comments. You are welcome to disagree with me, but please link to your own space in the comments if you wish to rant or be harsh in response to my post. I will remove impolite or crude comments simply because I want this blog to be a safe place where my kids can come to read about our family’s experiences.