'Focus on what's special about the season,' and other holiday gifting lessons financial experts teach their kids


During the holidays, 45% of parents say they try to get everything on their kids' lists, no matter how much it costs, according to T. Rowe Price's 2018 Parents, Kids & Money Survey, which sampled 1,013 parents of 8-to-14-year-olds.

Parents, take note: You're not Scrooge if you can't or simply don't want to check everything off your child's holiday wish list. Yet tempering expectations and resisting adorable but extravagant gifts you may not have budgeted for is easier said than done — especially when it comes to your kids.

"With social media and 24/7 access to the internet, there's a lot of pressure," says Marguerita Cheng, a certified financial planner and the CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Here are five tips from financial and etiquette experts on how to give to your kids this holiday season while teaching them lessons about gratitude and sharing.

1. Take time to figure out what gifts your kid really wants

Tess Zigo, a certified financial planner and partner at Emerge Wealth Strategies in Lisle, Illinois, suggests that before you purchase new toys, you help your child prioritize what they want.

"Do an inventory of their toys [together], and have them count, so they become aware" of what they already have, says Zigo. When she took inventory with her 4-year-old son, they counted at least 30 toy cars. Then Zigo followed up the task with a question to her son: "Do you really need more cars?"

From there, Zigo helped her son identify items he didn't have but wants, such as drawing tools. She gave him options for possible gifts, letting him know he could only ask Santa for one item.

That toy inventory helps smooth the gift limit. "He is OK with this trade-off — Santa will only get him one small toy — because he doesn't need more toys, he has lots," she says.

To make sure the gift you do buy is actually what your kid wants, another strategy is to wait before you make a purchase, and listen for repeated requests, says Peggy Doviak, certified financial planner and owner of D.M. Wealth Management in Norman, Oklahoma. "The longevity helps ensure that the gift is really what the child wants. It also keeps the parents from purchasing extra unneeded and unwanted items trying to be sure that the holiday gift is a success," she says.

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2. Focus on the magic of the season, not material goods

Instead of gifts, "focus on what's special about the season: the lights, the decorations, the activities," says Cheng.

As a parent, time is your most valuable resource, agrees Sarah L. Carlson, certified financial planner and the founder of Fulcrum Financial Group in Spokane, Washington. "Give your children the gift of your undivided attention. Put away technology, turn off your phones, and focus on having an experience together," she says.

Handmade gifts or art projects you can do together go a long way, adds Cheng. Giving a handwritten note, making decorations, or cooking special foods are all inexpensive ways to connect with your child. "There are things that you can do that don't cost a lot that are incredibly meaningful."

Granted, even some holiday activities can get pricey. So Cheng suggests setting limits ahead of time. "Maybe you say to yourself, 'I'm going to take them to see Santa, and I'm going to pay for the photo, but maybe I might not do the lunch or breakfast with Santa.'"

Give your children the gift of your undivided attention. Put away technology, turn off your phones, and focus on having an experience together.
Sarah L. Carlson
certified financial planner and founder of Fulcrum Financial Group

3. Celebrate the 'season of sharing'

Use the holidays as an opportunity to give back in order to shift focus from receiving gifts to sharing them, says Cheng.

To teach lessons about sharing, find an activity that's age-appropriate and relevant. When her three children were young, Cheng says she had them help put together "blessing baskets," that included baby food jars, diapers, and other essentials for families in need around Thanksgiving. When her kids got older, they gathered toiletries, hats, and socks to donate to homeless individuals.

"It's the season of giving, but it's actually the season of sharing, and that's something that kids can really understand," says Cheng. "It doesn't mean we're Scrooge. If we are more fortunate, we can use that as an opportunity for sharing."

Another strategy is devoting a day to "random acts of kindness" over winter break, which Patti B. Black, certified financial planner and partner at Bridgeworth LLC in Birmingham, Alabama, has used with her 17-year-old twins. "We've delivered doughnuts to the fire station and to the library, handed out flowers at a retirement community, and taped change to drink machines," says Black. "During a season when kids focus so much on what they're getting, I want to show them the joy involved in giving."

It's the season of giving, but it's actually the season of sharing, and that's something that kids can really understand.
Marguerita Cheng
certified financial planner and CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth

4. Set clear expectations as a family

If you don't want the gifts to pile up from extended family members, the best thing to do is "be very direct in terms of what your beliefs are," says etiquette expert Elaine Swann.

"Ask your family members to partner with you in instilling these values in your children, so it doesn't come across that you are ordering them to do something, but that you're partnering them," she adds.

If family members ignore your requests for limited or no gifts, you can use the "trick or treat" affect, says Swann. Just as you might filter through your child's Halloween candy, you can take inventory of their gifts, giving some to charity, or saving them to give later as a reward for meeting milestones throughout the year.

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5. Express gratitude

You can teach your kids to value their holiday haul by having them write thank you cards to everyone who gives them a gift.

"It's a skill that should be taught now, so as they grow, [they can] do it throughout the year," says Swann. "It's very simple, you just make sure the child says thank you, and what they'll do with the gift." For example, they can write, "Thank you for the Xbox. I enjoy playing it with my friends."

If kids are too young to write their own cards, you can still practice gratitude. Have them draw a picture, turn the thank you note into an arts and crafts project, or take a picture of the child with the gift with a "thank you" written on it to send to the giver, suggests Swann.

Ultimately, says Cheng, your kids will remember what they felt and experienced during the holidays, not what they received.

"I remember when I was 5 years old in New York, and my dad took me to this bakery, because you know New York bakeries are the best," says Cheng. "Someone asked me what I liked about the season, and I remember I said, 'I love how it's so magical.'"

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