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A Parent’s Guide to Holiday Shopping




Toys catalogs have come in the mail, in-store displays promote the season’s top sellers, and my kids’ wish lists are growing daily.  They’ve waited all year to give me their list of most wanted items, and now they’re hoping that I deliver. 

As I begin to shop with their lists in hand, I feel torn between the joy of gift-giving and the stress of buying everything on their list no matter the cost.  It’s a struggle that isn’t specific to me—58% of parents admit they spend more on the holidays than planned, according to T. Rowe Price’s Parents Kids and Money Survey.  Some even resort to payday loans or pulling from their emergency and retirement savings to cover gifts! 

All this has left me wondering—how do we balance our kids’ expectations, and our desire to meet them, with the need to stay within budget (or at least close to it)?  So I’ve got seven tips to help us parents navigate the holidays without a spending hangover. 

Set Realistic Expectations
No one wants to spoil the excitement of the season with lectures on budgeting or a hard reality check.  But it’s okay to talk to your kids and set realistic expectations. 

When they give you their wish list, take the time to review it and ask them to identify their top three choices.  This will provide you with a better understanding of what really matters to your kids—and a place to start shopping—while giving you an opportunity to introduce the idea that they might not get everything they ask for. 

You could also try discussing trade-offs.  For example, if they want larger ticket items, such as a laptop or tablet, they might not get as many of the smaller items on their list.   

Introduce New Gift-Giving Traditions
Get ahead of outrageously long wish lists by establishing gift-giving traditions with guardrails for everyone. 

For example, you could say that everyone gets a want, a need, a wear, and a read.  In addition to limiting the number of gifts you have to buy, this can help you and your family focus your dollars on buying what’s really important.  

You could also try introducing a Secret Santa exchange for your family.  Let your kids pick the name of a sibling or parent out of a hat, and then provide them with that person’s wish list, a budget, and a date to go shopping.  Your kids will have fun hunting for the perfect gifts while also getting a subtle lesson in managing a budget.  As an added bonus, the shopping trip doubles an as opportunity for you to spend quality time together and build memories. 

Split Their List
You’re usually not the only one shopping for your kids during the holiday season.  Have their lists ready when family and friends ask what they can get them. 

Splitting the list is a win for everyone involved—you don’t have to bust your budget trying to buy everything requested, your family and friends won’t have to guess what to buy, and your kids could get the majority of items asked for.  And when the gift-opening madness ends, you’ll hopefully end up with fewer items to return or exchange. 

Get Rid of the Old
Before you add new items to your home, take some time to purge what you already have—especially in your kids’ bedrooms and playrooms.  In addition to decluttering and making room for the gifts to come, you might actually be able to make yourself a little money.

Toys, clothing, and games that are lightly used and in good condition could be taken to a local consignment shop and swapped for cash.  That money could be used to help pay for gifts or saved for future needs as they come up.

You could also take this opportunity to teach your kids a valuable lesson in giving by donating their lightly used items to a local charity.  I even have a friend who has her kids fill a bag with toys they don’t play with anymore and leave it for Santa to take to others in need.           

Shop Online
T. Rowe Price’s Parents Kids and Money Survey found that parents who stick to their budgets shop mostly or exclusively online.

Shopping for gifts online can help to reduce or eliminate the impulse purchases we’re all guilty of when we’re shopping in stores.  It can also make it easier for you to comparison shop for the best deals and prices. 

Don’t Pull From Your Savings
We all want our kids to be happy, but we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our savings to make that happen. 

Before you pull money out of an emergency fund, consider how long it will take you to replenish your account and if you’d be able to cover unexpected expenses without the amount you’re planning on taking. 

If you’re toying with the idea of touching your retirement savings, remember that you’ll have to pay taxes and penalties on the cash you take while also missing out on time for your money to grow.  The short-term thrill of giving your kids extra gifts may not be worth the long-term loss.     

Plan for Next Year 
It’s never too early to start planning for next year.  Just think—if you’re able to set aside $50 every month, you’ll end up with $600 to use for gift-giving expenses next year. 

Find Your Perfect Way to Save

The most important thing—no matter how much you choose to spend and give—is enjoying the moments you have together. 


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