Penny For Your Thoughts: My Family Thinks I’m Cheap at Christmas

This post is part of our “Penny For Your Thoughts” column where readers can write into Penny with their dilemmas on money and relationships. If your question is chosen for the next Penny For Your Thoughts column, you will receive a $20 Amazon Gift Card. In addition, one commenter who offers the best advice will receive a $15 Amazon Gift Card.

baby christmas giftsDear Penny,

My family goes all out for Christmas – spending into the realm of ridiculousness. Sometimes it seems to be quantity, not quality, and it’s almost too overwhelming for the kids!

I provide the sole income for my household, and live very frugally (sometimes to a fault), especially at Christmas. My son is 18 months old, and within my limited budget, I chose not to buy a ton of clothes, toys, and books that we don’t need. I bought a couple of small, meaningful gifts (i.e. unique and frugal Christmas holiday gift ideas), and I felt that our Christmas at home was just right.

My family, on the other hand, has been outright intrusive with their questions about the material part of our celebration: “What did he get?”  “Was he excited for all his gifts?” “Where are you going to put everything?” After tactfully avoiding the direct questions for as long as possible, I finally told them my presentation of Christmas gifts and the mentality behind it. They were absolutely horrified – even going so far as to call me “cheap” and “inconsiderate!”

I know that their reactions are way out of line and have no basis in responsible reality, but what’s the best way to get them to move on? Ideally, I’d like them to adopt the same sensibilities about holiday gift giving as the ones that have worked for me…but am not sure where to go from here.

— Not A Grinch

Dear Not A Grinch,

It seems your family has bought into the idea, especially popular this time of year, that the only way to show someone you love them is to buy them things. Therefore, if you aren’t buying your son a pile of gifts taller than he is, you must be an awful parent. For a lot of people, it’s a pretty straight-line conclusion. But unless a gift-buyer neglects normal household purchases and bills in order to give, it’s not really about the money.

Unfortunately, the question you have asked (“How do I get them to change?”) is a classic one that cannot be answered. People can change only if they are willing to change, and a person with differing views will have a harder time convincing others when coming from a place of opposition. After all, you think they’re “way out of line,” but they think you are, too. Imagine the letter your mother might have written, “My poor grandson gets nothing for Christmas!”

The underlying issue isn’t about how much is spent, but rather it’s a head-on collision between value systems on how best to raise children, a touchy subject at the best of times. Both sides claim they know what is “right,” which really, is not something that can be quantified or solved. Your family most likely feels they raised you to act as they do, and they don’t understand why you’re taking up a position in the opposite camp.

In these situations, I think of the proverb, “There is no solution. Seek it lovingly.” There is no correct answer here. Just because your Christmas gifting is more financially responsible doesn’t mean you get all the points in this match.

However, since you are the parent and the choices are yours, there’s no need to either avoid questions or give them a speech. (This will be good practice for when your child gets older and you get to the, “Why? Why? Why?” stage.) Just answering calmly, “I’ve got a couple of interesting books and a couple of toys he’s going to love. He’s going to be so excited!” is going to go a long way. Neither side will convince the other, so answer the question in a basic and positive way. Change the subject when appropriate, and peacefully move on.

What might work better with your family is to present it in terms of what is best for your child and what he needs. For a kid that young, the first present he gets  is the most exciting thing that ever happened. Then, the second present is the most exciting thing that ever happened. After that, it’s pretty much playing with the boxes the first two came in until nap time. The nervous system of a small child gets overloaded easily. Your gift philosophy could just as easily be about keeping the celebration at a level he can understand, as it is about whether you feel it is appropriate to give him so many things.

If he still receives a ton of stuff from your family, I’d space it out over the year and let him open a present every now and then. As he gets older, you can use a “present-in-present-out” system where he can choose toys to give away when he gets a new one.

Ultimately, if the worst thing they can say about the way you raise your son is that you don’t buy him enough stuff, you’re doing a pretty good job as a parent. Just remember, everyone thinks they’re an expert on parenting, and everyone has an opinion. If you feel discouraged, think about how you are teaching your kid about money management. And hopefully, you’re giving him an even greater gift by saving for his 529 college fund rather than buying gifts he won’t remember.

Readers, a penny for your thoughts! How do you get out of having these round-and-round arguments with your family? What can our letter-writer do to stand her ground without causing hurt feelings?

Yours Truly,

Today’s letter-writer won a $20 Amazon gift card! Congratulations!

Do you have a question about relationships and money? Write to Penny [at] moneycrashers [dot] com and win a $20 Amazon Gift Card if your question gets chosen! And the commenter who leaves the best advice on this post will win a $15 Amazon Gift Card!

  • Debbie Williams

    Christmas and birthday’s are also about creating your own traditions. With small children, you can buy toys and games throughout the year at garage sales, Craig’s List, etc. and stash them away. As our children got older, we focused more on one or two meaningful gifts vs. a large pile of gifts. BUT the fun was in finding the gifts. An elaborate scavenger hunt that sent the kids all over the house, inside and out, was tons of fun and they remember hunting for the gifts and the silly clues more than the gifts. They were the envy of all their friends who mindlessly ripped though piles of gifts. I set aside $ out of every check and stick to a strict budget. NO January “regrets”! Other extended family options are to set a price limit and draw names, adults in one group, kids in another, to pare down on the mass gift giving. The bottom line is if you share your values with your kids, they will not feel deprived. Mine boys are college Freshmen now–paid for with pre-paid tuition bought when they were toddlers, and books and misc paid for with cash ($9K!) that has been piling up in a 529 account from our Fidelity MasterCard 529 rewards card. They should be able to graduate with no student loan debt hanging over their heads. There friends have student loans–the same ones whose parents spent lavishly on Christmas and elaborate birthday parties over the years. Keep your eye on the prize and you–and your family– will be the winner in the long run!

  • Jen D.

    This may seem a bit harsh but to shut them up at the get to – I’d say ‘Oh Please!’ ‘My kid doesn’t need MORE STUFF!’ That’s all it is – STUFF.

  • Stephanie

    Wow, that was tactless of your family…and I’m also wondering if you might be related to my inlaws!

    It’s up to you how you set your Christmas traditions. There really isn’t any right way. My parents do a “one big gift” and then a bunch of small useful or traditional things (like our annual ornaments or some camping gear). My husband’s family attempts to buy out the store, to their detriment. My niece is almost 2, and they overwhelmed her with presents this year. And my mother-in-law kept saying that I was getting more presents because I didn’t ask for anything big (because, you know, we’re not adults and we can’t handle someone getting more or less or whatever).

    There isn’t any way to change your family, but you can head them off at the pass by saying that your son really loved his presents, and then by figuring out a tradition so he doesn’t feel completely overwhelmed by sheer volume from your family. I say, keep doing what you’re doing, because your son sounds like he’s getting exactly what he wants and needs.

  • Audrey

    I also want to caution you that next year your family may want to make up for your “cheapness” and try and give your son tons of gifts. I think you should have a talk with them sometime before Thanksgiving this year and ask them to give a meaningful gift (one). If the feel like they want to give more, I agree with what Debbie said about contributing to an education fund. Talk about a gift that will last a lifetime!

  • Heather

    My mother was all about quantity. It wasn’t Christmas if there wasn’t tons and tons of stuff under the tree.

    However, she had very little regard for what we liked or asked for (even though she always asked for a Christmas list).

    I would have much preferred to receive one or two or three things that I loved than a pile of things that were OK.

    For example, for a while, I was really into Broadway shows, and I asked for the soundtracks to several of them. She bought me the “highlights from” albums instead because they’re cheaper and she could buy more of them (and because those are the only songs that she likes). I would have preferred to have only one show in its entirety than highlights from three shows.

    Why would you want to raise your son to be greedy anyway? Good for you for not falling into the Christmas trap :)

  • Heather D.

    Christmas, for all intents and purposes is a religious holiday. I would challenge you to look at your belief systems and decide how you would like to celebrate special dates on the calendar. One thing we did this year was to look at the Christian Custom “Epiphany” also known as the 12 days of Christmas. This extended our holiday, gave us more relaxing and fun time with our relatives and was fun for our children, because it was not just about 1 day of massive presents and overstimulation. For us, the wise men finding Jesus became a central part of our tradition, because it is such an amazing story.

    It takes courage to stand up to your values. It takes even more courage to figure out what those values really are, and It is a process. Once you know what you as a family stand for and what you want for yourself and children, it becomes easier over time to make changes. The first time is the most difficult. You put yourself out there and say: “Actually, this year we have decided to have a very low key holiday but will be having an open house on _______________.” We would love for you to come. Or; “We decided for this Christmas we are going away for a few days as a family to spend some time skiing. That is our gift to ourselves this Christmas.”

    It will not be easy to say these things with a straight face. But you DO have choices and you can CHOOSE what is right for your family. If you feel bad that you dont give as many presents as you get, Let it go for a couple of years and deal with the guilt. Give one meaningful gift from your heart and do it consistently. People will eventually realize that you have a different set of values and they will be embarrassed to go overbored.

    Follow your heart……

  • Melyssa

    Wow, and I thought I was the only one. I’m totally with Penny. I am trying to lower the standard of living in my home. Sure I could buy my son this and that, but I don’t. And people question that as if I was a bad mother. My son gets TONS of gifts from our relatives, so why add to the pile?

    Even before he opens his gifts I tell him that we need to get rid of some toys that he no longers plays with in order to make room for this new toys. Half the time kids don’t play with all those toys anyway. They have a favorite for a few months and then they move on. On the other hand, I don’t want him to spend all his time just playing with toys. I try to include family game night so we can all enjoy each other’s company instead of just enjoying things on our own.

    I think by now, my relatives know that I don’t buy presents. I would rather help out one family with groceries than buy useless gifts for 30+ people. Christmas and other holidays have been damaged by consumerism that I just don’t want to be a part of that. So we do things a little different at my house. And if they don’t like it, then they know where the door is.