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Money Smart Kids

5 Ways to Keep Santa on a Budget

Follow these tips to keep holiday spending on your kids under control.


I just observed the first of my many holiday traditions: I e-mailed my adult children asking them to send me their Christmas lists. When they were younger, they wrote charming letters to Santa. Now that they’re older, e-mail is far less whimsical but much more efficient. And efficiency helps us all stay on task, eases holiday stress and keeps us from overspending (they ask me for a list, too).

SEE ALSO: Saying No to Your Kids

That ties nicely into another of my holiday traditions: my annual column on how to keep Santa on a budget . It’s tough to put a number on how much to spend on your kids or how many gifts to buy, because every family has its own gift-giving traditions. But you’ll know you’ve gone overboard if:

--You’re embarrassed to tell your friends how many presents you bought.

--You can’t find enough hiding places for all the gifts.


--You can’t remember where or what you hid.

--Your children get bored and wander away in the middle of opening presents.

Here are some guidelines on how to keep things from getting out of hand:

Set a limit. You might start with, say, six gifts per child -- three “big” ones and three small stocking stuffers -- and adjust that number up or down depending on how much you want to spend and how old your kids are. Three gifts may be too many for a toddler who can’t appreciate them or a teenager who’s getting an expensive laptop.


To parcel out gifts among eight children, one family I know limits the kids’ wish lists to three requests each. Mom and Dad fill in with inexpensive but popular goodies the kids don’t usually get, such as sweet cereal or snacks, and every once in a while they slip in something practical, such as a new toothbrush.

Give items you would have bought anyway, such as a new backpack for school, ice-skating lessons or a family outing to the circus. Wrap everything -- even if it’s a pair of socks. All gift-wrapped boxes are treasures to a kid; the boxes don’t have to be physically large, and the gifts inside don’t have to be expensive. Half the fun (or maybe even more than half) is tearing off the paper.

Neutralize overly generous relatives. If your children are swamped with gifts, quietly put some away to be opened by the kids on rainy days later in the year. Or set up college-savings funds for the children and ask family members to contribute in lieu of buying presents (see our picks for the best 529 college savings plans).

Try something different. Take the money you would have spent on presents and spend it on a family getaway or some other nontraditional gift. One year, parents who were planning a winter trip to Walt Disney World stuffed the tickets into their kids’ Christmas stockings along with guidebooks and other Disney paraphernalia. Planning the trip kept the kids happily occupied long after the post-holiday blahs might ordinarily have set in.


Give the gift of you. One of the best things you can give your kids is time spent together. Present them with a certificate that entitles them to an afternoon or evening of your undivided attention for an activity of their choosing.

In the end, the real test of a successful holiday isn’t the number of gifts you buy or how much they cost, but how well suited they are to your children and whether they have staying power. Once, when the power went out at our house during a hurricane, my son pulled out the board game Stratego -- a gift from several Christmases past -- to play by candlelight with his teenage friends. For a mom, that’s job satisfaction.