How to manage kids gift expectations and limit spending this Christmas

BE CLEAR: Setting expectations with kids around gifts is hard, but it can be done.
BE CLEAR: Setting expectations with kids around gifts is hard, but it can be done.

There is no doubt that 2020 has presented Australians with many challenges and most of us are experiencing some degree of financial uncertainty. We started the year with devastating bush fires and then COVID-19 hit and it won't be disappearing any time soon.

For many Australian families, Christmas in 2020 will be a source of great stress as parents who have lost their jobs or had to reduce hours try to ensure their kids still have a magical holiday.

No parent wants to disappoint their child at Christmas. We all understand that children shouldn't be spoiled and we cringe when we are presented with a long list of items for Santa to bring.

We have unfortunately created a generation of children who expect toys and treats all the time. There are so many cheap gifts available that it becomes easy and affordable to pick up a little something each time you visit the shops.

Children will visit the zoo and ask to have a toy from the gift shop. When I was a child raised by my single working mother, a trip to the zoo might have happened once a year and the trip itself was the treat. No ice creams or gift shop purchases.

Facebook groups are flooded with desperate parents trading and buying coveted fad items from supermarkets to complete their collector set on behalf of their child. We want them to have everything they want and we have lost sight of what is important.

Rather than having a few treasured toys or books, children have mountains of disposable, cheap, plastic stuff that is played with a couple of times and then forgotten.

Figures from the Christmas period in 2019 show the average Australian family spent $969. Alarmingly, 5.4 million Australians relied on credit to fund this spending.

So, can parents give their children a magical Christmas while not having to go into debt? Can we lower and manage our children's expectations this Christmas?

The short answer is, yes.

There are lots of ways to provide a magical Christmas day without going into debt or disappointing the kids:

  • First and foremost, manage the present number expectations early on. Don't let your child circle multiple presents in a catalogue or write five pages of a wish list. Establish a number of items they can request and stick to it. If they can only choose four things, they are much more likely to consider each item and decide if they truly need and/or want it.
  • With younger kids (under fives) you can get away with second hand toys or smaller items. They won't remember and they are too young to have a real desperate need for one particular item.
  • If your children watch YouTube, it is your responsibility to ensure they understand that it is not reality and the kids on there are given toys for free in exchange for promotion.
  • Encourage children to include one or two family experiences on their wish list. This could be a family movie night, camping in the back yard or a twilight walk with flashlights. These are all low cost activities that children will love and will remember forever.
  • Explain to children that Santa has limited space on his sleigh and needs to provide gifts for all children and so they can only have one gift from him. If your child is clever enough to tell you that it's okay to choose the $500 gift because Santa is magic and doesn't need money, let them know that Santa communicates with parents and checks whether the gift he picked is suited to where you live and what is important to you as a family.
  • If you have older children who no longer believe in Santa, let them know there is a budget to stick to. Try not to offer too much information on your financial situation, you don't want them to be worried however you can certainly let them know that there is a budget and they will need to choose within it.
  • If you have extended family like grandparents and aunts who love to spoil the kids, consider asking them to get together and buy a bigger present on the wish list. They can share the cost between them.
  • While it is a less appealing gift under the tree, an annual pass for a local experience is a great gift idea and it can be used all year. You could for example, purchase a family zoo pass and gave each child $20 cash to be used when they visit the gift shop. Or a book of movie tickets and spending money for treats.
  • Remember that disappointment pays off in the long run. No parent wants to see their child upset but remind yourself that while their reaction is to be expected and, from the child's point of view, understandable, it is important for them to learn that they won't always get everything they want and that is an incredibly important skill to have in life.