Even thrifty parents can pile presents under the tree

I was tickled at what my 17-year-old said when her aunt asked her what she wanted for Christmas.

“Well, when you get older the number of gifts decrease, so I’ll get one or two big gifts,” she said. “It’s really not fair, but I’ve come to accept it.”

She was right. She has so much already that there isn’t much to give. But on her short list are some expensive hair products and a pricey North Face jacket.

Upon hearing about the jacket wish, I said: “Could I just have you face north and give you a less expensive jacket?”

She was not amused.

And so goes the holiday gift conundrum when your kids get older. They no longer believe in Santa Claus, so the demands for specific things are harder to evade. And because they know they may get only a few things, what they want is usually something with a brand name and is expensive.

A reader named Julie very gently and nicely took me to task for what she thought was harsh advice to a single mother heavily in debt yet who couldn’t resist the pressure to buy Christmas gifts for her two sons.

“I completely understand that you were giving that woman very stern advice because she had piled up a ton of credit card debt, but I would just encourage you to offer readers a thrifty alternative holiday season concept,” Julie wrote.

Point taken. Even if it’s best not to spend any money, it’s hard to deny your children the thrill of opening holiday presents.

Various surveys show that consumers, even if they are financially stretched, plan to spend more this year than last on holiday presents. When asked if they had money available to pay for an unexpected expense of $1,000, only 49 percent said “yes,” according to a survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association.

Parents say that nagging is the most persuasive technique a child uses to get what he or she desires for Christmas, according to a survey by Wal-Mart. Kids say the same thing.

OK, so you probably are going to cave. How can you fill the space under the tree on a budget?

Julie suggested shopping at thrift stores such as Goodwill. You can even buy items at www.shopgoodwill.com, which provides a way for Goodwill member organizations to sell donated items through an online auction.

“Another trick for younger kids is to pull things out of the back of their closet that have not been touched in a long time, and re-wrap them,” she also recommended.

I did this for a number of years when my children were very young. I could find practically new toys that were buried at the bottom of their toy bins and they were none the wiser. They just wanted to see a lot of gifts under the tree.

But I got caught one year by my oldest when her brother received a teddy bear that had been tucked on a shelf in his bedroom.

“Um, mommy, wasn’t that in Kevin’s room?” she asked, trying to rat me out.

That was the end of that practice. I was not amused.

One tip often repeated, including by me, is to give coupons to your children for various things including, as Julie suggested, a one-week pass from chores. We have done coupons as gifts in my family, but they are rarely redeemed. I haven’t been able to make my 17-year-old honor the coupon she gave me for a foot massage. She says she’s waiting for me to buy heavy-duty rubber gloves.

Here’s an idea from Julie that I really love. Get together with other budget-conscious parents from your circle of friends or from your child’s school and participate in a free swap of clothing, toys and electronic games. I have items I could exchange that are still in the original packaging. But you have to swear everyone to secrecy.

There is something we always do. We try to manage our children’s expectations. Let them know what’s off the table. No iPad for you! Most important, when communicating your desire to trim their Christmas list, take a humorous approach.

One year, when my husband and I wanted to reduce the amount of gifts because we try not to overindulge our children, I told the kids there was a recession and Santa had to lay off some elves — so there wouldn’t be a lot of presents.

I thought that was funny.

They were not amused.

Washington Post Writers Group

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