While family get-togethers, celebrations with friends and messages of joy and peace are the Hallmark moments of Christmas, financial strain is also a reality. In a recent poll, about half of Canadians said that thinking about holiday spending causes them financial anxiety.

Gifts are a major part of that holiday spending. According to one survey, 80 per cent of the holiday budget goes toward presents. We might hope that kids say their favourite things about Christmas are “Spending time with my family” or “Going skating and drinking hot chocolate,” but that’s wishful thinking. Visits from Santa and getting gifts top the list.

And while inflation has certainly contributed to making the holidays more expensive, doesn’t it seem like companies are marketing more expensive products to our teens than they did when we were that age?

For instance, the electronics category has exploded in recent years, adding a lot of pricey requests such as AirPods, wireless headphones, gaming consoles and smartphones. Brand name clothing and shoes have big price tags – Lululemon and Nike come to mind – and even Lego has upscaled from the modest bricks in its early days to some extravagant, credit-card-busting sets.

With 16 years of experience buying gifts for my kids and wasting a lot of money along the way, here are some things I’ve learned about the process and ways to maximize the gift budget.

1. Focus on the experience of giving and receiving gifts. Much of what we like about getting gifts is the anticipation and the fun. That’s what I remember from my childhood. The actual gifts have escaped my memory but the feeling has not. Although we want to get gifts we like, they don’t have to be perfect or extravagant. It’s as much about the experience of guessing, anticipating and unwrapping as it is about the actual gift.

2. Catch yourself when you’re adding something to your Amazon cart just because you need to put something under the tree. Sometimes it’s hard to think of what to get our kids, especially if it’s the week before Christmas, but be conscious of panic buying. It can result in buying things that they never end up using. If you don’t know what to get them, don’t feel badly about wrapping things that you would have bought them anyway like a new fluffy bath towel or a cozy blanket. What about getting them the new winter jacket they need, but upgrading to one you wouldn’t normally pay for?

3. It’s easy to overspend on things on your kids’ wish list. You know, the list they write down or text you, perhaps including links. You feel pressure to fulfill the wishes. Here’s a thought about the wish list: Eliminate it. In my experience, when kids don’t get certain things on the list, they sometimes feel disappointed. This can take away from the joy of the things they did receive. A list can also put pressure on you to spend more than you want to, when things like AirPods are on there. You don’t want to disappoint your child but heck, it’s a lot of money and they don’t really need it.

4. Buying them something that you like or you wish they’d like is a grave error. Wish all you want – there’s a not insignificant chance that the one-of-a-kind scarf or handmade wooden toy will not be as appreciated by your kid as it is by you. It’s okay to go with the reliable, predictable and less expensive hits.

5. Save your big dollar spending for the later years. Baby’s first Christmas is exciting, but they really don’t need any gifts. Toddlers are all about tearing off wrapping paper – what they actually get is sort of irrelevant. But older kids can appreciate what they receive – and sometimes they just need things that you can disguise as a gift.

Take the pressure off yourself. Create the fun of giving and getting gifts without going overboard. Your kids won’t mind and you won’t regret a thing.

The Globe and Mail, December 17, 2023