The pretense is long gone.

No more cookies and milk on a table near the Christmas tree.

You can’t get them to behave by threatening to report their misbehavior to Santa Claus. No more wide eyes of wonder when they discover presents they thought were delivered while they slept.

Once your children find out there’s no Santa Claus, shopping for Christmas becomes more of a negotiation.

“So what do you want for Christmas?” I recently asked my younger daughter.

I could see her figuring out what might fly with her frugal mother. Nonetheless, she took a leap of faith.


“I want a hoverboard,” she declared.

This is one of the hottest items this season, although the name is misleading. The board doesn’t actually hover. It’s more of an electronic scooter.

But such are the Christmas wish-list conversations I now have with my children, who are 15, 17 and 20. They start with some outrageous requests and we settle on items that are reasonably priced but still coveted.

When our children were very young, I could get away with digging to the bottom of their toy bins and finding items that they hadn’t played with and wrapping them. I’d watch them exclaim with glee as they opened a box with the toy or stuffed animal. But my 20-year-old said she figured out there wasn’t a Santa around 8 years old when she unwrapped a toy she recognized from her bedroom. We laugh about it now. OK, I mostly laugh.

I know I’m not alone in trying to figure out how to please older children who want things, often electronic, that can easily bust your holiday budget. The National Retail Federation puts out an annual holiday consumer spending survey. This year, shoppers said they plan on spending $462.95 on gifts for family members, up from $458.75 in last year’s survey.

Here’s what my husband and I do to stick to a holiday budget per child while also ensuring that our children enjoy their holiday gifts.


Ask for a list. They may know Santa isn’t real, but it’s still fun for them to create a Christmas list. We also throw in a few surprise gifts.

Let them dream. Think of the line from the Spice Girls “Wannabe” song: “So tell me what you want, what you really, really want.”

There’s no harm in letting them dream. It’s fun to think about the things you might get if money weren’t an issue or you didn’t have penny-pinching parents.

Manage their expectations. Setting boundaries for what you will eventually get your children starts long before the first Christmas lights go up after Halloween.

Although my husband and I encourage them to not edit themselves as they create their lists, they still understand that frugality rules. Knowing that some things will definitely be culled from the list cuts down on some of the disappointment. Mostly.

Don’t be afraid to disappoint. Look, you only have so much money. Don’t feel guilty for living within your means. It’s important that your children learn now while they’re young and (hopefully) trainable that they can’t get everything they “really, really want.”


Go through the list with them and candidly veto things you can’t afford or that you feel are overindulgent. Better they know before Christmas what’s not going to be under the tree.

A $400 hoverboard?

Absolutely not!

Could we afford it? Yes. But that’s not the point. It’s too extravagant, not to mention there are some safety concerns about the product.

The list is a teachable moment. Some things children should wait for until they get a job and can afford to buy on their own. Many spoiled children turn into spendthrift adults.

Let them have one big thing. We’ve told our children they can get one big-ticket item within reason but then not to expect much else.


Be loving and light about the list. Don’t make the eventual cutting down of the list a heavy conversation. Don’t complain about your financial state of affairs. Be firm but at the same time lighthearted.

When my daughter was going over her list and mentioned the hoverboard, I asked about the price tag because I had no idea.

“Well, you can get a good one for about $800,” she said. “But I’ve seen some for $400 online and I’ll be OK with one of those.”

“Would you be OK with getting a job?” I asked.

I laughed. She didn’t.

How I long for the magical Santa days when they were thrilled with things from the dollar store.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:

Twitter: SingletaryM

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