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Toning down consumerism in tight economic times

Children have become an attractive marketing niche, which can cause unavoidable stress around the holidays if parents' pocketbooks can't keep up with kids' gift expectations. Parents can take steps to insulate their kids from the commercial hype, says Indiana University family studies expert Maria Schmidt, while making the holidays meaningful, enjoyable and affordable.

The key is for parents to understand their financial limits -- and the importance of staying within them -- while managing their children's expectations.

"Keep it positive. You don't have to give the kids a dollar amount. But you can say, 'We are going to have a budget this year so we can be financially healthy,'" Schmidt said. "It's important to say you'll give gifts and acknowledge each other but it will look different this year."

Families might want to consider starting new holiday traditions, such as limiting the number of gifts or exchanging homemade gifts, Schmidt said. And it always is a good time to discuss value-centered or meaningful gift-giving -- considering what somebody would actually appreciate or helping charities and less fortunate people. One gift precious to many is simply time.

"Kids really want the gift of time, not more stuff," she said.

Child's gift

The holidays can be meaningful, enjoyable and affordable without commercial hype.

Schmidt offers these suggestions for managing gift expectations during tight financial times:

  • Tone down the consumerism by not participating. If parents need the newest, latest model of cell phones or other products, for example, they model this behavior to their kids.
  • Turn off the TV. By limiting TV viewing and skipping video previews, parents limit the flood of commercials their children see. "The catalogs we receive in the mail hit the recycling bin before the kids have a chance to go through them," Schmidt said.
  • Don't beat around the bush. Parents can be fairly frank about why they will or won't buy a certain item. "Rather than saying, 'I'm never going to buy them this,' try, 'This is why I don't think you'd like this product,' or 'This is why I don't want to spend my money on that.'"
  • Talk. Talk about wants versus needs. Discuss commercials and what they try to achieve. Parents can talk about how the act of giving gifts to others over the holidays is more important to them than receiving gifts.
  • Avoid unpleasant surprises. If kids are accustomed to extravagance but the family's financial situation has changed, parents should not just surprise them with fewer gifts. They should discuss beforehand that their holiday will look different but will involve as much or more family time together. "That's what kids really, really want, more family time," Schmidt said.
  • Tune out peer pressure. Some parents create problems for themselves by thinking they need to buy their kids impressive gifts to help them fit in with their peers. Schmidt says this often reflects how the parents feel, not the kids, with the parents projecting this insecurity onto their kids.
  • Empower your kids. "You can say, 'We were smart; we didn't overspend. I received this gift that I really wanted and we're a smart, financially healthy family.'"
  • Think outside the box about gifts. Gifts can involve activities you know will occur during the year, such as giving kids gift certificates to movie theaters or to restaurants the family likes to patronize. Help them make homemade gifts, such as cookies, breads or other gifts. Many families also devote time as a family to helping a charity or special interest, such as a food pantry or animal shelter.

Schmidt is an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Health Science in IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.