Getting Kids to Be Happy With Less

 photo birthdaygirl_zps50ab4892.jpg
The birthday girl! Happy Birthday!
Today, as the day after Christmas, as well as my daughter, Anneliese's second birthday, is the perfect time to blog about how to help your kids be content with less, and not fall into the trap of the "Gimme gimme" mindset that is altogether too common in our and our kids' generations.

First off, I wanted to say that I am by no means a parenting expert, and my oldest kid is 6... I can only speak of my experience with my kids...

Ok, so firstly, how did we celebrate Anneliese's birthday?
She is two years old today, and until now, never had a birthday party. To be honest, I see no point in making one. Firstly, a first birthday is not done for the kid- the kid has no idea what a birthday is, what a party is, doesn't expect anything- and it's just a waste of money, in my opinion. The only purpose of that would be for the parents. But the kid doesn't need it.
A second birthday, also the kid has no idea what a birthday is, and that they should expect a party. But even so, since Anneliese's birthday falls out during the holiday season, I thought it would be a perfect way to hit two birds with one stone- get together with family for the holidays, and celebrate her birthday as well. I still wasn't going to make a big party- just some supper and some homemade desserts, but at the last minute, Mike told me that he really wasn't up to hosting a whole bunch of people, and didn't think I should push myself to do so either, so we called people in the morning and canceled. Instead, we just had Grandma come over, sang Anneliese happy birthday, and gave her her presents. She was very happy to see Grandma, and then on top of that, everyone singing her a song, and then getting her a present made it memorable for her. Lee made her a paper crown which made it even more exciting! I honestly don't think she would have enjoyed it any more with more people.

Now speaking of presents...
I have two conflicting thoughts about presents.

Firstly, there is the concept that kids get excited to get presents, just the fact that it is a present makes them excited. And I've noticed that anyhow, no matter what presents they get, they don't always play with them even after they got them- its the initial excitement of receiving it, and then afterward, it wanes away. For this, you don't need expensive toys. Even cheap, dollar store toys work for this purpose... And if it breaks after 3 days, is it really so different than the kid simply forgetting about the toy after 3 days?
At the same time, there are some high quality toys that get a lot of use, not just for the first 3 days. Lego is what comes to mind. So I do feel its worth it to get high quality toys that you know will be used and appreciated by the kid, even after the initial excitement period. We try to get our Lego from a knock off brand, and on sale, and it has been the best investment- Lee plays with Lego for hours at a time, at least a few days a week, and Ike is starting to play more with Lego as well, now that he's getting older.

Some occasions, when money isn't as tight, I, therefore, choose to go with the more quality toys... and on other occasions, when money is tighter, I give the cheap presents that give the momentary excitement and then are forgotten about.

But whatever the case is, I try to not overbuy, try not to give a lot of presents... because when there is more than one present, when there is a pile of presents, the kids don't focus on the present they just got- they just zoom right on to the next present, and the next, without appreciating what they got...
Because of this, I try not to give my kids more than one, maximum two presents in one day, even if they did get a bunch from different people, because I want them to appreciate what they got. We spread out the opening of the presents over a few days...

This year, we didn't have so much to spend on presents, so we stuck to cheaper gifts, however, we also wanted them to be useful. Lee and Ike have really gotten into art lately, always wanting to draw and draw and draw, and using up our paper. I decided to buy them art supplies- got them a stack of their own paper, which they can use as much as they want without having to first ask me if I let, and without my rationing it as I do with the family paper supply, as well as pastels and stamps. This, though it was cheap and from a dollar store type place, has been a type of present that has been well worth the money.
Anneliese's present, though, from us, was a bit of a dud... She LOVES playing dress up, loves changing her clothes a million times a day, loves making things pretty. I bought her a cheap (knock off) Barbie doll set that came with 5 changes of clothes, thinking that Anneliese would have fun dressing and undressing the doll... but all she wanted was for me to put the doll clothes ON HER, and then got mad when the clothes didn't fit... That was a bust.
We also got her a set of blocks, which, fortunately, was more of a success.

Grandma's present to Anneliese was something that was certainly a hit. Anneliese is obsessed with earrings, as long as they're "adult" ones- she takes my pearl earrings, and wants my dangly earrings, which I don't let her have unless its under my supervision for a few minutes here and there.
Grandma bought Anneliese little gold hoops, and Anneliese is in love! Every few minutes she grabs her ears, says "EARRINGS!!!" and then says "Gamma Mommy!" (what she calls my mom) noting who gave them to her... Those earrings will have daily use, and they're something she loves, so definitely not a waste, and definitely very appreciated by us.

We can get away with giving our kids "smaller gifts", and fewer gifts that maybe wouldn't fly in other families. How do we manage this?

First- its expectations and what you get your kids used to. If you always give a million expensive gifts, they come to expect that, and are dissatisfied with anything less. Aka they get spoiled. I have to admit, at some point, I felt we did spoil our kids when it came to presents, that they expected too much.
To fix this, I have what I call a "gift fast". A "sorry, you're only getting things you need now, no presents until further notice, because you're not appreciating what you get enough and I don't feel like spending money on something that won't be appreciated anyhow." As parents, you have to decide how long the "fast" should last, but, in my opinion, it needs to last long enough for the kid to realize that gifts, no matter what they are, should be appreciated and not taken for granted because they weren't "exactly what they wanted".
I've discovered that after such "gift fasts" kids certainly are more appreciative, and have less of the "gimme gimme" attitude that they had before.

Secondly, as parents, we are open with our kids about finances. To an extent. We don't keep our finances an open book, because we don't need our kids to stress out about money, even if we're really struggling at a point. No need for kids to worry!
However, we do tell them certain basics.
As someone with faith, I try to pass that on to my kids, and try to pass on that faith that we will be provided for with everything we need. This isn't just words, but rather what I truly believe, from life experience.
I tell my children that we are provided for, that we have enough money for everything we need, and some of what we want. I add to that, though, that it is our responsibility to spend the money we have wisely, because if we spend the money on things we don't need, we may not have enough money to spend on the things that we need, and we have to prioritize where we spend our money. I tell them that after we spent on the things we need, we can spend the rest on other things, but not before.
On months that are tighter with cash, I do sometimes tell my children that "at this point, thankfully we have enough money for everything we need, but we can't be buying extras for a little bit" and they seem to understand it and accept it without complaints. And when we put in extra work hours to earn extra money, they also understand that we're doing this to have more money so we can hopefully have money for extras and not just for things that we need, and they are willing to accept that, even if it means less time doing fun stuff with parents, Daddy staying out late at work, or Mommy working on the computer extra.
I find transparency with finances is useful in getting the children to accept the realities of fluctuating income and expenses, and to help them be content with less. This year, when they asked why they were getting the presents they did, and not more or bigger things, we told them that those things are expensive, and that we have less to spend on extras now, and it would be a bad idea to get more expensive presents and then not have the money for things we need. They didn't complain a bit about that, and actually understood what I was saying very well, and accepted it without so much as a grumble.

But honestly, one of the biggest ways we get our children to be content with less is by living in the community where we do. If there were people around us who were living richly, and we were "the poor folk", that would be much harder for our kids to handle, with much more pressure to keep up with the Joneses. But, for better or for worse, most people in our community are not well to do financially, and there isn't pressure from my kids' peers to have more and more expensive things...

To have kids truly have such an attitude of being happy with what they have, and not pining away for what they don't, it is important that parents have that attitude as well. You can't expect your kid to be content with less when you are not, and are resentful that you can't have all these things you want. Even if you say nothing to your kids, and keep this feeling inside, kids are intuitive and will pick up that you have this bad attitude. The only way to get kids to really be happy with what they have is for the parents to feel that way and model it to their children. If this doesn't come easily to you... well, then its something that you need to work at, because it can't be faked, and your kids will mimic your attitude...

What do you do to keep your kids happy with less? What are your tips and tricks? How much did you spend on gifts for your kids for the holidays this year? 
Are you transparent with your kids at all about your finances? Why or why not?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. When I was little, my mom did try to go "all out" on holidays, although it was more about making the birthday kid feel special. We would pick an activity we wanted to do (I was a frequent picker of going to the museums, and my brother generally preferred bowling or goofy golf). My mom would usually take us for our activities on discounted days during our birthday "week", cook us a special meal and get us a few special presents. We would usually get a new book and one or two toys.

    We never really had themed parties, or parties with friends outside of the family, but they were always special to us. Despite our tight money situation, I was never really left wanting as a kid.

    1. For my older kids, you might have noticed, that I go "all out" cheaply for their birthdays. but I see no point in doing it before the kid is old enough to appreciate it. I start at the age of 3.

    2. We have a$2 coin called a Toonie in Canada. At birthdays we invite relatives and guests to bring one in lieu of a gift. We then buy one present instead of many little ones. We also make a donation with half the money to a kids charity.

  2. Like the above poster, I like experiences better than things. We also don't do big kid parties. We'll let the birthday kid pick dinner on that night (or night close by if it works out better for everyone's schedule), and then they can pick something to do that week/weekend. Things like rock climbing at the indoor rock wall, going to a museum or doing a day trip. I like books as presents.

  3. A few months ago we were stuck at home and bored, and at the same time I felt like we didn't have enough toys. We have a couple cars and trucks for two boys, and they are always fighting over them. So I made a big mistake. We took the bus to Goodwill and let them pick out a few new trucks.

    Seemed great at first. It cost $5. The kids were happy. And not two hours later, my 3yo says, "I'm done with this one. Let's go back to the car store and get the green car this time." What?! That was months ago now, and still whenever he's bored he whines to go to "the car store" and get cars. I tell him we spent our money on food and don't have any left for cars, and he cries and says he hates food and just wants cars. Sigh.

    I wish there were a library for toys. My kids would be perfectly content to get new toys for two weeks and give them back for new ones. I wonder if any of my friends would be up for an initiative like that.

    1. You can look into it- there actually ARE toy lending libraries in some places. And some regular libraries lend out toys. If there isn't one already, you can possibly look into starting a toy lending library in your community...

      When I go to pick out presents for my kids, I include them in the budgeting. I say "This is how much I am willing to spend on a present. Look around. Look at prices. See what costs less than that and I'll buy it- you pick it. If you need help figuring out whether something is too expensive or not, I'll help you out." Involving them in the process and pointing out that there is limited money to spend on toys helps...

    2. Ohhh ! Here in France, we do have library for toys (called "ludothèque) next to some regular libraries !

      Most of the time (I am too lazy to go to the special library), I borrow books from my local library when my nephews come to my place (cause I don't have any kids so I don't have that much toys or books for kids... but I have many nephews...).

      In "ludothèque", there are toys to take home and toys to play only there (such as wii games). It is kinda awesome for "poor" kids !

    3. For Christmas we get each child 3 gifts on Christmas Day. The gift of gold something the child really wants. My 9 year old wanted a watch. I found a really nice one for under $15 dollars, you would of thought we got her an ipad or something she was so excited. My 15 year old we got a ping/pong table for $60(after thanksgiving sale), my 7 year old wanted a gerbil, so we got a cage and a gift card at the pet store for just under $50. The younger 2 we found made in the USA play vehicles at a local store. The other 2 gifts were clothes(got really inexpensive the day after thanksgiving and thrift store finds), and something educational. For stocking stuffers I made gift certificates they can use throughout the year. Some of them are a bonus date night with mom or dad, an ice cream cone, a free lolly pop at the lolly pop place in town, dessert out etc... things they can turn in and use throughout the year. Christmas eve they get their pajamas, got these inexpensive the day after thanksgiving, and they also get a movie. Found some in the $5 bin at K Mart, the younger 2 we didn't get dvds this year.

      For birthdays: the night before their birthday after they go to bed I hang streamers in their doorway. Then on their birthday they get to pick out what they want for meals. Sometimes we do birthday cake for breakfast :). We homeschool so they get the day off from school. We do parties(mainly family), they pick a theme, we will get plates to go with the theme and then got to the dollar store and get napkins and table cloths that match the colors of the plates, a lot of times we can get our decorations at our dollar stores. We try and make most of our decorations and make as much food as possible. I do splurge on cakes (I am not good at those, but my goal for 2014 is to make them myself even if its a basic 9 by 11). I am trying to scale back even more on parties this year, but my oldest will be 16 so I might splurge a little on that one.

      Anyways I am always looking for ways to be more frugal, thanks for your ideas and tips.

      Blessings and I hope you have a wonderful 2014.

  4. We are pretty open about our goals and finances with our 8 year old. He understands that everyone makes choices with their money, and we choose to be a bit more frugal with ours than some of his other friends. We all have goals for the future, including paying off our debt, and therefore, we are all motivated to save a bit more now, and look forward to debt-free living later! With that said, we always make it a point to celebrate holidays and birthdays to the fullest extent we can. Not necessarily with presents though, but with each other's company and time. A good meal, hearty conversation, and a rousing board game makes our family happy :)

    Happy Birthday, Anneliese!

    1. That's great to hear! Does your son ever show resentment for your living more frugally, or does he seem happy enough with it?

    2. Sorry for such a late reply-- He is totally happy and will often find ways to be creative with finances. For example, this past Valentine's Day, he exchanged gifts with his new baby sister- he got her a stuffed animal, and she got him a nerf gun- both from the .25 bin at the thrift store. I wanted to encourage them to exchange gifts in order for them to grow their sibling bond over the years, as well as learn how to shop for someone else. Also, he has became quite industrious- he created and put up fliers around the neighborhood for dog walking at a very low price, and has saved all his money to buy a tablet. He tithes 10% to various charities, and then saves some, and spends the rest. He has more money than I do in savings now! LOL

  5. Oh my word! I say almost the exact same thing to my kids. "We have enough money for everything we need, and enough money for some things we want, and that is a pretty great place to be."

    We only give gifts on birthdays and Christmas. Since there is an incredible thrill in opening the gifts, we tend to save some of the things the kids need to give at Christmas. A pack of socks isn't fun. Unwrapping a pack of socks? Much more fun. Every year the kids get a toothbrush. That sort of thing.

    We spend different amounts on kids based on the year, what they need, and what they want. The older kids tend to have more expensive wants. We make sure they all have the same number of gifts. We spent about $40 per kid this year (averaged out). This includes some things they needed and would have gotten anyway.

    A nice way to give more expensive gifts is to present it as a family gift. Then there is not the danger of feeling obligated to give each child an expensive gift. This year we finally broke down and gave Magna-Tiles as an all-kid gift. They are a "building" type gift that everyone in the family has been enjoying. They are sturdy and could last for decades.

    Another thing we do is to buy gifts throughout the year and keep them in our "gift closet". When we find a great deal on clearance toys that our kids would love (or our kids can take to other children's birthday parties) we stock up. For our own children, we also shop at second-hand stores and buy when we find the "perfect" gift for a child. We save a ton of money by planning ahead that way.

    Our children tend to be pretty content with what they have, but they do get jealous when they see what their friends have. My husband and I have decided to scrimp on a lot of things in order to send our children to our church school. Most of the other children who attend the school have significantly more than our children. When my child says, "I am the only kid in my grade without...", chances are she is not exaggerating. But, we focus on needs vs wants and all the blessings that we do have.

    1. Lol you're reminding me of my mother in law. Her gifts to my husband ALWAYS are socks! Or undershirts! And gifts to me are always napkins. :-D And hand creams...

      I like your attitude- if you're gonna get something, might as well make it into a present and make it fun...

  6. Anneliese looks gorgeous! She got so big. I still remember when she was born.

    ITA that birthday parties for babies are a total waste of time and money. I like how you choose to spend on birthday presents.

    1. Thank you Leila! Isn't it amazing how huge she got? Honestly, its also the hair style and the earrings that make her look older in that pic- she doesn't always look that old...

  7. I'm really sleepy to bear with me please :)

    thought one: AS a december baby, as she gets older, do try and make sure that her birthday is something as special as a child who's birthday is in July's would be. It REALLY sucked to have "birthday/christmas" gifts (unless they were 'big deal' gifts..) .. right now it doens't matter so much, but later on it can definetly sting if people gave you less just because you have a birthday near by. It's not about the amount of stuff or the value.. it's just the fact that your sister got a doll, and you got the same kind of doll, only you got it for your birthday too. it's about inequality and favoritism which can really hurt. (It took me.. years to get over my mild resentment of my brother... he was grammy's favorite, and it showed. Seriously, ask me about the year he got an xbox, and I got avon earrings and some hand lotions. I didn't even have pierced ears... and have never been 'girly')

    ANYWAY! it's no big near now, I'm just giving a bit of warning to make sure to keep her birthday separate and as special as anyone else's. :)

    Now! to presents.. I've heard a lot of appreciation for the idea that after the christmas presents are opened, take the presents and put them away, and pull out new toys over the next few months. That way each toy can be 'special and new' rather then outshone by everything else. :)

    you also talk about how... "when there is a pile of presents, the kids don't focus on the present they just got- they just zoom right on to the next present, and the next, without appreciating what they got"... in my family, we had a rule. the youngest person picked a gift for someone other than themselves, and would give it to them, and everyone watches that person open the present, and the present is admired for a few moments, while "doll - grandma" is written down somewhere... then the next youngest picks a gift, .. and so forth. it helped us to focus on the act of GIVING, (especially since it was agaisnt "the rules" to tell someone which one to pick out for you), as well as on watching other people enjoy what they have recieved.... and made every gift special. mom and dad occasionally interviened with "let's not open that one yet" but that's all :)

    My friends actually celebrate a more yule-like idea of one present each night for many nights.

    Not saying any way is superior, just sharing how my family did things, since it's so different then what a lot of families did! :)

  8. This is such great advice! I, too, have always tried to limit gifts to something they really want or would use. That's always negated the need to pile on a bunch of presents. Also, on birthdays, it's been the rule that the birthday person is free from chores for the day, can pick the dinner for the family, and even pick the family activity for the night (within reason).

  9. We also talk to our kids about finances, in a way they can understand, and also such that we make it a family decision/conversation. This year, we have an added expense for 10 months (our choice) that benefits our family long term, but also makes out budget tighter. Before the expense started, we sat all the kids down (9 through 24) and explained what that would mean - not buying some grocery items that they "like" but don't need. Not eating out. Not spending on things we "want" but don't "need". During this year, we have had to remind them a few times, but they really get it. We never go over budget on Christmas presents - the kids get one "nicer" gift and 3 small gifts, plus a stocking. We have 5 children, so I have to really be budget conscious, since the spending could get out of hand. If our kids want a really nice, expensive item, we encourage them to save their own money and purchase it themselves. We have always done this and I think they appreciate the item much more and treat it better so it lasts, because they bought it with their own money. It also teaches delayed gratification. For birthdays, we often don't have a "friends" party - we have a special dinner made by me, and chosen by the birthday child. A couple of small presents and a homemade dessert (also chosen by the birthday child). Occasionally, one child may have a "party" which usually involves inviting a couple of friend to an "event" - movie, indoor trampoline place, etc. And only one child per year (my 9 year old got to do something this past year, so next year, it would be his brother's turn to do something with a couple friends).

  10. This post was a breath of fresh air compared to all the rich, materialistic parents out there. Thank you so much for sharing this opinion. Although some people might not agree with you, I think you have a wonderful approach to Christmas and presents. After all, spending time with the family is what's really important.

  11. Awesome! Thank you.

    I have to second the concept of being somewhat open about finances. When I reviewed my own growing-up ideas of money I quickly determined that I wanted my own children to be less ignorant than I was. :) And, like you've said, keeping the theme of God's faithful provision as the foundation to our wise decisions has grown in them a sense of content and understanding. We've been able to draw our kids in with us to pray for provision and wisdom without freaking them out, and later we've been able to share praise reports of financial and material blessings and they share in the rejoicing.

    We live where we live, which is a spot on the globe more known for it's excess. But even in that, our kids (who live much more simply than many of their peers) know how spoiled they are in being provided for because we try to keep their context as big as possible when it comes to the natural inclination to compare. We try to keep them aware of the fact that throughout time and throughout many places now people have not had the "riches" that we take for granted, from window screens to multiple bedrooms, from a whole room devoted to food (the kitchen) to having an assortment of clothing and toys that they enjoy. It helps that there is a wide range of income levels within our circles because my daughter was involved in a conversation amongst a couple peers in which it was pointed out that she was the richest of the three (due to housing situations) - that made an impression on her which we appreciate because if we grabbed any random group of three kids that we know, chances are we wouldn't be identified as the richest with most of them. Recently my nine year-old son asked why we have two showers if we only ever use one at a time (hot water pressure) - I replied "because we're rich!" Then I followed with the explanation that in the community that we live people decided that it was important to pay extra to have privacy and convenience of multiple showers.

    I also have always promoted the concept that when God gives us something it's so that we can share it. This applies both within the home amongst family members and helps us keep perspective on our belongings and finances.

  12. Growing up christmas gifts were a "BIG thing". Especially for my father. As a family, in december, we would drive an hour to go to paris biggest department stores (they have beautiful toys displays & more...). I think my father would have bought me anything (unless it was a horse ! ^^). It was just too much. Actually, my favorite memory of those silly trips is buying roasted chestnuts from street vendors ! They smell sooooo good :)

    Now as an adult, I have to make gifts for *MANY people*. We celebrate christmas with my in laws & my own family... 17 people to make gifts in total ! Since our finances are not the best these days, we have to make choices :( I decided to not spend over 20 eur for one gift this year. It is hard. But I manage. Sometimes, I feel bad about receiving expensive gifts from relatives :[ I hope I do participate in other ways. Like this year, I made big batches of the "best cookies in the world" for everyone to enjoy after the gift opening session. Big HIT :)

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