How much should you spend on your kid for the holidays? 

The temptation to buy your way out of boredom this year. It won't work.

Jesse Will is an Austin, Texas-based journalist and dad who has contributed to The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, Pitchfork, Popular Science, Road & Track, and others. He’s not a financial genius, but like so many parents, he’s here to learn.

These are wild times. Whatever your job stability is, you probably feel some responsibility to try to give your kids one of the most amazing holiday seasons they’ve ever had, to offset the year’s weirdness — no matter what’s in your bank account. I’ve been mulling the subject over lately as my partner and I think about how we’ll spend this one-off pandemic holiday with our five-year-old daughter — just us, without the cacophony of cousins, and without the usual mountain of presents at Grandma and Grandpa’s. This year we’ll do it all. 

 So how much should be budget for presents? Mysteriously-sourced online writeups on the subject will tell you that one or two percent of your income is appropriate. Some pieces recommend limiting presents to four thoughtful items per kid. But I talked to three savvy budgeting experts for the real lowdown. Surprise: none of them gave much credence to either of those numbers. 

“Holiday budgeting is not a one size fits all approach,” says Rob Bertman, a St. Louis-based Certified Financial Planner (familybudgetexpert.com). “Every family situation is unique.  Income is not the only predictor of what people should spend — it also depends on your financial situation — are you a saver? Do you have parents that can help you out? One two to percent is a nice benchmark, but it’s not one size fits all.”

Andrea Woroch, a Bakersfield, CA consumer budgeting expert (andreaworoch.com), concurs, adding that you should avoid falling into an Instagram trap of shame when you see what the neighbors are spending. “There's really no right number on what you should spend on your child,” she says. “Just because somebody's spending all this money on their kids, doesn't mean that they are doing well financially — they may be charging all those gifts, and have a $10,000 credit card bill that they can't pay off, and not understand how that affects their children in the future.” 

So how should you do the holidays right, financially speaking?

Five Holiday Spending Don’ts

1. Don’t take on debt you’ll still be paying off in March.

Dr. Elizabeth Kiss, Associate Professor in the Department of Personal Financial Planning at Kansas State, says if you’ve gone into credit card debt that you’re still paying off months after the last strands of lights come down, you’re spending too much. To avoid the scenario, Kiss advises asking yourself a simple question before buying holiday gifts on credit: “How am I going to feel in January when the bill comes due, and is it really worth it?” You’ll be forced to think more critically about what you’re buying — and you’ll likely end up with gifts your kid is more likely to truly enjoy. 

2. Don’t compare or compete with friends, family, and neighbors.

We all have branches of the family that are spendier than others, and neighbors with major holiday hauls. As a parent, you can’t compare what you’re doing for the holidays to what they are. “You have no idea whether they're going into debt to pay for what they're buying for their kids,” says Bertman. It’s up to you to decide where holiday presents fit into your spending priorities. Remember, in the long run, your kid might appreciate your financial savvy when they’re taking college classes that they don’t have to worry about paying for. 

3. Don’t dilute the fun of your kids’ gifts by buying too many of them. 

Last Christmas, I did an eleventh hour run to Wal Mart, needing to “up the numbers.” I feared that we hadn’t gotten enough gifts for our kid, and worried that other kids in the larger family would be opening presents for hours after she’d opened her last. Of course, that $150 extra I spent was completely unnecessary — some of those gifts we forgot to even bring downstairs. Bertman, the father of an eleven, nine, and four-year-old, says the experience is not uncommon. “At some point, the more you get them, the less of an impact each gift has, and the more money you’ve wasted.”  

4. Don’t guess what your kids (and spouse) might want. 

This might seem obvious, but If you’re looking to maximize your value-per-dollars spent this gifting season, try starting with the stuff your loved ones really want, rather than long-shot ideas you’ve come up with yourself. “Sometimes, we all have these ideas in our heads about what we think people who we love, or who are important to us what they would really like, right? And sometimes we're wrong — actually, often we're wrong,” says Dr. Kiss. 

5. Don’t let discounts over-influence what you buy. 

Growing up, my family had a holiday tradition that I’m still trying to break: as soon as someone opens a gift that you’ve gotten them, you shout that it was “on sale” or “a steal” while they hold up whatever kitchen widget or asymmetrical, fashion-forward but deeply discounted piece of outerwear you’ve gifted them. Sometimes you don’t even have to wait until they’ve opened it to explain the bargain. It’s easy to get sidetracked by random or doorbuster deals. But oftentimes, it’s not a bargain if you’ve spent money on a superfluous item in the first place.   

The 1% rule for presents is bogus math. Besides, it leaves out all the other holiday expenses that come this time of year. Keep a running tally and look to it when making decisions.


Five Spending Do’s

1. Do help your kids make lists. 

As stated above — in most cases, you’re better off getting your people what they want rather than guessing. But having your kid create and carefully consider a wish list does more than just provide you with better gift ideas. “There's a lot of joy in having the kids create their wish list, and then getting them what they want — what happens is that it makes it makes the anticipation of the holidays build a little bit,” says Bertman. Creating a list and discussing it with your kid also allows you to divert them from asking for things like a talking “Mia and Me” bracelet, say, which is only currently available in with a German voicebox, and from seller with less-than-stellar reviews (personal experience, this. Lesson learned.) For older kids, crafting a list and having them understand your budget is a great time to start teaching them better consumer habits and smarter spending.

2. Do tally up as you go. 

Online shopping and the proliferation of near-frictionless one-click buying has made it amazingly simple to overshop and forget who you’ve bought for, and what you’ve already bought for them. Meaning, online shopping is a great way to blow your holiday budget. So keep a running list in your email inbox and check it once a week.  

3. Do shop early. 

Contrary to what you might think, your gift ideas are unlikely to get cooler or more creative the closer you get to the holidays when other demands will devour your time. The more desperate you get at the last minute, the more likely you’ll be to overspend. This goes for online shopping, too, where late express shopping can cost you a princely sum — disappearing money, essentially. 

4. Do get rid of some stuff in advance. 

You can clear some needed closet space and make up for some of your holiday spending by selling underutilized gear on sites like OfferUp, Decluttr, and Facebook Marketplace. And there’s a reason to ask your kids to give some things away, too, says Bertman. “Every year we ask our kids to donate a few of their toys. We ask them, ‘Do you think that any other kids might have more enjoyment from this than you than you have, since you have all these other toys?’ What happens is they start to develop an appreciation for the things they have, and start to understand that other families may not be as fortunate.”

5. Recognize that time with your kid really is more valuable than the money spent on them. 

You might feel some guilt that this pandemic holiday season, your kids won’t be frolicking with their pals quite as freely. They likely won’t sit on santa’s lap at the mall, huddle closely at the tree lighting, or engage in whatever civic tradition your family usually attends. This doesn’t mean that you should overcompensate for this altered holiday season by breaking your budget on scores of gifts for the kids. “Most of the time, children often would prefer to spend time with a parent or an important adult in their life than actually have something big,” says Dr. Kiss. So devote some time to studying your holiday calendar with COVID-safe plans, from bonfire night in the backyard to day-tripping to a nearby state park you’ve overlooked. Make the trip to the far-away tree farm rather than buying one from the closest lot. Get everybody off their screens for a few hours. “Get the kids out of the house and do something together, and everyone can forget that we're in a pandemic for the moment,” says Woroch. And that might be the best gift there is right now.