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Basic Dad: How Much Should ‘Santa Claus’ Spend on My Kid at Christmas?

Advice from a financial adviser, a child psychologist, a personal shopper and a mall Santa

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

Last year, we definitely got too many gifts for my daughter on Christmas. About halfway through her unbridled wrapping paper tearing-fest, we could see she was losing steam, and, even worse, losing interest. We had left the best stuff for last, but we were only up to the “medium” gifts when we could see her enthusiasm waning. We quickly jumped ahead to the grand finale (a Disney Princess Castle!), and she spent the next few days opening the remaining presents. Also, as a “bonus,” we spent the next two months struggling to make our normal bills.

Despite this, my wife and I are once again on the track to overspending. We’re so excited for the holiday that we haven’t stopped to think about whether or not we’ve crossed that line between making our kid feel special and completely spoiling her. What, though, is the “right amount” to spend on Christmas?

The Expert Advice

Dan, father of two, ages 5 and 7: My wife’s the cheap one in the family, so she’s usually the one to tell the girls to pick out exactly what they want for Christmas and she’ll get them that. Then she’ll get them some lame clothes that they don’t really care for, so I go out on the side and spoil my little girls because, well, they’re my little girls and I’m the dad. Of course, my wife gives me a bit of an eye-roll on Christmas for the extra gifts, but she understands.

For the big gift, we usually spend about $100 between them. Then my wife will just get clothes on sale, and I’ll spend about another $30 per kid for the extra gifts. So it ends up being between about $150 and $200 for both of them. No matter what you spend though, it all sucks because you get no credit for any of this shit. It’s all Santa, he’s the hero.

Adam Ditsky, personal and business financial adviser: I find that most people I sit down with about this kind of thing come from the standpoint of, “This is what I need to spend for Christmas,” but that’s the wrong mindset. Your approach should be more, “This is what I can afford.”

Don’t forget that there’s a lot that goes into Christmas — it’s not just gifts for your kids, there’s also dinner; traveling to and from relatives; and the tree and decorations. None of that stuff is cheap, so it all needs to fit into your overall budget number, and a segment of that should be gifts for kids and family. Once you home in on that number that’s just for kids, you really need to stick to that.

Recommendations that I’ve seen for middle-income families on a budget would be something like $50 for kids 0 to 3, $75 for kids from 4 to 10, $100 for 10 to 15 and over $100 for 16 and up. Those are good numbers, but it’s so hard to put any solid numbers on that because everyone has a different situation. I think the golden rule is, only spend what you can afford and not more than that, because though it may be gratifying in the moment, come January 15th or your next round of bills, it’s not going to feel so good.

Bernadette Kovach, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: When parents ask me this kind of question or I see that they’re spending a lot of money, I ask them, “What does Christmas mean to you?” and “What’s the message that you’re sending?” That can guide you as to what to spend. Is the message going to be that they get a lot of gifts? Or do you want them to understand that Christmas is about celebrating life and celebrating one another? If it’s the latter, you need to find a way to make clear that these gifts are about celebrating their life, and, “Let’s find a way to have you give something to someone else.” I often recommend that they make something with their child to give to another child. That way, the process of making something is the enduring memory of what Christmas is all about.

I remember treating one child who, although she received a lot of presents on Christmas, didn’t feel valued because, to her, it felt like she was being bought off. Sure, they bought her these things, but did they play with her with them? These overindulged children can end up feeling very lonely inside. So, if you bought a child 10 or 15 toys, think about whether or not you’re going to be able to sit down and really enjoy each gift with your child and share the experience.

Amanda O’Reilly, CEO of personal concierge service Balance InStyle: As someone who does professional gift-buying, I don’t think there’s a real rule on the right amount to spend. I recommend a bigger gift, a couple of smaller things and a stocking. That should be sufficient, especially if there are other family members gifting as well. What you want to get away from is them just ripping at the wrapping and not caring what’s inside; you want them to savor the moment and enjoy.

Of course, the best things in life aren’t things at all; as adults, we know that, so something that we often do with our clients is to gift experiences. Whether it’s a baseball game, football game or helicopter tour, that’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving — it’s not over once it’s unwrapped. Finally, we also like to recommend people to buy in four categories: What they want; what they need; what they wear; and what they read.

Santa Russ, mall Santa at Santa For Hire: Monetarily, I would say, like, $200. If you’re financially able you can do a bit more, but more importantly, you want the children to understand that this is the season of giving, and it’s not all about “me.” I’ve had kids on my lap ask for bowls of jewels or the latest gaming system — very expensive stuff. I’ve also had kids who come up to me and ask me for “everything.” Whenever they say that, I ask, “Well, if I give you everything, what will I give to the other boys and girls?” Without fail, every time those kids have replied that they don’t care, they just want everything.

On the other hand, I also have kids who just ask for fresh fruit for their families. So I think it’s really important to get a child involved with buying a toy for a needy child, and explaining that you’re getting a gift for someone who may not otherwise get one this year. Something to show the children that it’s not all about getting gifts.