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The Santa factor: Managing kids’ Christmas expectations

How do reindeer fly? How does Santa get to every house? How does he fit down the chimney? What if you don’t have a chimney? Do elves make iPads? And the hardest question of all: How do you manage your kids’ expectations without compromising the magic of Christmas or your budget?

Santa’s coat has bottomless pockets

It was coming up to Christmas and my son Seth, then six, was looking through a toy catalogue. He was picking out all the things he wanted—Transformers, Lego, walkie-talkies, a Slip-n-Slide… The list went on.

Being a budgeting type, I’ve talked with my kids about the value of money since they were little, so I pointed out to Seth that his list ran to hundreds of dollars. “It’s ok, Mum,” he replied, “I’m going to ask Father Christmas for them!”

Ah, the ‘Santa Factor.’ The magical, rosy-cheeked, bearded man who makes Christmas wishes come true. Skateboards, doll houses, Nintendos, puppies—you name it, nothing is beyond the big guy’s scope and all without racking up a cent of credit card debt.

Good reasons to believe in Christmas

Hence the challenge: How to set Christmas expectations without undoing the magic of the festive season or your household budget. Do we need to explain that we buy gifts and have to set an affordable price limit?

On the one hand, some will say that we should just tell children the truth. They find out in the end anyway. But others argue that celebrating the magical aspects of Christmas is great for the imagination. It’s also an opportunity to start or continue family traditions (such as putting up the Christmas tree together) and to talk about the pleasures of sharing and giving.

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Research shows that most kids cotton on at around seven but continue to believe because they enjoy the excitement. By the time Seth was about eight, he was becoming suspicious, so that’s when we had the ‘Santa isn’t real’ conversation. He took it like a champ, as had his older sister Madison a few years earlier. Ellie, my youngest is six and already probing for answers.

This is how I tackled my kids’ Christmas expectations over the years. I hope you find it useful!

Tips for keeping Christmas expectations affordable

  • Space on Santa’s sleigh is at a premium, which means he only has room for one small gift per child. (You can still give your kids extra presents, but this approach alleviates applying the ‘Santa factor’ to every present.)
  • The rule above then frees you up to talk with your kids about what else is affordable within your household budget. You could, for example, offer them choices: “We can’t afford a new bike and a scooter this Christmas, but it’s up to you which you choose.”
  • Refocus your child’s attention on not just receiving, but giving too. Who are they going to make or buy presents for this year? Children who earn pocket money might be expected to set some of their own money aside for buying little gifts for, say, their grandparents. Smaller children might be helped to make something.
  • Older children might be taught how to create a budget for their spending money or how to shop wisely by comparing prices or asking for a discount code.
  • Another way to involve kids in the spirit of Christmas is to include them in making a charitable donation. At most schools and shopping centres, you’ll find charities looking for toys and food for less fortunate families. Use the opportunity to explain that Christmas is also about sharing with others.
  • We can also help to deflect attention from the material aspects to the experiences of Christmas. Think back to your own childhood. I bet your fondest memories of Christmas are not of specific presents but of fun times spent with others, perhaps decorating the tree or going to see the Christmas lights. What special Christmas rituals does your family have? It’s never too late to start some.

Let the MyBudget elves help you

If the Santa Factor is causing you stress this Christmas, give the caring elves at MyBudget a call on 1300 300 922. We’re here to make Christmas memorable for all the right reasons.

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This content has been updated from the original post published in November, 2020.

This article has been prepared for information purposes only, and does not constitute personal financial advice. The information has been prepared without taking into account your personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on any information in this article you should consider the appropriateness of the information having regard to your objectives, financial situation and needs.