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Today we have a really excellent guest post from Chelsea over at Mama Fish Saves, a personal finance blog for families to provide simple answers to all the money questions we didn’t get answered in school. Chelsea is a mother, wife, investment professional, and personal finance nerd. She hopes to help parents feel empowered about their finances so they can achieve their dreams and raise financially smart kids! Enjoy the read!
When I was pregnant with our first child, I remember my father-in-law saying to me, “All a kid needs is a ball, a stick, and a piece of string.” We laughed, and then my mother and mother-in-law continued to tell me to put more things on the baby registry. Sitting here now with a 15-month-old, I can tell you he really would be happy with any one of those three things from Grandpa. Usually, he doesn’t even need those things and is just happy to dig his fingers into the soil of the garden bed, pull Tupperware out of the cabinet, or chase the dog. Yet, we remain surrounded by plastic, singing toys and well-meaning friends and family who regularly bring him even more gifts to gather dust in his toy corner. So, I’m finally saying it. PLEASE stop spoiling my kid. I’m begging you.
Raising a financially responsible child
On my son’s first birthday, I sat down and wrote him a letter about everything I wished to teach him about money. I talked about spending responsibly, knowing needs versus wants and living a life in constant pursuit of knowledge. But as I wrote, I recognized that his first 12 months on this planet (and the several months before his birth) hadn’t started him off on the right foot. While my husband and I were on the same page with trying to keep his stuff to a minimum, our tribe of family and friends was not. We felt bad saying no, or returning gifts from loved ones, so for a while we let it go. This is what happened.
The baby shower tsunami
My son is the first grandchild on both sides. When it came to baby gifts, we knew we would be fighting a losing battle. We could choose the most minimalist baby list we wanted, but it wouldn’t matter. The gift storm was coming. The gifts spread from grandparents to other family, grandparents’ friends, and our own friends. My mom threw a beautiful baby shower. My in-laws threw a big, fun party after the baby was born.
While we had a great time seeing all the people we loved, the shower of gifts became a tsunami that we couldn’t stop. When we said we had too much stuff, my husband and I were told, “You don’t want to seem ungrateful,” and “They are just excited for you!” Somehow, asking for no gifts became worse etiquette than asking for gifts.
And I get it! Everybody loves to buy baby gifts! The clothes are tiny, the toys are fun, and the blankets are oh so soft. You want to help the people who love celebrate. Plus, it is just a small $20 gift, it isn’t like it takes up much space!
The thing is, while one gift might not take up much space in my son’s room, everyone’s gifts took over the house. When all was said and done, there were 175 things purchased off our registry. Many of those items were books, but the number is still insane. Adding in the crib, dresser, stroller, and car seat, which weren’t on the registry, there was $4,138 spent on this 7-pound baby before he was even born! This was before bottles, clothes (we received almost no clothes), and diapers. Think of the money that could have gone to his 529!
All the things we didn’t need
This whole post could be a list of things we received as baby gifts or got told we had to have on the registry, then never actually needed. But here is a sampling…
Sophie the Giraffe: If you are a parent, you have seen these $25 teething toys that are supposed to be a blessing for teething babies. It could just be my kid, but he never chewed on it. He never chewed on any teether. His preference has always been a cold carrot or damp washcloth.
$60 baby thermometer: A high-quality baby thermometer was on every single baby registry list. Someone recommended the one for their ears and gifted it to us. We’ve never used it. Partially because our son has just been a healthy kid, but mostly because when he is sick, the free rectal thermometer we got from the hospital is easier to use and more accurate.
Velcro/zipper swaddles: These things were recommended everywhere! They were as expensive as they were popular and I think we ended up with four or five total. But if there was one thing my son hated, it was being contained. Those things made my good sleeper wriggle, squirm, and scream until we ultimately passed them on to a friend.
Stuffed animals: Fuss Fish has two toy boxes full of stuffed animals. Bears, fish, cats, sea turtles, giraffes, you name it. While he occasionally goes on a hugging spree where he has to take them all out and hug them each individually (yes, it is adorable), the only one in the house who wants to play with these things is the dog.
His first birthday
Foolishly, I thought this gift brigade would end when he was born. It was only the beginning. People sent second gifts once we brought him home. They sent Hannukah and Christmas gifts. We tried telling the grandparents they could each get him one thing for the holidays. My mother-in-law gave him three for Hannukah and five for Christmas. Direct quote, “Only this one is his gift! The rest are just fun!” I almost praised my mom for following the rules, until she snuck in three more gifts from her car Christmas evening when I was putting out dessert. Since my son’s birthday is in February, only a few weeks after the holidays, I was ready to lock down this insane situation.
No gift birthday parties aren’t a thing?
When I sat down to make birthday invitations, I debated how to ask for no gifts. I asked colleagues, friends, and family how they handled it. The answer? You can’t do it. Every parent I talked to who had tried it said that some people just won’t listen, or won’t believe you, and will show up with gifts. This makes your other guests feel uncomfortable and unlikely to follow the rules next time.
I asked what would happen if we asked for a donation in his name instead. Everyone said guests would bring gifts, and some would also, maybe, donate to the charity. My husband and I felt frustrated and decided that for his first year, we just wouldn’t mention gifts. People could do as they wished and we would deal with it afterward.
Something has gotta give
On the day of my son’s birthday party, we were ready to go. We did the standard gift bags filled with pencils and random crap, we set up a DIY photo booth, and I made the little man a smash cake. His godmother flew in from California and his godfather got a weekend pass from his military base, flying from Texas for the weekend. We had survived our first year of parenthood with a happy, healthy boy and could not have been more excited to celebrate this tiny person who had become the center of our world.
Then, towards the end of the day, when we sat down with a tired toddler to open gifts, I got overwhelmed. And if I was overwhelmed, I can’t imagine how he was feeling. He sat on the floor between his dad and I surrounded by gifts. His cousins and little friends circled six inches around him and oo’ed and ah’ed as the presents came out of their boxes. He didn’t know where to look, and I didn’t know what to say.
The truth was, I felt more stuck and frustrated than I did with the invitations. I was wishing we had powered through with a “no gifts” party. Our plan was to return things we didn’t need, but family and friends were helping the kids open the boxes to show my son the toys inside. They handed him the next gift before he had even processed the prior. This meant he mostly stared around and I lost track of who purchased what present. For my husband and I, the gifts sucked the fun out of the day. The game had to change.
He doesn’t need things, he just needs you
After talking to a lot of friends with kids, I don’t think we are alone in our overwhelm. I truly believe most parents don’t know what to do with 80% of the crap that sneaks into their homes. We could all do with one less singing truck to step on when the baby finally falls asleep. And now that we are talking about baby number 2, with the potential of a whole new onslaught of gifts, I’m ready to be the mean mom. I’m ready to enforce new rules, no matter what names it makes you call me.
The new rules
Rule Number One: If you wish to get our son something for a holiday, birthday, or random event, ask first. Understand that in 95% of cases, we will either say he needs nothing (which is the truth) or that you can donate in his name to the New England Aquarium, his absolute favorite place.
Rule Number Two: If you choose to get a gift without asking, please do not be offended if we return or donate it. We love you and appreciate the thought. But he has far more than he needs already.
Rule Number Three: The best gift you can give him is being there for him. Come over for dinner, leave an email with advice or a memory at his email address, or FaceTime for a few minutes. Take him to the library or to the park. That will matter far more to him over the years than stuff.
The hardest thing about implementing the rules will no doubt be the grandparents. We can’t control their behavior and don’t want to be constantly bickering with them. Luckily, another mean mom recommended a great rule. If it is from Grandma or Grandpa, it stays at their house. He can be spoiled there, it is basically their right, but it doesn’t need to stay in our home.
Making it easier for parents to raise financially smart kids
When you pick up a book focused on teaching children about money, almost every single one discusses the gimmes. It has become a broad-based assumption that kids just have to ask for stuff. While I have no data to back this up, I’m starting to believe that this is really our fault, not some inherent behavior.
Kids are sponges, particularly in their first two years. They may not be able to communicate easily, but they are watching everything we do. And in those first two years, when we think they don’t really understand, we spoil them the most. They get gifts on birthdays, toys in the checkout line, gifts for visiting Grandma. We think we will clamp down when they understand, but the gimmes are a sign that they understood all along. They get stuff. Whether they really want it or just want it for 30 seconds, they get it, and the sooner the better.
Unteaching a behavior or habit is much more difficult than teaching it. If we can show kids early on that they have everything they need, and a few things they love and really want, they’ll be able to make better choices. They’ll still be tiny humans with short attention spans and the same Keeping up with the Joneses propensities we do, but it will be significantly easier to explain the right way if that is how you’ve always done it.
Let’s stop spoiling our kids
So let’s agree to reduce the stuff and stop spoiling our kids. We’ll raise more creative kids who actually play more with fewer toys. They’ll be better global citizens by valuing what they have and creating less waste. We’ll suck less random toys into the vacuum cleaner. And importantly, our kids will know things have value and be more likely to differentiate effectively between needs and wants. Since that is the basis of financial success, they’ll be off to a great start.
But most of all, let’s try to respect parents wishes. Your friend who says no gifts and is disappointed when gifts come in the door isn’t ungrateful. She’s just trying to raise a happy, unspoiled kid in this consumer-driven world. It isn’t easy, and she needs your help.