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While part of me realizes that the joy of Christmas as a kid is a little bit about tearing open 45 presents containing differently shaped lumps of plastic — some articulated, some not — the mound of stuff at the foot of our tree every year has begun to take on the weight of a portent. And look, I actually find an unholy joy in seeing my kid unwrap something that will thrill them. I, too, want to braid Elsa's hair with the twist-a-braid thing! But I don't want too too much stuff. Put another way, only I should be allowed to buy my kid all the things. So how can I politely suggest that everyone else — all the rellos, all the well-meaning friends and honorable aunties — send something else, like gymnastics lessons, or a trip to the movies, or, look, a 529 account (I would not be mad at that!).
How do I ask them to get a gift that is not a gift this holiday season without seeming like a Grinch?
All I Want for Christmas Is Less Shizzle
Shame. Shame works really well.
First, let me share my worst memory, the memory that to this day (as I type right now, before I've even written a word of it) brings tears to my eyes and waves of guilt rippling through my body.
When I was 10 or 11, and my brother was 8 or 9, he — whose previous Christmas gifts to me included a block of cheddar cheese from the grocery store (which I would appreciate these days, but which, in the days of Gap sweaters and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, I was not having) — presented me with a small block of wood. The wood was in the shape of a plaque, and on its face was the shape of a unicorn hammered carefully out of nails. It turned out that for weeks, he had had to sneak down to the basement — an incredible feat, since in our two-story house, my bedroom was the only one on the first floor — stand at our father's workbench, and hammer a nail or two at a time into the shape of something he knew I liked.
"What," I said on Christmas morning after I'd unwrapped it, "you couldn't buy me something?"
THIS IS MY GREATEST SHAME.
Here are some other things I've done in my life: cheated on two boyfriends, tried to sneak into a writers' conference by misrepresenting myself, kept a pair of underpants a friend left at my house since they were cute and I didn't feel like shopping for more (I wear them to this day), and denied that I had extra Valium to a friend who needed it.
I don't feel shame about any of these things. But, more than 30 years after I uttered those words to my brother, the memory of them still changes the temperature in my body.
Here is some information you can share with your rellos, friends, and honorable aunties: Forty-one percent of children in the United States live in lower-income families. Twenty-two percent of these are considered "near poor," and the other 19% are considered "poor." What does the United States consider poor? A family of four with two kids and an income of $25,750. "Low-income" is 200% of that, or $51,500.
Gifts that are made of metal or wood or wool cost more — a wonderful deterrent.
Far in advance of the holiday season, alert your rellos, friends, and honorable aunties that if they buy your kid a thing, you will take it directly to the nearest donation center and give it to a family that needs it. (This does not apply to advent calendars and Hanukkah, where part of the tradition is small gifts of a certain number.)
But you're right about something that makes this complicated: Christmas, in U.S. culture, is about largesse. It's about things. This does a number on all of us, not least of all those of us who can't afford to participate. It does a number on those of us who can, too.
We want to give, and receive, gifts that are tangible. And when it comes to kids, who are indoctrinated in our culture, a gift that is not tangible, particularly something they haven't requested, can be hard to appreciate.
As you've indicated, you want to turn the tide in your home. Good news: It's perfectly acceptable and even de rigueur to be upfront. Every birthday invitation my family gets these days mentions a request around gift giving, from "no gifts" to "used gifts" to "hey, we're changing from no gifts to some gifts this year if you feel like it because our kid is old enough to start liking that kind of thing." It seems very on trend to say you're decluttering, or you want less plastic because of climate change. (Making a rule that gifts can't be plastic will help with the desire for less stuff, too: Gifts that are made of metal or wood or wool cost more — a wonderful deterrent. Also, you will greatly reduce the number of items in your home that are battery-operated and make annoying, repetitive noises, if your kid is into that.)
But if you're going to request activities or lessons for your kid, make sure you have buy-in from said kid — meaning, you're differentiating between a gift for them and a gift for yourself.
As far as 529 contributions, you can simply send an email to relatives (and any friends who would be into this) saying that in lieu of gifts, you would love a contribution of any amount to your kid's education. I've done this myself.
(Quick note: Since the minimum balance to open a 529 account in some states is incredibly high — $3,000, while there is no minimum in others! — don't despair if you can't open one right now, or ever. Do something else rather than nothing, such as opening a savings account expressly for your kid in an online bank such as SoFi, which makes it more difficult to access the money immediately and pays interest close to 2%. I AM NOT A FINANCIAL ADVISOR I JUST READ REAL SIMPLE A LOT.)
And remember: People are not going to listen, because people have no shame. Grandparents are the worst offenders. They want the pleasure of buying your kid a thing and seeing them rip it open and feeling joy — same as you. Same as me. (Hot tip for dealing with grandparents: Tell them they can buy your kid anything, but if it's big or it's plastic, it has to live at their house.)
If your goal truly is less stuff during the holiday season, I recommend this: Make your requests of friends and family members early on, gird yourself to be ignored, and start a tradition to reduce the inevitable pile of things. A day or two after Christmas, go through the toys and clothes from the previous year. Put out a big box and tell your kid they can't stop putting stuff in it until the box is full. Then go down to the local donation center and Marie Kondo that sh*t.
Also, just buy your kid less stuff.
GIFT GIVING AND RECEIVING IS COMPLICATED BECAUSE IT INVOLVES MONEY AND EMOTIONS, THE OSCAR AND FELIX OF LIFE. AS WITH MOST THINGS, A LITTLE TACT AND DIRECT COMMUNICATION CAN GO A LONG WAY, AS DOES LESS INVESTMENT IN THE OUTCOME. YOU GOT THIS. HAPPY HOLIDAYS.
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Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the minimum balance for opening a 529 account. It has been updated.