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Managing Holiday Expectations Amid High Inflation

It could be an expensive Christmas season.

Key points

  • High inflation may mean rethinking how we make the holidays feel special.
  • Focusing on traditions, more than big-ticket items, can cement holiday memories without putting us into further debt.
  • Keeping perspective on what is really important can prevent catastrophizing thinking.

I was in my local home renovation store yesterday and saw two children asking their father to buy them a cardboard box that had been folded to look like a small house that was 3 feet high, with line drawings on it that could be colored in. It was $44.95. I couldn’t believe it, mostly because when my children were young enough to fit inside a box, I repurposed one that came with my neighbor’s fridge and made it into a cute little house with a flap door and cut-out windows.

With inflation decreasing everyone’s buying power, many families are having to rethink what they can put under the tree (if there is a tree at all this year). Managing expectations, though, isn’t just about telling children, “No, we can’t buy that.” It is also about managing the "tsk, tsk" from others and finding ways as parents to not blame ourselves for tough times. Managing children’s expectations (and those of our spouse, friends, and colleagues) has to start with managing our own self-perceptions as successful based on the monetary value of what we give.

There are solutions to coping with the holidays during a period of high inflation. Here are five strategies I’ve seen work.

  1. Keep in mind that our most cherished memories of the holidays are almost always the traditions and routines — the special meal, the time with extended family, the trimmings and sweets (far more than the turkey itself, if turkey was your thing). In other words, spend a moment to consider what it was that made the holidays most special for you: the scents, the sounds, the people, the pacing. Put effort into making these happen and you may find that the holidays are less of a financial burden.
  2. When it comes to gifts, I have two strategies. The first is transparency. Kids can handle the truth. In fact, the greatest gift we can give our children is an experience of empathy, asking them to understand that finances are tight this year. Even 5-year-olds can appreciate the role they can play in helping make their parents feel good over the holidays by not blaming them when their pile of gifts is much smaller than a friend’s. My clinical work has taught me that children who are brought into these conversations when they are young become better people when they’re adults.
  3. The second gift-giving strategy is again to think back to your own childhood. Chances are you can only remember one gift each year. All the other stocking stuffers, gifts from extended family, or envelopes of gift cards are distant memories, likely because they meant very little. There is no shame in focusing on buying a child (or a spouse) a single meaningful gift, or asking relatives to pool money to buy a single more expensive item for a child.
  4. That single gift will land just fine if it is embedded in a day of holiday traditions, whether those are related to food, time together, movie watching, or a walk outdoors. A little distraction from the orgy of presents can cement in children’s minds (and our own) a fond memory of the holiday as a whole.
  5. Finally, talk back to social expectations. I challenge you to recall what the hottest toy was seven years ago (among the top 10 in 2015 were the Spirograph Deluxe Design Set and the Exploding Kittens card game). What seems so crucial to assuaging our fear of missing out at the time wanes in importance quickly after the holidays as new gimmicky toys are relegated to a corner of the closet. A little perspective on how transient holiday hype is might make it easier to avoid the catastrophizing thinking that marketers may want us to feel.

Even during times of low inflation, there are always families experiencing divorce, violence, migration, job loss, and poverty. I’ve been honored to learn from these families over the years and witness extraordinary efforts to keep families resilient when holiday expectations were dashed. Despite inflation, we too will weather this holiday season.

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