How much is too much?

Responsible holiday shopping has as much to do with setting examples as setting spending limits


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More isn't necessarily better for Jillian Mulder during the holidays.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/12/2015 (2546 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

More isn’t necessarily better for Jillian Mulder during the holidays.

The Winnipeg mom of two children and her husband, Alan, certainly spend more around Christmas than other times of year, but they always stick to a budget.

“We have set amounts for everyone,” says Mulder, 30, adding they often spend more on their children, ages 4 and 10.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jillian Mulder, mom of tow, shopping at Savoir Faire on Henderson Highway.

“We try to buy gifts that are affordable because we don’t want Christmastime to be stressful.”

Still, they will occasionally spend more.

“We want the gifts to be meaningful, and sometimes that does cost a little bit more.”

Yet meaning, not price, is the key word when it comes to spending on gifts. And perhaps the most important experience of all — besides family time — is instilling the joy of giving in their children.

“I take both my sons out, and we’ll shop for Dad, Grandma and Auntie,” she says. “It’s important to teach your children that.”

With each holiday season, the Mulders — like so many other families — are often faced with the question: how much is too much?

The answer is often more philosophical than one quantified by cash.

Certainly Christmas is a season driven by the urge to give, which often translates into spending — a lot of it.

Yet compared to previous decades, it’s becoming less of a spending frenzy than it used to be… maybe.

According a report from TD Economics, December accounts for about 10 per cent of the year’s retail spending. Looking at data between 1993 and 2013, spending relative to other months is declining slightly. Year over year for the last two decades, however, spending has grown by almost four per cent annually, almost double the rate of inflation.

So while holiday spending is less significant relative to the rest of the year, we’re still spending more than ever.

Of course the most obvious answer to whether someone is spending too much is going into the red.

“If you’re putting $500 on the credit card and making the minimum payment, you’re paying for this Christmas a whole lot longer than just this month,” says Sally Massey-Wiebe, a financial counsellor with Community Financial Counselling Service.

“What it will really cost is a whole lot more than $500.”

Call it the ghosts of Christmas past. Overspending on the holidays is the primary reason the non-profit Winnipeg agency sees a spike in clients seeking help managing their debt loads between the end of January and April — from all walks of life.

“Our clientele have a range of incomes,” she says. “It’s not just low-income individuals that we see. There are often people who have had fairly significant access to credit, and they’ve got themselves into trouble over time.”

The holidays merely serve as a breaking point, and they do not want (or cannot have) a repeat next year.

Still, reining in the urge to spend at this time of year is difficult for a variety of reasons, says Dr. Moira Somers, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba.

The big driver is simply people “want to do nice things for family and friends,” says Somers, who also has a private practice called Money, Mind and Meaning.

But it can also be spurred by outside forces.

“Some of the people I work with, it’s the extended family that is the problem,” Somers says. “They will not budge in terms of expectations that everybody has to buy for everybody even when it’s really clear it has outlived its usefulness and is causing strain.”

That’s not a problem for Bryan and Jennifer Lepp, who recently had a baby boy.

“Our families are huge, so we decided to draw names and spend $50 on a gift for that person,” he says. “That way, we’re not buying presents for 10 or more people.”

After all, when buying so many gifts, some of the meaning can be lost, he adds. Especially if it’s a matter of keeping with a family tradition than a personal choice.

“When is how much too much? I think resentment is a great signal,” Somers says. “What’s prompting the giving, and has it lost any connection with your values and how you want to enjoy the holidays?”

Too often, giving is equated with dollar figures. But it can and probably should be looked at differently.

“I try to get people to think a great deal about opportunity cost,” Somers says.

“Instead of asking ‘What else could I do with this money?’ the question shifts to ‘What else could I be doing with this time?’ “

And giving time and effort can be just as meaningful — if not more so — than gifts that cost money.

“Is there a point where it’s driven too much by consumerism, especially in light of the world around us where we have other opportunities to give that doesn’t entail standing in line on a Black Friday sale to get an electronics item?” Massey-Wiebe says.

“When you phrase it that way, it allows you to not just take into account your financial resources to spend, but it also frames your capacity to give your skills and energy to be a gift to someone else.”

Equally important, the season can serve as a teachable moment for children. Amid the peak of messaging to consume, parents can instil a sense of balance between enjoying “stuff” and responsibility — be it money management or generosity.

“How we as adults handle Christmas is very directly communicated to our kids even if we’re not speaking about it,” Massey-Wiebe says. “They see it, and they get a sense of what consumerism is all about.”

At some point in the future, Lepp says he and his wife will seek to find that equilibrium with their son, Sawyer.

But this time around: “He’s going to probably get spoiled like crazy by us and family.”

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