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Not-So-Big Spender

It's easier to give gifts when you can't afford to shop


Published April 1, 2012 at 4:00 a.m.
Updated April 4, 2022 at 7:32 p.m.

When I was growing up, my family was very, very poor.

This didn't dismay my parents unduly, I suspect. We lived in England, and the entire nation was poor. The Second World War had ended less than a decade before I was born, and rationing and the ghastly postwar "austerity" years meant tight belts and empty stomachs well into the '60s. Most of the time, we didn't even realize we had no money. The exception came when it was time to buy presents for Christmas and birthdays.

The presents in our household weren't quite at the Harry Potter-level of a toothpick or a used Kleenex, but I certainly remember one Christmas getting a wooden ruler. And we had a fairly strict one-present-to-one-person tradition — so much so that when I emigrated to the United States, became marginally less poor, and sent multiple presents to my siblings and their kids, I made them uncomfortable.

This may make me sound like a Dickensian waif, but when I was back in England, I didn't mind. When you're that poor, you know exactly what you can and can't afford, and what you can and can't expect to receive. It's when things change that the trouble arises.

Fast-forward to the United States in the mid-1990s. Financially, everything had changed. Thanks to Reaganomics, the U.S. had gone from being the world's thriftiest, saving nation to its biggest spender/debtor nation. The dot-com boom had further served to convince us that we could all be billionaires. And in my own life, I married Barbara, a woman of such spontaneous generosity it made my head spin, and we were raising two young daughters.

Barbara and I were by no means well off, but that didn't hold her back when birthdays or Christmas were approaching. For her, the rule was closer to 12 presents to one person. In her own childhood, she had always been the victim of her parents' bargain-basement shopping, so quality mattered. Unlike me, she gave a lot of thought, early and often, to what everyone wanted or might possibly want. She started ordering and buying and wrapping so far ahead of time that when I started to think about Christmas, all the good presents had already been taken.

They say the two most contentious issues between couples are sex and money, and money alone was driving us apart. I came to dread Christmas and my daughters' birthdays. About two months out, the girls would start drawing up gift lists that catapulted me back 40 or 50 years, as if I had become my own parents, struck dumb by horror and dismay.

Yet within a couple of weeks, Barbara would whisper joyfully that she had managed to get almost everything on the list. To me, this was anything but good news. It meant our meager household budget was already under strain, and anything I spent would make things even worse. Time and again I would find myself walking up and down Church Street, my heart sinking with each step, trying to find that fictitious gift that was exactly what my daughter wanted yet hadn't thought to put on her list. It — or they — should be lavish enough to speak to the love in my heart, yet preferably cost less than $25.

This past birthday — Maddy's late in February — I think we finally cracked it. Barbara, planning ahead as always, bought herself, Maddy and Maddy's boyfriend tickets to see The Book of Mormon in New York, plus two nights in a hotel. I can't imagine how much this cost, but I decided, at long last, that it wasn't my job to do so. Fact is, I can't stand musical theater, and my family knows it. This was a mother-daughter thing, and, frankly, mothers and daughters need their thing.

For my part, I decided to do a father-daughter thing, and bought her all kinds of paraphernalia from the TV show "Psych," which Maddy and I watch religiously and repeatedly. I ordered the "Psych" iPhone cover, the "Psych" pen, the Burton Guster Pharmaceutical Rep pen, the "I've heard it both ways" T-shirt. Plus the soundtrack CD to Midnight in Paris, as she and I both love French music, especially gypsy jazz.

That whole bundle probably didn't come close to the cost of a single ticket to The Book of Mormon, but what I had finally come to understand was that Maddy didn't think of me as a stingy person, and the only reason she'd ever think me mean spirited would be if I tried to curb her mother's generosity.

Children don't need presents, or money. Anyone who has watched a 2-year-old happily spend an hour banging a wooden spoon on an overturned saucepan knows that. They need their parents' love, which can be expressed in any number of ways. Right now I'm making Maddy a kind of late, or follow-up, birthday present: an easel, handmade out of cherry wood, that will help (I hope) in her art career, and with care will last 20 or 30 years.

What did that cost? Maybe $30 for materials. The real investment is exactly what it costs to raise a child: time, labor, patience, love.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.