Holiday Spending When There Are No Kids in the Family

Photo credit: Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0.

I’d count the first “kidless Christmas” in my family as the year I was 21. My sister had just turned 19, making it the first year where all of the grandkids were adults but none of us had our own children.

My sister seemed a little disappointed that there wasn’t much to do for Christmas that year; none of us cousins were young enough to inspire the family to make a big deal out of things. A general calm had replaced the big hoopla of all the cousins getting together, making all kinds of baked goods and hot cocoa, and trying to catch Santa. We were all too old for footie pajamas with matching sledding penguins on them.

That year’s Christmas was marked by a big breakfast as a family and sitting around opening one present at a time for an hour or so—but over the years, more and more gift cards and cash gifts creeped in, as well as neutral food gifts like fancy popcorn or chocolates. Christmas wasn’t the “big” holiday anymore; it was pretty much the same as any other family gathering.

But even though all of us grandkids were adults, we were still growing up—and that meant our family holidays went through a few distinct phases:

The broke college student

When we first entered the kidless years, I didn’t know how much I should spend on gifts. I was a full-fledged adult, but I wasn’t “making Christmas special” for a child by showering them with presents—and I knew the other adults didn’t really want me to spend a lot of my money on gifts because I was still in college. So I kept it pretty sparse: I’d crochet things, make a charitable donation in someone’s honor when I was in my anti-materialism phase, or make homemade pastries or chocolates. The outlay per person was pretty small; about $10 each, on average.

The overseas adult child 

When I moved away to Spain for two years, I stepped out of the Christmas present pool entirely—my parents and grandparents were okay with this because customs and the cost of shipping made them grumpy at the “waste” required to get a physical object across the ocean. When I returned home, I tried to bring valuable stories that I turned into a Shutterfly book for my grandmother, and I worked pretty hard that year to do multiple thoughtful gifts for each of my nearest and dearest. I spent $40 per person, on average, and everyone got at least one trinket from my life abroad.

This was the point at which our family Christmases started to become less about presents and more about passing gift cards around. Even though my sister remained a bit latently grumpy that Christmas was “barely a thing” any more, she was also joining the military, which meant she sometimes couldn’t come home for the holidays either. While cash gifts to help us low-earning 20-somethings out were very much appreciated, the level of “personalization” to the gifts steadily decreased.

Enter the significant other

When I turned 25 and got serious about dating the man who would become my husband, we re-engaged with Christmas because we each had a whole new set of people to give presents to. I was touched to learn that, though the traditions were equally low-key in my husband’s similarly childless family, their gifts were quite personalized. Even the gift cards I got were specifically for craft stores, given my love of yarn, rather than more general cards to big box stores.

The first two Christmases we spent together were marked by the challenge of trying to show we cared for our soon-to-be new families, and by the fact that we love doing projects together and made dates specifically to craft homemade gifts. I’d say we still only spent $20 or $25 per person, given that we had so many people to gift to, but every gift was also full of thought-hours and crafting-hours.

A new generation

Now we are on the cusp of a new era: my husband’s brother has had his first child, and while the little guy is barely staying awake long enough to notice Christmas lights, we are technically back into a time when there are children for whom we will “make Christmas special,” probably with presents that cost money. This child is the first grandkid on both sides of his family, so my husband and I probably won’t shower him with stuff, but I envision us gifting his parents either babysitting hours so they can have a date night, or actual baby stuff if they let us know that they need anything. From here on out, though, I envision that each added niece, nephew, or cousin’s kid will add to the gift-giving costs; same with our own kids someday.

All this evaluation of past gifting makes me wonder what my ideal Christmas expenditure would be, both with no kids and with some kids in the family. With no kids, I wish that we could focus our holidays on making a fun and memorable meal together. We could also play a new board game, take a class, or get tickets to a theater or sporting event; after all, when there isn’t a need for supervising children, the family is free to seek more entertainment outside the home. The thing that I love about adult family is the togetherness; most of us have our own revenue streams, so we don’t need gift cards—but we do need experiences together, especially if they’re the kind of experiences that we might not buy “just for ourselves” but would be happy to share with other people. 

Children, on the other hand, get much of their yearly “income” of toys, clothes, and books through Christmas, and I don’t have a problem contributing to that once they are old enough to appreciate it and—I hope—also value experiences and a bit of generosity themselves. Many of the traditional ways my family made Christmas special when we were kids were also ways of teaching us things: how to build anticipation for something exciting, how to get through the cold and gray months, how to care about our religious history, how to appreciate our friends and family, and how to give to those who had less than we did.

Perhaps my ideal Christmas, as more children join our family in the coming years, would put a lower value on the present-opening aspect—though kids will always be excited about presents—while still teaching some of the values I learned by experiencing our Christmas traditions as a child. 

Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. Read more of her work at Messy Mapmaker.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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