Want, Need, Wear, Read: How a Simple Saying Helps Me Keep My Holiday Spending Under Control

Photo credit: Ravi Shah, CC BY 2.0.

I have two kids who want every single toy they see in the weeks leading up to Christmas—which means I’ve discovered how easy it is to overspend during the holidays, buying them everything they’ve asked for and everything I think they’ll like. Not only do I end up spending way more than I budgeted, but my kids get emotionally overloaded by the sheer abundance of gifts. Have you ever seen a four-year-old have a meltdown because there were too many awesome gifts to play with and he couldn’t decide which one to play with first? It may sound funny, but it’s really just heartbreaking. Almost as heartbreaking is when the new toys they wanted so desperately a few weeks ago are tossed in the closet, ignored, or already broken.

I want to be a more thoughtful gift-giver and also teach my kids to appreciate and enjoy the gifts they’re given. Christmas is a time when less is absolutely more, so I keep myself on track during the holiday season by following a simple saying I read about years ago: Each child gets something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. This saying is beautiful in its simplicity, even if I do get weird looks from strangers when I’m muttering “want, need, wear, read” under my breath as I stroll the toy aisles at Target.

How does Want, Need, Wear, Read work for my family? First, I allot around $50–75 to each category, for a total of $200–300 per kid. (The amount is easily adjusted each year to accommodate our budget.) I also make sure my kids understand that this is a family tradition; my husband and I also receive Want, Need, Wear, Read gifts, although the guidelines are a little more flexible to accommodate his love of tech and my passion for books.

My kids are old enough now that I’ve started asking them what types of gifts they might like for each category, which makes them look at toy catalogs and commercials a little more thoughtfully (while my six-year-old tries to convince me he really needs a new Nerf gun). Our list of Want, Need, Wear, Read this year looks like this:


LEGO blocks are the number-one most-requested gift by my six- and eight-year-old sons, and anyone who has kids (or loves LEGO) knows that sets can be pricey. $50–75 will get me two or three smaller building sets or one large set, depending on their requests.


“Need” conjures up images of socks and underwear, but sometimes something my kids need is also something they want. For my growing kids, it’ll be new scooters or bikes this year to replace the ones they’ve outgrown. They’re still young enough that I can find their new rides in my price range, but if I should need to go over, I’ll dip into any extra money from the other categories.


Oh, this must be where the socks and underwear come in, right? Probably not this year. I did a big socks and underwear buy this summer and they’re still good. But my kids both need new warm, water-resistant gloves, a couple of heavier pants for playing this winter, and maybe a sweater or two. And my older son wants a new belt, so it goes into this category because he can wear it!


I mentioned that I love books, and I do! My house has books in nearly every room, which means this is my favorite category. This year, both of my kids have requested more books in their favorite series and I have a couple of books I want to buy for us to read together. There will be some money left over in this category even once I indulge my bibliophile heart, so it will get shifted to another category, if necessary.

Any leftover money goes toward a few smaller gifts in the $5–20 range to go under the tree and in their stockings. And, yes, I will likely go a little over my budget buying some last-minute must-have gift they’ve requested. A splurge gift can’t be too pricey—my cut off is about $50—and is usually something they’ll share, like a game or outdoor toy. But keeping Want, Need, Wear, Read in mind when I shop keeps me mindful of the gifts I’m buying and the money I’m spending.

By letting my kids in on my gift-buying philosophy and asking them what they think should go in each category—not just for themselves, but for my husband and me, too—I hope I’m helping them become more mindful of what they already have, what they really want, and what the spirit of gift-giving is all about.

Kristina Wright lives in Virginia with her husband and kids and writes about parenting for Mom.me and books for BookBub. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook or the nearest Starbucks.

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

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