Teen holiday giving should stress creativity, not cash

Posted December 10, 2007 1:25 p.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2008 12:20 p.m. EST

Sally Dean already is making a list and checking it twice. The sophomore at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh wants to give holiday gifts to seven best friends, a new boyfriend and her entire family, including nieces and nephews. But she doesn’t have a job, her wallet is empty, and gifts are expensive.

Without Santa Claus to deliver their special gifts, teens face a tricky dilemma during the festive season. How can they spread the holiday cheer to all their friends and family in a meaningful way without breaking the bank?

First and foremost, local experts agree that parents should not just fork over the money to pay for gifts for their teens’ friends. Now is the time for teens to get creative, and having Mom and Dad bail them out with some cash is not the way to go.

“There already is enough about spending and buying gifts during the Christmas season,” says Maureen Dolan Rosen, a financial writer and lecturer who lives in Chapel Hill. “Parents need to tell their teens they have to pay for any gifts for their friends. In most cases, this definitely will help keep the costs down.”

Typically, teenage girls are the ones excited about exchanging gifts during the holidays; boys rarely give gifts to their friends, experts say. For girls, it is often difficult to narrow the list of friends to receive holiday gifts.

Rosen encourages her teenage daughter to use her imagination when thinking about gifts for friends. Homemade gifts often can be creative, fun and more meaningful than purchased items.

These can range from baked goods in decorative tins to framed pictures of the friends together, she says. Other suggestions include gift bags with tiny treats like candy and candles, small scrapbooks with mementos from special activities and CDs with special songs.

“Parents can offer a lot of direction in the preparing of the gifts without having to pay for them,” Rosen says. “I also think it is important to give meaningful gifts and not just something that will end up in the landfill after the holidays.”

Liza Weidle, a family involvement counselor, emphasizes that holiday gifts need to be from the teenager, and not something Mom just picked up and bought.

Her daughter, who is in seventh grade, likes giving homemade candy for gifts during all the holidays or birthdays. Weidle stresses the importance of teens learning to “give gifts from the heart” instead of a one-size-fits-all variety.

“We try to stay away from store-bought gifts if we can,” Weidle says. “If she buys a gift at the mall, she has to use her own money.”

Special challenges can come up when teenagers want to exchange gifts with boyfriends or girlfriends. Teens often believe that expensive gifts, like sweaters or necklaces, are the way to go.

Once again, Rosen advises parents not to pay for these gifts among teen sweethearts. The lessons are the same – creative gifts from the heart can mean more than expensive ones from a store, she says.

If teens have their own money for these gifts, parents should encourage good judgment and moderation when spending money for both friends and girlfriends or boyfriends.

Rob Phillips, the director of youth ministry at White Plains United Methodist Church in Cary, stresses the importance of keeping the holiday in perspective with gift-giving.

“It is important for teens to make space in their lives for other people,” he says. “While we want our teens to be generous to others. We also want them to keep it in perspective. We talk a lot about the importance of balance in our lives.”

Phillips encourages teens to write notes to their family and friends, expressing their feelings and appreciation for their love and support.

Through the years, he has seen teens be creative with their holiday gift-giving. He recalls one girl who bought 18 small gifts, each just for $1, for a friend’s 18th birthday.

Sally Dean, the Athens Drive High student, started making and collecting special gifts for her varied group of friends and relatives in October. These include gift bags filled with soaps and candles for her friends, a small scrapbook of their activities for the boyfriend and some candy and tiny toys for the nieces and nephews.

“I really look forward to thinking up unique and creative gifts without spending a lot of money,” Sally says. “Everyone seems to appreciate the gifts a lot more.”