In light of everything happening in this country and the world lately, perhaps it’s time to step back and ask ourselves what do we really want this time of year to be about? Is the annual year-end shopping frenzy worth the stress, exhaustion and expense? Would it truly be a disaster if we bought family and friends fewer gifts and spent less money? (If so, perhaps you need to also take a hard look at the folks on your list.)

FICO, the firm that invented the credit score, reports that credit card debt is the top concern of most consumers with 30% of survey respondents vowing to reduce the amount they spend over the holidays this year and two-thirds expecting to charge $500 or less.

None-the-less, spending limits set with good intentions back in October are easily exceeded by the end of December. According psychologists, guilt, getting caught up in the excitement of the moment and/or the competition to keep up with the "Joneses" can lead us to spend more than we can afford. A survey taken in January by Bankrate.com found that last year nearly one in five of people who created a holiday budget blew it. Income level was not a factor; “the percentage of people who paid more for presents than planned was consistent, varying by only 5 percentage points", according to the report.

In fact, 13% of consumers who used a credit card to buy last year’s gifts have still not paid off the balance, according to a recent poll by Consumer Reports. 

The holiday spending conundrum can be especially painful in the current economic climate. Gregory Downing, author of Entrepreneur Unleashed: Wealth to Stand the Test of Time, suggests parents on a budget level with their children. “We shelter kids from the truth about financial issues. Parents don’t like to face the reality, either.”

As difficult as it might be to tell your family that you cannot afford to spend the amount of money on gifts that you have in the past due to financial constraints, pretending that nothing has changed does more harm than good. Regardless of age, children have an uncanny ability to sense that something’s wrong or different. “When we hide things from our kids, they know it, and that creates a level of distrust,” says Downing, who maintains that the biggest breakdown in families today revolves around communication. In an age-appropriate way, he says it’s critical to “tell them what’s going on in the house. If the family is struggling, kids know. It’s not helpful to hide this.”

Thirteen years ago Downing walked away from a well-paying job managing 130 employees at four car dealerships. “I moved from being an employee of corporate America to a successful real estate investor and entrepreneur. I gave my kids everything they wanted because I didn’t get that [as a child]. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I created a small tribe of spoiled brats.”

Determined to change the situation, Downing decided the holidays would be a time of giving instead of receiving. He sat the family down and told his children that they had received a lot of things throughout the year and that they should not expect any extravagant gifts for the holidays. Even if they didn’t have everything they wanted, they were a lot better off than most families and they were going to shift their focus to helping others.

These days, with the help of the Red Cross, his family adopts 15 families each year and provides Christmas gifts for everyone. “My kids buy the presents.” 

Although you might be facing your own financial problems, there’s a good chance others are in worse shape. Downing suggests parents have an honest conversation with their children, explaining that, “others are struggling more than we are. This year we’re going to have a fundraiser to help them.” Or, arrange for your children to help serve food at a homeless shelter. “It’s an eye-opener,” says Downing. “They realize how fortunate they are. It’s amazing how much kids will be more will to give than take.” 

A big problem with the year-end holidays, according to Downing, is that both parents and children have unrealistic expectations. Parents give more than they can afford- often out of guilt, and in return, their children develop “an entitlement mentality” where they become reliant on someone else providing for them. As they get older, this turns into what Downing calls the “employee mindset.” Instead, he thinks we should be teaching our children to have an “entrepreneur mentality,” one where they learn to become self-sufficient instead of expecting to be taken care of by an employer. 

The first step in Downing’s approach is to lay out your family finances so that your children begin to think of it as a business. Show them your pay stubs so they know how much money you bring home and then list all of the family expenses, everything from groceries, to cable and the cost of braces. While many parents would balk at this, Downing considers it critical to then ask your children for ideas about how to reduce the family’s expenses and how they might personally contribute to the family income.

Obviously, what you share with your kids should fit the age of the child. Young children might contribute by walking the dog or cleaning up the family room. With older children the goal is to get them to “think about what their passions are and ask how they might make money from this.” Perhaps this has something to do with computers or tutoring another child who has difficulty with math or Spanish. 

“Contributing is, of course, the antithesis of being spoiled,” says Downing, whose family is proof this approach can work. His 17-year-old son is already an entrepreneur: He just bought his third small business- a tackle shop- and is a minority owner in some real estate with his dad, who made it clear the young man is responsible for paying back the money he was loaned. “He knows what it costs” to run each business, Downing proudly says. And he’s earning a profit. In fact, dad no longer gives him an allowance. His son uses the income from his businesses to cover his car expenses and nights out with friends.

Downing stresses that there’s nothing inherently evil about being wealthy, which, he says, is about “how well you meet the needs of others.” The key is to remember that other side of the coin is giving back. He says parents are the ones who need to set an example for their children. “How much time do you spend contributing to those who are not as blessed as you are?,” asks Downing. “Even if you give [your children] bushels of ‘stuff,’ but also taken them with you when you work for two hours at the soup kitchen, they won’t be spoiled. They just won’t.” 

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to: yourmoneymatters@gmail.com, along with your name and phone number.

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to: yourmoneymatters@gmail.com, along with your name and phone number.