Cash-Strapped Dads Get Creative To Chase Holiday Blues

By: Gregory Keer

Yesterday, having allowed my fuel needle to hover a little too long at "Empty," I pulled into a gas station for a fill-up. At $2.22 a gallon, this was the cheapest gas I'd seen in a while. As I watched the cost roll past $30, I thought to myself, "There goes that Tonka truck for the kids."

High gas prices are the least of it (they're currently lowering but not far enough to really help). The dollar is rapidly weakening against other world currencies, job creation is an up-and-down affair, and the real estate market has become unrealistic for most of the middle class. I remain hopeful for the future, but right now, money's too tight to mention.

But, since it's the holidays, let's mention it anyway.

Like millions of other dads out there, I spent another year working more hours for the same or less pay than previous years. Worse yet, the dollars I earned have paid for fewer items than ever. When did milk get so expensive? How can the cable company lower my rates one month and raise them the next? How can I afford new soccer cleats for my son when the cash went to the roofer?

For men, money is an issue that heads or comes close to the top of the anxiety list. Obviously, women share in these concerns, but we're going to delve into the male side of this issue here. The fact is that men, more often than women, equate success with money. And, as fathers, men equate being a good father with how much they can provide their children.

It would be easy to say that modern men should know better. Sure, enlightened dads realize that love is more valuable than any GameBoy or Bratz doll. But most guys still can't shake the feeling that they've underperformed if they cannot heap presents under the Christmas tree, next to the Chanukah menorah, or beside the Kwanzaa candles.

During a holiday time when commercials, newspaper ads, and doe-eyed children bombard us with the "Buy something or your kids will hate you," what can dads do if money's not as plentiful as we'd like? Here are three ideas to make the holidays special without squeezing your pocketbook.

1. Buy Fewer Gifts

With children, no matter how much they holler about it otherwise, quality matters more than quantity. Consider buying one nice gift for each child. Surprises are nice, but you literally can't afford to disappoint them, so ask them what'd they would like. If it's more than your budget can handle, give them a price ceiling (if they're old enough to know what that is) or ask them for five choices so that, whatever gift you get them, they'll be happy. If you still want to give them more presents, buy small, less expensive items. If you do buy a game system, wrap the main unit up separately from the game. Cheaper and still meaningful gifts are paperback books, card decks, and CDs purchased from used-record stores. You really can create the impression of a bounty without breaking the bank.

2. Teach Them Values

The holidays are supposed to be a time of serious value reflection. Families are meant to gather just to be together and perhaps contemplate God's gifts to the world and the good fortune we all have in being as healthy as possible. This is easily forgotten in the materialism swirling around us like a blizzard and kids may seem uninterested in learning something when they're on school break. But this is the perfect time to teach your kids what's important about life. Dads can use financial difficulty to strip the holidays down to what really matters and role model the values they want their children to have.

One of the values is making time for family and friends. Explain to your children how much you love being with them and, instead of trying to earn overtime dollars to fund the new Spider-Man playset, hang out with the kids as much as possible. When all is said and done, your time with them will be more memorable than any new toy.

3. Give Them Something Unique

If you want to give them something material, try digging through your memorabilia and offer them the baseball you caught at the major-league game when you were 12 or the favorite T-shirt that would look really cool on your daughter when she goes skateboarding. Giving something that has meaning to you -- and that you already own -- costs nothing and means so much.

You can also choose to make up a few gift certificates that say things like, "This Coupon Good for One Free Movie with Dad" or "This Entitles My Son to a Double-Scoop Ice Cream to Be Redeemed with Your Father." This will be cheap monetarily, but will hold the value of experience that your kids will treasure.

Nothing can take the sting out of being financially strapped better than our children. It's certainly normal to feel mad at the world or yourself about having less to provide for your kids. But as a dad, you should do yourself the favor of not spending too much time worrying about what you can't deliver and instead invest your precious moments in talking, hugging, and playing with your children during this holiday season.

Gregory Keer is a syndicated columnist, teacher, and on-air expert on fatherhood. His Family Man TM column appears in publications across the country, including L.A. Parent, Boston Parents' Paper, Bay Area Parent, Long Island Parenting News, Metro Augusta Parent, and Sydney's Child in Australia. Keer's concurrent column, Today's Family Man, is found at his online fatherhood magazine, He also writes for Parenting magazine, the Parents' Choice Foundation, and On television, Keer has appeared on morning shows and cable specials. He is the father of three sons and husband to Wendy, a professor in child-development.

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