Dear Penny: Can I Afford Gifts for 14 Grandkids on a Social Security Budget?

Dear Penny,

I am 69 years young, yet I am in a quandary regarding birthday and Christmas gifts for my wonderful posterity of four children and 14 grandchildren. Two of the grandchildren are married, and three of my children have a spouse or partner.

We are on Social Security. What do I do? I have been gifting all my life, but now I am unsure if I will have enough if my husband dies first and then I am left with less Social Security. How do I proceed?


Dear V.,

Social Security cost-of-living adjustments barely keep up with rising prices each year. They certainly don’t leave room to expand your gifting budget with each new addition to an already large extended family.

I’m sure your children and grandchildren have appreciated your generosity over the years. But when you’re buying presents for nearly two dozen people twice a year, those costs add up fast. Even if you spend just $15 or $20 on each gift, that’s a real strain when you live on a fixed income. Meanwhile, the benefit to each recipient is relatively minor. I don’t think your family would want those gifts to keep coming if they knew the price was your long-term security.

Dear Penny

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You and your husband should have a heart-to-heart chat with your kids. Tell them you’re worried about money. Say that you won’t be able to keep gifting the way you have in the past. Since it sounds like you have a loving family, I think they’ll be grateful for your honesty.

This isn’t just about setting expectations for future birthdays and holidays. Often, adult children find it awkward to talk to their parents about their finances. But these conversations are essential to have. It’s best to start talking about money when there isn’t a looming crisis. This is especially important if you think you might need your children to help you out as you get older.

Moving forward, your approach to giving needs to be determined by what you can afford — not by what you’ve done in the past, the number of people in your family or anyone else’s expectations. Make a monthly budget that includes a line item for gifts, provided that you can afford them at all. I recommend starting a bank account where you stash any money you’ve earmarked for gifts. Doing so helps you stick to giving only what you can afford.

If you can’t afford anything, that’s OK. Taking care of your own needs is the top priority. That by itself is a pretty big challenge at a time when inflation is at 40-year highs.

If you have room in your budget for some gifts, you might focus on the occasions that don’t come around every year. Perhaps that means restricting yourself to gifts for big milestones, like graduations, weddings and births.

For holidays like Christmas, maybe you can start a new tradition. You could suggest doing a Secret Santa gift exchange, where each person draws a name and buys something only for that person. This could include a dollar limit so no one feels pressured to overspend. If everyone in your family tends to buy gifts for each person, this would no doubt provide welcome relief for everyone. Even when you’re not on a fixed income, buying gifts for a large extended family and their partners can drain your budget.

Also think about ways you can celebrate a loved one without spending much money. A phone call, a thoughtful handwritten card or a homemade meal are all a lot more meaningful than sending something generic, like a gift card. If you have extra time, that may be more valuable to busy family members than a gift that requires money. You could volunteer to pet-sit if a loved one is going out of town, or babysit if there are young children in the family.

This is an incredibly common dilemma for retirees with growing extended families. Even in normal times, senior budgets often don’t have a lot of wiggle room. But as costs continue to skyrocket, many people will need to readjust how much they can afford to give.

For any readers who aren’t struggling financially, one of the kindest things you can do is take the lead here. If others in your life are going through tough times, suggest forgoing gifts and spending time together next time a big holiday approaches. Or tell loved ones that you don’t want presents for your birthday. Making it clear that you have no expectations could buy a lot of relief for someone you love.

Does your balance sheet need a reset? Try these smart ways to organize your finances.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].