When Gifts Bite Back

In our previous blog, “Rethinking Gifts & Presents”, we talked about the necessity of purposely limiting gifts to your kids. We suggested it may be time to buck the current trend of buying your kids everything and maybe be a little more thoughtful in giving gifts.

But what if someone else steps in and starts giving gifts to your family and children? What to do then? As parents, we have the option to choose what to give our children. We can control what comes into our homes and the lives of our kids. But what if our kids are getting gifts from elsewhere? This includes family, friends, coworkers, relatives, and especially grandparents. What to do then?

Free Stuff

Free stuff can be a trap if you are not careful.

In our family, people have always given us stuff. They would always be kind about it, sometimes even asking, “Would it offend you if I brought over [insert item here]?” Of course we would not be offended. We never turn down free stuff. That was a policy my wife and I agreed upon early in our marriage. After all, we were poor college students at the time, and free stuff was, well, free stuff!

We would accept clothes, furniture, yard equipment, you name it. And people would give us stuff for all sorts of reasons. They felt sorry for us because we were so poor, or they liked how we were raising our children and wanted to help out, or they liked us personally, or they wanted to get rid of their junk and we were the closest neighbor, or countless other reasons. The motives did not matter to us. We just liked the free stuff.

Our policy was to accept free stuff, and then if we could not use it ourselves, we would donate it to charity. We would tell people that, too: “Thank you so much for the couch. If we cannot use it, we will find someone who can.” That worked really well for household items.

But then there were the toys and the clothes. That was another ball of wax.

We quickly noticed that when people gave us stuff for our kids and we did not intervene, it became a free-for-all. Our kids would fight over who got what, our house became cluttered with a bunch of stuff that nobody wanted, we sometimes found our kids in possession of things that were not allowed in our home, and there was a spirit of entitlement amongst in our family members. Gifts were really a negative toll on our family.

5 Reasons To Charge Money For Free Stuff

So, we opted on a different approach. We do things much differently now.

When kind friends give our family bags of clothes or items or “gifts”, we save the items until payday, and then we sell the items to our kids at garage sale prices. Yes, we accept free things and then turn around and sell those things to our kids.

Why would we do this?

Because it counteracts all the negatives of free stuff listed above. Here are five benefits to running the home this way.

Reason #1: No More Fighting

Two girls fight over a shirt
Avoid fights by having kids pay for and thus own their stuff.

This is a biggie. When kids pay for an item, that item is now theirs.

That kid now has ownership of the item. When you pay for something, it is yours. Nobody else can claim it. When it is free, on the other hand, there is some ambiguity as to whom it belongs. Just because somebody claimed it does not necessarily make it theirs.

We ran into that problem repeatedly. People would give us nice things, and our kids would fight over who it belonged to. Nice shirts or shoes were always prized items. But once we had our kids pay for the items, the fighting stopped. There was clear ownership.

My wife noticed that concept years ago as a teenager. Her grandparents offered their old car to her for free. Hannah knew that her siblings would want to use the car if it were a gift from the grandparents, and so she did the smart thing. Instead of accepting the gift, she paid $500 for the car. It was hers. Nobody else could claim ownership. And it prevented a lot of heartache and fights.

Reason #2: Clear Ownership

Girl made own bed proud
Ownership goes a long way to solving lots of problems.

This is one of those principles you hear from grandpa: you should earn what you get. Turns out, he is right. You should pay for what you have. Even if it is only a dollar. Never accept free stuff. When you accept stuff for free, there are always strings attached. That is why when people give us free stuff, we offer to pay a dollar. Or five dollars. Or whatever cash we happen to have on hand. It cuts the strings.

We learned that issue the hard way a while back. A kind neighbor was giving us lots of her old things—it was easier for her than dropping it off at Goodwill. We were more convenient. But we made a mistake of not paying for the items. Fast forward a few months later, and there was a disagreement between this neighbor and my wife about some minor political issue. It was harmless, but the neighbor felt my wife had to acquiesce to her viewpoint, that somehow my wife owed this woman some sort of fealty because this woman had given us free stuff. Turns out, the free stuff had some serious strings attached.

That is why we recommend paying for free stuff, even if the payment is a dollar. It cuts the strings. There is no ambiguity of ownership. I paid for that thing; it is now mine. You are no longer in control of it or me.

Reason #3: Declutter the Home

Decluttering the home
My friend would bring boxes of amazing clothes.

In our “Decluttering the Home – Less IS More” article, we talked about how we purposely limit the amount of clothing items our kids can own. Everything left over gets donated to charity. It really cuts down on the mess and actually makes it easier for our kids to manage their rooms and their belongings. After all, the more stuff you have, the more stuff there is to clean.

So, when people give our family bags of nice kids’ clothes, we sell those items to our kids at garage sale prices on payday. A shirt would go for $0.50 and a pair of shoes might be a dollar. This works really well. Having our kids purchase the items they want acts as a great litmus test for whether or not they belong in our home. If our kids are not interested in paying money for the items (at garage sale prices, mind you), then those items have no place in our home. All they will do is clutter the house. So, we haul the left-over items to Goodwill or another charitable store.

Then, the small amount of money we collect from selling the kids the stuff goes back into the family bank account.

By treating gifts like “Prize Bag” items to be offered for sale on payday, your reward system will be enhanced instead of ruined.

Reason #4: Maintain Family Rules

We do not allow video games in our home.

One Easter, one of our kids won the grand prize in an Easter egg hunt: a brand-new Nintendo Wii. The problem was, we do not allow video games in our home. My wife hates video games. She always has. She hates the way it wastes time and resources. So, what did we do?

We graciously accepted the game console, said thank you, and then promptly re-gifted it to someone who we knew really wanted it.

This is the problem when people give your kids gifts and free stuff: it may conflict with your family rules. It may be an item that you do not allow in your home. It may be an article of clothing that has inappropriate language or images on it. It may be a movie or music that is against your family standards. Or it may be dangerous or illegal. What if someone is giving your kids alcohol or cigarettes?

Or worse?

The best thing to do is to intercept gifts from other people and make sure you the parent are the one deciding if it comes into the home.

Reason #5: Eliminate Entitlement

Kids who have too much are known as "spoiled" and have no motive to work.

When you give your children free things, you destroy the economy of supply and demand in your home that is essential for motivating your children to work consistently. The kids become entitled, thinking they deserve free stuff. For the sakes of your children, you must charge your children for any and all items they receive. Nothing should be free. The only exceptions are Christmas and birthdays, and we recommend giving just one present from you the parents each time.


Traffic cone

Then there is the issue of safety. We also learned this the hard way.

We suggest you let your kids know that they are not allowed to accept gifts. All presents and free stuff has to go through you, the parents. Most other responsible adults understand they are not to give your kids things unless they first okay it through parents.

At this point, you may be thinking that we are being extreme, or even harsh. Why would we not allow other people to give our kids gifts and free stuff? Are we just controlling parents? I would argue that we are not. In fact, you probably already have this policy in your own home, even if you have not made it official. Think of it this way. Would you be okay if someone bought your son a shovel for his birthday? Maybe. Maybe not. But what about a BB gun? Again, maybe. Or maybe not. How about a police-issue shotgun? Or dynamite? What about alcohol? What about a set of pornographic magazines? Or similar movies?

The point is, some gifts are not appropriate. Every family is different, but the principle is the same: all gifts should go through the parents, even if the gift is innocuous. And responsible people understand that.

For example, a few weeks ago, I was as the store with two of my kids. They looked cute and were being very well behaved. We were at the checkout line, and the cashier was so impressed, she pulled me aside and asked if she could give my kids some lollipops. I said yes, and she handed each of my kids a lollipop. I really appreciated that she went through me, rather than directly approaching my children and offering the candy to them. That is what I expect from adults. Most adults have sense to ask before giving your kids things.

However, some adults are not quite that way.

Responsible adults know to ask the parents before giving a gift to children.

We had an experience several years ago, right about the time smart phones were coming into vogue. This was before we knew how dangerous smart phones can be in the wrong hands. An elderly gentleman we knew from church approached us and asked if he could give one of our kids a smart phone. He was in the tech industry and routinely got the cell phones for free. He would fix them up and then give them away to the younger generation and teach them how to use them and how to be safe with them.

We did not know any better, so we agreed. He came over, helped our kids set up the phones, installed their apps, and even set up some online accounts. As the days progressed, and the visits happened again and again, we began to grow uneasy. We discovered there were a lot of apps that we did not approve. There were social media accounts, email, and even some private texting apps. Things got really weird really fast. The situation went from innocent to scary in about a week’s time. We decided to stop the phone access and to delete all the accounts. We did not feel comfortable with this older gentleman and what he was doing.

Shortly after we tried deleting the accounts from the phone, this older gentleman showed up at our door, demanding to see the phone. We refused, citing that he had given us the phone as a gift. But because we had not paid for it, there was this mentality that he somehow still owned it—and by extension, owned our child. We owed him. It was really weird.

If, however, we had simply paid $5 or $10 or even $1 for the silly phone, there would not have been an issue. We would have been able to tell him to go pound sand. There would not have been a discussion. Because it was free, he still owned it somehow. That we owed him something. He still had the right to control the phone and our kid’s activity on the phone. In fact, he overrode our decision when we tried to delete the accounts and reinstated the accounts. It made us very uncomfortable. We learned the hard way that any time you accept something for free, there is an implied element of control. And young children are particularly susceptible to that. They are vulnerable. But even if they pay $1 for something, it changes the relationship. It is now theirs. They own it.

To Be Continued...

In short, all gifts should go through you, the parents. It is safer, better, and wiser. It protects the kids, maintains the family economy, does not upend your prize bag, and minimizes problems all around. Make sure your kids understand that all gifts and free things are to go through you, the parents. Help them understand why. And then, when free stuff does come, make sure everyone pays for it.

Of course, there is one group conspicuously missing from our discussion. What about grandparents? They are notorious for giving gifts. How do we deal with them? And then, what if they give gifts that create problems? And try to ruin your family? On purpose! We will cover that in our next blog, “Gifts and Toxic Grandparents”.


What about you? Do you agree? Disagree? How does your family deal with free stuff and gifts? Leave a comment below.

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Phontaine Judd

Phontaine Judd

Phontaine is co-creator of Moneypants and the proud father of 8 sons and 7 daughters.

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