Money

My dad's gift-giving tradition taught me a critical money lesson that forever changed the way I spend

My dad takes my two brothers and me shopping once a year, during the week of Christmas.

We're on the lookout for what he's coined our "go-to gift." We can choose whatever we want, within reason, as long as we can explain exactly how we're going to use it over at least the next year. As my dad likes to say, "Anything goes … as long as it's utilitarian."

As a result, we each devote real time to thinking about a quality purchase that will truly be functional, useful and durable. After all, we only have one shot each year.

My "go-to gift" this year is a high-quality pair of running leggings — and as an avid runner, I didn't have a hard time selling him on that. One year, it was a six-month gym membership. Another, it was a cocktail dress.

My dad taught me and my brothers the difference between a "want" and a "need" at a young age.
Kathleen Elkins
My dad taught me and my brothers the difference between a "want" and a "need" at a young age.

The tradition aligns with the conservative financial philosophy my dad has instilled in me since grade school. I was a kindergartner who really wanted chocolate milk at our local diner when he first gave me the "Is that a want or a need?" speech.

As I got older, I learned how to separate larger potential purchases into those two categories and developed a frugal lifestyle, much like my dad's, centered around needs, like water, rather than wants, like chocolate milk.

Every Christmas, my dad takes me shopping for a "go-to gift."
Kathleen Elkins
Every Christmas, my dad takes me shopping for a "go-to gift."

When Christmas rolls around, my spending habits don't change much. Whether I'm shopping for myself or someone else, I first determine whether I'm buying a "want" or a "need," and if it's a "want," I weigh the pros and cons before spending.

Of course, there's always a time and place for a chocolate milk: The occasional splurge keeps you sane. But for the most part, my dad and I will be the ones with the glasses of water.

Now check out 20 great holiday gifts under $50.