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

My dad takes my two brothers and me shopping once a year: 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.

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."

My "go-to gift" last year was a high-quality pair of running leggings — and as an avid runner, it wasn't a hard sell. One year, it was a six-month gym membership. Another, it was a cocktail dress.

This year, I've sold him on a business casual outfit that I can wear to the office and out with friends.

The gift-giving tradition has taught me to invest in things that have value. Now, whenever I'm shopping, rather than trying to "save money" upfront by buying the cheapest version of an item, I'm more inclined to spend extra on something that will last longer and save me in the long run.

I've also become a much more conscious spender, buying more of what I need and less of what I want in the moment.

That's not to say I never splurge on "wants." To be clear, I spent over $500 to run the New York City marathon, and pay $450 a year for a travel credit card. I just make sure to weigh the pros and cons before splurging and ensure that I'm spending on things that truly matter to me.

As research shows, how you spend matters, and, oftentimes, is more important than how much you spend in total.

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