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My dad's smart gift-giving tradition has taught me a critical money lesson

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

We're on the look out for what he has 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 last year was a business casual outfit that I've been able to wear both to the office and out with friends. One year, it was a high-quality pair of running leggings. As an avid runner, that one wasn't a hard sell.

Other years, I've sold him on a gym membership and a cocktail dress.

"Anything goes … as long as it's utilitarian."

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 money in the long run.

Plus, I've 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." I spend hundreds of dollars to run the New York City marathon every year 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, often, is more important than how much you spend in total.

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