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Love & Money: When grandparents show their love through gifts, when does it become too much?

Finance

One couple breathed deep when grandma arrived with a suitcase stuffed with toys and the kinetic sand that little hands could scatter across a Manhattan apartment.

“We have tried to not limit, but to steer our parents in a direction of spending less. But our parents do what they want to do,” said Brooke Sussman, 35, who works in marketing.

Another father resigned himself to the well-meaning stream of stuff that surges through his door when his in-laws visit — just not the Yankees bat trinket offending his allegiance to Red Sox Nation.

“There’s not a day that comes by when they don’t bring something,” said Scott Finlow, 50, also a marketing professional, said. “It’s like they just can’t help themselves.”

Nancy Henkin, 70, admits she’ll sometimes splurge on clothes for her seven- and 10-year-old granddaughters, but otherwise she runs potential gifts by her son and daughter-in-law.

The semi-retired Philadelphia, Pa. resident, a senior fellow at Generations United, said she’s seen other grandparents flood their precious little ones with gifts — maybe overcompensating for their own childhood or time as a parent — but that wasn’t going to be her with her Tampa, Fla. girls.

“From the beginning, we did not want our grandchildren to look at us as the buyers of presents. We don’t go overboard, because then their expectations are unrealistic.”

Grandparents must manage a delicate balance

This is the delicate dance when it comes to grandparents’ spending habits for their grandkids, and there’s no indication the music’s going to change any time soon.

By the time their beloved little ones show up, many grandparents have already paid their child-rearing dues, making the rules and managing parenthood’s hustle and bustle. They’ve also paid many financial obligations too.

Just as they’re loosening up, their grown kids are figuring out how to set all kinds of boundaries and expectations, parenting at a time when the costs of raising a child keep climbing.

Grandparents have been indulging their grandkids for “eons” with stories, attention, special meals and experiences, according to Amy Goyer, AARP’s Family and Caregiving expert. That lavishing is “their role, it’s not a parent’s role, and that’s part of the joy.”

But post-World War II economic prosperity has shifted things, she said. “The difference now is older generations have more affluence, more spending power.”

An upcoming AARP survey shows 86% of grandparents spend money on gifts for their grandkids, she said. Average annual spending on grandchildren was roughly $2,500.

Presents are the No. 1 spending category by far. In the second and third spots, 26% of participants told AARP they spent money on vacations for their kids and grandkids and 21% said they paid for their grandchildren’s school and college tuition costs.

In fact, grandparents now account for about $7 billion of America’s $28 billion toy industry, the consumer analytics company NPD said in September. Parents still spend more on toys, but in the past 12 months, the grandparent segment’s toy-spending growth has outpaced just about every other consumer in the market, NPD said. More than one-third of grandparent toy spending is for preschoolers, the company said.

Is the gift-giving harmless?

All the spending has its price, according to Kylee Sallak, the CEO of Parenting Made Joyful, who specializes in child behavior management and sleep training.

Grandparents always showing up with gift in-hand can condition kids to think adult arrivals equal toys and make them miss a lesson on valuing their belongings, she said. “I don’t think it’s a new problem and I don’t think it’s going out of style.”

Sallak repeatedly sees the same thing when visiting new parents for the first time. “I look around and say, ‘Why do you have this much stuff?’” The usual response, says Sallak, is that plenty of it comes from relatives, especially the grandparents.

Sallak says she advises parents to tell their gift-bearing relatives to bring money instead of toys for children over age four who can tuck the funds away in a piggy bank with sections for spending, saving and donating. If kids are ready for pre-math activities like counting blocks, they can begin to think about financial literacy and the value of money, Sallak said.

“It starts at home. We can’t depend on the classroom to be teaching financial literacy,” she said.

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But some parents think their own parents would be uncomfortable with giving cash, Sallak says. She recommends her clients ask their parents to give them the presents, which can be produced for a special occasions.

“That way, it’s at least connected to something and not, ‘When I see grandma, I get a gift,’” Sallak said.

Over-giving happens all the time, according to Kay Ziplow, a co-founder of the site Grandparentslink.com and a grandmother of two.

“The hardest thing, and I hear this from grandparents, is ‘How do I learn self-restraint?’” she said. If anything, Ziplow added, the issue was becoming more common because all it took now was “a flick of my wrist” to order some goodie from a smartphone.

In fact, the same NPD study said grandparents’ online spending was growing faster than all other toy consumers.

Grandparent communication with parents —but also learning to sometimes shut their mouths — was key, said Ziplow. It meant adjusting to a role reversal and putting less weight on one’s wallet.

“Money shouldn’t denote who’s commander-in-chief, and that’s what we tell grandparents all the time,” she said.

Parents have their red lines. Sussman, the mother of girls ages three and one, said she and her husband, Charlie, have their “hard no’s,” like an Apple AAPL, +0.37%  iPad.

But they tread lightly otherwise, she said.

“I hate to micromanage that part of their relationship,” Sussman said, noting that all the gift giving sprang from the best of intentions.

It was a nuanced issue — and it also wasn’t anything Sussman’s delved into much with other parents.

“It’s something that maybe parents grapple with more internally. Complaining about having too much stuff, when you step out for a second, that doesn’t sound great.”

Finlow said his wife, Pam, who has a degree in early childhood education, talked with her parents about their spending on their infant daughter and four-and-a-half year-old boy. Her parents live in Thailand, where they founded a furniture business, and visits to the grandchildren in Manhattan have a “limited time,” Finlow said.

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The slew of toys stands in contrast with the handcrafted toys and books his own parents made, he noted.

Unexpected ‘Lion King’ tickets and lessons learned

Finlow’s learned to accept his in-laws’ ways, like when they unexpectedly purchased “Lion King” tickets for his son when he was planning to first bring him to “Hamilton.” Prime seats can cost more than $1,000.

There was a time when Finlow said he would have been upset with the purchase, but those days are over. “I’m going to be singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ the next two years. Better than ‘Frozen.’”

Finlow said he and his wife don’t hesitate to donate the toys they either don’t like or their kids have outgrown. “We curate fairly frequently,” he said.

The outpouring of generosity also took other forms. Finlow noted his in-laws made a “really generous contribution” to their grandchildren’s 529 college education funds. “That’s a game changer,” he said.

Others just gently vent anonymously online. There’s an Instagram FB, +4.00% — #buythemnothing — for pictures of children immersed in simple joys. Now at more than 2,600 mentions and counting, the hashtag chronicles things like kids with Tupperware helmets, enjoying rides in laundry baskets and chilling in cardboard boxes.

Henkin pointed out that gifts don’t have to be tangible. They can be times together and experiences. With their grandchildren so close to Disney World DIS, +0.02% Henkin and her husband Russ will pay for their grandchildren to see various shows at or around the theme park. They also buy and share plenty of books so the two generations can build their libraries together.

Goyer, the AARP expert, said parents and grandparents navigating the boundaries on gifts are a common issue. She often reminds grandparents not to overdo it. She has good reason. “One of the gifts to give your family is to be financially secure in your older years.”

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