My mother sends me useless junk for Christmas

She shops all year for "bargains" and then boxes up all this weird, inappropriate merchandise.

By Cary Tennis

Published December 22, 2005 1:05PM (EST)

Dear Cary,


Every year my mother sends us holiday gifts, even though she has little to no extra money. She buys things all year round "on sale" and stores useless items in a closet in her house. During the holidays, she packs up a bunch of stuff, puts it in a box, and sends it to me and my sister. There is no thought put into the gifts, and I'm concerned she's a compulsive spender. I've told her as much -- the year she bought me a snowman made out of coconuts and a pair of green velvet jeans four times my size.

I told her I'm concerned about her spending habits and that she's not saving any money for retirement. She insists she is going to come live with us when she retires. I told her flat out that she needs to save for her future and not count on living with us. Our relationship has been and continues to be tedious at best.

She had a very ugly divorce from my father, and when he died, she berated him constantly and still speaks negatively about him. I feel she needs help and should work out her issues -- and in the meantime stop sending us thoughtless, wasteful gifts for the holidays!

How do I tell her to not keep wasting her money on us? I've told her to give to charity, to save her money, and to stop sending us gifts, period. She doesn't listen. What's the etiquette for over 10 years of worthless gifts? Every year my sister and I pack up the stuff she gives us and donate it to charity. I would really prefer my mother to keep her money rather than give us a tax write-off!

Confused Recipient

Dear Confused,

Telling your mother not to send gifts is probably futile. In families that are separated geographically, sending gifts every year is a way of connecting. The gifts themselves are not the point. The point is the connection. This connection may seem rather abstract and meaningless to you. But it has some value to your mother.

As far as the kinds of gifts she's buying for you, well, she's obviously not making the best choices. Perhaps she needs better information. Why not give her a list of things that you could actually use -- complete with brand names, sizes, model numbers, etc.

But it's really not about the gifts. It's about the behavior. Think of the pleasure she gets out of doing this. It's her way of connecting to you.

Your mom may not have much going on in her life. But when she goes to the store, probably alone, if she is buying things for you, then you are there with her, in a way -- you are in her thoughts. As she looks for bargains, she is thinking about you. Perhaps she is reliving happy times when you and your sister were kids. By shopping for you, she continues to do the thing she found meaning in -- to nourish you, take care of you. Shopping also gets her out with other people. There she is, rubbing elbows with all the others, jostling for bargains. She says to the clerk, "This is for my daughter."

It may be about the objects to some degree, but if it was just the objects, she'd do all her shopping from catalogs and online.

So if you could find a way to work with the very human impulses that are behind this behavior of hers, perhaps you could make some progress in dealing with the issues it raises. What I mean is, people do things for reasons. Although it may be a pain in the ass, it isn't senseless at all.

You link her buying of gifts with your sense that she doesn't handle her money well. These two things may well be connected. It's probably also true that your disapproval of her habits stems from the same source as her buying you gifts: familial love and a desire to help, to protect. So, proceeding on that premise: If you think your mother needs some financial planning help, then do something about it now. Don't wait 15 or 20 years to discover that she has no resources. Telling her to get her stuff together is not sufficient. That doesn't count as "doing something about it." That's just symbolic -- in the same way that her buying gifts for you is just symbolic. You have to do something concrete -- visit her and spend a few days going over her finances. If you can't make sense of it, hire an accountant or a financial planner. You may find that she's in better shape than you thought. Or she may be in worse shape. The important thing is to know, and then plan.

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