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FOCUS ON THE FAMILY: Create Christmas savings account to prevent financial stress at the holidays

Q: Every Christmas season, I resent how much money my wife spends on her family. She has a big family and they all exchange gifts that can add up to hundreds of dollars. In my family, we usually just get each other something sentimental, and sometimes only exchange Christmas cards.

How do I help her see how unfair this is?

Juli: Your question really brings up two issues: how much is reasonable to spend at Christmas, and the inequity between giving different amounts to your families.

Many couples experience conflict and stress throughout and after the holidays because they spend too much. With parties, gifts and even decorations, Christmas can break the bank. You and your wife need to agree on an amount to be spent for her family and others before the shopping begins.

In fact, you might even start saving for the Christmas budget throughout the year. Once you agree on the amount, this will give your wife the freedom to buy or make gifts for her family without creating tension between you two.

If the amount her family spends is unreasonable for your budget, she may have to have an honest conversation about adjusting expectations.

During the budget discussion, the second issue will inevitably come up, "Why do you need $300 for your family gifts, while I only spend $50 on mine?" The amount you spend on each family doesn't necessarily have to be equal in order to be fair.

It's wise to make decisions on how much to spend based on a variety of factors, such as the size of the family and what the gifts communicate. Is gift-giving an obligation, a way of communicating love or a non-issue?

In some families, gifts are the primary way of expressing affection and allegiance. Others don't care about gifts at all, but simply want you to spend time with them.

Both of you should have the freedom, within reason, to express love to your families in the way they will receive it.

Q: My boys like to have a snack when they get home from school. But how much is too much? They can easily consume a large snack and still have plenty of room for dinner.

Jim: I can certainly relate to this. My own boys are often eager for a snack after a long day. But research shows that many children are snacking too much.

According to a study published in Health Affairs, kids today are taking in significantly more calories from snack foods than they did in the 1970s. The study's statistics show that half of American children snack four times a day, and that some kids are eating even more, as many as 10 snacks a day.

It's not likely that these kids are hungry that often. Researchers believe they're simply eating the food because it's there. It's like a form of entertainment. When kids spend so much time snacking, they're much less likely to eat a healthy, balanced meal at breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The snacks themselves are a problem, as well. Cookies and cakes are the most popular snacks among kids, with chips and other salty items running a close second. Kids are also drinking a lot more fruit juice. That might sound OK, but most of these drinks are loaded with excess sugar.

It sounds like your boys are genuinely hungry after school, and that's especially understandable if they're involved in sports or other strenuous activities. So make sure fruits and vegetables are on the snack menu, and only in amounts sufficient to "tide them over" until dinner.

And, of course, make sure you're setting a good example in this area. Don't expect your boys to be happy with an apple if you're snacking on candy bars and soda.

Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family, host of the "Focus on the Family" radio program, and a husband and father of two.

Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of "Focus on the Family," author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.