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Giving beyond the holidays Grandparents help drive the economy

Mary Hopp has firm beliefs about her role as a gift-giver to her seven grandchildren.

Money deposited into their 529 savings plans for college? Absolutely, on every birthday. Money frittered away buying them trinkets, gadgets or (heaven forbid) cars? Not on your life. Every Christmas, the grandchildren -- ranging in age from 5 to 16 -- receive books.

"I don't think I should be looked at as a bank," said Hopp, 68, who lives in El Dorado Hills.

Her contributions to the so-called "grandparent economy" are carefully considered yet generous -- a prime example of how America's 70 million grandparents divvied up the $52 billion they spent on their grandkids in 2009, according to a study that was commissioned by Grandparents.com.

With that kind of spending power, even in the depths of the recession, grandparents are clearly a key force driving the economy.

For them, the giving season neither begins nor ends with the holidays.

Some, hard hit by the tough economy themselves, would love to have the luxury of giving more than they do. But the fact remains that it's the rare grandparent who won't sacrifice for the grandkids.

As AARP California's Christina Clem said: "Grandparents consistently put their children and grandchildren before themselves."

They not only buy gifts. They also contribute almost $17 billion a year to the grandkids' education, in the form of tuition, college savings plans, after-school programs, textbooks and supplies.

They spend $10 billion buying clothes for the grandkids -- and almost $6 billion more on toys.

And because being with the grandkids tops many grandparents' agenda, they pay billions more for travel, either with the grandkids or for grandkids to fly out to see them.

Phil McPeek, 67, a Rancho Cordova sales executive, estimates that he and his wife already spend about $1,000 a year on their sole grandchild, 2-year-old Allyson. As the years pass, they intend to shell out plane fare to fly her up from San Diego, where she lives with her parents.

"And we'll take her to Colorado to our cabin there," said McPeek, "depending on if she's a good little human being who can dress herself and speak our language."

In the world of gift-giving, good behavior counts.

For Hopp, like many grandparents, gifts communicate a powerful message about what she and her husband, Jim, value: education instead of the latest trends.

"Go to school, do well, go to a good college," she said. "You'll be a happy person that way instead of seeking every new toy that comes down the pike."

According to an AARP study, more than half of grandparents help out in some way with the grandkids' education, while 45 percent assist with their living expenses.

But before we applaud the elder generation's excellent value system, consider this: Significantly more of them thought that spoiling the grandkids with gifts was more important than passing along family history.

Someone is footing the bill for all those Barbies, Zoobles Toys and Xboxes, after all.

Mary Strong sends $50 savings bonds now to contribute toward her great-grandchildren's education. But when her four grandkids were young, she and her late husband regularly bolstered the family gift-giving bonanza.

"Our kids couldn't afford bicycles and things like that," said Strong, 81, who lives in a south Sacramento senior facility. "So we'd buy the bicycles and special toys the grandkids wanted. Their parents were just starting out, so we did the buffeting up of Christmas."

Even younger grandparents -- the 54 percent who haven't yet reached age 65 -- tend to be better established in their lives than their offspring are.

Fully 55 percent of grandparents have already paid off their mortgages, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Family Survey.

Even when money's tight, said Grandparents.com Editor-in-Chief Gary Drevitch: "Grandparents resist cutting back on the grandkids. It's not necessarily people spending a lot. It may be $30 gifts, but they don't want to give that up."

Perhaps remembering how hard it is to start out in life, or perhaps because they're unable to set healthy boundaries, some grandparents can't help giving too much.

"Our financial experts frequently remind grandparents to make funding their retirement their first priority," said Drevitch. "Someone will always loan your grandchildren money for college, and no one will loan you money for retirement."

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