The decorations loom over the aisles; the carols assault from above. Yes, it's Christmastime. Even if you don't buy into the whole Christmas thing, the winter holiday gift-giving extravaganza is harder to avoid than a student loan collector. The world screams, "Buy, buy, buy!" Whether you love Christmas or hate it, celebrate it or don't, here are some tips for surviving the holiday season with both your sanity and your bank account intact.
Don't buy for the sake of buying. You'll regret spending the money and the recipient will have something he or she won't care about. Gifts should have meaning. If you can't afford the perfect gift, it's okay. Don't feel obligated to go token. Tell people, "I really wanted to get you something, but the recession hit me hard. I do want you to know that you are super-special to me and I hope we can spend lots more time together in the new year." If they don't appreciate it, forget ’em. You don't need people who add pressure to your life. Speaking of, whatever you do, unless you are extremely comfortable around the people in question, do not celebrate the holidays with folks who go all-out for Christmas. No matter how well adjusted you are, when you have only a few gifts to exchange and everyone else has dozens, the awkwardness is palpable. But you can invite your poor friends over.
Choose what matters most
If your favorite part of Christmas is the meal, have a potluck and consider the enjoyment of each other's company the gift. If it's the gift opening, tell everyone, "We're having a Christmas spaghetti feed. Red sauce, green salad." Organize a secret Santa swap or other form of exchange that lets everyone have fun. If you're motivated to do good works, then ask everyone to bring a can of food or similarly small donation to go to the charity of choice. Just don't ask yourself or anyone else to do it all: food, gifts, charity. Prioritize one, be happy with that, and be happy you have friends and family who understand. Think they don't? Try them. More people than you think are in the same boat. And if we aren't honest about our finances, we just end up overspending and feeling worse.
If you have children younger than 5, first rule is, don't sweat it. They're little kids. They don't need a ton of gifts and they don't need expensive ones. Do not think you're doing them a favor by spending the rent money just so they'll have more stuff to open Christmas morning. They also don't know the difference between gently used and new, so head over to the kid section at Booklegger and find two or three books you would enjoy reading out loud to them. Wrap them up separately, and voila! -- Christmas. Customize to your own indulgences. I loved reading to my kids, so books were the big thing, but maybe you're an artist. Go for crayons and a big sketchbook, an under-$10 combo. You can draw together, hang their work up for added enjoyment, and that's what you want: something that lasts. Buy a cute deck of cards and teach them to play Go Fish and Crazy 8s; then spend hours playing with them. Bake cookies together. Take them to the zillion free holiday events. Give them attention instead of things -- that's what they really need.
If you have older kids, plotting a course through the holiday pressure is more challenging. I have mixed feelings about being too blunt about being broke; you don't want kids to worry about adult issues. On the other hand, straightforward communication sets a good example. So offer them the truth -- "We don't have a lot of money this Christmas" -- but soften it by asking their input on how to make Christmas special despite the financial situation. Have them donate clothes to Betty Chinn's Blue Angels (KSLG 94.1 FM is collecting gently used clothing Friday, Dec. 10 at the Eureka Co-op). Provide other examples of how good they have it, what with the roof over their heads and food on the table and a parent that cares.
Find out if they would prefer money to stuff; if they've saved up some cash towards something or are expecting money from grandparents, you could add to it, help them save up for a big purchase. If the well-off grandparents ask what your kid wants, don't let a skewed sense of pride prevent you from providing specific ideas on what your kids need: raincoats, new boots, six months of dance lessons, etc. Be bold. It's fine. Likewise, if those grandparents have some totally inappropriate ideas, channel them into a better direction. Make sure your kids write thank you notes.
But if your extended family makes you feel badly about the holidays, then don't spend the holidays with them. Be blunt. "Every year you make me feel lousy about being broke. This year, I'm staying home." Have siblings or in-laws who throw a lavish Christmas sure to spark feelings of inadequacy within you? Invite them to your house, post-Christmas, for a simple "holiday celebration" lunch. Or host a cookie-baking and decorating party at your house a few days before. You control the situation that way. Suggest drawing names for gift-giving, so you only have to buy a single gift instead of several.
Remember, you are valuable. You work hard, even if your income doesn't reflect it. Having money or not is irrelevant when it comes to your personal worth. Don't let the holidays bring you down -- and don't let cultural expectations entice you into screwing up your finances. Christmas and the like should be a celebration, not a catastrophe.