Fribble A Couple's Christmas

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By Duffy Winters (Dwinters@fool.com)
December 11, 2000

The Salvation Army bell-ringer has arrived in front of the local Starbuck's store here in Old Town Alexandria -- Christmas must be here. Being married at Christmastime means there is someone there to hold their finger down as I tie bows on packages; to kiss under the mistletoe; and to cuddle with while watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (who doesn't root for the little tree every year). Being married also means two different experiences about what Christmas means (and what it should cost). Here are some helpful hints on having a happy holiday -- ho ho ho.

Set a budget together
No personal finance article has ever been written that doesn't mention "set a budget." Don't they know that budgets are no fun -- and even harder to do when multiple people are involved. Budgets are for miserly curmudgeons! Budgets are for people who forget that Christmas comes but once a year!

But, budgets are also for families who are smart. Especially, with the average family expected to spend $750 on Christmas presents. Shop with cash if you (or your spouse) are one likely to be swept up in the frenzy of last-minute shopping. Make a list in advance and "check it twice." If you already have credit card debt, every additional purchase will raise your interest payments even more -- be careful.

Share the chores
Christmas can be stressful, not just because of money -- but more often because of time. "I have three days to buy 16 presents, bake 12 dozen cookies, and I have to throw a party featuring my famous 'buche du noel' " can become an all too frequent refrain. Divide and conquer when the task list gets too long (but first just take some of the items off the list -- maybe the Nativity scene never gets set up or maybe this is the year you send New Years cards instead of Christmas cards). You can simplify your holidays by setting priorities and choosing the things that matter most to you and your family.

Give the gift of time to each other
Since we all lead whirlwind lives -- long work hours, lots of friends, or big families -- the best gift can often be the gift of time. Last Christmas, my husband Dan gave me "I will get the buffet chest refinished" (this family antique desperately needed work and I had never gotten around to it). Girlfriends and I often give each other theater tickets -- mostly because we all love musicals but also because it's a promise to spend time together.

The gift of time can also apply to personal finance. There are plenty of chores to promise as a gift: opening an IRA, researching insurance, or opening a brokerage account. None of these are very time-consuming, but they can easily be overlooked in the whirl of the holiday season.

Talk together about what the holidays mean to you
Families differ on the activities, religiosity, and gift-giving of Christmas and Hanukkah and a marriage means two families -- which means two different traditions. My first married Christmas was a challenge because my husband Dan's family seemingly did everything wrong. They ate the wrong foods (Where was the fruit cake? The creamed onions?), they opened presents on Christmas Eve and not Christmas Day and even sang different carols at church.

Articles abound about the stress of the holidays. Prevent some of your own by planning the season together. Decide what invitations you will and will not accept; plan time for just the two of you that's relaxing; and talk about any stress you are feeling.

Enjoy the free joys of the season
The White House Christmas tree is typically the ugliest thing imaginable -- huge gaudy iridescent lights that often alternate between slime green and day-glo orange. Naturally I love it. Willard Scott hosts a variety show and a Yule log burns throughout the season. And it's free! As are lots of Messiah concerts, carol sing-alongs across the country. Interrupt the shopping for some inexpensive fun together. You may find the event that becomes a new family tradition.

As a fan of gingerbread, eggnog and yes, most of all fruitcake, I am eager for the holidays to arrive. I am mostly eager to share them with my husband, friends and family. Choosing a few favorite festivities mitigates the stress one often feels. Oh� and I also already have my Christmas shopping done! Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.