Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the stores, gifts are glistening --
A pricey sight,
When we're feeling a bit light.
Hoping that the kids will understand.
The holidays are here, accompanied by the traditional orgy of spending. But this year a lot of families are rethinking just what the holidays really mean to them, and making up some new traditions. Some loved ones will be in harm's way, others will never be coming home, and many of us are facing economic uncertainty.
Maybe this is the year that the holidays will be rescued from crass commercialism, at least in some families. Maybe this is the year we will step back and ask ourselves what's really important. It's too soon to call it a trend, but yes, Virginia, there really is a breath of hope that we might get back to focusing on family and friendships rather than gifts and parties.
Not that there is anything wrong with gifts and parties. Gifts and parties are great, but not when they eclipse relationships. One way out of the holiday spending habit is to opt for a different kind of holiday. You can't do it alone, but if you can get your family and circle of friends on board, maybe you can start a new holiday tradition.
A message posted by Fool community member Unexpectedsong on the Living Below Your Means discussion board suggests getting the family together and agreeing to rules that will limit holiday spending. Unexpectedsong's family rules go like this:
1) You can give used presents that you think someone else would enjoy (videos, books, decorating items, jewelry, games, toys, household items, etc.). The idea here is to recycle good, usable things that you have enjoyed, and you think someone else would get pleasure from.
2) You can make your gifts as long as money is not involved (e.g., homemade memory books, home canned food, copies of family tree research that is printed and bound at home). Again, you must use what you already have; don't buy anything.
3) All gift wrap must be done with materials already in your home. If you have leftovers from other years, OK. Otherwise, get creative! [Ideas: magazines, old calendars, paper featuring the kids' artwork, photocopies of your body parts (using the office copying machine, of course -- no visits to Kinko's!).]
4) Keep track of the money saved and use it in a financially responsible way of your choice (you don't have to tell anyone else about it).
Doesn't sound like much fun? That's not Unexpectedsong's experience:
Everyone is putting so much thought and love in what they want their family members to have, that this is turning into something really special. It seems that all of us are working on a collection of special things for each person that really says something about who we are and what we want to share with that loved one. Oddly enough, from the phone calls that I've been getting, I think people are going to be getting much more than they would have if the gifts had been newly purchased.
Of course, one set of rules won't work for every family. The important thing is to shift the emphasis away from spending money and toward creativity and thoughtfulness. My favorite Christmas gift from my kids is a book of coupons for things like washing the car, cleaning out the storage shed, and cooking dinner.
If a "no money" holiday is too draconian for you, there are lots of other ways to tame the holiday gift beast. Here are some suggestions to get you started thinking about how your family might implement a Living Below Your Means holiday. Start with a letter beforehand so everyone will have time to get on board -- except those smarty-pants relatives who already have all their gifts bought and wrapped. Not much you can do about them! Try something like this:
To my dear, dear family,
This Christmas I propose bringing some sanity back to the holidays. Instead of spending tens of hours and hundreds of dollars at the mall buying stuff most of us don't really need, I propose that we (pick one):
1) All agree to a cash-free holiday (no, credit cards aren't a way around this).
2) Agree to limit all gifts to one per person with a value of $X or less.
3) Hold a gift exchange. Each family member will draw the name of one other family member and buy that person one gift with a price limit of $X.
4) Only buy gifts for the kids. Adults will exchange handwritten notes telling each member of the family one thing about them that is especially nice. (Kids should get those, too!)
We can do this! Aunt Madge, I'm hoping for a box of your cinnamon buns!
Things are working out well for the originator of this idea. In a follow-up email, Unexpectedsong commented:
Our family is having such a good time with this, and we still have more than two months to go! When we were just going out to purchase Christmas gifts, I don't believe this much thought ever went into it. This has been just the dose of fun we needed, not to mention the absence of worrying about the money involved in our "traditional" way of doing past Christmases. At least none of us will be standing in the gift return lines on Dec. 26!
Although we agreed that we didn't have to disclose the financially responsible way we were going to use the money saved, some have already shared their ideas. Plans include paying down credit card debt, paying extra on student loans, adding to an automobile loan payoff, building an emergency fund, and giving to charity. There seems to be as many different plans as there are people involved. Since we all want joy (as well as prosperity) for one another, this Christmas promises to be one of our best ever.
If you'd like more ideas for cutting down the Christmas costs, visit the Living Below Your Means discussion board.
All the best to each of you.
Ann Coleman is still working on how to break the news to her kids that this Christmas will be different. But they are good kids and they'll get on board.