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Have a great holiday season – and still stay on budget, Penny Ledge courtesy Rich Harrie/ Creative Commons

Holidays can sabotage a budget.

When I was a young single mother with two small sons, I came home after work one evening a few days before Christmas to find that someone had broken into my home.

The burglars lifted a patio door off its track and entered the house, taking anything of value. It didn’t amount to much, since I lived in a rental and barely made enough to keep food on the table some weeks. But the burglars took the microwave, earrings, a roll of postage stamps, the thawing turkey in the fridge – and all the wrapped gifts from under the Christmas tree. They even took the ornaments.

This all sounds really bad. I probably broke into tears. But after the police left, I knew that my reactions would be scrutinized and copied by my two little boys. I could show them how to be a victim, or teach them to make the best out of every situation.

The words have faded away, but I do remember that I made light of the empty Christmas tree. I said that whoever took the gifts must have had a reason to act in such a way. But we would have a great holiday, just the same.

Family Solution
A remnant of the paper chain made so long ago!

We started working on homemade ornaments to decorate the tree. We stapled together paper ring chains, strung popcorn and cranberries, cut out paper snowflakes and christmas trees. The tree looked festive again! I called my mother and in whispers I told her about the burglary. She said she would send some money right away to buy just a few gifts for the boys (my mom is awesome in so many ways). But I told the boys that they had a challenge – to each make a gift for the other.

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photo courtesy start08 of

After all these years, I have forgotten what they made for each other. But it was a holiday that has remained in all our hearts. We had so much fun, and grew so close during those days. We had each other, and that was enough. I still have a short little bit of the chain of construction paper that graced the tree that year. It reminds us all that stuff is just stuff – and love is love.

When you make the commitment to get out of debt, the holidays can easily derail you. You think you have to keep up with the neighbors by decorating your home all the way to the roof. There is a hole in the pile of presents, so you have to buy one more gift for the kids, and then one more, and one more. You have parties and bake cookies and eat cookies. You work harder and harder to be more and more broke.

Stop it

You can enjoy this time of year without feeling the urge to spend. The planet will not explode if the kids get one reasonably priced, thoughtful gift instead of twenty “filler” gifts. In fact, it just might be time they learned that they can be just as happy without all that stuff. Maybe they would be less overwhelmed by the brilliance of the material world, and understand that love sometimes comes in the form of a simple paper chain. I recently read this post about a simple white envelope, tucked into the branches of the poster’s tree. It’s  worth reading, and it might inspire your own family to do something similar.

Talk to each other about your goal to be debt -free. You might be surprised at how many others are feeling the crunch this season, and are waiting for an opportunity to break the cycle of spending. If you think you might want to make this the year you change family traditions, here are some suggestions:

Debt-Free Holiday

    • Commit to a handmade holiday. Make a pact with each other that any gifts should be handmade or homemade. Put a limit on the cost of materials, if you choose.
    • Have a holiday under $10. Rules might vary from family to family, but an example might be that each gift exchanged must cost the giver less than $10. My siblings and I did this one year, and had a blast. I found a cast iron horse head yard ornament in a garbage pile, cleaned it and painted it black, and gave it to my brother-in-law. He said it was one of the best gifts he had received. My cost was the price of a can of black spray paint.
    • Draw names for gift giving. Many large families use this idea – everyone’s names go into a hat, and each person draws the name of a family member. Each person buys a gift only for that family member.

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      photo by stuart miles of
    • Have a gift swap. These swaps always come with laughter. Establish a ceiling price for a gift, say $20. You could buy something that is traditional, silly, or with a specific person in mind. All gifts are wrapped with no names and placed under the tree or on a table. Everyone draws a number out of a hat to determine order, or have each family member pick a gift starting with the youngest or the oldest. That person picks a gift and unwraps it. The second person does the same, but has the choice to keep his or her gift or take the gift from the first person. The swapping continues, and get crazier with the addition of unwrapped gifts. We have done this in the past and it has always been a favorite.

Volunteer as a group. Instead of exchanging gifts, you could vote on a favorite charity and donate time by wrapping gifts, serving food, or driving patients to treatments. You might find opportunities here, but always start in your own community.

  • Donate as a family. Consider adopting a family in need, or pool your gift money to donate to a favorite charity or food pantry. The money you spend on gifts could help a family stay warm over the holidays.
  • Celebrate each other in your own way. Find your own happiness!
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2 Thoughts to “Have a great holiday season – and still stay on budget”

  1. Nancee

    Great Story!! This year I am focused on a very hefty dentist bill and made gifts for my family and two of my grandkids. (The other two I am travelling to see in person.) I remember doing this years ago when money was a little skimpy. Thanks for making me feel even better about my choice :).

    1. Thank you, Nancee! You are doing the right thing for yourself, and for your family!

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