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How to Save Money and Time This
Holiday Season

By Elaine St. James

© 2012 Nightingale-Conant Corporation

Stress and the holidays are some things that seem every year to go hand in hand. But, I have found out in my life, it does not need to be that way. One of the biggest stressors is the financial commitment that we think needs to go into that holiday season, and next, of course, is the time commitment. Here are some tips that have worked marvelously in my life and my friends’ life to put these stresses behind you so you can enjoy, as the song goes, the most wonderful time of the year. Some of these tips you may consider too extreme, maybe, but as they say, take what you want and leave the rest.

When anyone is talking about finances, one of the most financially stressful times of the year for many people is the holiday season. The average family now spends more than $1,300 a year for the holidays. That’s just average, mind you. Most of this goes on credit cards, and it can take up to eight months to pay it off; again, that’s the average. Now this $1,300 is for gifts, for entertaining, and for decorating; it doesn’t include travel if you’re visiting in-laws during this time. So if you travel over the holidays, obviously that’s an additional amount.

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When anyone is talking about finances, one of the most financially stressful times of the year for many people is the holiday season. The average family now spends more than $1,300 a year for the holidays. That’s just average, mind you. Most of this goes on credit cards, and it can take up to eight months to pay it off; again, that’s the average. Now this $1,300 is for gifts, for entertaining, and for decorating; it doesn’t include travel if you’re visiting in-laws during this time. So if you travel over the holidays, obviously that’s an additional amount.

Think about this: We’re spending $1,300 for one day. I spoke with a woman recently who realized at Thanksgiving that she was still paying off her holiday credit card debt from the year before. And she sat down with the other family members, and they started talking about it, they realized they were all in the same boat. And the boat was sinking. Everybody in that family was still paying off debt from the previous holiday season, while getting ready for another round of happy holidays.

Now stop and think for a moment how insane it is to go into debt for something you put under a tree. It just doesn’t make sense for us to do that anymore, especially when we’ve reached this point in our lives where most of us have pretty much everything we need. So what this family decided as they sat around the Thanksgiving table that day was, if there’s something we want, we’ll go out and get it ourselves! And we’ll get the right size and the right color and exactly what we want. They all agreed, had a good chuckle, and moved on. How often do you end up giving or getting presents and they’re not the right size; they’re not exactly what you want. And that’s why the day after Christmas is the busiest shopping day of the year, even busier than “Black Friday,” because everybody is taking back all these things that we’ve received that we don’t want and looking to get something else. Maybe it’s time to rethink the way we spend money over the holidays.

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And one very simple way that you can do that is to draw names for the family gift exchange. This way you have one person to shop and buy for. Get that person something really nice he or she will like and be done with it, instead of buying 30 other smaller items you rush around for and have to spread your budget across the board. Today, families have grown, and you’ve got siblings, and they’re married, and they’ve got children. Before you know it, you can have 35 people that you’re buying gifts for! But if you draw names and you have one person whom you buy for, you don’t have to go into debt. You can take the time and the energy to come up with something that that person would really love. Rather than dashing out at the last minute and stressing out over finding the right thing for 30 people and going into debt for gifts for 30 people, draw names for the family gift exchange and set a dollar limit. Decide as a family that you won’t spend more than $25 on a gift that you get for somebody else, or whatever dollar amount you all decide on. The alternative just doesn’t make sense anymore, especially during these economic times, when we have so many other financial pressures, to go into debt for the holidays. Believe me, with so many people out of work, struggling to make ends meet, people are much more understanding and compassionate this time of year. And anyway, isn’t that what the holidays are supposed to be about?


You could decide as a family not to spend any money at all and to exchange treasures that you already have. And this is the wonderful thing that you could do with some of the things that you have around your home that you don’t want anymore. Pass them on to somebody who might want them. You could even make a game of it and exchange white elephants.

I heard from one family who has done this for a number of years, and there’s this cabbage ceramic bowl that keeps coming up as a gift. They draw names, and they know that each year one person is going to get this ugly cabbage bowl. And it’s a laugh; it’s a joke; they have fun with it. And they have other kinds of corny gifts and things that they exchange. And it’s just the fun of sitting around together as a family and opening up a package, and maybe it’s something you actually want or maybe it’s something you can’t stand. But if you don’t like it, you can give it away next year.

You could exchange consumables. If you’re a good cook (that includes males as well) bake a batch of brownies for Uncle Charlie rather than going out and buying him a tie you know he’ll never wear. Or give gifts of time. Draw up a little certificate for your sister to teach her how to use her new computer. Or offer to wash the car for your dad half a dozen times this year. Whatever. Think of what you can do in terms of time. Not only does this cut back on the expense, and not only does it cut back on the clutter that we bring into our lives, but often it gives us this opportunity to be together and to really do something, give of ourselves to somebody we love.

Cut back on the number of gifts you give your children. We may not realize it, but children don’t come into the world expecting 25 beautifully wrapped packages under the tree on Christmas morning. We train them to expect that. And then somehow it never seems like it’s enough, so we keep adding more. The problem is not that it’s not enough; the problem is that it’s too much.

And anybody who’s seen a young child open a whole slew of presents and then end up playing with the boxes they came in knows what I’m talking about. I heard from one father who said he told his children, “Three gifts this year. One material gift and two gifts of time.” So the children could request a day at the zoo or a night at the movies or whatever. And again, not only does this cut back on the number of gifts that your children get overwhelmed by, but it creates those opportunities to be together, to do something together as a family.

Now, if you’re thinking that you would like to cut back on some of the expenses of the holidays, and especially the gift exchange, I would encourage you to start talking with your other family members and get them to agree. Often that will not be a real challenge because in many families, everybody’s thinking the same thing. If it’s gotten out of hand, most everybody knows it. And so talk about how you could do it differently so that you’re not all going into debt. Talk about how you could do the holidays differently so that the emphasis is not on giving gifts that we may not even want anyway, but on making the focus spending time together.

What the family did who realized at Thanksgiving that they were all still in debt for the previous year’s holiday gifts, they made the commitment that what they would do is not exchange gifts at all; they would simply be together. That would be their gift to each other, and that would be the emphasis. But it’s important in a family situation to really get agreement from the other members, and that will relieve the pressure that we all feel about going out and buying stuff for the holidays, going into debt for the holidays.

Now in terms of holiday entertaining, if you’re the one responsible for the lavish holiday dinner, you might consider lobbying your other family members for a potluck. Make it a potluck, and keep it simple. This way everybody contributes and one person isn’t responsible for that whole extravaganza of dinner.

Another thing you could do, of course, is make reservations. Twenty-five or 30 years ago you couldn’t find a restaurant that was open on Christmas day, but now, again, with around 70 percent of the moms working outside the home, we don’t have the time to create that wonderful picture-perfect holiday season that our mothers and grandmothers did. And the cooking, the grocery shopping, the preparation, the cleanup afterwards, is more than any one person can be responsible for. And making it a potluck or going out to eat puts the emphasis where it really is important: being together and having time to really share this day and this time with each other rather than on the food that we often overeat and then feel guilty about when we get on the scales after the holidays and find out that we’ve gained five pounds.

Many people are overwhelmed over the holiday season with the chore of holiday cards. And if you find yourself in this position, there are some easy ways to cut back. One is you can pare down your list. Go through it; cross off the doctor and the lawyer and the dentist and the insurance agent. Or, you could decide that you’re only going to send cards to people who live out of town. That could cut your list back drastically. Or, you could decide that you’re going to cut your list in half and send half this year and half next year. Nobody’s going to miss your card for that one year. If they do, they’re not the type of person you want to be around anyway.

Or, if you still want to maintain that connection over the holidays, send your cards by email this year. That’s what a lot of people are doing now. It will really simplify that card chore. If you’re under that pressure to get the cards, to get them addressed, to get them stamped, to get them in the mail, send them by email this year.

I heard from one family who greatly simplified their holiday decorating by deciding that they would go for one symbol that signified Christmas for their family. For years, a family used to put up a tree and a créche and call it Christmas. And today, we’ve got the tree and the créche and the indoor lights and the outdoor lights and the topiaries and the aviaries and the wreaths and the candles and all the rest of it. It’s become a monumental chore just to do the decorating for the holidays, not to mention the expense that goes into the decorating.

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So this family decided that they would buy a live tree and they would plant it in the backyard right outside their dining-room window. And they would make a project one afternoon before the holidays and decorate the tree with nuts and seeds. And then the birds flying in to get the nuts and seeds would be the decorations. And they planted this tree a number of years back, they put little lights on it — they leave the lights on all year round — and this tree has grown with the kids. It’s become their own special symbol of the holidays. And that’s all they do, as that symbol. And the backyard birds loved it.

So you might think about what symbol would be appropriate for your family, what would you like to have as one thing that you could use to symbolize the holidays for you, and go with that and let everything else go.

One of the reasons I think we continue to do the holidays is because of our children. It’s so much fun to create this mysterious, wonderful, exciting event every year for kids. And I think it’s important to continue doing that as a way to create time together every year for our families and to create this anticipation for our children. But, as I mentioned earlier, often we tend to get carried away, but you can still create a lot of that anticipation, as the one father did with one material gift and two gifts of time. After all, it’s all the other things in addition — the tree and maybe the expectation of Santa coming down the chimney and maybe leaving the cookies and milk for Santa, and the holiday music — that create a lot of that spirit and feeling that we have around the holidays.

And then you could place the emphasis for your children on thinking of others. You could have them, for example, go through their toys or maybe spend a portion of their allowance to buy a new toy for a child in a homeless shelter. Many churches do this type of activity around the holidays; you could plug in right there. And you could go together with your child to give these things away and let your child experience the real joy that comes from doing something for somebody else. That’s the real spirit of the holidays. It’s a wonderful gift to give your children. And it will remove that emphasis from the give-em’s and get-em’s into the habit of starting to think of other people and things that they can do to really get into the spirit of the holidays.

So if you have found that your holidays have kind of gotten out of control and you are one of these people who tend to go overboard, you might want to make the commitment this year to cut back. And you could start, for example, by cutting your holiday spending in half. Now, of course, cutting it in half means you have to know how much you spend in the first place, and often we don’t even want to take a look at what that number really is. But I would encourage you to sit down with your credit cards and your bank statements and your cancelled checks and figure out what you really spend, and then look at how you could cut it in half.

And some things you might consider are, as I mentioned before, cutting your holiday card list in half, if you want to cut those expenses by half. You could be creative with gift wrapping. We spend more than $4 billion every year on wrapping paper and ribbon, which immediately goes into the trash and then into the landfill. So instead of going out and buying expensive wrapping paper, you could look around your home and see what you already have available that you could use to wrap gifts with. For example, you could use your children’s artwork. That makes it even more personal and thoughtful. You could use colorful catalog covers or magazine covers or the art from last year’s calendar. You could do what one family I know does and buy holiday fabric, cut it to various sizes and use it over and over again, year after year. And this is a simple and efficient and environmentally friendly way to wrap packages. Using the Sunday comics is a great idea also.

You could cut your family gift limit. As I mentioned, either draw names or set a dollar limit. Cut the amount you spend on gifts in half. You could make the decision that you’re not going to buy any new decorations for the holiday season. Use what you already have. If you always throw a lavish party, look at the possibility of cutting it back and keeping it simpler. Maybe just have simple drinks and hors d’oeuvres this year rather than a formal sit-down dinner. After all, make the focus on getting together and spending this joyous season with friends and people that you love, rather than going into debt for a meal that will soon be forgotten.

Or you could be very creative this year and look at how you could create a wonderful holiday time without spending any money. You could decorate an outdoor tree that’s already in your yard. You could use the existing decorations that you have. You could give gifts of time instead of material gifts. You could plan a simple holiday meal. Again, place the emphasis on being together as a family. It might be an interesting challenge, and it’s another way that you could set aside money for your contingency fund or your savings account or your retirement fund and still have a wonderfully joyous holiday season.

Living within your means is going to give you that tremendous feeling of “holiday cheer” that we’re all looking for. It won’t be just “peace on earth, goodwill to men” this year, but peace of mind knowing you won’t be getting that eye-popping credit card statement this January.

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