A single-mom blogger who goes by “Mutant Supermodel” is stressing over the holiday. She’d saved to buy gifts, but when her husband quit paying child support she had to spend every dime to keep herself and her three kids afloat.
It isn’t that MS fears there will be no Christmas. It’s that she fears she won’t be the one giving it.
“My kids are blessed with a large, loving extended family who will surely shower them with gifts the way they do at every special occasion,” she writes in a post called “$tre$$.”
“I know they don’t need or even want more stuff but I want to give it to them.”
Yet she doesn’t want to become part of the “relentless consumerism that so deeply affects this country.” Her compromise: Make some of her gifts, and limit the children’s Santa lists to that old favorite, “something I want, something I need, something to wear, something to read.”
“I think it’s better this way than a free for all,” MS concluded.
Me too – and I say that as someone who’s feeling the same contradictory clash of emotions.
Christmas is very important to me. When I was a kid, it meant getting at least one thing I wanted but never really believed I’d receive. My family wasn’t super-impoverished, i.e., we never went without food. But times were tight for a long time and I developed a scarcity mentality at a fairly young age.
Thus finding Skipper under the tree was a Christmas miracle, especially since I’d asked for that specific doll in that specific dress when I sat on the lap of the Santa hired by the glass factory where my mom worked. (These days I figure Mom overheard what I said.)
It wasn’t that we were monsters of acquisition. Like other kids of that era we viewed many tantalizing playthings in the Sears catalog, which my grandmother called “the wish book.” I wanted them – who wouldn’t? – but my feelings were mostly abstract. Wow, look at what some kids get. I don’t remember feeling deprived or angry, although I do remember wondering what it would be like to have an Easy-Bake Oven.
Underwhelming, as it turned out: My best friend got that toy and the “baked” goods were gritty and gluey and weird. Besides, my mom had promised that I could use the real oven as soon as I turned 10. Until then, I stood at her elbow while she baked, memorizing her every move and doing whatever tasks she’d allow.
But that was just me. When my niece and my daughter were born I wanted them to get what I didn’t have. Not that I’d buy either one an Easy-Bake Oven, mind you, but I wanted to make the holiday special. Their needs were met all year long – like Mutant Supermodel’s kids, they had enough stuff – but Christmas was different, somehow.
Which is exactly where the marketing folks fasten on: that parental longing that your kids find magic under the tree. If you don’t buy just the right gifts, how will your children know that you love them?
Still wanting to celebrate
Sheesh. But plenty of us fall for that, I’m afraid. During my marriage I bought frugally for Christmas – Black Friday, thrift stores, etc. – but I did buy. The rest of the year I required my daughter to save up for at least half the cost of any toy she wanted; with certain playthings, I wouldn’t match even some of the cost.
(This ability to wait and plan came in handy later, when she was disabled and it took a year and a half to save enough rewards points to buy an MP3 player. Boy, did she love that thing when she finally got it.)
Flash forward to 2005, when I was midway through the divorce process, a midlife college student and covering many expenses for my daughter (who was then waiting for her disability hearing). Rationally speaking, I knew that I couldn’t afford a big holiday.
But gift-giving mattered to me, a lot. So I relied on some pretty basic frugal hacks:
- Rewards programs. I cashed in MyPoints and points from a rewards credit card to get a Macy’s gift card (as a standalone gift) plus cards from Borders and Barnes & Noble that paid for two calendars and a Burt’s Bees gift set.
- Judicious re-gifting. When I’d gotten my hair cut the stylist gave me two olive-oil conditioner products; I wrapped that box up and put it under my daughter’s tree. In my evergreen gift stash was a pair of socks with ladybugs that someone had given me; I added them to Abby’s gift pile on the theory that it’s not Christmas unless someone gives you socks or underwear.
- Freebies and rebates. When I needed batteries I chose the package with the mini-flashlight attached; it made a safety-conscious stocking stuffer. I’d gotten a Venus shaver and four refills for free (and it turned out her old razor was just about shot, so the timing was perfect).
- Handmade coupons. I made up several for items of hand-wash-only items and two for loads of laundry washed, dried and folded.
- The clearance table. I’d found a poker set (cards, chips, folding felt table-top) in the last-chance bin earlier that year, paying about $7.50 for it. At that time she was meeting with friends for card games and “Veronica Mars,” so I figured she could introduce poker into girls’ night out.
In other words, I spent well under $10 out of pocket but it filled a hugely emotional need. It had been a hard year for me and an even worse one for my daughter, and I wanted to celebrate. I just knew I had to do it on a budget.
Fortunately, I had no inkling of just how much tougher things would get. When my finances went even further south, I sure was glad that I hadn’t charged my Christmas. It was all I could do to charge my divorce lawyer, since she billed by the minute.
Before you buy, ask “Why?”
It’s a little late in the year for this kind of advice, but here goes:
- Don’t spend too much to prove your love. (Hint: If you have to “prove” it, then there’s a problem on at least one side of the relationship.)
- Ask yourself you’re buying more than you should because of complicated emotions from your own past.
Put another way: Can you name what you got for Christmas last year? Unless one or more gifts had particular resonance (puppy, engagement ring, mid-winter cruise tickets), I bet you can’t.
Most of us can’t. So what’s the point of all the ribbons and bows?
I’m just as prone to this blind spot as anyone. Right now I’m really glad I live four or five miles from the nearest mall and that I don’t have a car. That’s because I turn into a puddle of December sentiment every time I’m in a store. I blame the canned holiday music; even a piss-poor rendition of “Silent Night” has me fumbling for a credit card.
Case in point: After I got my hair cut last week I stopped in the card store to buy a birthday card for my son-in-law. Birthday errand, not Christmas – but the holiday music plus a display of Hello Kitty products brought me up short. My younger great-nephew is a huge HK fan (I predict hard times for him in middle school) and for a moment I considered purchasing something.
Fortunately I have a rule about buying: I must pick up the item and walk around the store with it for a while. Generally the product loses some of its luster within a few minutes. In this case, I came to my senses within 60 seconds: You have already bought enough for those boys. If you want to give them another gift, transfer $10 to each of their bank accounts.
So before you buy, wait. Then wait some more. Apply the two filters mentioned above. And if you want to be inspired, check out “Free Christmas 2012” on the My Frugal Home website. Erin Huffstetler has usually done Christmas for $100 or less, but this year she did it without spending anything out of pocket — and with absolute attention to the needs and wants of the folks on her list.
I bet her holidays will be just as merry and bright as someone who closes out 2012 with a giant, looming credit-card balance. I also predict that her kids will definitely remember getting the movie “Brave,” and that her bike-commuting husband will appreciate the new tires far more than he would an electronic putting green or some holiday boxer shorts. Ho, ho, etc.
Readers: Do you set a price limit, or a number-of-gifts limit, or both? Got any tips to share?