We wish you a debt-free Christmas.

An old friend of mine – call him “Frugalbert Humperdinck” – once riffed on the song “Lonely is a man without love.” Unfamiliar with that late 1960s hit? Sit patiently through this video of Engelbert Humperdinck singing the first verse, in order to get to the chorus that’s about to be parodied:

Christmas bills are scare-ful,


But one can be careful.


Lovely is a man without loans.


Celebrate the season,


Keeping things in reason.


Lovely is a man without loans.


Go in debt, you peasants,


Buying toddlers presents.


Lovely is a man without loans.


Why impugn your credit


When they’ll soon forget it?


Lovely is a man without loans.


(Half-step up for the big finale)


Ere to shops I dart off,


First I pay the card off.


Lovely is a man without loans.


I’ll assuage my cravings


With January savings.


Lovely is a maaaan without loans.


It’s the same point made (without lyrics) by PF blogger Flexo over at Consumerism Commentary: Sales plus constant marketing often equals poor judgment during the holidays.



Showing how much you care?

Too often people are willing to go into debt or at least overbuy to satisfy someone else’s idea of the perfect holiday. If you guessed that the someone-else is “the marketing industry,” you’re right.

The year’s hottest toy(s) must be obtained at all costs, even if that means an eBay bidding frenzy. Big-ticket items such as electronics or jewelry must be included – or, heaven forbid, a car with a big ribbon on it.

The same number of gifts must be given to each child, so that you’re not accused of favoritism. Certain brands or stores may be preferred. Never mind whether you can afford any of this or not. You have to show your loved ones how much you care.

That’s a sad way to define love – and it becomes an unwinnable game because the ante gets upped each year. Your 2-year-old may have as much fun with the box as the toy that came in. He’ll likely become a little more demanding by age 6, or age 16. The spouse who was once thrilled with two gifts under the spindly little Charlie Brown tree now has his or her eyes on diamonds or a home theater system.

That said: If I could buy my daughter and son-in-law a house this holiday, I would do it. It would make me happy to know they were secure.


Gaming the system

I can’t buy them a house. I can buy them (and other people) some gifts. Most of this year’s holiday shopping cost relatively little out of pocket. Here’s how it shook down:

  • A couple of toys from last year’s clearance tables
  • Black Friday clothing specials
  • Gift cards I got by cashing in from MyPoints and a rewards credit card
  • Re-gifting
  • “Sunk cost” gift cards I paid for with an Albertsons gift card I bought last year at tax time
  • Jam and jelly I made with gleaned fruit (31 cents per jar)
  • Items bought with Amazon.com certificates that I got by taking online surveys
  • Free-after-rebate items (these are usually stocking stuffers)
  • Free-with-double-coupon items (ditto)
  • Free samples (ditto ditto)
  • Yard sales (nothing worn-out looking, I promise)
  • The dollar store (hardback books for a buck!)
  • Free calendars from various charities (these were elements of multi-gift boxes for two different close relatives)

Note: Some of the gift cards I gave outright, and some of them I used to pay for presents. Also: People go insane for the jam. (And when I see what “homestyle” fruit preserves go for in the specialty stores and catalogs, I think I’m in the wrong business.)

Look, I’m just as vulnerable to marketing pressure as anyone else. In fact, I wear earplugs when I shop during the holiday season, even if I’m just picking up toothpaste at Walgreens. The sound of Christmas carols melts me into a big puddle of sentiment. I love, love, love giving presents.

But I won’t take on debt unless it’s for life-saving medical treatment or a home of my own. I have to be realistic: The only person paying my rent and funding my retirement is me. Thus I police my spending.

But even if I were rich, I wouldn’t overspend just to satisfy some imagined gift quota.


What’d you get?

On Christmas morning, try this experiment: Time how long it takes for everyone to open his or her presents. Take note of all reactions, whether they be “This is wonderful! Thank you so much!” or “I wanted the other game system – I never get anything good!”

Observe how long it takes for children (and adults) to lose interest in their new goodies. Figure out how many hours you had to work to pay for these items (or will have to work, if you charged them).

And for extra credit: Three months from today, make a list of everything you got for Christmas. Everything. Unless you purposely limited the number of gifts you received, or your loved ones knew exactly what you wanted/needed, I’m betting you won’t be able to name even half the items on your list.

I know I can’t.

So how about it, readers: Do you have a gift budget? Do you stick to it? Any tips to help the rest of us? And how about Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1970s hair???

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  1. This year has been an odd year for us. I dont feel overwhelmed and I dont feel that we overspent on gifts. Yes, we have a gift budget, and this year, I we stayed WELL UNDER the budget for everyone (yay!)

    Like you, I buy items starting January 1st for the entire year. Garage Sales, Flea Markets, WalMart, Kirklands, Cracker Barrel (they have a clearance section in the back corner at most stores.) I buy online when I find deals.

    I PREFER practical gifts for myself; however, some of my relatives dont enjoy receiving them as much as I do.

    This year and last year have been a debt-free Christmas, and it feels GREAT! Maybe that’s why I’ve been under budget. (Coincidence? I think not.) I would love to take my family away on a nice trip to someplace warm (to get away from cold, snowy NorthEast Ohio!) but that is not happening until we are completely out of debt, and can do so debt-free. Maybe in a few years.

    Until then, everyone will open the gifts that I’ve found on clearance and they’ll like it! Next year, I will be making homemade wine to supplement as gifts (costs us less than $2/bottle to make,) cross stitch items for some people, and gifts in a jar.

  2. Donna,

    Good post, Donna! My household, too, is having a debt-free Christmas. We put our energy into sociability rather than gifts or home decorations.

    An idea: If you are dollar-poor, make up the difference with boldness and creativity. One starving-artist Christmas (I had several of these earlier in my life) I actually gave my then-boyfriend a library book as a gift. Sure, he had to return it in three weeks — but it was the exact, obscure book he had wanted, about this man who had canoed all the way down the Columbia River. My brothers howled with laughter, but the boyfriend was very happy with it. I know you’re thinking I’m way too eccentric, and you’re not about to give someone a library book — but the point is to travel outside the box of “must spend money”, and have fun being outside that box. More in this vein here: http://www.diamondcutlife.org/decoupling-christmas-from-spending/

  3. Donna I love this post. I actually started keeping records of all of the gifts I’ve given and received since 2003. I started the list so I wouldn’t buy family members the same things year after year. You are absolutely right in saying that I wouldn’t remember half of those gifts if I didn’t have the list in front of me. Isn’t it funny how we spend so much time thinking about those gifts, shopping for them, trying to find a good price on them, wrapping them and transporting them only to find that a few months later we can’t even remember what we gave out or what we received?

  4. I love this post! My husband and I have had frugal Christmases in the past; due to financial necessity. This is the first year where we are not scraping by, and we are so grateful!! However, even though this year has been better financially we are still keeping Christmas small. Our son is 2 this year and we think that if he never gets used to large overblown holidays we won’t have to worry about disappointment should our finances change in the future.

  5. I went in debt for one gift–a coat that my grandson (16) needed. Now, I picked it out, daughter had him okay it with a picture from internet site, and I charged it. I don’t regret it since it is practical and he will use it AND needs it. A coat he would not use would be worse than using a credit card. I will pay it off in full next month. His sister (9) is getting clothes bought on clearance last year. Both are getting cameras paid for mostly by recycling at Office Max.

    Their mother gets money she needs to get things for herself. I would buy her a house if I could possibly do so.

    I spent $20 on little farm tractors and such and farm animals for other two small grandchildren (3 and 5). I tried my best to find them on Freecyle or Trader! She (3) is getting used Cabbage Patch doll, outfit I made, blanket I made and one I crocheted. He gets a dog outfit I made for his stuffed dog and a doggie bed. Oh, there may be other things…I forget.

    Son and dil get a needlepoint piece I finished in 1980 and had framed this year. It will be cushioned in the mail by used clothing for the girl (3), all cute and like new, given to me free or bought for quarter at yard sales. Clothing is not part of the gift, just useful padding.

    Other daughter may get a scarf…not sure yet.

    Everyone gets free Colgate!

    Framing and coat and cash are expenses plus about $20 more.

  6. We have a budget, and I admit, this year I went over a tad bit on some people, but other people I paid nothing for, or so little, because I hit sales all year. There were a few people I really did splurge on, and went well over their budgets, but I don’t regret it at all, even though I did do a double take when the credit card bill came in. My grandfather has been barely hanging on for almost a year now, and I live all the way across the US. I went a little over to get hime some special things I know he will like, because next year, I might not able to. Trying not to cry as I write this!! Over the summer, I lost a grandmother unexpectedly, and the one that is left, I also went more than I usually do, because her health is bad. They also live on the other side of the US and I figure, this again, might be the last time they get Christmas gifts, so darn it, I’m giving them something they’d love so much, because I want to.

    For our 3 year old, almost all yard sale toys except the real Pillow Pet, which I got 30% off at Kohls, and a few other little things I got on clearence, but its all stuff he’d love, Thomas the Train cars, Star Wars ship, Leapfrog Toys, etc. “Santa” is bringing him a Craigslist play kitchen for $25, and I did splurge and buy some play food new, and a play microwave to go with it, but it was black friday half off, with an added coupon, so a great deal! He doesn’t care if its yard sale toys right now, and the money people send him for gifts I get to put into his savings. (Keeping a smidege out for those toys he wants a month or so from now) Plus, if he ends up not liking the toys, I’m not out much.

    I do tend to shop year long, and I love to stockpile toys, and I’m glad I did. This year, we not only were somehow able to do 2 kids off the Salvation Army Christmas tree because i had so many toys, we also did a last minuite YMCA teen need as well!! We did have to buy a few things only on a goodish sale, but I don’t regret that either. So many people are in need, I want to do my part to help.

  7. I applaud your encouragement of sanity in the seasonal madness of shopping. Budgeting is the only way for a person to control spending and actually know where the money goes. This one thing can do more to help gain a debt free Holiday Season than any other.

    This time of year is best enjoyed by gathering about you those most loved, not by spending yourself into debt.

    Great links included in the article also…thanks.

    Let Engelbert make it…’ya probably had to be there…



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