Holiday Budget Relief

Many of us are feeling that tightness and pressure that comes from the extra spending surge this time of year. Holiday activities/entertainment, Christmas cards, gifts, office parties, friends of friends’ parties, and gifting expectations galore, not to mention what the children hope to find under the tree.

For many of us, this kind of annual pressure doesn’t fit our budget, but also, doesn’t fit our lifestyles. You may prefer to focus on the real meaning of Christmas, without feeling like a “party pooper” or wrecking your annual budget.

When my husband and I adopted our daughters, we knew two things—they don’t have the expectation of mountains of presents under the tree, and most importantly, they simply need us—our presence, not our cash. We do very low-key Christmas gifts. Each child gets a Christmas stocking with a few items, usually a movie, mittens, a couple of candies, hair beads, and a small toy or accessory to a toy they already have. This reduces our stress, and prevents them from being overwhelmed. We also make a point to spend a lot of quality time together, talking about the real meaning of the holiday season.

To control your holiday budget, try implementing some of the following ideas:

  1. Manage expectations. Nobody needs piles of presents. Trust that “less is more.” It’s more time, more relief, and much less holiday anxiety.
  2. Make an effort to spend quality time. See a show (many churches offer free productions of classics like A Christmas Carol), my family especially loves to go see Langston Hughes “The Black Nativity” at a local theatre company. (My kids say it is a lot more fun than the Nutcracker)
  3. Be frank with extended family about expectations for travel, entertaining and gifts. Suggest family gifts or a gift exchange in lieu of piles of individual presents. (More on gift exchange ideas later this week). Our parents love to shower gifts on our children, but rather than stuff, they get experiences–we have been gifted tickets to live performances, and memberships to zoos, etc, which provides a year of fun and learning, rather than batteries and “some assembly required,” and for that out-of-town family that we just can’t afford to travel to visit, they are welcome to visit us here, but plane tickets aren’t in the budget–we try to do our out-of-state traveling in lower-cost months like March and September.
  4. Nix the office gift exchange and party if you can, or work to downsize it. Who really enjoys those anyhow? One company I worked for that used to throw a gigantic black-tie holiday party downtown and changed up plans with the economic downtown. After a few years of big holiday parties, they held an office party with goofy contests (ugliest holiday sweater) and we had a “regift” exchange, rather than a regular gift. It was a big laugh—quality relaxed time with colleagues without the dozens of uncomfortable spouses or the need to hire a babysitter.
  5. Make your own cards. If you haven’t tried Pinterest yet, there’s piles of great ideas for creative holiday cards.
  6. Give home-made gifts, practical, or charity gifts. (Start here for home made gift ideas.)

What does the holiday season look like at your house? How do you hope to change your family’s approach this year or in the future?


By , on Dec 5, 2011
Jessica Ward Jessica Ward is a full-time writer and adoptive mom to two wonderful children. She writes to support her parenting/adopting habit. For frugal family tips see The PennyWise Family or @jessc098 and my google+ profile.


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  1. I enjoyed the tips you are providing on your frugal living can make life easier by providing long term living for doing something one time.Thanks for the the information……

  2. One of the old sayings I can remember my parents telling me was that “everything old is new again” – meaning old habits and styles always return in time. It seems since 2009 that people have started remembering the stories from their grandparents and the reasons behind them.

    No, the stockholders won’t be happy if we all followed this simplified mentality, but then again, having stock was never meant to replace real earning either.

  3. Cant believe how expensive this years christmas is turning out to be already!

    Most of my family and friends have already set limits of £10 each for presents and even thats stretching it!

    The good old days seem a long time ago dont they?!

  4. I couldn’t agree more that Christmas has become so commercialized. In fact, I couldn’t believe the answers that children gave when interviewed by a reporter at a toy store, when asked what the meaning of Christmas was? All but one said “You get presents” or “I don’t know.” When asked what they wanted, the answers were an Ipad, laptop, Iphone, etc. Thank you for a refreshing take on Christmas.

  5. I really hate how Christmas is becoming so overly commercialized. Stores start “Christmas mode” right after Halloween and it takes so much away from the meaning of the holiday – not to mention the pressure it seems to put on everyone about the importance of buying/spending – which in my opinion is complete rubbish.

    Our son is only three and gets quite a few gifts from friends and family. We put money into his savings account and buy him something small that we know he’ll enjoy. Christmas is about the time you spend with family and not about the things you find under the tree. When I think back on my holidays as a child I remember the time spent in the kitchen with my mom and decorating the tree with my grandparents, not the gifts I received.

  6. ee:

    I was brought up to believe that the whole “Christmas Gift” mentality was a waste of time and money.

    I am fortunate in that I come from a family that has always been fairly well off, but we never engaged in excessive gift-giving, for any occasion. It simply wasn’t emphasized when I was growing up, and I never went down that road with my daughter. My parents were happily married for 63 years – and during that time they never exchanged a single birthday, Christmas, or anniversary gift – it simply wasn’t a part of their relationship.

    As kids growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, my sister and I each received one nice gift at Christmas along with a few small things in our stockings – and that was it. For our birthdays, we each got one gift and a small family party (with no other gifts) – and no elaborately themed parties that included everyone in our school or neighborhood. And . . . once we turned 16, the gifts stopped altogether – our parents said that we were old enough to work and make our own money, and that was it. They weren’t mean, just matter-of-fact. My sister and I grew up in a nice home with loving parents, and they paid for our college educations – so we had nothing to complain about. And I did the same with my daughter – a few small gifts and nothing after she turned 16. Today we give money to charities and do other activities at Christmas instead.

    It took my husband a while to get used to the idea, but now he understands that when I say I don’t want anything, he knows I really mean it. And my daughter is better off, too.

    We need to place less emphasis on the commercial side of the holiday. Moderation and reason are the keys.

  7. I love doing a Secret Santa gift exchange! That way we each only have to buy one gift in my family. And we put a budget of $50 on each gift so we all put in much more effort to pick out a great one that’s within budget. It’s been so much more fun and less stressful this way!

  8. Pam:

    Last year I let my nephew pick up a “gift” from the World Vision that I donate in his (and his baby sister’s) honor in place of a Christmas present. He has fun picking out a gift for a family in a 3rd world country(last year we donated towards the purchase of a cow for a family. This year he picked to donate towards art and music education.) And I can use that time to talk to him about helping other people who aren’t as blessed as he is.

    • Pam:

      Oh and that was the only Christmas “gift” he receives from Aunt Pam – a donation in his honor that he helps pick out.

    • Jessica:

      My kids get a gift from a great aunt of an animal sponsorship from WWF. They get to pick their animal each year, and they get a plush animal that represents the “real” sponsored one. (My youngest is quite disappointed to learn that they don’t even know where the REAL dolphin is…) It’s a lovely program, and they totally “get” the idea of sponsorship.

  9. I cannot say enough about purchasing savings bonds instead of gifts. It is a great way to teach kids about savings, and they don’t even notice a few less presents under the tree! Bonds ensure that the kids won’t spend the money on something frivolous, and the savings really add up! Spend $100 per year for 18 years and the child would have over $2200 in savings–tax free if they use it for education! I do this for each of my nieces birthdays and christmas gifts each year.

    • Jessica:

      I was the beneficiary of many years of Savings Bonds for holiday gifts. They were a great help come college, but seriously under performed. If that money had been put into a college savings account like a cloverdell or an ESA, it would have done a lot better. See Dave Ramsey’s suggestions for gift savings (I personally adhere to the Ramsey philosophy).

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