$taying on Budget for Christma$
by Mary Hamilton
’Tis the season of twinkling lights, “Jingle Bells” and overspending. Of all the annual holidays, Christmas has earned a reputation as the most materialistic, with each of us spending an average of $800 on gifts. Non-gift items such as decorations, cards and postage, food and possibly travel expenses can easily raise that total to $1500-$2500.
That’s a big hit on a family’s budget, especially if there have been job losses, illness or major expenses in the last twelve months. The pressure to overspend can turn a season of good cheer into months of worrisome anxiety while we pay the price (literally) for our indulgences.
If you’re tempted to splurge during this season of high expectations, a good place to start taming those impulses is to turn off the television. The sole purpose of commercials is to make us want what we don’t have. Ignore them. Eliminate their influence. You may discover you’ve gained a more realistic attitude toward this season of giving.
Beyond that, you’ll need a plan to stay on budget this Christmas season. Like most accomplishments, having a plan and sticking to it is the secret to success. Begin by figuring out how much money you can afford to spend. Write that figure in bold numbers at the top of your planning sheet.
Beneath this projected spending limit, make two columns—one for gifts and one for non-gift items. Starting with non-gift items, list everything you expect to buy such as decorations, wrapping paper, extra food or baking supplies, clothing for a special event, and travel if you expect to be away from home.
In the gift column, write the names of all the people for whom you expect to buy gifts. Don’t forget to include teachers and others outside your normal circle of friends and family. When both lists are finalized, prioritize each of your lists, just in case you decide to eliminate something. Then, go back to your total amount at the top and divide that figure between the columns, assigning each column an appropriate portion.
If you’re not already a shopper who sniffs out bargains like a search-and-rescue dog, try these suggestions for smarter shopping.
Use your gift list to write down the specific items you’ll buy for each person. List the cost as well, and make sure the total doesn’t exceed the amount you’ve allocated. If necessary, eliminate a few who are lower on the priority scale or find less expensive gifts. Make these decisions before going shopping, rather than going out on a random search.
Plan your shopping trips to only those stores that stock the items on your list.
Watch the mail and check online for coupons (only for items you plan to purchase—don’t buy something just because you have a coupon for it).
Use cash whenever possible, especially on Black Friday sales. If you’re buying online, do not purchase anything if you don’t already have funds allocated for it. Check Cyber Monday deals, and look for sites that don’t charge shipping fees.
Your gift list is the place to get creative and think outside the (gift) box.
Within a family or group of friends, try exchanging names rather than buying individual gifts for each person. Or give a family gift, something the whole family can enjoy together, such as a board game or a puzzle they can work on during the holiday. Make up a basket with a couple DVDs and some favorite snacks.
Think up an inexpensive gift theme. Have fun with personality-themed socks, books, music, movies, games, etc. (While you’re at it, decide on a theme for next year and shop throughout the year, thus spreading out the expense and reducing some of the pressure of the season.)
Homemade items are less expensive and often, most appreciated. Non-cooks will appreciate a gift of fresh-baked cookies or breads they can share with guests. Make up some jars with cocoa mix or spiced tea and tie a pretty ribbon around the lid. For gifts that keep on giving, make up some pretty notepads or stationery. Find twelve different recipes and give the gift of a monthly delivery of cookies, breads, or even a full meal.
Wherever your talent lies, think of a way to apply it to gift-giving. If you knit or crochet, make a lap warmer or some hot pads. If you write, consider writing a story or a poem for the people on your list.
Don’t forget the gift of time. An offer to babysit for a busy mom, elder-sitting for someone caring for an aging parent, and even pet-sitting can be a welcome and cost-free gift. With special friends, plan a time to get together for coffee or dessert, a movie, or just walking through a park. Most of us have more than enough stuff, but would love to spend a couple hours relaxing in the company of good friends. Sometimes the best gift is the one that costs least.
Staying on budget during Christmas is a simple matter of planning. Simple, but rarely easy. Along the way, be sure to check your progress and make adjustments, including attitude adjustments if necessary.
Remember that before Christmas became a holiday, it was a holy day. The “reason for the season” is the joy of receiving a gift we could neither deserve nor afford. A daily focus on Scripture and the humble circumstances of God’s most precious gift should inspire us with the true spirit of Christmas—and help us stay on budget.
Mary L. Hamilton grew up at a youth camp in southern Wisconsin, much like the setting for her middle-grade Rustic Knoll Bible Camp Series. Each book tells the story of kids who bring their baggage to camp—and learn how to carry it. She’s currently working on a women’s novel.
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