By Maxine H. Goble
Exclusive to My Merry Christmas.com
When it comes to Christmas we have evolved as a family.
I grew up in a family where Christmas was a grand tradition. Life on a Wisconsin farm meant that money was always tight and Christmas was a means of getting necessities that doubled as gifts. We got new socks, new jeans and sometimes even new boots at Christmas and those all paid dividends when it came to work.
We were thrilled to get them, too. The new stuff at Christmas, while short on surprise, was always welcomed.
Fast forward the clock to my children and it is a different world. They live in suburbia with nary a farm in sight. Their world is cell phones, sports, and concentrating on getting ready for college.
While it pleases me that my children are enjoying the kind of life and comforts we never had as kids there has been something missing when it comes to our Christmas celebrations.
I guess you could say the event became more of a show about who could get the glitziest thing. It was starting to ring hollow.
Besides, life has become so much more uncertain in recent years. Jobs are changing and the future looks less secure. We had long range things to re-evaluate, too. We decided it was time to dial Christmas back a notch as we considered other changes that would fit in with today’s economic realities.
Getting the kids to realize the reality of our times has been difficult. It didn’t begin with just Christmas.
We started to discuss living more within our means and getting out of debt. We skipped a big vacation, paid off the car and instead of trading in for a new one we painted it and repaired it, and we began taking greater care of making things like winter coats last another season.
We talked about a more frugal Christmas but we failed to deliver on it at first.
Actually, we lacked a plan to make it happen. When we suffered through the usual gluttony of what we have known our Christmases to be we told our children around New Year’s that life would be different going forward.
Our new frugal Christmas ways began with a little ceremony on New Year’s Day. In a family meeting I made a big show of cutting up all the credit cards and then I put them in the microwave and cooked them for about ten minutes.
That was just step #1.
We began to meet every month as a family to discuss what our new financial life would be like. It forced us to organize in ways we had not much before.
The kids were going to have to learn to pack lunches instead of buying them – and so did my husband and me.
We ate at home a lot more and that meant planning meals and making assignments for cooking and clean-up. These were actually hard things to do.
We tried to plan rewards for sticking to our budgets. By April we had paid off enough debt and saved enough money to engineer a post-Easter trip to the beach. We found that the long stretch between family events and the fact that we had to work so hard for this little trip meant that we all enjoyed it more.
Over time, we came to learn that by holding ourselves back we savored everything a little bit more. We’ve gone to meatless dinners four days a week. That makes the Sunday roast taste much better!
These simple steps throughout the year made planning our Christmas in September something of an energized exercise.
We have been frank with our kids all along and they were shocked with the progress we were able to show with our debt load and savings after working on it in so many small ways throughout the year.
But in order for us to see it through the end of the year we had to get Christmas right. We simply could not spend the usual $3,000 to $4,000 in celebrating Christmas.
They were surprised it cost all that much.
But when you toss in the electricity for the Christmas lights, the new decorating items we usually would buy, the collection of wish-lists from all the family and the actual purchasing of food, gifts and stuff all associated with Christmas that was our typical family Christmas bill (there are six of us all together).
Could we still have Christmas on $1000, we mused?
The family enthusiastically agreed that we could considering the progress they had seen us make so far for the year.
I talked to a good friend of mine at work about our Christmas changes. She was stunned that we ever spent as much as $4000 on Christmas. Of course, her husband is disabled and they live on a much lower income than we do. She shared with me that $1000 on Christmas for them would be an extravagant year.
It humbled me to talk to her.
Over dinner I shared with my family what she told me. They didn’t believe that a family could celebrate Christmas on less than $1000 (and her family is larger than ours).
We decided that maybe we were using money as the wrong gauge for measuring our Christmas celebration.
We thought, in the vein of Dr. Seuss, that maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. We decided to ask around.
Everyone was shocked at what they learned. The kids talked to friends, my husband talked to his brothers, and I asked around at Church and online.
Nobody, it seemed, blew money at Christmas like we did.
Many did it for pennies on the dollar and, not surprisingly, seemed to have a more fond appreciation for Christmas than we had.
We really had blown it when it came to Christmas, we learned. We really didn’t have a clue how to have a Merry Christmas without just throwing money at it.
The kids had some different experience in collecting information. Some of their friends bragged of getting cars for Christmas while others went on big vacations. But others they asked said they were lucky to get more than one thing for Christmas – and that it had always been that way in their family.
When we separated things out we found that the type of people who had a more frugal Christmas were the kind of people we wanted to be like overall and it seemed we could have a good Christmas too if we tried to focus on things other than…the usual stuff.
What would that mean?
That meant, like life overall, we had to get down to the nitty-gritty of what we were actually spending money on at Christmas.
We had to list everything out, from what we wanted to do to budgets of what we really wanted to spend. We had to think instead of react when it came to making purchases.
We narrowed it down and decided that Christmas would be limited to just $100 per person — $600 total, and that was to cover everything from decorating, to eating out, to shopping for gifts and wrapping presents.
The only extra we allowed ourselves was not counting the utility bill for the Christmas lights we put up. We decided to take that out of our Christmas budget and keep it a part of our regular household operations.
Right after Halloween, just as we usually do, we began our tradition of putting up Christmas lights. This is a great tradition we love and over the years we had really enjoyed expanding our display. Our yard fills with inflatables, our trees are blazing with lights and our walkways are always festively decorated with candy canes and snowmen.
We always added something new, but not this year. On this year of the frugal Christmas that meant getting into the attic and finding old things we had not used in a while and making do with what we had.
We can usually get our lights up and our display working by the middle of November. But this year went slower. The reason was simple: instead of running to the store to get something new for something worn out, we had to fix things.
We did buy some replacement lights and a new extension cord but by the time we got done the weekend of Thanksgiving we had lights up and the yard looking festive after having spent less than $15.
Our youngest child is now 13. We figured that was old enough to initiate a change in how Santa Claus did his work in our home.
We drew names and each person had one individual to focus on when it came to Christmas. And that meant everything: gifts from Santa, the “big” gift and even stocking stuffers were up to that person.
This change really brought out the creativity in all of us. And it spurred us to do other things that we did not do before.
After all, this would be the first Christmas in my married life where I didn’t give my husband something for Christmas because I didn’t draw his name.
I stewed about that for a little while, sad that such a trend would be broken.
But instead of dwelling on the fact that I couldn’t buy something I determined I could do something that would keep the tradition alive. It didn’t take me long to figure it out and it delighted me to think I could surprise him because we were all expecting on just what we planned and nothing more.
This was definitely something more.
While up in the attic looking for Christmas light display stuff I came across an old chest of family pictures. I pulled them out, organized them by year and packed them into shoe boxes and wrapped them up. That was my husband’s Christmas gift.
My older girls were incredibly resourceful and equally as determined to expand their gift giving without spending money. Not only did they “make” gifts for each other they sacrificed things for the sake of making Christmas.
My eldest daughter made a gift of a beloved cashmere sweater her little sister begged to borrow on occasion. My son gave up his Call of Duty video game to his Dad. These were no small gifts and come Christmas morning we found ourselves staring at each other in wonder at what had become of our Christmas.
My gift to my husband spurred hours of laughter and memories as pictures were passed around. It was an usual Christmas morning we are anxious to repeat.
We learned that less could be more at Christmas.
We learned that giving meant creating and sacrificing – not spending.
We learned that we could look forward to Christmas morning more than ever before because we had invested more than money in Christmas: we invested ourselves.
In the end, as Christmas sat wrapped and glittering under the tree as it usually did, we just didn’t see a visible difference.
But we felt a difference. We had secrets. We had surprises. We had
We had fun.