For many people, Christmas means a severe case of holiday dread, directly tied to a sense of obligation to spend money in order to have a meaningful celebration.
We all know the pain of those credit card bills in January and February. If we’ve been particularly festive, that pain might even stretch into the spring or summer, or — yikes — the next holiday season.
This year the average U.S. consumer plans to spend $817 on holiday-related shopping, plus an additional $107 on "non-gift" purchases of promoted or discounted items, according to the National Retail Federation — up 3.7 percent from 2006.
At the same time, however, 70 percent of Americans say they would welcome less emphasis on gift giving and spending during the holiday season, according to the Center for a New American Dream.
If you’re among those who feel holiday spending is out of control, remember: It doesn’t have to be that way. You can start new family traditions or return to some abandoned long ago.
How to go about it?
First of all, discuss the matter or simply warn your family in advance so that you avoid any awkwardness when it comes time to open gifts. At the same time, show respect for those who may not want to go along with your pared-down spending plans. If they enjoy it and can afford it, don’t try to ruin their fun.
Once that’s settled, come up with a plan. Here are some popular ideas you can adopt or tweak to your own situation.
Yankee Swap — Everyone brings a wrapped gift within an agreed spending range or limit. Stephanie Ling, of Florida, says her family calls this "Full Contact Christmas." She explains that all the unidentifiable gifts are piled in one spot and everyone picks a number from a bowl. The fun starts when No. 1 picks a gift and opens it in front of the group. "The second person has a choice — to either take the gift No. 1 opened or select another unopened gift. If the second person ‘steals’ the previous gift, No. 1 gets to open a new gift. The third person then can take either of the opened gifts or open a new one," says Ling. "Pretty soon, you’re taking gifts from one another left and right."
You can set your own rules. Usually, it’s forbidden to take a gift back immediately after it’s taken from you. You also may want to set a limit on how many times a gift can be "stolen," adds Ling. "Things could get ugly."
The game ends, she says, only when someone opens the last gift and decides to keep it. "It’s a fun game that goes on and on and involves everyone," Ling says. Some people use a variation of this called a White Elephant Exchange — wrapping silly gifts no one really wants.
Secret Santa — Everyone participating draws a name from a bowl and buys a gift for that person — usually with a spending limit. The gifts are presented anonymously, often placed on a table with the name of the recipient on the wrapping. Sometimes each person in the group submits a wish list and the Secret Santa purchases something on that list. Another variation is to buy only gag gifts. Often called a Polyanna, this is typically used for adults, with more traditional gift-giving reserved for children.
Un-Secret Santa — The same as Secret Santa, except that the giver of the gift is not anonymous. Each person draws a name and buys a gift for that person. This is one of the old standbys, especially for large families. It can be dicey, of course, if someone (and there’s usually a family member like this) who refuses to stick to the limit. Have a conversation and decide what will work.
"A friend of mine and her husband do 12 days of $5 gifts for each other," says Holly Renehan in Gainesville, Ga. "It forces them to be creative." For her own family, Renehan says everyone makes a list of things they want. Then everyone draws names and there is a set spending limit. Another common strategy is to have a key person select the giver-receiver matchups.
"About six weeks before Christmas, my sister puts all the adult names in a hat," says Steve Archambault in Albuquerque, N.M. "Then she matches each of us up with one of the names. Usually these are pretty small gifts with a $50 (or so) limit. Then, we all buy what we want for the kids."
Re-gifting — Yes, that’s right. Don’t listen to your mother’s voice inside your head — or Jerry Seinfeld’s, for that matter — telling you how inappropriate re-gifting is. Guess what? You’re in good company. Consumer Reports found in a 2006 survey that 24 percent of respondents re-gifted during the 2006 holiday season. Just make sure you remember who gave you that ornament last year or re-gifting could be very awkward.
Pool your resources — Forget gifts and have a party. Everyone chip in a dollar amount for decorations, food and maybe even entertainment. Each potluck dish is that person’s gift to the group.
Siblings Elisabeth Butler and Mary Butler divided up their 10 relatives between them when they were growing up in Arkansas. Each shopped for five relatives, spending about $20."Now that Elisabeth is married, my budget has been slimmed down, so I can get 10 of my relatives on my own," Mary says. "I’m compensating by baking several types of cookies and breads and including them with my gifts."
Carol Stratford, an employee of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware, says she collects $2 every payday from her co-workers and when December arrives they make reservations at a fabulous restaurant and enjoy each other’s company. "It’s a clever way to save and really enjoy the holiday season," she says.
For children only — A television producer in Detroit says her family has stopped exchanging gifts among adults. The kids exchange names with one another. She buys a savings bond for each child to teach them the importance of saving, and also buys them a small gift like a book. Then the adults all get baby sitters and do a dinner together.
Jim Pool in Florida agrees, "We adults only exchange cards, or perhaps a token gift, between ourselves. That leaves the majority of our expendable dollars for the ones who really look forward to the holiday season."
Donate in others’ names — A number of nonprofits have become very creative with this process. You can buy someone a flock of ducks or a goat through the Heifer Project. Basically you have donated the cost of buying one of these things for a family in the developing world to help them become more self-sufficient. But you can say you bought your brother a water buffalo, or tell your annoying boss you bought him a pig — for charity! (At Heifer, you can even buy part of a larger animal if you can’t swing the cost of a whole one.)
"Last year we made the break from commercialism," says April Lidinsky in South Bend, Ind. "We give gifts to kids only, and then to grown-ups we give Heifer cards that note we donated money in their name. We also gave everyone a very small handmade thingy from our local eco-products store. We were the hit of the holidays."
Carol Sardinha, a health care executive from Washington, D.C., says she e-mailed her co-workers last year telling them she had made a donation in their names to an agency devoted to providing medical care to a homeless person. This approach, she says, "establishes the appropriate expectations regarding gifts, avoids the awkwardness that can occur in either giving or receiving a gift that is not reciprocated, avoid making people feel obligated to spend money and clearly fits in with the idea of being generous to people most in need."
Limit spending — Sounds simple enough: Everyone agrees to limit the price spent on gifts to a certain dollar amount. But to make it more interesting, create a new "theme" each year. You could have a puzzle-and-game year, or a year in which all the gifts have to be made in your home state.
Families helping others — Volunteer as a family, perhaps at a meal program. Many churches, and even stores and malls, have programs where you can choose the name of a needy child and buy a gift for him or her. Volunteer to distribute toys to children or clothing and food at a homeless shelter. Megan and Tom Bolin in De Pere, Wis., volunteer with their two daughters as bell ringers for the Salvation Army.
"We usually get comments like ‘How can you NOT make a donation to these cute little girls?’ or ‘Here, honey, you help me put the money in the bucket.’ This serves two purposes: It helps the kids think about other people at a time when they’re thinking ‘What do I want for Christmas?’ and also, whenever we see those buckets, the girls insist on putting in some money."
Another alternative is to pool your money as a family or group, and then donate it to charity. Andrew Lamb, an account executive from Chicago says, "We had been competing to buy each others gifts year over year and it was getting to the point we were spending money on gifts people really didn’t want. Our new tradition is to pool a certain sum from each person for charity. The charity is chosen by one person and it rotates each year. At our Christmas dinner that person gets to announce the charity chosen and gives a little background on it. The kicker is that person gets the tax write-off for that year."
Another possibility is to put together care packages for troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sam Rodriguez of San Antonio was corresponding via e-mail with a fellow Texas A&M alumnus who was serving in Iraq and found out very simple things are great morale boosters: Oreos, flavored coffee, drink mixes. "Instead of swapping stuff you’d rather return, agree with a co-worker or whomever that you will put together a care pack for someone," he says. "Flat-rate boxes are available from UPS for about $9.80."
Plan family outings — Create other activities that don’t center on opening gifts. On Christmas Day, instead of buying lots of gifts to open on the big day, go out to a Christmas movie or a holiday musical or concert. Combine it with dinner in a special setting or have a pizza party.
Let the kids rule for one day — This is another idea from the Center for a New American Dream. Yes, that does mean you might find yourself wearing pajamas all day and eating Fruit Loops pizza for dinner, but it’s only one day and no doubt one that will stick with children’s memories much longer than the latest toy that breaks three months later.
Take a trip — Dean Rader, who lives in San Francisco and has family in Oklahoma and elsewhere, says his family has stopped gift giving all together.
"Instead, we take a family vacation, usually for four or five days," he says. "Each family member has to buy or make dinner each night. That’s the official present."
Russell McCulley in New Orleans says he and his partner also do a trip instead of gifts. It takes the stress out of Christmas, he says. "I like to go to the mall without the intention of actually buying anything. I take perverse glee in watching other people have nervous breakdowns in public," he says.