Celebrate the Holidays without Breaking the Bank

Snowshoeing in the North Cascades with Friends

Snowshoeing in the North Cascades with Friends

I’ll just come out and say it: I’m basically anti-materialistic.  So this time of year with its emphasis on consumerism makes me more than a little crazy.  I’m especially sensitive to it because I know a lot of people who are still going through hard economic times and probably will be for the rest of their lives.

When those who have good jobs and lots of savings in the bank insist on celebrating the holidays in traditional blow-out fashion, that makes it hard on those who have little money to spare. Even if the well-off types want to pay for everything, that can still cause uneasy feelings among families and friends. Everyone likes to participate and be considered generous.

I grew up in a family with a modest income, and generally speaking, we authors don’t fall into the upper income brackets, so I’m used to coming up with activities that don’t involve a lot of spending. (I even wrote a little book about that common sense ideas for developing a thrifty lifestyle: here’s a link if you’re interested.)

So I thought I’d throw out some ideas that make the holidays more fun for folks without big bucks to spend. First and foremost, reorient your thinking away from things (food and gifts) and focus on experiences. If you reflect on the happiest moments in your life, odds are that you’re thinking about something you were doing, not about a thing you received.

First up: the big meal. Make the meal a potluck instead of making one cook create a lavish dinner. Ask all guests contribute something, even if it’s drinks or napkins or flowers for the table. Have everyone help prepare and clean up. That way nobody gets too stressed out and everyone helps to create the occasion.

Plan a party that will make everyone happy.

Plan a party that will make everyone happy.

Gift-giving is always the biggest challenge, because we have all been so thoroughly saturated with the advertising of things, and kids are especially vulnerable. They will most have made lists of all the things they want like the good little consumers they have been trained to be. Why not teach them a new way to enjoy the holidays?

Think back on your own childhood–do you remember things or experiences? I truly wish that families and friends didn’t give gifts but instead did something together that they all enjoyed, whether that’s playing charades or volleyball, heading off to the beach, or going snowshoeing. Why not use your money and time to create memories instead of accumulating more stuff?

If you must have a gift exchange (and I know that for most families it is a must), consider having a low-cost exchange of practical gifts only. Have each person buy and wrap a practical gift under $10 (cake or soup mixes, hammers, screwdrivers, postage stamps, flashlights, books, kitchen utensils, potholders, sewing kits, duct tape, hand lotion, soap, etc.–items that anyone at the party can use). You may want to put practical gifts for kids–packs of colored markers, cookie cutters, books, cute key chains, etc.–in different colored wrappers so a child doesn’t end up with a screwdriver, although some kids would think having a personal screwdriver is pretty cool.

The first person chooses and opens a gift. The second person can either take the first person’s gift or choose a new one. If the second person takes the first gift, then the first person gets to choose a new one. The third person gets to take either of the gifts already opened, or choose a new one, and so on down the line. I’ve been to a lot of these round-robin practical gift exchanges; they’re a lot of fun, and everyone goes home with something useful.

Another truly old-fashioned possibility is having everyone create their gifts. Don’t panic if you’re not creative! Make cookies, create bags of fruit and nut mix, string an interesting bead on a small chain. One of the best gifts you can offer without spending a dime up front is to offer a service–babysitting, sewing, auto repair, carpentry, house cleaning–whatever you know how to do. Many of us very busy people would be thrilled to receive a card that said “Redeem for six hours of babysitting” or “Good for two sessions of lawn mowing” or “I promise to help you paint your bedroom” or “I promise to take you camping next summer–you get to decide the date.” You know what your friends and family members need and want, so you can make the gift of time the most personal gift of all.

The holidays don’t have to be stressful and expensive. Resolve to spend time doing activities with the ones you love instead of spending money.

Holidays should be about memories, not about merchandise.


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