I know, there’s still more than a month before we even hit Halloween.
Why am I rushing the season by talking about Christmas already?
It’s for your own good. And my own good. Because now is the time to be making our plan for Christmas. If we don’t, I fear that when January arrives we will be exhausted, disappointed, and in debt.
Christmas is a season of abundance. Options abound. There is a myriad of activities to participate in—plays, concerts, winter wonderlands at the local amusement parks, drive through nativities and light displays, parties, and those extra church services. So many fun and meaningful things to be a part of.
Opportunities to spend money multiply—gifts for family, friends, coworkers, service people you regularly tip, and people you don’t even like who give you a gift and make you feel you must reciprocate; charity appeals and donations; the aforementioned activities; even the cost of electricity for your own front-lawn light display.
Every one of those unlimited options, though, impacts at least one of our limited resources—our time, our money, or our energy. That’s where the rub comes in. Not recognizing those limits is what leads to the January disillusionment.
Planning now, before the hoopla starts, allows you to prepare your defense. You can set your boundaries—how much will we spend, how much will we do, how many places will we go? Will surprises crop up? Of course. But by setting your limits at the start, you keep Christmas from ruling (or ruining) your life. You hold the reins. And you are free to rein in the wild horses at any time. By establishing your intentions (and sticking with them), you don’t allow the horses to bolt, dragging you on to your death.
Easy to say. Harder to do.
It starts with a conversation. Actually, multiple conversations.
The first, if you’re married, is with your spouse.
- Start by asking: What do you love about our Christmas season? What do you hate? What are you ambivalent enough about that you could live without it, at least this year? Listen without comment, coercion, or justification for one of your favorites.
- Talk finances: Make a list of everyone you believe you must purchase presents for. Are there any you can eliminate? (Hold on for ways to deal with that.) Set limits on what you feel you can reasonably spend on each recipient without attempting to compete with how much they spend. How much does that add up to? Add in a buffer for those unexpected presents. Will your kids require cash to buy gifts for friends? How much for how many? How much is reasonable to spend on seasonal activities, on extra charitable giving, on a higher utility bill for your Christmas lights (check out last year’s bills to see your spike). Now honestly discuss if you can afford this version of Christmas. If not, work to adjust your expectations and totals.
- Discuss time limits and commitments: One of you might love attending parties, while the other would be happiest curled up under a blanket at home watching the Hallmark channel. One might adore all the Christmas over-the-top decorations and activities and the other could let it all pass by unnoticed. What compromises are you each willing to make? Where can you decide that one of you attends that function (like the office party) and the other gets a pass—with no guilt? Do you want to limit the number of nights out per week?
- Brainstorm: Are there alternative ways you may wish to honor Christmas this year so it captures more of the meaning of the season? Perhaps you want to intentionally invite people from your church or work or neighborhood who are alone over for Christmas day. Can you make space in your budget to take a child or a family with you to a special event they could not afford? Maybe you wish to provide gifts for people you don’t even know instead of your usual recipients. Lancaster County, where I live, has the Gifts That Give Hope alternative gift fair on December 7 at which you can select “gifts” from 30 nonprofits and get a card for Uncle Larry explaining that you gave music lessons to child in honor of his musical interests rather than another tie he doesn’t need. Even if you don’t have an alternative gift fair, most charities offer an option like this. Or perhaps you’ll choose to shop for all of your gifts at fair-trade retailers, like Ten Thousand Villages, that ensure all the makers of their products can provide for their families.
- Come up with a united plan on spending of time, money, and energy: In order for your next step to work AT ALL, you must go in as a unified front. It doesn’t mean it can’t be adjusted after the next step, but there can be no immediate caving in or throwing the other under the bus as Scrooge. Plan to regroup after to reconsider.
Next have a conversation with your immediate family.
- Start by asking: What do you love about our Christmas season? What do you hate? What are you ambivalent enough about that you could live without it, at least this year? Listen without comment, coercion, or justification for one of your favorites, but do not accept “I just love it all!” as the answer. Make them prioritize.
- Talk finances: Talk with your children about your desire to set limits on what you can spend so you don’t go into debt (or minimize debt). Explain that when it comes to gifts for friends they will receive this amount. How they choose to spend it on how many is their choice, but anything beyond that they will have to figure out how to earn the money for it. Explain your spending limit on seasonal activities.
- Discuss time limits and commitments: You know from your first step in each conversation the things that really matter to each person. Look at the top priority for each person. Can you fit each of those in to your planned budget and time commitment? If so, get them on the calendar, RIGHT NOW, so the date is protected and each person has something special to look forward to. If not, gently talk about other options. If time and financial resources are still available in your budget, you could add another activity most people like, or you can leave space and money available for the surprise treat.
- Brainstorm: Are there alternative ways your kids want to celebrate Christmas this year that you haven’t thought of? Is there someone who is alone that they want to invite over for Christmas day or to a special event they could not afford? Brainstorm alternative gift ideas that match the interests of your usual recipients. One year we gave money to a charity that offered therapeutic horseback riding lessons in honor of (and instead of a physical gift to) my sister-in-law who loves horses. Book-loving extended family have been honored with a gift to a charity that ensures young children get books every month. Use your imagination and then find a charity that offers what you’re looking for.
Now, comes the more awkward conversations.
- Give notice: If you’ve always given gifts to individuals or a group of people, like your coworkers or your extended family, let them know now, that you don’t intend to give to them this year. By doing so you save them from searching for the right present for you and yours. You may need to do the same if you’ve always attended a party someone gives or gone to an event together. Say, “This year we are choosing not to attend,” which opens the door for adding it back in at a later date.
- No rationale is needed: Explain only as much as you wish, but perhaps explain that you are looking to have a more meaningful and stress-free Christmas, or that you are looking to help some charities. If you wish to tell them you are looking to be better stewards of your money or time, do so, but you don’t owe explanations.
- Be gracious, but don’t cave: If they get angry or tell you they are still going to give you a gift, smile, say thank you, and walk away. It’s their choice to do so. You do NOT need to reciprocate; do not change your plan. One year my siblings and spouses all decided not to exchange gifts, but my one sister-in-law then bought presents for everyone. I was angry that she broke the pact we had made, but she said she just loved selecting and giving gifts. I wish I had been more gracious and less guilt-ridden. Now I simply say thank you.
Be gentle with yourself.
Unexpected expense will crop up. Events will suddenly appear that you really want to participate in. You’ll see a gift that is so perfect for a friend you just can’t not buy it. You’ll realize in December that it really won’t feel like Christmas if you don’t attend this activity. This isn’t a zero-sum, win-lose game. The goal is to be more intentional and, in so doing, have a more meaningful holiday with less stress and fewer bills on the other side of it.
Evaluate how it all worked.
What went well? What didn’t? What activity did you miss? Which of those you did could you all live without? What would you want to add back in next year? How did your budget work? How do you need to start planning in January for next Christmas? (I just recently found out that some banks still have Christmas clubs, where you put money away each week toward your Christmas expenses. I had no idea those still existed. But it might be just what you need.)
Christmas doesn’t have to break your bank or your spirit. We know it is coming every year. Intentionally planning can help make it a season you really want to celebrate—even in January.