Keep Christmas Your Own Way

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In Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge calls Christmas a “humbug” because of the foolish way people celebrate it. He asks his nephew, “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money?”

Sadly, that sounds like Christmas for many American families binging on expensive gifts.

Every year, Americans seem determined to be more frugal than the year before because of the latest economic conditions. One year it is rising energy prices; another year it is rising interest rates. This year, of course, the drop in everyone’s investments looms large. And so once again Americans will promise to cut back on presents, food and decorations and to fund their celebration from actual income instead of savings or credit cards.

But while the retailers worry, cut prices and may have an off year, the credit card companies are never concerned. One in every five families won’t pay off their credit cards in January. They will pay exorbitant interest rates instead and begin the downward spiral into financial ruin. Many families, in fact, are still trying to pay off their credit card purchases from last Christmas.

We are a nation of consumers and debtors. Total U.S. credit market debt has reached an all-time high in 2008 at 350% of gross domestic product (GDP), up from 255% a decade ago. This increase over the past 10 years is not due to the federal deficit. Only a paltry 37% of GDP is federal government debt, which is down from 46% a decade ago. The largest increase has been in financial institutions, whose debt rose from 64% to 114% of GDP. The second largest increase has been in household debt, which rose from 66% to 100% of GDP. Now the country is de-leveraging, and American families must do the same.

Christmas is an emotional time. Few families set a budget for spending, and consequently credit card debt spikes considerably. Our materialism urges us to show our love for friends and family members with big and expensive gifts. As a result, we often buy even more lavishly than the receiver would have wanted us to.

It’s time to differentiate between the celebration of Christmas and the commercialization of Christmas. This year, give your family the gift of financial peace of mind. Celebrate the season simply.

Four decisions, if made together as a family, can help reduce the frenetic materialism of the season and bring back the holiday’s warm fuzzy feelings: Cut back your gift list. Limit how much you spend. Decide to be charitable. Determine which activities bring you real joy.

We get into trouble when the number of people we buy for increases beyond our means. Make a list. Cull the list. Engage in a little honest financial talk among friends and family. Copy this article and highlight this section. They will understand that your retirement account is way down, finances are tight and you need to be saving more money to get back on track. Other family members may be equally relieved to cut back their own gift list.

For example, you might decide that only children 12 and younger among extended family members will get gifts. If that decision doesn’t keep gift giving reasonable, ask each extended family member to draw the name of one child under 12 and buy a gift. These seem like sensible rules.

Limit how much you spend. All of your excess holiday spending should fit inside 1% of your annual take-home pay. So if your net income is $40,000, you have a $400 budget for Christmas. If you bring home $100,000, you can spend $1,000. If these amounts seem small, you are in good company. On average, people spend about $800 on gifts alone.

Try taking care of all of your friends with a single baking project. Cookies, homemade granola, Russian tea, or herb mixes are easy to make in quantity and always welcome during the holidays.

Family Christmas letters are a wonderful way to keep distant friends up to date on your life, but consider sending them via e-mail or posting them on a blog or website for free. It is better for the environment–and your budget.

For family members, consider buying gifts that are already part of your budget or that encourage your children to develop their inherent talents. My favorite Christmas gift idea comes from “The Homecoming,” the first movie about the Waltons, in which the father buys John Boy paper and pencils. His gift, which affirms his son’s choice of writing as a career, is the emotional climax of the story. Many parents’ gifts at Christmas have changed the course of their children’s lives or careers by inspiring them thoughtfully in one direction or exposing them to a new interest.

Decide to be charitable. We either choose to be the kind of people who take delight in giving generously or we are not generous. Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, saw a poor widow putting two small coins worth only a fraction of a penny into the treasury. He called his disciples and said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she gave out of her poverty.”

Giving ungrudgingly can be an act of faith, a recollection of all we have been given. It is ultimately a declaration that we want to be generous people.

Finally, decide which activities bring you real joy. Dickens himself understood this. As his son explained, Christmas was “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on. . . . And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”

Take a lesson from how the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge celebrates Christmas. He does six things, and only first two of them cost money.

First, Ebenezer buys the Cratchits a prize turkey anonymously. He decides to treat his employee Bob Cratchit like family. Sharing a festive meal together promotes community. Today less than 20% of family meals are eaten together. Even if all you did during the holidays was to share a meal, it would make the season unique and special.

Expensive food does not make a meal a feast. In fact, it is eating out at fast-food places and precooked convenience foods that burden our budgets. The leisurely pace of homemade family meals costs a fraction of our typical eating on the run. Fold the napkins fancy, and use the good china.

Second, Ebenezer gives generously to the portly gentleman who was collecting for the poor. Ebenezer decides he wants to be charitable, and so he includes a great many back payments in his donation.

Third, Ebenezer is kind and gracious to everyone he meets. This attitude costs so little, but it sometimes seems as scarce as the latest sold-out fad toy. Ebenezer smiles. He is pleasant. He says, “Good morning, sir! A merry Christmas to you!” When he previously would have responded with a gruff word, he reacts now as a shock absorber with forgiveness and forbearance. These simple gestures cost us nothing but are all too uncommon.

As Ebenezer’s nephew Fred describes Christmas in the opening scene of Dickens’s famous story, it is “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

The fourth action of the reformed Scrooge is going to church. Worship is an act of celebration that helps us remember with gratitude all that God has provided. Our community provides scores of opportunities for free celebration during the holiday season.

Fifth, Ebenezer walks about the streets of London enjoying the sights. Sometimes a celebration can be simply taking time out of our busy lives to notice what is noble and beautiful all around us. Pausing and reflecting gives us time to refresh our bodies and renew our minds. It allows us to see beyond the ordinary and routine and appreciate life to its fullest.

Perhaps you don’t feel that way. All the more reason to stop and reflect. Feelings often follow thoughts. Having an attitude of gratitude, being mindful of others in the present and looking confidently and eagerly toward the future encourages us to be people who live life with more satisfaction.

For his sixth and final new way to celebrate Christmas, Ebenezer goes to his nephew Fred’s party for fun, games and music. Christmas provides the unique opportunity for the bonding that comes from joyful laughter.

After a musical interlude, the partygoers play “Forfeits” because “it is good to be children sometimes.” The commands are usually silly requests intended to get everyone at the party laughing, such as “dance a jig,” “tell how to make a pie without talking,” “yawn until you make someone else yawn” or “try to stand on your head.”

Next they play the games “Blindman’s Buff,” “How, When and Where” and then “Yes and No.” None of these pleasures cost a cent, which is a lesson Scrooge as well as many of us have forgotten. Your best holiday delights need not even show up as a line item in your budget.

This year, take the hype out of the holiday. Feast merrily, give generously, show kindness, worship thankfully, live mindfully and laugh playfully. Cut back your gift list. Limit how much you spend. Simplify your Christmas, and set your family on the road to a lasting peace about finances.

Photo in the public domain.

Follow David John Marotta:

President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.