But I've done this before, and now's the time to get in the holiday spirit, financially. Taking inspiration from the Wall Street Journal's "Seven Smart Money Moves for the Holidays," here are the ways I get the cidery goodness -- instead of the financial stress -- bubbling once again:1. Step Away From the Credit. Nothing can ruin a good holiday more quickly than paying for it for years to come (take this from someone who is still paying down Christmas 2000). For the past several years, my husband and I have committed to only buying what we can pay cash for; and this year I'm committed to paying the mortgage and utilities before I hit the mall. Give a gift to yourself and your immediate family by reducing, rather than expanding, your debt.
2. Give Because You Mean it. Review your holiday giving list. Do you have any names on the list that are there because you think it's good politics, not because you really care about them? Consider changing those gifts to a card or an invitation to a casual holiday party. And what about the people on your gift list that you really do care about, but can't afford to buy them anything meaningful? If you are planning to make any purchases just to have something to give, think about doing a Secret Santa or what the Wall Street Journal calls a "gift truce" among the adult recipients of your largess. Agree on a cap on spending, or decide not to spend at all. Perhaps your family can instead chip in for a fancy dinner together.
3. Give to The Future. Instead of buying expensive cartoon-inspired toys for your nieces, nephews, colleague's friends, consider setting up a 529 tax-sheltered college savings plan. As Brett Arends in the WSJ says, "That'll give discipline and focus to saving, and save on taxes. The money will also stay under your control." With college costs expected to continue growing -- in the last 30 years, they've grown six times faster than incomes for middle class families -- it could be a great place to direct the generosity of those family members who always buy your kids the noisy toys. You know the ones.
4. Budget, Budget, Budget. Now's the time, if you haven't already: Decide how much you'll spend on your holiday and make sure you have the disposable income for everything. Include all your holiday spending, including extra travel costs (even gas and snacks on the drive to Grandma's), the increased grocery budget (that heritage turkey was $83!), and money for holiday drinks with friends and family, even the babysitting money for adults-only parties. If you don't have enough to cover it all, make the cuts now before it's December 20 and you promised that $60 LEGOS Prince of Persia set ...
5. Stick to Your Charitable Giving Plan. Phone calls and mail solicitations will only get more intense for the rest of the year as charities try to cash in on the holiday spirit (and the impending end of the tax year). If you don't already have a charitable giving plan -- a list of your giving priorities and an idea of how much you intend to give to support each of them -- now is a great time to develop one. That will give you a good way to assess new "asks" (sure, the policemen's organization is a good cause, but is it really more important to you than the battered women's shelter you always give to?) and a handy way to say "no" if you're a conflict avoider like me.
6. When You do Shop, Shop Smart. Last year, Julia Scott delivered seven great tips for shopping smart, like spending the time to clip coupons, and never being afraid to ask for a discount (even at chain stores). I'd include a reminder to steer clear of items that are too cheap; my boys love dollar stores, until they come home, and half the toys are broken before we've hung up all our coats.
7. Give Authentically. Christmas is my favorite holiday, because it gives me a chance to take advantage of all the hard work I did in the summer, making preserves and liqueurs. The homemade vanilla I gave to my mother and sisters last year was a hit; my mom just asked me for more (funny you should ask ...). I much prefer spending my sweat equity on gifts than my cash, and when ingredients are a bit spendy, I go in with friends and a buying club to save money.
One tip from the Wall Street Journal, on giving experiences instead of items, comes from a study last year that showed people get the most happiness from money when they spend the money on experiences like trips, concerts, plays, or social outings. How about tickets to your father's favorite band, or the play your mother wrote a paper on in college? These will be more appreciated, and the memories will be better (despite what the commercials might suggest) than those developed through Wii games.