Overspending: A Tale of Christmas Past

Overspending can kill the Christmas spirit. Here's how to keep the magic -- and your budget -- alive.It may be hard to find the silver liming in the economic downturn, but the recession has given me at least one important gift: It has cured me of my shameful habit of overspending at Christmas.

For years, I've vowed to cut back and spend less -- and in each of those years, I failed utterly. Despite my modest, carefully constructed list of presents, I would invariably fall prey to a last-minute shopping frenzy, fueled by the sudden fear that my children were going to find my gifts meager or lacking. Haunted by an image of their disappointed faces on Christmas morning, I would forget my firm resolutions and find myself randomly snatching up every train set, stuffed animal or fairy princess wand that caught my eye.

Christmas morning would arrive and I would watch in dismay as my two daughters grew exhausted and overwrought while plowing through this veritable mountain of gifts. First came the overweight stockings, bulging with small toys, chocolates and fancy hair clips – already more than enough. Then it was on to the enormous stack of brightly wrapped boxes that threatened to dwarf the Christmas tree, each one filled with a doll, game, book or scarf. The day would end with a trip to Grandma's, where they'd get a second round of presents from various aunts and uncles, pushing their already overabundant present haul into the realm of the completely obscene.

My husband, who would rather darn his old socks than go shopping, suffered through this yearly excess in disapproving silence. At least until the long, tense day was over and the two of us were alone, hauling armfuls of discarded wrapping paper out to the recycling bin. He'd look sadly around our living room, which now resembled an upended FAO Schwartz, and say, "Um, honey, you do realize our over-consuming culture is destroying the earth?"

How Overspending Can Kill the Christmas Spirit

I did realize it, and the knowledge never failed to squeeze the Christmas joy right out of me. Even worse, I knew that in my misguided attempt to provide my children with the kind of magical Christmas experience I remembered from my own childhood, I was teaching them all the wrong lessons: that more is, well, more, and that they should want -- and even expect – this kind of wanton excess.

But then another year would pass and, despite my good intentions, I would do it all over again. And like the hangover that follows too many cups of eggnog or a third helping of pecan pie, the recovery took much longer than the initial revelry. My profligate spending was followed by months of struggle to pay off credit cards, along with months of the guilt over my loss of control.

Then came the economic freefall of 2008. Our family had already scaled back our expenses after my husband left a corporate job for an environmental nonprofit and, while I had just sold a book, the advance was modest and I wasn't expecting much, if anything, in the way of royalties. But we had equity in our house, our investments were doing well, and we felt pretty comfortable.

Then the stock market plummeted, the housing market tanked and, like so many Americans, our comfort turned into panic as we watched our savings evaporate into thin air. Two months into the crisis, with Christmas looming, I set out with my usual good intentions, my carefully planned list of presents, and... this time, I succeeded.

Christmas Magic Without the Buyer's Remorse

Gone were the wild last-minute impulses, the feelings of nostalgia that made me confuse the creation of Christmas magic with the smothering of my children with things. With all that we had lost and all the uncertainty ahead, this was no time to rack up bills that I might or might not be able to pay off and it was this awareness -- call it fear -- that kept me firmly on the straight and narrow. If an item wasn't on my list, I didn't even consider it.

Best of all, when Christmas came and my kids opened their small pile of carefully chosen gifts, no one complained or looked disappointed. On the contrary, I think they were relieved. For the first time in years, the day had none of that feverish, slightly sick feeling that comes from over-consumption of anything, whether it's presents or eggnog.

We were all more relaxed and more able to enjoy our gifts -- and each other -- and I could tell my husband was relieved. 2009 was a redo and this year will be the same. It turns out that the "magic of Christmas" does not rely on excess after all, which is a lesson to remember if the economy ever recovers.

Zoe Fitzgerald CarterZoe FitzGerald Carter
is a former journalist who has written for numerous publications, including New York magazine, The New York Observer, and Premiere. She is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings. Read her blog on Red Room.

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Overspending wasnt even a option this year. This was the poorest Christmas I have ever had! It made me realize that my true wealth is my family and the friends who still love me even tho I am broke now!

December 26 2010 at 10:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I too used to buy to provide lots of things to open but because of the economy I simply can't afford such things which forced me to be creative with gifts and time. Now I buy my kids (who are older now) cooking tools with certificates (print out on computer) for "Lessons" in my kitchen. Fox example: I gave a Norpro scraper/cutter ($5.25 at www.bluebearcreekhome.com) with a 3 qt pyrex baker from the same site (13.90)and printed out a brownie recipe and lesson certificate for my son for his birthday. He loved it, along snowboarding hat and gloves. Great for new apt. His 3 roommates appreciate this too!! He said he never will "starve" thanks to mom...now that's love

December 21 2010 at 7:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

christmas has become very commercilized.what hapened to the real sprit of chrostmas

December 11 2010 at 2:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

You said it, Zoe! Overspending can absolutely overshadow the inherent joy and meaning of Christmas. I recall some of my best childhood Christmases being ones which were simpler and not overwhelming.

December 06 2010 at 12:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Start shopping much laterin December. You won't get caught up in the buying frenzy because it will be later in December and you will be on a mission to finish it all in one week. The sales are better as you get closer to christmas and you will be so tired of rushing around you won't give a hoot what people wind up getting. Shop late, It works

December 06 2010 at 12:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I put a lid on it early, telling my children that since the Wise Men brought Baby Jesus 3 gifts, Santa brings each child 3 toys. I wrapped the books, games, videos, clothes, etc. (only a few per child), which they opened on Christmas Eve, and then I set out the unwrapped toys on Christmas morning, as though Santa had just left them.

December 06 2010 at 10:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Zoe...Great article!

December 06 2010 at 6:07 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Thank you for the article. My husband used to get a huge bonus every December, gosh I cannot remember the last time we saw one. We'd spend to our hearts delight, buying for everyone, having a feast of foods on Christmas day, and then come Feburary or so, we wondered where the money went, and became angry, depressed, and upset with ourselves, we did this over and over, and now when money is REALLY tight, we don't have that money, and if we didn't spend to our hearts delight in the past for Christmas, maybe we'd have less bills or some money saved, but we do not. I don't think I can ever erase the feeling, of care free spending at Christmas time, let's admit it, it can be fun! So each year rolls around, and I feel an ache in my gut, and it makes Christmas for me, heartbreaking. I need to get away from the bad habits, of wanting and spending so much.

December 05 2010 at 11:47 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

It's official, we always talk about it, think about it, glorify it....but this is the first year we are DOING IT.... We are drawing names and a $50.00 limit. She's right, the money and excess spending ruins christmas. This year is a big relief....no stress...no lines, just a simple gift and family. Should'nt that be the way it should always be?

December 05 2010 at 11:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I know your right but overspending is a known fact , unlees your rich these days who can overspend. I bought my wife a gift this year as i always a little trinket not costing much but do i get something in return. It beats me but our family cannot afford christmas much so its hard to recieve and give. I give to my son and when we can i buy something for myself later when we can.

December 05 2010 at 10:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to grumpydriver43's comment

Me neither, i want to cut my spending's. on things that is not that really important. i should start now even if the recession will end. By: http://www.bestbuyonline.biz

December 06 2010 at 6:57 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply