Updated on 11.30.08

A Long December

Trent Hamm

Many of you out there reading this are hurting.

The economic news is grim, and even though I believe the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, that doesn’t change the stark reality of things.

Most of us have lost a large swath of our retirement savings in the last year. My overall retirement savings has gone down about 30% over the past thirteen months, even with late 2007 and 2008 contributions.

Some of us have lost our jobs. I have at least three friends who have been downsized in the past calendar year.

All of us are uncertain right now – and that’s understandable. We’re looking towards living cheaper and letting go of the cultural trend towards overspending that has happened over the past several years.

Right now, many of us are looking forward to December – and to the holiday season – with some joy and some trepidation.

Can we afford to travel this year?

Can we afford to put a lot of Christmas presents under the tree – or should we?

Shouldn’t we scale back this year – big time?

Don’t worry. You’re not alone. I’m asking myself these same questions, as are millions of others out there.

But the answer to it is easy – and it’s right in front of our faces.

It’s easy to get caught up in the expenses of December – the parties, the presents, and the inevitable bills.

But that’s not what the holiday season is about.

It’s about time, not money. It’s about sitting around with your favorite loved ones, telling tall tales and playing games. It’s about the bright smile on your child’s face regardless of what’s under the tree. It’s about holding your grandmother’s hand and wishing her a merry Christmas, knowing that she’s been there for you over and over again throughout your life and also knowing that she might not be there forever.

So, yes, by all means be frugal this Christmas when it comes to your money. Cut back on the extravagant presents and focus on more thoughtful items. Tone down the scale of the parties – there’s no need to have a huge bacchanal this year.

But don’t cut down on the time. Savor every minute of it.

Because in the end, the time you spend with the people around you is the most valuable thing of all. No expensive present, no ostentatious party, nothing can compare to that time.

A less expensive present than usual is quickly forgotten. What’s remembered is the time spent together.

It may be a long December for some, but few things will make it better than focusing on what’s important and letting the rest drop off to the side.

And its been a long December and theres reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I cant remember all the times I tried to tell my myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass

– Counting Crows, A Long December

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  1. RDS at Smart Financial Values says:

    You are right, it is easy to get caught up in business of this time of year and miss the best parts.

    I think that it is also important to remember that a down market is nothing unusual or new. If the stock market surged up by 40% it would be a bad idea to spend more on Christmas gifts than you had otherwise planned. Likewise, just because the market is down is no reason to dramatically alter your spending habits (job security, however, is a reason to change your spending habits). If you have a solid financial plan, down markets alone should not be cause for great concern.

  2. Chris says:

    Lovely, lovely post. My family decided way back in October to inform everyone we were cutting presents out of the holidays. There will be great food and gorgeous decorations and family fun but, the presents, which were slowly getting out of hand in expense and effort, will be skipped. And I have to say, I am looking forward to Christmas like I haven’t in years, because I don’t have to worry about choosing gifts, buying and wrapping gifts, shipping gifts, or paying for gifts. I didn’t realize how it was sucking the fun out of Christmas until I decided not to do it. Amazing! Hope your holiday season in fun and meaningful.

  3. Christine says:

    Oh this is a beautiful post, it brought tears to my eyes!

  4. Something I keep saying, having learned it first hand.

    Spoil your kids, your parents, your family with TIME spent together doing things they enjoy. If money is tight, give them a token gift and vouchers for fun activities with you during the year, or help with spring cleaning – make memories, not expensive gifts, and if you spend a lot on something, make sure it makes memories too (eg: trip to a concert or dreamt of place, together). Looking back, years from now, you will be glad you did.

    Giving time together are gifts that keep giving, first in the giving, then the hoping for (and talking about, my mum would tell each of her friends “my daughter is taking me…” and enjoy it every time, then the doing, then the talking about and remembering. I treasure all the things I did with/for my mum, now that she is gone, and I know I will treasure similarly things I did with my dad.

  5. morrison says:

    I thought it was just me. Obviously melancholy is gripping our entire nation. Is this what they mean by a ‘depression’?

  6. I often write about my immigrant parents on my personal finance blow and the lessons they taught me about money and living a frugal life; specifically, I never remember my parents worrying about the holidays or “tough economic times” or even the loss of a job. I’m certain they had thoughts relating to the above, but they never verbalized their thoughts to their children. Part of the safety net my parents had was income from a two family home and plenty of savings.

    Living through tough economic times is about not worrying about the tough economic times (and the only way one can do this is having cash reserves and income streams beyond a paycheck).

    http://www.scordo.com/blog/blog – a practical living blog

  7. Great post for this current economic environment. I think Christmas has become so commercialized and it is all about the gifts. Some people forget about the real reason for the season. I would much rather be able to spend time with my family than them trying to figure out what gift to give me and me trying to figure out what to give them. After all, the best gift is love and it is FREE!


  8. Battra92 says:

    I am worrying less and less about Christmas this year. Once I got everything done in advance I decided to just let other people worry about it.

  9. Anne says:

    Karen McCall of FinancialRecovery.com is offering free her MoneyMinder Holiday Planner. Just go to the products page and scroll to the bottom of the page to request. It’s an awesome product for planning and tracking your holiday spending.

  10. Justin Reese says:

    Terrific post, Trent. The tone was spot on and beautiful.

  11. Lois says:

    This Thanksgiving was spent with my husband’s parents. My 12 year old daughter was alone in the kitchen with “Grandma” for a good 1/2 hour. I was in the livingroom and could just hear their voices chattering on and on – I couldn’t help but realize that this was of much greater value than any material gift we could give our daughter. That she could carry on & enjoy a conversation with her 82 yr old grandma is priceless!
    Thank you for such a beautifully written reminder, Trent. Honestly, your words have taken the edge off the apprehension my husband & I have had over the past few weeks. Just this morning, we discussed how “deal” with Christmas this year – it’s going to look quite different than years past. Now I don’t have that perspective, we won’t “deal” with it – we will enjoy every minute of it and give our kids the gift of time, memories, and heritage.

  12. December 2008 will be a month like no other. I hope things will be normal again in December 2009 and we look back and say, “It’s been one hell of a ride.”
    A Dawn Journal

  13. Treva says:

    The best Christmas I remember was the year my dad was furloughed (temporary lay off) from a civil service job at NASA. As our primary source of income, family finances were stretched to their thinnest. The local credit union even let people pay interest only on their home and car loans until the furlough passed. I had worked the previous summer and saved quite a bit and my mom had to take almost everything from my savings in order to help us get through the tough 4 months. There weren’t many gifts under the tree, but they did give me a movie on DVD — Jurassic Park — and I remember that we spent the morning in our pajamas eating my mom’s fresh-from-the-oven sausage and cheese balls and watching that movie as a family and *loving* it. It wasn’t entirely the movie, but that we were together and happy, that made it the whole day so memorable.

    If money is tight in a home, I would suggest that parents give their kids a board/card game or two and then spend the day learning to play them and laughing your heads off. Some of my best memories come from playing board/card games with my parents.

    This year we are having Christmas with my Uncle, who is divorced and whose children are grown and moved away. He said he would provide a tree if my 4 year old daughter would bring over the decorations; he suggested popcorn garlands, paper chains, etc. So this year will really be built around making the tree decorations and something I hope my daughter will remember for a long time and take great pride in.

  14. Saver Queen says:

    Thanks for this great post. I completely agree. This Christmas my family and I are mostly exchanging homemade gifts and have significantly scaled down on our spending. I’m really looking forward to spending time with my family. It is so true that the presents just disappear from your memory and it’s the time spent together that you will remember.

  15. “Because in the end, the time you spend with the people around you is the most valuable thing of all.”

    This is the truth. It is good that people this year are going to focus on the “more important” things in life.

    But what is sad is that it took this economy “crisis” in order for people’s focus to change. Truth be told, when you look at the statistics (Most people living 2 paychecks from bankruptcy etc etc), most people’s own personal economy has ALWAYS BEEN BAD!

    So maybe we should make a LIFE LONG commitment to focus on what is important, and our finances will be better in the long run!

  16. Becky says:

    I’ve always felt this way about Christmas, and every year I try to bring up just spending time with family, and then my MIL gets a pouty look on her face and says no because to her presents (no matter what) are so important to her. Tell me, how do you get around that?

  17. Lou says:

    WE told the adults (some over 50!) that we’re not giving them tchotckes and clutter this year. The children – anyone still in school or under 18 get to choose whether we buy them a gift or make a contribution in their name to a charity of their choice.

    The money we would have spent on small gifts for the 30 adults will be sent to the food bank as a contribution from our family. and we asked, please, that no one give us material gifts, although we would be delighted if they made a contribution in our name to Habitat, Heifer or any food-providing agency.

  18. BirdDog says:

    The whole time I read this post, I could here Merle Haggard singing in my ear. “If we make it thourgh December.”

  19. Battra92 says:

    I just thought of it and came back here to find that BirdDog beat me to it. Here’s the song for those who don’t know it:

  20. Trent, this post touched me deeply. I lost my job on Wednesday, and I was trying to figure out what I would be giving to my friends and family. But what is better than perhaps going to the beach with my bestfriend, telling stories while cuddled under blankets (no fireplace), and perhaps a nice bag of starlight mints for everyone.

    “We’ll be find and dandy
    Lord, it’s like a hard candy Christmas
    We’re barely getting through tomorrow
    But still we won’t let sorrow bring us way down.”
    Dolly Parton

  21. teri says:

    i recommend rethinkingchristmas.com and adventconspiracy.org for ideas on alternative giving. The Advent Conspiracy (which is a Christian thing, but there for anyone who wants to change spending habits!) suggest “give presence” which is, I think, exactly what you’re advocating. People are putting all kinds of ideas out there!

  22. ubi says:

    Interesting. I thought you were going to talk about the events in India. But I guess most of your readership resides in the U.S.

  23. Kathy says:

    This is a great post Trent. Our investment accounts have lost a little over 50%. I have told my family that we are going to be celebrating differently this year. There won’t be a mountain of junk under our tree. There will be lots of good fun however and lots of time with family and friends.

  24. 144mph says:

    What a great example of slave morality in practice.

    So the jobless people who have lost significant portions of their net worth should be consoled that the looters have not yet taken away their ability to derive simple pleasures from their family and friends.

  25. Kevin says:

    I’m in the same mindset as Trent, I don’t even care if I get presents this year. I just want to spend time with families and friends.

    However, what to do about the gifts that are “expected” to be given to various family members? I bet we’ll still spend over $1,000 on presents this year – and it will be all “stuff” no one really needs anyway. I don’t mind buying presents for our young nieces and nephews, but for the older adults it seems silly.

  26. Joshua says:

    Well, I must admit, Christmas is hard this year. Time seems to keep on beating and the news keeps on dropping bombs on us… or is it?

    Much to your point, Trent, there are a great many people who are hurting this year, so why not give a little cheer to them rather than to some of the people we regularly give to. Perhaps it is a good time to look at some charities, organizations, or families that are in need and give a little to them.

    And if you can do it in the name of the person that would usually give a present, it is honoring to them.

    You make a memory for them AND yourself….

  27. Harith says:

    Christmas is not about gifts.

    Once you remove your mind from that terrible stigma of Christmas being a time to spend money on useless crap, you’ll live better – even when economic times are great.

    Christmas. Is. Not. About. Gifts.

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