Updated on 12.12.08

The Expensive Ups and Downs of Christmas

Trent Hamm

Christmas Tree Lane CHL #990 by tkksummers on Flickr!Every year, the Christmas season brings forth a wide variety of feelings for me.

I’m flooded with memories from my childhood – time spent with relatives that are long since past, opening memorable gifts, and the annual centerpiece of a great Christmas meal. Those memories largely fill me with joy, but with just a hint of sadness from missing things that cannot be reclaimed.

I’m filled with happiness with the time I get to spend with my family. To me, that’s the real highlight of the season – the time spent with people I care about.

I’m often filled with stress, too. It often feels that the week around Christmas is filled with a lot of obligations – gift exchanges, lots of people to visit, long trips to spend a day or two with family. It’s actually much more difficult than it used to be, since we now have to bundle up our two kids for the trips and it often feels that we spend much of Christmas simply going from place to place, unpacking and packing, bundling up kids, and often leaving where we’re at just barely after we get there.

These elements mix together into a soup that can be very dangerous for my wallet. The mix of positive sentiment, a desire to spend time with family, and the stress of the season often results in little spending mistakes – ones that add up over the length of the season.

The end result of that? An unexpectedly large credit card bill in January.

Here are some tactics I use to avoid these ups and downs.

First, I make an effort to not overschedule things. It’s more important to me to spend quality time with the most important people than to merely touch base with a lot of people, many of whom aren’t quite as important to me. That means saying “no” to some holiday invitations, even if they sound enjoyable.

Second, I try to plan ahead as much as possible. We do things like remember healthy snacks for the car (meaning there’s a greatly reduced chance that we’ll stop for food on a car trip), pack a few small “extra” gifts (ones that we’d be okay with keeping, but they also keep us from making last minute emergency trips to the store to spend more than we should), and make sure we have an emergency kit for our car (enabling us to deal more cost-effectively with any emergencies).

Next, I recognize that I can’t solve family or personal problems with expensive gifts. Buying someone a great gift will put a smile on their face, but it won’t repair a broken relationship or mend fences. Those things take time, conversation, and understanding, not a show of material largesse. Instead, we’ve focused on good gifts that really match the recipient and clearly tell them that we care without diving into ostentatiousness.

Finally, I won’t turn down the generosity of family and friends. If a friend or family member invites us to stay with them, I’ll happily accept. If we’re invited to share a meal with someone important to us, we’ll break bread with them. I used to let pride stand in the way of such offers and often argue that I didn’t want to be a burden, but I came to realize that such offers are made because people want to share with you and help you, and it’s completely polite to accept what’s offered.

The Christmas season is about people, above all else, but that doesn’t mean that the holiday season makes it okay to mindlessly break out the cash or the plastic. Keep your wits about you, plan ahead, and this year you won’t be left with the big bill in January.

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  1. I noticed that usually after Christmas, like in February, March, April …, Stores come up with huge sales as no one is buying around that time anymore. It is a good idea to stock up things for next Christmas around that time.
    A Dawn Journal

  2. I noticed that usually after Christmas, like in February, March, April …, Stores come up with huge sales as no one is buying around that time anymore. It is a good idea to stock up things for next Christmas around that time.
    A Dawn Journal

  3. Aya @ Thrive says:

    I wonder when “what are your plans for christmas?” started to get grunts and moans as responses despite the merriment that is implied in the holiday season. I guess it has to do with when christmas automatically meant lots of money to be spent and lots of stress to be accumulated. Nice post, I hope people take into account that they should be spending quality time with family and friends instead of just spending…

  4. Ryan says:

    “I used to let pride stand in the way of such offers and often argue that I didn’t want to be a burden, but I came to realize that such offers are made because people want to share with you and help you, and it’s completely polite to accept what’s offered.”

    Well put. I’ve just recently come to start realizing that as well. I used to feel bad accepting dinner invites or a free couch to crash on, because I couldn’t really reciprocate. Now that I’m finally in the position to invite someone over for the same, I sincerely hope they accept, and never think of it as a burden.

  5. liv says:

    it’s pretty crazy how busy december gets with all the friends/family/work holiday parties. most people i know promote the pot luck so it’s not a lot of pressure to always buy things, but you still enjoy the fun of the party :)

  6. Michael says:

    Your ad for your book doesn’t show in IE6.

  7. beloml says:

    This is OT, but I wanted to thank you for mentioning Fever-Tree tonic water in an earlier post. It makes such a difference! I’ll never go back to Schweppes!

  8. Lisa says:

    It’s not showing in FF3.0.4 right now either.


  9. Randa says:

    Okay, really off track, but …
    LOVE the pic “Christmas Tree Lane”!! That’s from my hometown. It’s a fun drive down that lane over the holidays =)

  10. Michael says:

    It’s not showing in Chrome, either, so I guess it is deliberate. That’s weird. Why have you already stopped advertising your book, Trent?

  11. Sandy E. says:

    Christmas is expensive, so what about folks like myself who have X amount automatically taken from checking and put into a xmas savings fund all year long? Then I can pay cash for everything in December, and the best part? No credit card debt come January! None.

  12. Karen Taylor says:

    I am with Sandy, comment #9. I have a Christmas accout and it makes it so easy to pay with cash for items starting in November when the funds begun available. Sometimes I get stuff earlier in the year which also is a big help.

  13. Lisa says:

    My hubby and I did that this year too and it is fabulous to not be dreading the January credit card bill.
    We didn’t pay cash for gifts, we used the credit card for points. Then I did nightly transfers from the Christmas savings account to the chequing account for whatever the amount I had spent that day on Christmas things.

  14. Adrienne says:

    On the topic of lugging small children around (mine are 1 and 4) this year we’re not doing it. We’re staying home on xmas. Usually we visit both families but after the tears and trama from last year we’re spending this one at home. The family negotiations that went into this seamingly innocent choice have been epic but we’ve stuck to our guns. Anyone who wants to come see us can but we’ll be home for Christmas….

  15. Jackie says:

    Adrienne, I’m with you– after schlepping our twins for their first two Christmasses, we said “no more,” and ever since, we’ve hosted a brunch at our house on Christmas Day. I give everyone cookies to take home, and my kids are better behaved and have more time to spend with their grandparents. It’s easy for us though– we’re the only ones on either side providing grandkids so far!

  16. You can’t solve a family problem with an expensive gift! That comment could save half this country from debt this season.

    My mother goes over board every year for that very reason. I can’t tell her no… so I buy very little for my kids because they just don’t need that much stuff.

    Very good post!

    Thank You.


  17. Deborah Johnson says:

    I started turning down some holiday requests a few years ago after I got tired of feeling stressed out all the time. Maybe it’s selfish, but focusing on what I want to do, not what I feel I need to do, has made the holidays a lot more enjoyable. I look forward to them now.

  18. Trent, it sounds like experience has helped you create a very balanced approach to Christmas visiting. Thanks for the solid tips.

  19. greenfamily says:

    Hey, this is a great post. I have tons of things on my calendar for the next two weeks, and having my son’s b-day on Dec. 23 adds to the chaos!

    My strategy is to put things on the calendar in order of importance– the things we REALLY want to do or people we really love to spend time with. That way our activities are prioritized, and if we don’t make it to one of the less enjoyable events, oh well. It has made things much easier on our family.

    I love the idea of the Christmas account. I am one that shops through the entire year, so when I pulled out the boxes from under the bed this year I had everyone’s presents already purchased. Not so for my siblings. This was the first year we’ve tussled over gift-giving; with nine brothers and sisters plus in-laws and six nieces/nephews, stress was abounding because everyone is so tight on cash right now. When the dust settled we decided that next year we are giving only hand-made gifts to one another, and we’re all excited about this shift from spending to putting thought and time into one another’s presents.

    Great post, Trent! Sounds like this was helpful for a lot of people.

  20. Bill M says:

    Every year during the end of October, My Wife and I sit down and plot out a budget of how we will spend money on Christmas. We write everyone’s name an the amount that we will spend for that person and this has worked beautifully over the past 2 years. Budget and name every dollar you spend is the way to go because you do not do impulsive buying.

  21. Mindy M says:

    I just graduated from college, and I’m still learning how to gracefully manage my budget. It has been especially hard this Christmas to walk the fine line between giving gifts I can’t afford and being the Scrooge. I loved your idea about giving homemade food for gifts. I enjoy cooking, so next year I’ll pull out some of my Mom’s old Christmas cookie recipes and see how many gifts I can make instead of buy. Thanks for all the advice! Your posts are a great encouragement when it comes to financial wisdom and contentment!

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