The Expensive Ups and Downs of Christmas

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.