Have A Merrier Christmas for Less

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- A decade ago we were broke.

We had economized in every way we could. We were depending on my wife's family to pay important bills. Since the burst of the dot-com bubble, I was making $0.

"Once I had a web site, made it run, made it race against time. Once I had a web site, now it's done, brother can you spare a dime?" I had sung that as a joke a few years before. It had lost its irony.

A close friend, now passed, came through town that year on what he called his "shrinking waterhole tour," spending his own money to beg for work from those editors he deemed prospects. I wished I could go on one, but I had kids and didn't feel I could afford it.

Then, like one last straw on the donkey's back carrying Mary to Bethlehem, came Christmas.

Christmas is a time for celebration but it's also a time of obligation. Americans are expected to shower family and friends with...something. And, after including siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins, we had a fairly large family.

Then my dear wife hit upon a solution. We bought a bunch of wall calendars, and she carefully wrote each relative's name and the year he or she was born, under his or her birth date. She did this dozens of times. Then we mailed them out.

Best Christmas ever! Even after our financial condition improved, we were asked to repeat the calendar trick. It's a present that grew into legend wherever members of our family gather.

The point is that real emotion and care can easily trump money, especially when you're talking about adult friends and relatives.

An intimate Christmas party, with home-cooked food, will usually be far more memorable than anything at a fancy restaurant. Engaging those cute kids of yours to create family presents will draw more goodwill than any fancy toy.

It's said that time is money, and money is time. When you lack money, spend the time to learn more about who you're giving to, and add something of yourself to everything you give.

Here are some other ideas for saving your Christmas club that really work:

  • A creative Christmas letter. One of our family friends turned his letter into an "annual report" on his "company," by which he meant his family. We've watched his children grow to adulthood and feel as close to them as to our own. (Except they managed to find jobs.)
  • Instead of giving $20 each to a dozen relatives, why not get together with other relatives to do one special thing? If someone is in nursing care, and you all gather around them with a big screen for the home, that's a big deal. Sharing the burden can bring a soldier relative home for the holidays.
  • Giving time and money to a local charity – especially time – and making that the heart of a heartfelt Christmas letter teaches your kids a valuable lesson and can keep spirits high no matter how bad your year was.
  • Secret Santa is designed to be a money-saver. But instead of buying a lot of small gifts get together with your family on one great gift for one special person. You'll save money and probably get something you really like in return.
  • Shop year-round. When you find a great bargain, something you can't personally use, buy it. Put it away and when it's time to do your Christmas list, wrap it up for someone special. It's the "reverse lay-away."
  • Try high-end yard sales. Sites like EstatesSales.Net and EstateSales.Org offer listings and e-mails. Some folks even pre-shop the sales and send out e-mails with pictures of the best stuff. Christmas lets you turn your hobby into something almost profitable.

A little thought, a little planning and a little care for the emotional needs of Christmas will go a lot further than money. And if you're short on the latter, making sure you invest in the former will also make this Christmas happier for you.

P.S. Every family has its little tricks. Why not offer yours below in the comments? It will be your Christmas gift to MainStreet.

--Written by Dana Blankenhorn for MainStreet

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