'Twas the day after Christmas, and Mom had the chills, wondering just how she'd be paying the bills. Sound familiar? Here's how to plan a successful Christmas even if your child's wish list is bigger than your budget.
Above all, make every occasion and holiday about the celebration, not the gifts. "Parents don't realize how important celebrations are to kids," says Gail Gauen, director of the Parent Help Line. Find ways to celebrate each year so kids can enjoy the anticipation. Work a puzzle as a family; make popcorn balls together; have a special meal of everyone's favorite foods. If you put up the Christmas tree together, stick with it; don't just decide to put gifts out on the table one year.
This is even more important now, when it's likely kids will ask for something parents can't afford, Gauen says. "Parents have to turn their thinking around from 'this is a total disaster' to 'this is an opportunity to teach my children some important things.'
"You know there will be times as your children grow up and become adults that they won't get that job they wanted or may not be able to afford that one big home," Gauen explains. They may have to settle for something else. You can start giving them skills now to look at these events as opportunities instead of huge disappointments.
"Teach them to be patient for what they want and thankful for what they have, how to set priorities, how to find smaller substitutes for the one big gift, how to make a budget," Gauen advises. "Talk about family values around gift giving, because the most important thing is how you celebrate the holidays, the birthdays, the big events in the family's life. The memories you make together will be what they remember in 10 years, not the gifts. In five days, something else will come along that will be the new most important thing."
Discuss values, prices and priorities at your child's level, Gauen says. Make it visual. Let your children cut out pictures of what they want, attach them to index cards, write the price on each one, line them up in order of expense and then pick those that fall inside the budget range.
Make sure any budget discussions don't scare your child. "You can always discuss finances with your children, but don't make them feel insecure," Gauen cautions. Assure them you have set priorities for the family and have cut back on some of the things you'd like, too, but everyone's needs will be met -- a home to live in, food, a car.
Take the opportunity to teach siblings how to work together. They all might decide on one big gift everyone can share, such as a new computer or video game system. This also opens up discussion of how to divide up time on the new system.
It may be that extended family could contribute money toward an expensive item rather than buy individual gifts for everyone.
Regardless, Gauen says, "don't get bogged down feeling guilty about not being able to afford everything on The List. There may be some disappointment about not getting to provide -- or receive -- that one major present. You can't totally take that away. But at least, put something in place for the family to be excited about and talk about, both in the family and at school."
The Rev. Michael Mortvedt and his wife, Sandy Olson, share Gauen's view of gift giving. They direct the Alternatives for Simple Living, whose mission is to promote voluntary simplicity, challenge overconsumption and encourage responsible and meaningful celebrations. "Gift giving is an important, good thing," Mortvedt says, "but it should be done thoughtfully, mindfully, not 'I'll show you my love by what I'm spending on you.'"
To help families stay within budgets and to encourage them to focus on celebrations and more inclusive sharing, Olson suggests advance planning. "Set the scene before the holiday hype and frenzy start in the media so you can focus on the celebration before you're in the middle of 'want,'" she says. "Think about what you did last year. What did everyone enjoy and want to do again? Create some excitement about that."
Olson suggests some money-saving strategies. Shop with a specific list to avoid impulse buying. Go to thrift shops. Cut back on family gifts, and include a local charity on your gift list. Begin the practice of giving away one good item -- or a bag of small things -- for every new item that's brought into the house. To help everyone get in the spirit, select some canned goods from the cupboard rather than toys from your child's room, Olson adds. And remember your neighbors. Bake cookies as a family activity, and deliver them together. Go caroling.
If Santa folklore isn't part of the picture, break holiday hype by making Christmas Eve and Christmas Day your spiritual celebrations and exchanging gifts some other day. Enjoy the 12 days of Christmas -- from Dec. 26 to Epiphany, Jan. 6 -- with a small gift or favor every day.
This shift also helps counteract one very real problem, Mortvedt says: pressure to create the Perfect Christmas Day Family Homecoming portrayed in the media. "It just doesn't happen in many families," he says. "Give yourself permission not to have that. Talk about it, especially in blended families. Find family traditions you can enjoy doing together even more than gift giving. That's what people are going to remember in the long run."