How to Cut Back on Christmas Spending With Your Family

Many Americans are finding they’ll need to cut back on Christmas this year for financial reasons. Unfortunately, some will also struggle with the reality of that decision for emotional reasons.

I have vivid memories of the time when my parents said, “We’re going to have to cut back on Christmas this year.” I think I was 7 or 8 years old at the time. My dad was out of work because his union (the United Auto Workers) was on strike against the company he worked for.

The strike ended up lasting about 18 months! And while he was able to draw strike pay from the union, it wasn’t close to being enough to cover our family’s basic living expenses.

After the strike had gone on for a few weeks, my parents explained to me that things would be pretty tight for us financially until the strike was over.

Then as Christmas approached, they shared that they wouldn’t be able to spend as much money on Christmas as they had in the past, but they’d do what they could to still make it a special time.

I know I did receive a couple of Christmas gifts from my parents that year, but today I couldn’t tell you what they were.

Years later, I’ve realized they gave me another type of gift that year that I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I had kids of my own. More on that later.

Cutting Back vs. Providing a “Good” Christmas

As an adult, I’ve observed friends and extended family members who couldn’t bring themselves to cut their Christmas budgets when times were tough – like when they had lost a job, were going through marital troubles, or were even experiencing divorce.

Financially, they knew they had to cut back, but emotionally, they insisted on giving their kids a “good” Christmas, no matter what.

For them, a “good” Christmas meant spending as much money (or maybe even more) on gifts for their kids that year as they would have done in “good” years as a way to somehow compensate for the bad things that were happening in other areas of their lives. Even if that meant going into debt, or further into debt, to do it.

I can understand their desire to protect their children emotionally from the financial realities they faced. Maybe they thought it was important to do it so their kids wouldn’t feel deprived?

But what often happened in their avoidance of short-term emotional pain for their kids was the creation of greater long-term financial pain and stress.

Oh sure, I imagine they had a beautiful time on Christmas morning opening all the presents. But come January 1st, the magic is over when the rent or mortgage payment is due and they don’t have enough money to pay it. Or on January 25th when the credit card payment is due and they experience the fruit of their decision to have a “good” Christmas no matter the cost.

Now back to my parents . . . .

I didn’t think much of it when I was a kid, but as an adult, I realize now that my parents gave me a special gift that year when they had to cut back on Christmas: They taught me that everything is a choice.

I also discovered that you can lessen the emotional impact of difficult choices on others if you include them in the process and help change their expectations.

Because my parents told me that times were tight and they couldn’t afford to buy many Christmas gifts that year, I was able to adjust my expectations – and also my wants and desires.

Instead of giving my parents a Christmas list with 20 big things on it, I could narrow it down to just a few inexpensive things that I would really appreciate and enjoy the most. In that way, I was able to participate in my family’s long-term financial success by being okay with simpler gifts.

And I believe that helped us all to have a truly “good” Christmas that year.

The Best Way to Cut Back on Christmas

If you need to cut back on Christmas for your family this year for financial reasons, I highly recommend that you do this one thing: Involve your kids in the decision making process.

Why? Because I’ve observed that change is often handled best by those who have been given the opportunity to give input into the situation. Here are some ideas on how to do that:

1. Tell your kids that Christmas will be different this year, and explain the reasons why (without going into too much detail with them).

How else will our kids learn to make good financial decisions if they don’t see us living them out?

2. Invite them to think of ways they could save money or earn extra money for Christmas.

You might be surprised at how creative your kids can be in finding ways to save or earn money for your family’s Christmas.

3. Explain your budget for Christmas and ask your kids for input in how to spend it.

Ask if they’d prefer one larger gift in that dollar range or some smaller gifts that together would add up to the total amount available to spend. Explain how a good budget works!

4. Ask if there’s one special activity, event, or tradition that would really make the Christmas season for your kids.

Maybe it’s a trip to the ice skating rink, a carriage ride downtown, watching a Christmas movie, making Christmas cookies, etc. Whatever it is, see what you can do to make it happen, or work together with your kids to think of creative alternatives.

Have you had to cut back on Christmas in the past, or are you faced with a decision to cut back this year?  Please share your experience in the comments!

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