Avoiding holiday debt is difficult for even the most frugal families.

It does not escape my attention that today is cyber Monday, the fairly recent tradition of Americans to turn toward the internet to search for those special gifts for friends and family. Yes, there are deals to be had (although you will likely find better deals after Christmas than before-despite all the hype). So, how does our frugal family push back on reckless spending during the holiday season?

Make a List

Just like Santa, make a list and check it twice. As for any shopping excursion, a list will keep you on track. A list will give you boundaries and, hopefully, keep you from going off the rails with your purchases. Ask your special people exactly what they like, and don’t like. Perhaps the worst offense for the truly thrifty is having spent your hard earned money on a gift, and then find out it is not appreciated. ( Young people, I’m talking to you)

Set Limits

Many years ago, when our family was experimenting with dialing down the extravagance of Christmas gift exchange, we asked all the adults to agree to only purchase “consumables” for each other. Under this category fell food (bought or homemade), alcoholic beverages (obviously), toiletries, nice cleaning products ( back when it was expensive and difficult to find earth friendly products), spices, and condiments like fancy hot sauces or grade A Vermont Maple syrup. We enjoyed these type of gifts immensely, but people started cheating. The definition of “consumable” was stretched to ridiculous ends, and we felt obliged to up the ante every time a friend or family member gave us an expensive gift, so as not to be thought of as “stingy”.

Set Limits Again

Isn’t there an old saying about limits are meant to be broken? Our family’s next campaign against the reckless spending associated with gift giving was to tell all the adults in our life that we didn’t want to exchange presents anymore. I know what you’re thinking “ The horror! ( Shielding your eyes from the mere thought), or “ No, F***ing way MY family will go for that”. I know…. I understand. Something like this takes planning and heartfelt conversations with those you love. We started by talking to our parents about our disillusionment with consumerism, our overwhelming feeling that we already had SO MUCH, and that with two children, we were actually running out of room to put things. We dropped little hints that since each of our parents had divorced and re-married, we were often on the hook to purchase not only for our biological family, but the extended family of our parent’s spouses families. We tried to make them understand that the financial stress of extending ourselves too much during the holiday season actually detracted from the spirit of the holiday that we yearned for. Each of these conversations went very well, and we heard our own concerns echoed by our parents a well.

Make Compromises

The culmination of the above efforts was this: In our family, gift giving is reserved for our children. My husband and I enjoy buying a FEW reasonable presents for our children and seeing their faces light up on Christmas morning. Our parents also indulge them by purchasing a FEW presents. By no means do our children get every expensive item on their Christmas lists. They often get the gifts of an “experience” that wasn’t on their list at all. ( Like a trip to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios last Thanksgiving) They are often given items they NEED, in addition to items they WANT. ( Socks and underwear, stainless steel water bottles for school…these are great items to fill out a Christmas stocking).

Make more compromises

In our nuclear family, my husband and I often have discussions year round about purchases that are going to “count” as a Christmas gift. This usually entails an expensive item. The quality, durability, and necessity of the item is discussed as we make decisions that reflect our families values and our financial goals. One year, my husband chose a high quality but somewhat expensive stainless steel toolbox for his workshop. The purchase met all of our requirements for large purchases: it would be put to immediate use, the product would last our lifetime, it would extend the life of his tools and make it easier to accomplish projects because he would have an organized place to put his tools. The only drawback was the sticker price. While we DID find lower priced options online, we found the quality suffered dramatically and there simply weren’t lower cost products that delivered all of our stringent requirements. So we labeled this big ticket item as Mr Universe’s Christmas present, and Voila, problem solved.

This also works for expensive purchases that you wouldn’t have cared to make but HAD to. We also sometimes call those “ Christmas gifts” as well. For example, as the seasons were changing from the sweltering heat of Summer this year, to the Cyclone bomb of cold weather that is pushing across the Unites states, our HVAC system decided to commit suicide. First, our AC compressor almost exploded. So, in the sweltering 90 degree days of early September in the Deep South, we had to get that taken care of. Then, as the days turned cool, we realized that the heat wasn’t coming on as it was supposed to. Long story short, we are 2,000 dollars poorer than we were on September 1st. This year, we are calling the repair and maintenance of our HVAC system “our Christmas gift” to each other. We enjoy having a warm house, and we both understand the sacrifice we made to make sure our system is working properly. Our children, having lived thru a few hot days with no AC and a few cold days with no heat, also have a new appreciation for whole house forced heat and air! They see us making this sacrifice and calling it “ a gift” . I’m sure, they are learning life lessons about saving for emergencies and perhaps the importance of (Cough, cough) routine maintenance.

This is what a non-suicidal HVAC unit looks like.

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