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Planning for Christmas when money is tight

FILE PHOTO: People walk past Christmas decoration in a department store ahead of the Christmas celebrations in Berlin, Germany December 23, 2019.  REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: People walk past Christmas decoration in a department store ahead of the Christmas celebrations in Berlin, Germany December 23, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/File Photo

Q: My family and I have been talking about what to do for Christmas and how we want to spend the holidays. We usually go all out with lights and decorations, spend lots of time with family and friends, we take in seasonal festivities in our community and like to surprise our kids with the gifts they really want. We also enjoy winter sports together, travel to see friends over New Year’s, and this year we were supposed to have a destination Christmas with extended family we don’t often get to see. For safety’s sake we’ve all decided not to go, as disappointed as we are to have to make that decision. In a way, though, it’s also a relief because we can’t afford more bills. But now, we didn’t make a lot of plans for Christmas because we thought we were going to be away. Do you have any suggestions for how to plan for Christmas without breaking the bank? ~Carey

A: Traditions are an important part of holiday celebrations and help us maintain our sense of stability in uncertain times. From traveling and attending school concerts to faith-based celebrations, shopping until we drop, and all that goes with our festivities and winter holidays, we look forward to what’s familiar to keep our sense of hope alive. For some, this has even meant putting their decorations up a few weeks earlier than usual. Beyond a Christmas tree’s traditional meaning, it is also a tangible reminder that this year is drawing to a close and a fresh new year is only weeks away.

Even though Christmas is fast approaching and will look different this year, there’s still a lot of safe celebrating we can do while keeping within our budget. And with four weeks left before the big day, a short plan is better than no plan. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Determine what’s most important to you and your family

Going all out at this point could be stressful and costly, so take a little time to determine how best to make this year’s celebrations meaningful for your family. Whether it’s a long-held family tradition or not, everyone has what they like best about Christmas and the holidays. To make sure your plan includes something for everyone, have a family meeting. It can help to look at photos or chat as you put up your tree. Talk about what’s most significant for each one of you and then get creative to plan as much of that into your holidays as you can.

For example, if someone enjoys baking holiday treats with grandma, use Zoom with your child and share the time with grandma while you bake at your house and she at hers. It will not only yield twice as many cookies, but it might also be a good chance to get your hands on her special recipe.

Many activities will still be possible and in an effort to distance and spend a little less, look for free or low-cost things you can do as a family. For example, you could go sledding on a local hill, take a walk to look at Christmas lights in your neighbourhood, make wreaths from fallen tree limbs and wind fall, or sip hot chocolate by the fire or in a room with lots of candles.

Some surprises are great but save the best for under the tree to remove a degree of uncertainty for your children as well. Explain plans in age-appropriate ways because your children already know that life is a little different right now. Including them as you plan what you can do and can afford, rather than what you can’t, will help with their feelings of stability and control.

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Plan for what you can control

Everyone is ready for the pandemic to make like Frosty on a sunny day. But planning for the best and then facing the worst will only lead to more disappointment. To help keep your spirits brighter, plan instead for the worst, and hope for the best. For instance, with a ban on social visits, plan some family movie or game nights for just your household. Take turns choosing a movie or game, work together to make your snacks, then create a festive mood with candles, décor, or music when it comes time to watch your show or play your game. If precautions should ease in time and a friend or loved one is allowed to join you, that’s all the more reason to be merry.

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Why this is the year to spend less

Many families struggle with gift-giving creep, the need to outdo the year before, and Christmas and the holidays have become a gift-giving extravaganza. But when you asked your kids what they like best about the holidays, spending time together likely came before the gifts they’ve received over the years. With less parties and holiday festivities and the altogether different times we’re currently facing, this might be THE year to reign in your spending and start more affordable traditions. After all, Christmas and the holidays should be about making memories, not mountains of bills.

If you choose to scale your shopping and spending back this year, set any feelings of guilt or disappointment aside. Focus on wrapping meaningful gifts rather than placing a mountain of shiny packages under the tree. Help your children shop for each other to learn about the joy of giving, not just receiving. Also consider what you can do on the big day during gift opening time to savour the moment a little bit longer. Older kids could help wrap gifts with several layers. Or you could plan a video chat to open gifts with another household to share in each others’ surprises.

Keep in mind that shopping could take longer this year. More people will be buying online which could stress already busy buying systems and delivery schedules. When shopping in person, social distancing and other health and safety precautions won’t allow for as much hustle and bustle in the stores as in years past. Use the slower pace to be very mindful of your spending. Keep a close eye on your budget and cross items off your list as you pick them up.

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Tips to afford the holidays when money is tight

Four weeks is still plenty of time to plan, but it leaves you short on time to save up what you need. Rather than focusing on how little you have to spend, look for ways to make the most with what you do have. Consider which discretionary expenses you can do without for the next month and direct the money towards holiday expenses instead. Outline your budget so that you know where you stand and how much you can afford to repay should you finance some of your fun. Resist the urge to sign up for installment payments , a relatively new service in Canada. While the interest is much less than a credit card, it will be easy to lose track of how much you’ve committed to paying. Before you know it, you’ll be in over your head with yet another bill.

There’s still time to redeem loyalty points for some items or to shop with points. Grocery stores with a loyalty program will often have days where you can redeem points towards the purchase of a turkey. If you have points or miles you can transfer at a reasonable rate to a loved one, make your points their gift. It will allow you to buy a gift without an additional outlay of cash and help your loved one reach what they’re saving for faster.

Submit any outstanding expense claims at work to be reimbursed for what you spent out of pocket. The same is true of medical expenses covered by extended health benefits. It often takes less than 10 days to be reimbursed for those, which would give you a little extra cash.

Check your own supply of gift cards to see what you could buy with them and look for “gift with purchase”’ promotions. With some you’ll come away with a giftable second item; with others you won’t, so be savvy with your choices. If you want to buy a slightly pricier gift, see if you can make it a group gift to give your loved one what they really want, while you get to stick within your price range. This might not be the way you normally buy your gifts, but at this point it’s likely safe to assume that Christmas 2020 will be anything but normal.

Frugal holiday meal planning

Food is a big part of celebrating, whether in a large circle of friends and family, or just with your closest few. And with four weeks to go, there’s still plenty of time to look for some deals to get what you need. Buy non-perishable, canned, or frozen items as they go on sale and store them in a separate box in your pantry or freezer to have them when you need them. Beyond your main holiday meal, you’ll also want to plan for all of the snacks, treats, and other meals that make your season special. Create a master list so that you don’t buy more than you need, or worse, realize what you forgot right after the stores close on Christmas Eve.

Alternative gift giving

If you’re buying and sending gifts just to check names off your list, it’s not too late to let your extended circle of friends and family know that you’re spending less money but more time this year – and ask them to do the same. They might even be relieved you brought it up!

Alternative gift-giving can be extremely meaningful and a little easier on the budget. It could involve making gifts, spending time caroling or enjoying a meal together virtually, giving a gift of service to a loved one, or contributing to a cause important to the recipient. If you like to share treats with others at this time of year, consider baking or cooking items that can be refrigerated or set aside for a few days before consumption to avoid unknowingly passing the virus along.

If kids and teens are on your list, consider adding to their education fund. This is a gift that will keep on giving and doesn’t need to be made all at once. You could, for instance, contribute monthly instead of spending on a costly gift now all at once. For your own kids, you could ask grandparents or extended family to gift to them in a similar way. Alternative gifts have lasting effects and still show how much you care.

The bottom line on planning for Christmas in four weeks when money is tight

Christmas and the whole 2020 holiday season are shaping up to be as unique as the last 10 months have been. However, rather than get discouraged that you can’t celebrate the way you usually do, I would encourage you and your immediate family to look for ways to make the celebrations you will be having meaningful. While this might mean setting aside for a year the traditions you value most, it’s also a great opportunity to spend more time than money with those you care about most. To borrow a line from Coca-Cola’s 2020 Christmas ad, “This Christmas, give something only you can give.”

Related reading:

How to Save Time and Money on Christmas Gifts

Simple Gift Giving Planner to Shop and Budget Effectively

Santa’s Secrets for Avoiding Debt

Scott Hannah is president of the Credit Counselling Society, a non-profit organization. For more information about managing your money or debt, contact Scott by email , check nomoredebts.org or call 1-888-527-8999.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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