Best Gifts for the Holiday Season? A Sense of Humor & a Budget!

Ok, so you’ve stayed in a mall-free zone thus far and your mood is cranky. Darn cranky. You tried some of my suggestions. Your cookies are flatter than Faith Hill’s stomach, the gift certificate you slaved over hid in the C drive, and the grocery stores checked your coupon organizer so that, hee, hee, none of those items are on sale this week. (Yes, the paper is getting pretty sparse on the coupon front. Try these sites out.)

“Pfft. Doing Christmas. This moron makes Pollyanna look like a pessimist,” you’re saying. I feel your pain. Neighbors are putting up lights and decorations all around me. I’m sure it’s aimed at making me feel even more broke. The extra cost of electricity alone… (On that subject, Bracing for Winter and Cut your Heating Bills may help.)

Everywhere you’re bombarded with messages that say SPEND, as if somehow emptying your wallet will fill you with the holiday spirit everyone else seems to have. FACT: While it may make the next 20 days woohoo-party time, you’ll regret it when January rolls around. And February. And March… Which is why I loved this Top Ten article on why it’s great to be broke this season.  

I received an  email from a friend yesterday that said holidays just aren’t the same. No, they’re not. We turned them over to the retailers. And with that, we lost the good, warm, ahhh feelings that holidays used to bring. Now, if we can’t let go of the $832 people say the plan to spend we’re thinking they aren’t fun or fulfilling. Hey, at $832 they’re not fun and fulfilling either – they’re foolish and frenetic. And, NOBODY APPRECIATES OUR FINANCIAL INSANITY ANYWAY! Long gone are the days of, “it’s the thought that counts.”

Instead of labeling yourself a failure this season, embrace these top ten reasons for why your fiscal savvy puts you way ahead of the pack.

10. Credit card bills have all that junk advertising enclosed. You’ll be saving trees, too.

9. You won’t be on anyone’s “worst gifts” list next year.

8. No one will curse you for making them look cheap.

7. Not a single person will have to exchange your gift. You’re saving them gas, stress, helping cut pollution!

6) No one will feel guilty because you bought for them and they didn’t buy for you.

5. And you won’t shame anyone by being the “best gift giver” while they make your worst gifts list…

4) The postal person won’t be overburdened delivering tons of credit card bills to your house. 

3. You won’t have to eat 5 out of 7 meals at the happy hour buffet come January.

2. You can listen to others bemoan their holiday debt, nodding sympathetically without adding a single comment yourself as you smile gleefully – inside of course.

And, the number one reason you’re not a failure?

1. The first time is always the hardest. With your new frugal fixation, you’ll actually be able to look forward to 2009’s holiday season.

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Doing Christmas: 28 Frugal Gift Ideas

Here’s my guess. Since I had to google sales figures for Thanksgiving weekend and the stock market is tanking, uhhh, I’d say sales probably weren’t that hot last weekend. I found estimates of maybe a 3% increase over last year to, well, flat. I’m proud of you guys!!

Ok, you’ve narrowed down to the “matter” people. You’ve detailed out all those skills you forgot you had. You dug out all the old photos. And, you did a little closet cleaning. So, let’s get to that “do” list. Once you decide, make a gift certificate on the computer and wala, you’re awesome!

Outside Ideas: (Useful for parents and grandparents)

Standard “stuff” required to maintain a house is expensive if you have to hire it out. When supplies are needed below (paint, weed killer, etc.) it’s time to call that rich brother. Make it a joint gift – he supplies the product, you supply the effort.

1) Clean the gutters, caulk the sills, put up storm windows – think winterize the house.

2) Spring cleanup – trim trees, pull weeds, apply weed killer, fertilize the yard

3) Paint the trim

4) Stain the deck

5) Clean the garage

6) Repair/refresh patio furniture

7) Cut and stock wood

8) Repair sprinkler systems

9) Research – check the house out, get quotes for projects, manage the repairs. You can’t afford to fix their roof, but you can make sure they don’t get ripped off by an unscrupulous contractor or end up flooded because they haven’t climbed up to check out the roof in decades.

Inside Ideas:

Again, these probably most apply to older individuals. Guaranteed, Auntie Matilda will love something from this list more than another cat platter or foofoo towel set.

10) Think cleaning – spring, cupboards, closets, refrigerator, baseboards, whatever. Even those who have cleaning people need the stuff done that Merry Maids doesn’t touch – light fixtures, move the furniture, climb up and clean the plant shelves kinda stuff.

11) Paint a room

12) Repair – the toilet, leaky faucets, peeling caulk.  

13) Clean the carpet.

14) WINDOWS – God, don’t we all hate that job.

15) Organize  – help them re-do the pantry or move dishes to make daily living easier.

16) Turn the mattresses, wash the mattress covers AND the comforter, air out the pillows. Make nite-nite nice.

What about those photos?

17) You don’t have to be a scrap-booking expert to make a great gift. A photo album from the .99 cent store and your heart is all it takes. Tell the person what these memories meant to you. “Thanks Mom & Dad for this trip to Disneyland,” or “Remember the year you coached my team,” kinda stuff. Give your siblings photos from their lives – the pics you took of them with their kids. They probably forgot some of these times. Give your friends, nieces, nephews, co-workers the pics that will mean something to them. If you have a scanner, create a PowerPoint or photo  album for them (also keeps the pics from being lost to age.)

18) Help Grandma or Pop or Auntie organize their own pics. Get ’em scanned. Build a pictorial history they can enjoy. They’ll love reminiscing and you’ll know who that skinny guy in the overalls is when someone asks later on…

In the Kitchen:

19) Bake. Everyone loves treats this time of year. (Ok, based on society’s collective waistline, all year long…). Found this great recipe for 12 cookies from one dough. Efficient. My kinda recipe. Even if you’re not a “from scratch” kinda person, buy a cake mix and can of frosting. With coupons, I get them darn near free. Great for taking to a party, the office, or a “it’s the thought that counts” gift for #358 on your list.

20) Cook. Hit the $1 store and buy those partitioned dishes you can freeze. Make TV dinners. Great for singles, kids on their own, grandparents or parents, me… Eating good food can be tough if you’re alone or cooking for just two tiny appetites. With your couponing talent, you can do these cheap and be a big hit.

21) Make a basket. We’ve all done it; picked up the “I don’t know what to get them, this coffee, tea, cracker, whatever basket will do” gift. If you couldn’t drop this person, like maybe it’s your boss, build your own. Again, your ability to coupon and sale shop will keep the cost low and make it more personal. A 4 qt. pan from the dollar store filled with 10 packs of Ramen, a measuring cup, wooden spoon and 10 recipes for the stuff works great for a college student. How about some mugs from the $1 store, marshmallows (which you picked up on sale) hot chocolate mix (also on sale with a coupon) and a dozen of those cookies you made in #19?  Coupons and a little creativity make this a great (inexpensive) gift.

22) Dinner gift certificates – at your house, of course! Good for 5 dinners with the Olsons will make Uncle Walter grin. You know you should invite him over more often anyway!

23) Give ’em groceries. This can be a cheap way to be very generous. With coupons and sales you can build a food basket that’s sure to help. 

If I were a rich b*%#h…

24) Pedicures, manicures, hair coloring – who doesn’t enjoy having these things done for us? 

25) You cleaned out the closet. Bound to have found some candles, perfume, a purse you bought and never used. Build your own spa day treat for someone. Add some bath oil beads, lotions, loofahs, whatever stuff you can find cheap, and make a gift that would cost you big bucks if you bought it ready-made.

Miscellaneous:

26) Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. An oil change, tune-up, even just taking the car to the shop can be a big help. Putting up a shelf or hanging a picture; mending clothes or alterations; replacing a toilet. I’m no fix-it person, but for those who are, there are untold great gifts in your talents.

27) Time – take someone anywhere – the mall, the library, a movie, an art fair. Many people on your list would rather have your time than any gift you could purchase.

28) Write. Parents don’t outgrow that ‘ahhh’ just because you’re 20 or 30 or 50. When your words come from the heart you warm their souls. Try it with your kids, too.

BE the gift this year. It’ll save your budget and you’ll deliver a gift that truly does keep on giving.

Doing Christmas!

Before you’ve even cleaned the turkey you’re scouring the ads. Who’s got deals? What time do they start? Ohhhhh, look, should I camp out for that killer price on whatever?

Stop, stop, stop! STOP!

And, accept this critical fact:

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A KILLER SALES PRICE WHEN YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT! 

Well, actually, there is. It’s a KILLER sales price because it kills your resolve, kills your budget, kills your plan to DO Christmas this year instead of BUY it.

Christmas is an annual addiction: the ads, the lists, the “go here first, then here, then here” mania that has us grabbing and shoving and stuffing shopping carts as we’re swiping, swiping, swiping without thinking about the bills that will show up in January.

Don’t tempt yourself. Stay home on Black Friday. The frenzy, the noise, the mass of humanity works like the ding, ding, ding of slot machines. It lures, draws, and downright sucks you into the insanity. “Everyone else is doing it, they have money, they’re spending, why can’t I?” you whine.  

Because you’ve accepted reality. You understand your financial position. You don’t want January’s hangover from Christmas’ overindulgence. You have a plan. A DO plan. Which means you must avoid those who don’t.

You can already feel the withdrawal. God, it hurts not to be a player in the annual “Save Retailers” campaign. Breathe deep and repeat after me: “Charity starts at home. Charity starts at home.” Keep repeating until your brain accepts – 20, 30, 40 times… Be patient. This could take awhile

Okay, now you’re ready. Set the ads aside. FAR aside. Using ‘em to get a fire started works best. Stuff the turkey. Peel the potatoes. Bake the pies. Savor every smell, every taste. Really talk to people you’re sharing the day with. When you’re not focused on the Friday free-for-all you can actually enjoy Thursday’s blessings. Eat too much (a reward for the self-control you’ll be exercising by skipping the Friday fiasco.) Watch some football. Hug everyone. Be grateful for what you have. Give thanks. After all, it’s been a great day, and, tomorrow you can sleep in!

Oh, God, Friday, more ads… So hard to ignore. Itchy gas-pedal foot. Mall, mall, just for an hour…

DO NOT SUCCUMB! Guess what? The mall is gonna be there, all the way through Christmas. And, I’m guessing, the ads will get better. And better. And better. This may actually be the year of the procrastinator. Take out a sheet of paper. Make the list – remember the “pared down, these people really matter” list?  Chances are, your first effort won’t be that pared. Try numbering the people. “If I could only buy for one person…” Give them a 1. “If I could only buy for 2…” Someone gets a 2. Do this until everyone has a number.

Now, write down what you can DO. Cook? Bake? Arts & Crafts? Lawn work? Errands? Fix-it stuff? Damn, look how talented you are! Keep thinking. Cleaning? Sewing? Car repairs? Spending time with someone? WOW! You have an almost unlimited budget of stuff you can DO!! Stuff that really matters.

Use Black Friday to keep you in the black. Work on that list. Match your talents to those “matter” people. Pick projects. Determine the time you’ll need to complete them. Make your DO plan. Feel great. Not a single elbow from fighting over the last Boo-boo Baby whatever. No shopping cart derby crushed toes. Not a single foul, nasty, unkind word or look tossed your way.  

This weekend plan your holiday; budget realistically, and focus on what matters, who matters. You do. Your family does. A roof over your head, food, heat, gas in the car – these are critical. Boo-boo Baby and electronic gadgets and stuff aren’t. To retailers maybe, but not to you. Relax and know this can be the most stress-free season yet because you choose to make it so. It can be the most giving season yet because you choose to make it so. It can be the most blessed time ever because you choose to make it so. With your mindset, not your wallet. Get that, and you’re well on your way to understanding frugal.

And, just so you won’t go all berserk on me before I get back with some project ideas, try these to get you thru the weekend:

1) Sort old photos (you know, from before we had digital) and separate by person. There’s gifts in those memories. (more on that later.)

2) Clean. If you’re like many, there’s gifts in them thar closets.

3) Get out the decorations. Dust ’em off. Have a family dinner, grilled cheese and soup, and discuss past years. Start building your holiday joy quotient by remembering what you remember most? Was it a gift? Or was it feelings and relationships that warm you deepest?

4) Send out cards. No, not $10 a box, $.42 to mail cards. Email cards. Get the kids involved. Have them send cards to Grandma & Grandpa, too. And Aunt Bertha. And Uncle Fred. (it’s good training.) Free means you don’t have to send one signed, “Love, Susan, Dan, Jeffrey, Alicia, Allison, Jeremy, Joshua, Bobbie, Carol, Willie, Snuggles and Spot.” Everyone’s involved (well, Dan may still expect you to cover him, and unless Snuggles and Spot are really special, they’re on you too, but the kids get to send their own message.)  You can send one or one a week or one a day. You’ll be building someone else’s joy quotient with each message. Or you can make cards – you know, colored paper, crayons, markers, glitter, glue, messy… Fun! Either are great ways to interact with the kids, show a little creativity and let loved ones know you’re really thinking of them, not just checking “send cards,” off the holiday to-do list.

5) Go to the park. Exercise with the kids. (Hey, we gotta get rid of that reward somehow.) Or visit the library. Read a Christmas classic. 

Back next week with project ideas. Until then, chant with me, “Charity starts at home, charity starts at home…”

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Right now, it’s tough for many to embrace those words. If the economic crisis boat is floating in your tub, that’s assuming your tub hasn’t already been foreclosed on, it’s hard to feel grateful. Retailers could likely find this to be the year that “Black” Friday becomes “Still in the Red” Friday. The idea of putting up a tree when you don’t know where the dollars will come from to put anything under it overwhelms us. I’m guessing doctors are handing out mood elevators faster than the neighbor who offered full-size candy bars on Halloween. Face it, it’s bleak out there – financially –  which means it’s also devastating emotionally.

Yes, it may be the worst holiday season you’ve ever experienced, financially. But it doesn’t have to be an emotional train wreck. It can be a time of reassessment, of rethinking that can lead to a resurgence of your spirit, if not your cash flow. In this long-term predicament, that’s crucial.

First, breathe deep. The next thirty-plus days are among the most stressful we face. Now, look inside. Do you matter? Of course you do. To someone. And, it’s not because of the stuff you buy. It’s because of you.  That’s the first lesson in making the holidays more manageable:

CUT YOUR LIST DOWN TO THOSE PEOPLE WHO MATTER.

How many of your holiday dollars are spent on “should” buys? Drop them. Giving isn’t about shoulds. Frugal people understand this. They don’t, however, reallocate that money to someone else. They reduce their holiday expenses.

The second lesson in your holiday-expense reduction plan?

WHAT CAN I DO FOR PEOPLE ON MY LIST THIS YEAR?

DO, not BUY. All of us have talents. Seldom do our talents and those of the people we care about match exactly. What can you do for someone that they will appreciate because they can’t do it. Or don’t want to. Or don’t have the time. That’s a great gift. (Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a few days with tips for all that “doing” you’ve decided to try this year.)

The third question you must ask to reduce stress and money this season?

WHO CAN I HAVE AN HONEST DISCUSSION WITH ABOUT GIFTING?

Years ago my best friend and I quit exchanging gifts. Our friendship was a year-long gift to each other. Family draws? Maybe you can stop them. Or reduce the limit. Or require the gift be homemade. Same at the office. Often, we overspend because we don’t want to “look” cheap. Anytime you can drop a draw, do so.

These three mindset changes can have an enormous impact on your holiday bottom-line, not to mention your emotional well-being. I hope they bring just a tad relief so that whether you’re enjoying a full-out turkey extravaganza or nuking a can of turkey noodle soup, you can embrace “Happy Thanksgiving,” (which, by the way, is a great time to broach that “drop the draw” discussion.)

The Great Debate – Did They Ever Answer a Question?

Up, down, up, down. The market’s making me nuts. And, just as many of you are learning about frugality for the first time, you’re also becoming more politically astute. Admit it. You watched the debate, not because you needed to add more negatives to your day, but because you wanted someone to tell you how government is going to fix this mess. And, therein lies the problem. Government fix is an oxymoron.

Anything we get from government, we pay for. Let’s look at healthcare. Whether we get $5k from McCain, or join the government plan as Obama proposes, neither is free. Taxpayers will foot the tab. And, as much as both candidates are telling us it won’t come out of our pockets, come on. We know better. It will. If government takes it from big business, big business takes it back in higher prices so stockholders are happy, which means the market quits going south, which means our 401k’s don’t implode which means… It’s a circle, and as part of the circle, we face Newton’s law – every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Fixing it is up to us.

I checked this morning for some ‘wow!’ insights to help. Frugal Fanny has 6 tips for stretching her $5,416 monthly income. (Let’s not get testy, there. She’s an MIT grad. Personally, I figured she’d make more.) Her big wow? How she thinks about money: Saving vs. debt; putting her spending facts on paper; not worrying about what the neighbors are doing; no bulk buying. I think we covered this in needs vs. wants, which this statistic says we better get our heads around:

  • A growing number of Americans view debt as a lifestyle choice, according to Robert Manning, author of “Credit Card Nation,” living on as much as 120% of their incomes. (italics me) Anna has no personal debt besides her mortgage; her committed expenses come to only 73% of her income.
  •  

    73%? Then she saves 15% and budgets $400 for FUN? Damn!

     

    But, we’re beyond that. No one provided us such wisdom (or we didn’t listen) before we consumerized our life. Still, we’re learning. We’ve cut back on big-ticket spending. And, food prices are coming down, as are gas prices. That’s big help IF we don’t turn around and hand it back to the Holiday Fairy. Which is already stressing us out. Which is already making us ask, what else can I cut? Which makes us worry about how disappointed the kids are gonna be…

     

    Here’s a thought. Let’s give our children or grand-children a truly great gift this year: values about balancing budgets and living within their means. Let’s teach them about stretching dollars to pay for needs and saving for wants. Let’s teach them they’re ok, good, whole, wonderful  – even if they don’t own THE  toy of the season or some fashionistas’ latest, greatest (for the older kids).

     

    Last year we had the grandkids for a sleepover. We made cookies, toured some mega-sports store, ate subs (used coupons of course). Then, we went to Walmart where they chose Angels and picked out items for those Angels as their Christmas gift from us. Our six-year-old now separates toys out for the poor kids. The others (ages 8 – 12) have all asked if we can do it again. Kids aren’t too young to learn, to understand, to start gaining financial values that I wish I’d have figured out sooner. The challenge is breaking their little hearts. Who wants to say, “No Virginia, there is no Santa Clause,” (or whatever that quote was)?  

     

    No problem. This year, you can Let Santa Help. It’s a unique idea that will probably reduce a lot of stress this season. But, whether you use this site or not, I hope you’ll think about the benefits both you and your kids can realize when financial responsibility joins the list of critical values a caring parent teaches. 

     

    Vote November 4th.

    One of them will be spending your money. You should help decide which one.