A happier holiday

Are scrambling and overspending your usual modus operandi for the holiday season? This year, free up your time, energy and hard-earned cash for a season full of memory making

Tis the month before Christmas
And all through the house
Not one gift is purchased
For child, friend or spouse.
Your credit card’s maxed
And your gift list is growing.
You want to get in the spirit
But stress is already showing.
You look at your kids
Who are watching TV;
They say with such passion,
“Can we have that, pleeease?
And we really need that
And this and that too.”
It all feels so wrong,
But what can you do?

Homemade Holiday

When you picture your ideal holiday, isn’t it evenings cuddled up with your kids, in your flannels, reading stories, playing games, laughing, talking? What better excuse than the current state of the economy to scale it all back — way back — and shake up your family’s approach to the season?

That’s exactly what Andrea Lie was thinking after Christmas last year. The Ottawa mom of Hannah, five, and Ryan, one, thinks the upside to the current economic downturn is that families are starting to reassess what really matters. Faced with the prospect of downsizing at her office, money is one of the motivating factors for going back to basics this year. “But I’m also thinking of my daughter,” says Lie. “We’ve tried to explain to her that gifts from the heart and the hands mean more than something you can pick up at a store. That’s true for all of us.”

Lie started early with her plan to create a homemade holiday for 2009. Every month she has taken photos of her kids doing something seasonal (celebrating Valentine’s Day, dressing up for Halloween, playing on summer vacation) so she can create personalized 2010 calendars for family members. “Grandparents love anything that allows them to show off their grandchildren,” she says.

She also has a special plan for her dad’s gift: “He is a great handyman and dreams of having his own business one day,” says Lie. So she has designed a logo for the business he dreams of and will give this to him along with flyers she’s made.

Lie decided to ditch the traditional greeting card this year to save time, money and trees. Instead, she’ll send out a personal email with a family photo. Her extended family is now giving only to the grandkids and, last year, Lie’s group of friends also made the decision to forgo gifts.

Lie’s childhood holidays are motivating her to hold firm to her simpler holiday plans. “What sticks out in my mind is all the things we did together, like crafts and tobogganing on Christmas Day,” she says. “Those are the kinds of things I’m trying to carry into my own family. I have been tempted to overspend, but I’ll catch myself because that’s not the message I want to get across.”

Ready, set, start your budget!

Setting a budget is the key to a stress-free holiday. You can do it. Here’s how:

• Calculate how much money you have to spend (that means real money, not credit). That’s what you have to use for the holidays. Full stop.
• Make a list of all anticipated expenses, including gifts, food, drinks, wrap and events.
• Determine how much to allot for each item. If the total exceeds your available cash, go back and reduce the amounts until they match up. Be ruthless!
• Designate a small notebook to track your holiday spending, ideally one with a pocket to hold receipts and your budget, and keep it with you at all times.

Use this book to record all purchases, with a running total. One of the biggest reasons people overspend is simply because they don’t pay attention.

Most finance experts recommend using cash only, so there can be no miscalculation of available funds. However, many people collect points on a credit card and like the paper trail and merchandise protection it offers, particularly over the holidays. If you’re going that route, stick to one card and pay off your purchases with your budgeted cash immediately.

Stretch your holiday dollars

Beyond the obvious money savings, less time at the mall means more time for the fun stuff.

Trim your list Suggest to your extended family that gifts be given only to the kids, or have adults draw names. Ask your friends or office mates to do a lunch or group charity donation instead of presents.

Stock up and save If you find a great deal, buy several to knock a few names off your list.

Shop early (that means now) The longer you wait, the smaller the selection and less time you have to find something great. When you see the perfect gift that also fits your budget, buy it.

Share the expense Go in with a sibling to buy a gift for your parents, or give your nephew a gift card toward something you know he wants, instead of purchasing it outright.

Hand it to them Suggest that your kids make gifts. They might burn CDs of favourite music, make simple bracelets or ornaments, or frame their paintings or drawings. They can also promise chores or events, such as a tea party with Grandma or shovelling the walk for Dad.

Go big Is there a big-ticket item the kids are desperate for? Cut back on individual gifts in place of a family one.

Fresh traditions

Traditions that focus on togetherness and the spirit of the season, rather than spending, are the ones your kids will look forward to year after year.

Gifts Let the kids loose on a big roll of paper with crayons, sparkles and stickers, and you have customized gift wrap. Make the gift-opening process, rather than gifts themselves, take centre stage: Create a scavenger hunt with clues (or play the “hot and cold” game for younger kids). Draw names or do simple challenges to see who opens the next gift. If the kids want to take a break to play midway through the gift opening, let them.

Food A turkey dinner is a lot of work and leaves little time for the cook to enjoy her company. If you’re having several big meals over the holidays, maybe one group would enjoy switching to brunch or a roast beef dinner. Having a casual get-together? A variety of appetizers can be a fun social alternative.

Greetings Make a short family holiday video to email to your friends and family. The kids will love hamming it up for the camera.

Get-togethers Talk with your extended family about spacing out events. You’ll have more time and energy to enjoy a visit if you — and especially your kids — have some downtime. Think about declaring Christmas Day a no-travel day and enjoy it at your own home, doing whatever you feel like doing. (Moving a gathering to the week after Christmas also means you can take advantage of Boxing Week discounts for those gifts.)

Game on Board games are fun, but if you’re looking to get the crazies out, try flashlight hide-and-seek, charades or a dance party with the music cranked. Want to get out of the house? Go bowling.

The great outdoors Give the kids spray bottles filled with water and food colouring, and let them spray- paint the snow. Go on a nature walk to see birds and animal tracks. Do some winter-night stargazing, when the stars are most brilliant. If backyard bonfires are allowed in your area, light up, roast marshmallows and sip some hot chocolate or cider. And, of course, tobogganing, skating and building forts and snowmen provide hours of energy-burning fun.

Blast from the past Do a little digging into your family’s heritage. What did they eat? How did they decorate? What songs did they sing? Incorporate some of these traditions into your celebration and learn more about your family’s roots at the same time.

Changing expectations

So you’ve bought into the less-stuff holiday, but how do you get your kids to do the same?

Some kids might jump on board without a second thought, while others need more time and discussion to switch gears. And that’s OK. You can’t control their reactions or always understand the root of their emotions.

Alyson Schafer, psychotherapist, author and host of TV’s The Parenting Show, says it’s important not to correct or criticize, but instead show empathy: “Tell them it must be tough that they thought it was the one time of year they’d get something really big and you can understand they’re disappointed.”

Schafer suggests aligning cutting back on the holidays with another concept that kids are already on board with: saving the planet. Remind them that we have to reduce, reuse, recycle, and conserve energy to keep the earth sustainable. Kids as young as five or six can understand that this is a new way of life for everyone.

“If you feel guilty or you’re pitying them, they’re going to pick up on that and will probably be more upset and give you a harder time,” says Schafer. “Have a grounded, matter-of-fact approach. Explain that the whole world is cutting back, and you’re doing your part and being responsible, that you’ll manage fine without all that stuff. When my kids ask me what I want for Christmas, I ask for something handmade, homemade, and often something charitable. One year my daughter made me a scrapbook of 50 things she loved about me, which was just amazing.”

With preteens, you can seize this opportunity to discuss consumerism. “Talk about how commercials always make you want to buy the next better thing, even though yours isn’t broken,” Schafer explains. “Tell them how, 50 years ago, a vacuum lasted a lifetime, but now things are made with less quality so people have to buy upgrades. Companies are trying to create a desire to buy more stuff. Preteens get that and they like feeling smart about it.”

Schafer recommends talking to your kids about how to work toward buying things for themselves, through an allowance, extra work around the house or a part-time job. “Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, the gadgets kids want these days are almost impossible to get on their own. Say to them, ‘We’re not buying it for you, but if you’re desperate for that digital camera, let’s talk about how to make it happen.’ It’s self-empowering and takes the pressure off parents.”

Without a doubt, and without a mountain of gifts, this can still be your best holiday ever. Ask your children what was most memorable about holidays past, or what they are really looking forward to (the skating party with their cousins, the special ornaments on the tree, taking homemade cookies to the neighbours?) and be sure that all those elements are covered.

“The truth is, all those gifts you think are making your kids happy — they’re not,” says Schafer. “It’s just a momentary hit, not what childhood happiness is about.”

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