Don’t Go Into Debt for Christmas

This year, it seems like Christmas advertising started the day after the kids went back to school.  For months, stores have been featuring Christmas decorations, trees, wreaths, lights and ideas for presents.

As a society, we seem to skip from one shopping season to another with no regard to the holiday we are celebrating.  Other than the meaningless rush to buy stuff there seems to be no reason for the Christmas holiday. We don’t even think about what we are really celebrating and what the holiday is all about. Unfortunately, this materialistic mindset has many parents worrying about how they will pay for Christmas this year.

According to CNN, two-thirds of them will spend more than they can afford, meaning many parents will take drastic measures to afford Christmas. Many of them will use credit cards for Christmas presents and go into debt which will take months to pay off. Others will take more extreme measures to fund their purchases:  11% will dip into their retirement account, 14% will use funds from their emergency savings, and 11% will take out a payday loan.

Funding short term purchases with anything other than cash can have harmful effects for years to come.  Paying off credit card debt for months means paying 15%-21% more for those presents once the interest charges are factored in. Using money withdrawn from a retirement account means a penalty on early withdrawals, lost interest and tax consequences. Raiding emergency funds for Christmas presents makes people more vulnerable when an actual emergency does occur. And using a payday loan for anything is a horrible idea. You will be paying an exorbitant interest rate plus a finance charge.  For a two week loan, the interest rate on a PayDay loan can be as much as 400% APR. 

Christmas should be about celebrating the birth of Christ, creating memories, and enjoying friends and family, not about creating debt. Christmas is a wonderful time of year, but it should not come at the risk of your long-term finances stability.

So, as you are getting ready for Christmas, here are some tips to avoid going into debt for the holiday season.

Begin by matching your budget to your Christmas list. You may want to buy gifts for every one of your family members, all of your co-workers, the tradespeople you deal with on a regular basis, and every neighbor up and down the street.  But can you really afford to do that?

It might seem harsh, but you don’t have to buy gifts for everyone. You can always make cookies for your neighbors or your children’s teachers. Or give them a small token gift card with a sincere thank you note about how they have touched your life.

Most times, a simple thoughtful gift means more to people than one more overpriced trinket that they don’t want and won’t use. Try to think of all the ways that you can show the people in your life how much you appreciate them without going into one penny of debt.

For many of us, being able to give a beautifully wrapped expensive store bought gift would be a nice way to make the people we care about feel special. But the reality is that we simply can’t afford to be Santa to everyone in our lives during the holidays.

If you’re from a large family, suggest that you each pick a name and only buy something for that person. A white elephant gift exchange is another way to do something fun and inexpensive. Each person brings one wrapped gift to contribute. (Be sure to indicate some parameters such as a dollar limit for the gift.) Have the gifts in a pile with everyone seated around the pile. Assign an order in which the gifts will be chosen. You can draw numbers from a hat or assign an order based on age. The first person gets to choose a gift from the pile, open it and show it around. Each person follows one at a time and when it’s their turn, they can choose to either pick an unwrapped gift from the pile or steal an open gift from someone else. Anyone who gets their gift stolen can do the same–choose a new gift or steal from someone else. This usually results in both chaos and fun.

Another way to save money is to window shop before buying. Start with your list of recipients and a budget for each of them. If you are doing online shopping, save items to your wish list for a few days before buying. If you are shopping in a brick and mortar store, walk through the store without your wallet or purse to scope out what you may want to buy. This helps you see what’s available that may be an appropriate gift in a slow thoughtful way. After your window shopping expedition, make a specific list of what you are going to buy for whom and return to the store or website to complete your purchases. This method helps you comparison shop, keeps you from buying things you have to return, ensures you remember everything and everybody and puts some sanity into what can be a chaotic rush to buy something – anything!

If you’re not sure how to rein yourself in when it comes to shopping for your kids, try using the Five Gift Rule.

1. Something they want

2. Something they need

3. Something to read

4. Something to wear

5. Something to share

It’s a great way to organize your gift giving without breaking your budget.

And let’s face it, how many times do the young ones have more fun with the huge cardboard boxes than with the toys. And kids don’t care how much you spent or whether it is brand new or from the thrift store. They don’t even notice that you spent hundreds of dollars to make sure they had the hottest gift of the year.

Take the stress away. You’re not a bad parent if you don’t spend $500 on each child. You’re not a bad parent if you bought them a bike at a garage sale and fixed it up. Kids remember Christmas because it’s a fun time of year. They remember it because they get to spend time with you, their parents. They get to eat cookies and sing fun Christmas carols. They aren’t going to count each gift and ask the price of everything under the tree.

So, avoid the inevitable financial pressure that comes each year at this time. Remember, going into debt for Christmas presents prevents you from reaching your long-term financial goals, like paying for your kids’ college tuition or funding your own retirement.

Every time you go into debt to buy a present, you’re choosing a physical object over your long term financial security. Try some of the above tips to stay on track and on budget this holiday season. It will still be merry and bright; and your future self will absolutely thank you.

 And remember what Pope Francis has said about money, “If money and material things become the center of our lives, they seize us and make us slaves.” This Christmas, escape from the slavery of debt and consumerism. Keep your eyes focused on Christ—the reason for this season—and not on all the unnecessary stuff our society throws at us.

For more on this topic, connect with the Compass Catholic podcast on Podbean as we discuss how to keep some sanity in Christmas spending.