Have a Merry Christmas on a Budget

Ho, Ho, Ho—oh, no! It’s almost Christmas. If you are like many American families, this has not been the best of years—financially speaking. If you have done well and saved—you’ve probably seen those savings plummet. If you’re more the norm, and really don’t have much (if anything) in savings, the pain is even worse. Many families this Christmas are struggling with job losses, car payments, and, in too many cases, credit card bills from last Christmas.

I you identify with any of these scenarios then what do you say we do a little “check up from the neck up”—okay?

I recently heard someone ask, “Should I go into deeper debt on my credit cards—so my kids can have a good Christmas?” In my opinion, the emphatic answer to this question is NO! The question itself needs to be rethought. First, what is a “good Christmas?” I’ll revisit this in a few moments, but for now suffice it to say, it is a huge mistake to communicate to our children that a “good Christmas” equates to the number of dollars we spend. In many cases, whatever short term “fun” that might come spending money we don’t have for Christmas—will be lost in the pain that follows. By pain, I’m thinking about the arguments the kids will overhear when those plastic bills start to arrive. And, in more dire cases, critical things that may be lost or curtailed long after the “must-have” Christmas toys are lying under the bed collecting dust. What happens when those credit card bills start filling the mail box in late January? What will be lost? Maybe the money needed to pay tuition, or for new shoes, or even to keep the mortgage current.

Actually a lean Christmas can be a long term blessing for our children. What would be wrong with simply telling them the truth? You don’t have to go into all the gory details. But what if you sat down and said something like, “Children, this Christmas is going to be special—but not in the way you might expect. This year Mom and I have to make some really tough decisions. We would like to have enough money to buy lots of gifts. But we don’t. We do have plenty of money to pay for what we need: the house, our food and cloths. But not if we spend that money buying lots of expensive gifts. So this year we’re going to have a special Christmas. We are going to find neat ways to remember Jesus.”

With that as your Yuletide intro, turn it into a game. Ask your children (depending on their ages) to do “Jesus things” this Christmas. Why not decorate the house with hand-drawn pictures of the Nativity? Why not write and share poems or short stories about how Jesus’ birth changed the world? Why not focus on how poor Jesus was—and how, comparatively, wealthy we are? On that point, why not discuss the poverty that most of the world’s citizens experience their entire lives?

Then, let’s put our words into action. Let’s do Christmas differently this year. Why not turn off the TV and spend evenings preparing for a refreshingly different Christmas? Following are some ideas you might want to consider:

1. Make home-made gifts. If you crochet why not make ornaments and starch them for your friends’ trees. Or, can your favorite foods. (And don’t tell me you can’t afford to do this. These don’t have to be expensive fruits and nuts. One of our friends at church gives us a small jar of homemade pickles every Christmas. They probably cost her less than a dollar—but I love those pickles!) There are a million ways to do this. Just find one or two that work for you—and get the family busy.

2. One store-bought gift per kid. Tell each child that this year they will get one “special gift” (and, give them an idea of your budget for that gift). Then, stick to your guns. Go into the store with a list—and don’t fall into the trap of buying “just one more little thing.”

3. Give “Time” Gifts. Over the years I’ve encouraged people to give “time” gifts. Nothing is more special or more personal. In our family we frequently give homemade coupon packets redeemable for things like a 15-minute foot massages or 30-minute backrubs. Why not design some cool-looking gift certificates on a computer for your friends and family? You could give a young family a gift certificate redeemable for “one evening of free babysitting.”

4. Look for ways to give to others. No lesson you’ll ever teach your children will be more valuable than this one. Show them, by example, how to bless others. Why not take some of your limited funds and make a meal for someone less fortunate. This gift-giving experience will be one that your children will remember throughout their lives. They will always remember the Christmas when “Mom and Dad were short on money, but we made a meal (or, cookies—or, whatever) for the family who lived in the shack outside of town.” Or, what about simply making P&J sandwiches and giving them to the homeless?

5. To enhance the appearance of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, why not include some essentials? For instance, if you know you’re going to have to buy underwear or new shoes in the near future, go ahead and get them now. Wrap them and put them under the tree. (No, the kids won’t like them as well as toys, but they will enhance and prolong the Christmas experience.) By the way, to save money on expensive Christmas wrapping paper, why not use the Sunday comics from the newspaper?

At the top of this article I told you that I wanted to explain what I mean by a “good Christmas.” As I get older, things are becoming clearer. For me a “good Christmas” has precious little to do with how much loot I get. And, I believe we do our children a serious injustice by training them to define a “good Christmas” that way. I know that this is anti-cultural. And, yes, I’m fully aware that the world has a different perspective on this. But, as Christians, are we not called to be a “peculiar people?” If we have the gumption to teach our children proper perspectives when they’re young, doesn’t it stand to reason that when “they are old, they will not depart” from those perspectives?

Our kids are going into a tough, anti-God world. Don’t we do them a favor by teaching tough principles while there are still young? Frankly, I’m convinced that the hope for this country will be a generation of children who will grow up with a Godly world-view. And, who will not bow the knee to a culture that tries to ignore our God. Merry Christmas.

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