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How to Save Money on Holiday Gifts, According to Scrooge

How to stay both happy AND debt-free this season.

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photo collage of scrooge wearing a santa claus hat
Paul Spella
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As a mother of five and author of Positive Money – 7 Principles for Living a Rich Life, I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of holiday spending. At times, I’ve been tagged the Ebenezer Scrooge of the family, holding myself and others to standards that felt controlling and even a little cold-hearted.

Like Scrooge, I was focused on the calculation and cost of giving versus the joy and meaning of it all. At other times, I’ve let budgets fly away in the flurry of the moment.

The push and pull between holiday expectations and expenses can be wrought with emotion and throw us off our financial game. Am I doing enough? Giving enough? Spending too much? Even if we set a budget ahead of time and swear we’ll stick to it, the wealth of temptations to buy more can get the best of us. In the end, we loosen our belts and regret it later. After all, it’s the holidays!

This year, I decided to take a different approach. I wanted to see if I could move past the Scrooge mentality while still being mindful of spending. With that goal in mind, I made a money date with myself to focus on this specific challenge: How might I stay happy and out of debt this holiday season?

Surprisingly enough, I returned to Scrooge — or more specifically — to the lessons our dear Ebenezer learned from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future who visited him deep in the night. When explored further, I discovered some wisdom that helped me and which I hope helps you.

Lesson One: Learn from the Past

While on your money date, take a few moments to reflect on past holiday spending habits. What worked and didn’t work? Make a list under each category. It’s easy to beat ourselves up or only look at the negatives when we’re actually doing some things right. For example, my habit has been to start with a list of gifts for each of our five kids, my partner and extended family members.

- What works is that I have a clearer picture of what I plan to buy.

- What doesn’t work is that it feels transactional — like I’m going through the motions much like I would for going to the grocery store.

- What works is that I have a better scope on budget.

- What doesn’t work is that I get caught up in whether the budget adequately reflects my measures of love and affection, so I can easily go beyond it. 

- What works is that I aim to treat everyone fairly.  

The first thing I learned from this process is that I may be approaching the holidays the wrong way. Why start with a shopping list? Why not start with a conversation about what matters most about the holidays and focus on that first? My answer would be family gatherings, feasting, playing games and expressing gratitude. I would also feel better about giving more to those in need.

The second thing I realized is that I can change my expectations. Maybe I don’t need to expect gifts to be any more than a gesture of love — accepting that they can show up in many shapes and sizes. If I don’t have the cash to buy that fancy new phone for a daughter, I can surprise her with a cool playlist I know she’ll enjoy — or a photograph of our family in a beautiful frame.

Finally, the past has taught me that budgets don’t work for me. Goals do. If a primary goal is to be financially responsible during the holidays, then I have far more fun thinking of creative ways to meet that goal. Another essential goal is to make sure my gifts are well-suited for the recipients.

Lesson Two: Focus on What Matters Most

The Ghost of Christmas Present helps Scrooge see that life is precious — that there are no promises for tomorrow so why not focus on what matters today? This reminded me of how we can get caught up in the little things at the expense of the bigger ones.

For example, what I cherished most about the holidays growing up in Wyoming was the snow falling, family time cutting and trimming the tree, and the annual making and eating of homemade sticky buns. Sure, a few special gifts stand out, but what lingers are the smells, the sounds and the memories.

In our household, my wife loves to surprise people with gifts that are well beyond their expectations. She’s the one all of us want to be our Santa. On the other hand, it’s very hard to find the right gift for her. When we accepted that her love language is more about giving than receiving, and learned how important it was that she felt appreciated, notes of gratitude were far more meaningful than another watch.

Lesson Three: Ask What Love Looks Like

The final visit from the Ghost of the Future or of Christmases Yet to Come makes Scrooge realize that he has a choice to live with a dark soul or to wake up to the light and the power of connecting with others. It’s a reminder that we need to take actions today that can make a difference. If we are blind to our capacity to love and be loved, then we’re missing out on the true meaning of the holidays, and the potential impact we can have on others.

Money can’t be a measure of this love, nor can it assure the outcome you may desire. Instead, if you ask what love looks like for your money, especially during pressured times like the holidays, you may discover new actions that feel good for you and your budget. Whether you make a card and inscribe it with a personal message, gift a book that was transformative for you, or simply offer your time or skills, the true spirit of the holidays will shine through.

How do you determine how best to manage your money during the holiday period? Let us know in the comments below. 

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