Want to limit gift spending? Stop, drop and roll

It’s here, the time of year we say it’s not about the presents — and yet we spend like it is.

The question is: Do you have a method to resist the annual spending spree if your money is tight?

More than 147 million people plan to shop Black Friday weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) this year, according to the National Retail Federation, which also is forecasting that holiday sales in November and December will increase 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion.

As my holiday tradition every year, I try to find some way to keep the spendthrifts and heavily indebted from caving in to the pressure to buy when they don’t have the cash.

I recently sat down with a mother of two young boys who wanted me to look at her spending and help her figure out why she couldn’t make ends meet. She thought she was spending too much on housing.

It wasn’t the mortgage payments that were breaking her budget. It was the debt she had amassed trying to live above her means. Personal loans and credit card debt took far too much of her monthly paycheck.

So we worked out a budget, which didn’t leave much to spend on things other than covering her basic necessities and paying down her debt. She then asked me a question that made me feel sad for her.

“What about Christmas?” she asked.

“What about it?” I said.

“I have to give my boys something,” she pleaded. “They will be so hurt if I don’t put a lot of stuff under the tree. I have to buy something for them. I have to.”

I took out a piece of paper and wrote down four words: “I don’t have it.”

I handed the note to the mother.

“This is your situation,” I said.

She took the paper and looked at it in silence. She fought back tears and agreed that this Christmas, she would have to curtail her spending. She would have to show her love by her presence, not the presents she couldn’t afford.

But as the mother left, I wondered if she could pull it off. Realistically, how can she and you — if you’re in a similar position — not spend on the kids, your husband, wife, mother, father, in-laws or friends? They have expectations you want to fulfill.

So I have an idea to help you this year. Think of the fire safety training you might have gotten in school. What do the experts tell you to do if your clothes catch on fire?

Stop, drop and roll.

If on fire, you are told that you should stop moving because running feeds the flames. You should drop to the floor and cover your face. And then roll around to help put out the fire by depriving it of oxygen.

Now let’s apply this advice to your holiday spending:

Stop. Don’t even think about putting any purchases on credit. Nearly 3 in 10 consumers plan on charging their gifts this year, according to the federation’s survey. Just like running while on fire, continuing to use credit will make things worse. You fan the flames. To help drive home this point, do what I did for the mother. I had her list all her debts. It was only then that she realized how bad things were.

Drop. It’s important that you drop the attitude that your children or others will be deprived if you don’t splurge for Christmas. What is it that they really need? OK, since I know you’ll feel guilty or miserly if you don’t buy them something, just keep the amount you spend low. Drop big-ticket items from the list.

Roll. Roll right past the malls except perhaps the one trip you make to purchase the few gifts you think you have to buy. Don’t use the malls as part of your holiday entertainment. Don’t go to check out the beautiful decorations. It’s too tempting. Don’t open the emails about the enticing online deals. The point is to cover your face so that you don’t see what you think are bargains. You may be drawn to the holiday sales by rationalizing that at least you’re saving money. But you never save when you spend. You might be spending less but you are not saving. And you’re spending money you need to apply to getting out of debt.

If you’re trying to cut your holiday spending, use the stop, drop and roll drill as a reminder that this time of year is truly not about the presents.

Michelle Singletary: singletarym@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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