Don’t be a fool: Control your Christmas spending

For a lot of folks, one of the hardest things about the holiday season this year will be in giving less to their children because they just don’t have the money.

But you have to have the talk.

In my household, my husband and I have always held down the expense of Christmas, whatever our income, because we are conscientious objectors to the excessive consumerism of the holiday. We also have the talk with our children to manage their expectations.

So this year, like years before, I started the conversation with my 13-year-old by asking what she wanted for Christmas. Without any guilt, I struck down her two top requests — a cell phone and laptop computer. She has a desktop computer. I didn’t even entertain the idea of getting a cell phone for a child who has no job and rarely goes anywhere without supervision by an adult (with a cell phone).

My teen rolled her eyes and gave me a look that said I should think twice about going down the stairs before her.

But she doesn’t scare me.

Then I told my 8-year-old that the economy is bad and that Santa has a lot less money to build and give out toys. She paused and then said: “Well, can you ask Santa to get me a remote-controlled truck?”

My daughter explained that she wanted to replace her 10-year-old brother’s truck, which she had broken.

Don’t you love it when your child shows you that you might be doing something right as a parent?

Her brother, after being told he wasn’t getting much, asked for a few inexpensive things.

Here’s the point: You are a fool to spend much of anything this year, even for your children, if you’ve lost a job or suspect a layoff is coming.

You are a fool to spend on gifts if you have credit card debt that you haven’t paid off.

You shouldn’t be spending anything if you are struggling to make your mortgage, rent, car or student loan payment. If you don’t have a cash cushion that would at the very least get you through a month of no income, and you spend for the holidays anyway, you’re a fool.

Is this harsh advice?

Yes, it is, and especially so if you have children. Christmas is their big day. Think brides on their wedding day. Kids get keyed up at the first sight of Christmas decorations.

They look forward to the holiday season all year long. You know that, and they know that. So I understand that it’s hard to look at those excited, eager faces and announce you can’t deliver on the goods or that Santa is in a recession too.

And yet do I have to remind you of the current economic climate, where none of us can be 100 percent sure that our jobs are secure?

Well, I’m going to remind you anyway.

The unemployment rate has hit a 14-year high of 6.5 percent. The number of people applying for state unemployment benefits is at recessionary levels.

As of the opening bell on the day before Thanksgiving, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 36 percent for the year. Some of you are even afraid to look at your retirement portfolio. Others who have dared to look feel like falling back with their hands over their hearts, the way Redd Foxx used to do when he played Fred Sanford in the 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son.” However, you’re not faking a heart attack for laughs. It’s real. Your heart really hurts.

One economist talking to The Associated Press put it this way: “We are in the early stages of one of the worst recessions in the postwar period, even factoring in a massive stimulus program.”

Now that you’ve been reminded, man up (or woman up) and have the talk.

Don’t punk out because ‘tis the season or you hate to disappoint your kids.

Use this trying time to teach your children by example to recognize their limitations and that there is no shame in having financial limitations.

By discussing with them that money is tight, you are admitting that at times you can’t do or get what you want. You are teaching them you can’t spend what you don’t have.

I didn’t choose the word “fool” lightly. I want to be blunt. I don’t want to be gentle. These are hard times we’re in.

“Our future is bright if we make good decisions,” President-elect Barack Obama said during a recent news conference announcing the creation of a new economic recovery advisory board.

He went on to say that we all have to make “real adjustments,” and make “good choices.”

That’s it right there. Make the choice not to spend if you can’t afford it this year. Love your children like never before, but don’t go shopping out of guilt if you don’t have the cash.

Have the talk. It may go better than you think.

Washington Post Writers Group

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