Managing Money During the Holidays

Christmastime can be the most stressful time of the year for many families, both financially and otherwise.  I feel like this year, was one of the first years that my wife and I successfully navigated the Christmas season without going over budget, and still having a wonderful Christmas morning, and Christmas break.  This post is about what worked for us this Holiday season.

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Budgeting for Christmas

Our oldest child of five, is now 8-years-old.  In the past, it seems we could more or less wing it on Christmas.  As long as we bought our kids boy’ish toys for the boys, and girl’ish toys for the girls, then everyone was happy.  However, this year, the kids wanted VERY specific gifts.  My son wanted a 4-foot robot.  My 7 and 5-year-old daughters both wanted American girl dolls and Baby Alive dolls.  The younger two weren’t quite as opinionated.

The only problem was, we had already set a firm Christmas budget by the time the kids said they wanted these $200 and $100 toys.  The budget we had established was $50 for each person (including parents), $35 for all of the stockings, and $70 for each of our extended families.  This gave a grand total for the Christmas budget of

($50 * 7) + $35 + $70 + $70 = $525

We budgeted most of this into our November budget, since we wanted to be able to complete a lot of the shopping during Black Friday sales.  We managed to complete a lot of it in November, but also carried some over to December.  The best part about setting a conservative budget for Christmas was… everyone was actually happy.  I have noticed in past years, that if you give too many gifts for Christmas, many of them get lost in all the hype of Christmas morning.  However, when children get a few gifts that they really want, they seem to cherish them more.

How were the kids happy if they didn’t get all the gifts they asked for?  Well, my son got a 2-foot robot, instead of a 4-foot robot.  My wife found the Baby Alive dolls on sale, so was still able to get them the dolls they wanted, just not the American girl dolls as well, which they were perfectly fine with.  The most amazing thing is, we actually stayed on budget for all of December!  It feels great to end the month, not having dipped into next months paychecks.

Having fun without breaking the bank

The other tricky part about the holidays, is managing the time off of work.  Many folks in the workforce take time off during the holidays to spend more time with their children, who are often home from school for Christmas Break.  This year, I took a full 10 days off (between Christmas Eve and just after the New Year).  Most activities cost money, and some of them can cost a LOT of money, when you think about it.  Skiing can be $90+ per ticket.  Movies can be $10+.  Eating out adds up quickly also.  We are nearing the end of the Christmas break, and here are some of the great, low-budget activities that we have been able to do this week, without spending a ton of money:

  • Seven Peaks Fun Center (free, after purchasing pass-of-all-passes)
  • Sledding (free, just find a hill with some snow, maybe up the canyon)
  • Papercraft Rollercoaster ($5.28, needed to but some card stock)
  • Sticky Shoe Dollar Theater ($17.50, 2 buckets of popcorn, 2 large drinks)
  • Arctic Circle ($3, the courtesy cones are free, but we buy some fries too)
  • Bean Museum ($5, entrance free, but bought some toys at the gift shop)
  • Movies at Home ($2, sad to see VidAngel go away, but Redbox is here)
  • Board Games ($15, we bought the Pie Face game, the kids love it)

Getting ready for next year

With the passing of each year, come New Year’s resolutions.  We have a lot of fun activities planned for this next year, and it will take some serious budgeting to stay on track.  In January we are going to Kauai, Hawaii.  In March we are going to Disneyland, California Adventure, and Legoland.  Needless to say, it does not look like we will have our fully funded emergency fund by February 1st, as we were originally hoping.  But that’s okay!  We currently have 4 out of the 6-month emergency fund in place, which is most of the way there.  This will allow us to have a debt-free and worry-free vacation in Hawaii in just a few short weeks.  Before we know it, we will be on to Baby Step 4 of Dave Ramsey’s baby steps!

You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

The phrase, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” goes back to the 1500’s.  All it really means is that there are certain decisions in life in which you cannot realistically have the best of both worlds.

eat-cake

I was having a phone conversation with my sister about finances earlier tonight.  While we were talking about the balance between enjoying life, while also being fiscally responsible, I realized, you can have the best of both worlds.  You can enjoy life and spend money, while also planning for the future.

One area of life in which this becomes very important, is in the raising of children.  The fact is, your kids are only at home for (hopefully) 18 years at the most.  During that time, you want to spend as much quality time with them as possible.  I grew up in Northern Montana, where quality time often meant going out hunting, making up games in the backyard, or helping out my Dad at the local dental office.  There really was not many activities that you could pay for to keep everyone entertained.  The closest movie theater was an hour and a half away.  You get the picture.

However, in most places, including where we live now, we are surrounded by activities that cost money.  A movie theater ticket can be almost 10 bucks.  Halloween activities, including corn mazes, haunted houses, carnivals, all cost money.  So, what do you do?  Do you spend the money and enjoy these activities with your kids, or do you save that money?  One of my co-workers recently explained this problem of prioritization like this, “When you wake up in the morning, you know you need to brush your teeth, put your pants on, and put a shirt on.  Do you stop and ask yourself in the mirror, ‘Which of these is the most important to do before going to work?’  NO!  You do all three of them, because they are all important.”  At least I hope you do.

Given that spending quality time with loved ones is important, and planning your finances wisely is also important, how do you balance the two?  I think one of the most important things, is to have a great budget.  You should budget fun things into your budget.  You should have an amusement category, a restaurant category, etc.  One thing my wife and I did recently was to create shopping budgets not only for the kids, but for us individually.  It has been GREAT!  This month, I used my budget to spruce up my church clothes with a new collared shirt, new ties, and shoe polish, all for less than 50 bucks.  When you spend money on yourself, I think it can help give you confidence and enjoyment.  Who doesn’t like shopping for things they love now and then?  The key here, is to have fun spending money responsibly.  I did not go and buy a $500 suit just because I felt like it.  But I did spend enough to feel good about my appearance.

You may have noticed, that in reaching this balance, I mentioned multiple times the words quality time.  I would argue that some common forms of entertainment (going to the movies, haunted houses, etc.) are not quality time.  How much do you really talk to others when you go to the movies?  I read an interesting article the other day that highlighted the fact that spending quality time with your family can be a much better use of your money than buying material items.  But that does not mean you have to break the bank to do it.

This week, we have had to balance these priorities in our own lives.  Fall Break just started here in Utah, which means the kids have five days off from school.  With 5 young kids, 8-years-old and under, you can imagine the stress my wife feels in trying to entertain them all.  But it can be done.  Some examples of things we will be doing over the break that are relatively inexpensive are: The Fun Center (free w/ season pass), Ice Skating (free during October), Dollar Theater (free w/ season pass), board games, outdoor sports, etc.  Okay, I know I said movies were not quality time, but we are still going.

In summary, I feel like often when people hear that you are focused and determined to reach certain financial goals, one of their initial reactions is “Well, that is good for you, but I am going to enjoy my life and my kids, and not be cheapskate.”  I would suggest it is not one way or the other.  You do not have to spend tons of money on your kids to have a great life.  You can have the best of both worlds.  It may just take a little bit of extra effort and creativity.  Now… back to fall break!