A Meaningful Little Christmas
● By Rick McGarry
If you're like most families in America, the approach of the holiday season brings with it the anticipation of a month filled with family togetherness and merry memory making. As each new holiday season arrives, we promise ourselves that we will not repeat the mistakes made in years past: the guilt we feel from overspending, the exhaustion we feel from overbooking, or the constant frustration over kids who misbehave and act ungrateful. As the holiday music starts to play anew each year, we make the same promise to ourselves that this is the year we are going to do things differently. Yet things always seem to stay the same. When your quest to bring a fairy-tale holiday to life makes you feel more like Scrooge than Santa Claus, something's wrong.
Don't despair. If you make your list early and check it twice, it is possible to consciously create the holiday you want. The key to enjoying a really meaningful holiday season with your family is to plan ahead and to do it purposefully. Like anything else, the family time, parties, and bonding you're envisioning don't just happen. They are created by design.
I used to give up sleep, sanity, and anything else I needed to in order to be the perfect wife, mom, hostess, friend or volunteer once the holidays were in my sights. I was determined to do everything just right, and from scratch. The problem is, I was so stressed and frustrated that I couldn't actually enjoy anything, and the people I cared about didn't value all of my trimmings nearly as much as they would have valued my time. I’m not saying that you should shelve the decorations and pitch the holiday cards altogether, though. You just need to know where to focus your attention.
Most families get into trouble in three major areas: finances, time management, and what they do (or don't do) with their kids. Now is the time to start thinking about how you want to handle these responsibilities. The key is to respond, not react, and to remember that it's about cutting out what's extraneous. By having a game plan in place before the madness starts, you'll not only be able to rise above the fray, you'll be able to make the holidays truly meaningful.
Budget in advance. Admit it: You're guilty of spending twice what you should have on your mother's gift to make up for the fact that you didn't visit earlier in the year, or grudgingly shelling out way more than you anticipated for the large number of obligatory gifts on a list that seems to grow with each passing year. Perhaps, like millions of other consumers, you've succumbed to the gorgeous packaging, clever marketing, and can't-pass-them-up deals that stores have to offer this time of year. Before you head out to do your shopping, know what the hard numbers look like, and map out in advance what sort of cash reserve you'll have to dip into. A great way to keep yourself accountable is to put your budgeted Christmas cash on a pre-paid card. You'll watch your budget more carefully and when the money is gone, it's gone. You'll be less tempted to add just one more gift to the pile because of a super sale. If you don't think you have the strength (or willpower) to go it alone, use the buddy system! Have a budget-conscious friend or thrifty family member be your accountability partner. Having someone else in the know when it comes to your budget and holiday spending will make you that much more accountable and less likely to crazy.
Be honest about any financial changes. If you have to downsize your holiday expenses, it's better that you and your family and friends know it now instead of when the credit card bills start rolling in. There's no shame in readjusting the scope of your gifts in order to avoid a sackful of debt. If your loved ones truly care about you, that's the last thing they'll want! And they might be relieved to know that breaking the bank is not this year's expectation.
Think outside the gift box. If you've sat down with your own personal version of Santa's list and a copy of your latest bank statement, pat yourself on the back for a job responsibly done. But don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet. There are other expenses to think about too! And when it comes to the holidays, if you aren't careful, some of the more costly aspects of the season will sneak up on you and your wallet and will leave you paying for it in January. Whether you're feeding your family, bringing a dish to the office potluck, or hosting an event, grocery bills can add up at an alarming rate this time of year. Don't forget about the little extras like the holiday tip for your hair stylist and mail carrier or the gifts for the kids' soccer coach or piano teacher. Those twinkling Christmas lights also give your power bill a boost, so think ahead for the next month's budget. Try to anticipate what you'll need to spend and plan accordingly.
Be realistic. Unless you actually have Santa's magical ability to make it around the world in one night, chances are you aren't going to make it to every party, event, play, performance, and gathering to which you're invited. Instead of over-committing yourself and your family, sit down together before the madness starts, make out a list of priorities, and then schedule accordingly. Do this on a daily basis as well as on a weekly and monthly one!
Start the season early. Most people instinctively try to plan holiday events as close to the actual holiday as possible. That's understandable, but it results in a week-long period of crammed schedules and stressed people. If you start now, you can hold events and make your visits in the first half of December, and you'll probably be able to deck the halls with your friends' and family's thanks!
Aim a bit lower than absolute perfection. If you've ever watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, you know how well Clark Griswold's attempt to have the perfect family holiday turned out. It's funny onscreen, but not so much in real life. Remember that meals are really about company more than food, for example, and that the annual family get-together is more about fellowship and fun than about how impressive your decorations are. With this attitude, you'll make more memories you'll actually want to revisit, and people will enjoy being around you.
Add an hour. If you think you'll be at the company party until 9:30, add an hour. If you think you'll be at Grandma's until lunchtime, add an hour. Everything always takes longer than you think it will, and that's why you're rushing around town like a crazy person. Save yourself the stress, and if by some holiday miracle you do stick to your original schedule, you'll treasure those extra hours.
Reserve some private time. When you're designing your doable holiday schedule, don't forget to leave enough free space for family time and for "you" time. If you're not careful, you might find yourself forgoing the yearly cookie-baking party with your kids and wrapping gifts at 3:00 a.m.
Give them a memorable experience. Instead of showering your kids with a pile of this year's trendy clothes, toys, and electronics (which, let's face it, will probably be collecting dust by the end of the school year), give your kids the gift of a meaningful experience. Chances are, your family will remember an event that reinforces values and makes them feel special.
Don't overstimulate them. These days, the typical kid has more than just visions of sugarplums dancing in his head. He's thinking about toys, movies, video games, vacations, and food. Yes, the holidays are an extravaganza for all five senses, but by regulating what and how much your children receive and do, you'll be doing them a favor. Their attention will be more focused, and they'll be more likely to understand and remember special moments.
Follow a tradition. It's amazing how much kids value and remember family traditions. Unlike anything else, they're a source of fun, they strengthen family bonds, and they form a meaningful link to the past. Whether you're baking cookies, watching a favorite holiday movie, or piling into the car to look at neighborhood lights, don't underestimate the value of time spent together, enjoying each other's company.
Ultimately, if you're trying to cram the holidays and all that they entail and cost into only a few weeks, they'll flop, and you'll flip. You'll be robbing those around you of joy instead of giving it to them. This year, commit to prioritizing and planning purposefully, and start doing it now! As 2013 draws to a close, you might just find that you're a little closer to creating the meaningful holiday season you'd just about given up on ever having.
David Reiser is a senior vice president-wealth management at MorganStanley SmithBarney. He enjoys fine dining, Broadway theatre, and bodysurfing with his four sons at the beach in Amagansett, New York.
Andrea Reiser is a graduate of Boston University College of Communication. Her interests include cooking, live music, fine dining, interior decorating, nonfiction reading, digital photography, blogging, musical theater, and the Boston Red Sox.
They are coauthors of Wealthbuilding: Investment Strategies for Retirement and Estate Planning (Wiley, 2002), and Letters From Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth (Wiley, 2010) ReiserMedia.com
Look for Dave and Andrea's article "Gifting Your Children with Meaningful Experiences" in the November issue of Livingston Parent Journal.