A Zero-Budget Christmas
1: Making Christmas magical with little money
Our first Christmas was spent in a one-bedroom apartment in married student housing. We took a bit of the money Jeff earned from shoveling the sidewalks for the First Congregational Church of Hamilton and headed to the local Target to buy a $39 plastic Christmas tree.
We decorated it with a box of ornaments Jeff’s mother had saved for him through the years, and the ones I had collected because of my love for Christmas. But the only presents under the tree were the ones relatives sent and the bottle of Diet Coke Jeff secretly bought at CVS and wrapped for me.
For the next four years, that red brick apartment building was home. I had two babies in that time, and we took any jobs we could find to make grad school work: Jeff was a teaching assistant; I was a nanny. He shoveled snow and locked up buildings each night for a church; I cleaned houses.
We bought dented cans from the discounted bin at Stop and Shop, and I faithfully dug through piles at the campus thrift store to find clothes for our growing kids. On the day I made an appointment for WIC, I cried.
Still, I almost always loved the challenge of making our budget stretch to fit our needs. We were careful with our money, and because of that, we had everything we needed—and more.
But on Christmas, my mama-heart broke.
No matter how careful we were to save, Christmas was not in the budget.
That was okay when it was just the two of us, and it was even okay when the children were small enough not to know better. But in the years following seminary, when my husband was still working three jobs and our budget wasn’t much bigger, I struggled through the holidays because I wanted so much to make Christmas special for my kids, and it felt nearly impossible to do so.
One year, we had a budget of $10 a kid. Ten bucks. What could I do with ten bucks? They were old enough to feel the difference between a $10 Christmas and the kind their friends got. They were old enough to have wish lists and expectations.
I had expectations.
I crawled into bed that Christmas Eve after doing everything I could to fill stockings with things I’d collected, feeling like I had failed. Even though I had done my best, I felt guilty, like it was my fault I still couldn’t do better for them. I knew they would be so disappointed, and it made me ache.
But I was wrong. My children were never disappointed. In fact, they displayed the same kind of exuberance and gratitude on Christmas morning as I would have expected from a child who had received far more. To this day, they are thrilled to receive homemade gifts, don’t mind a bit if a gift is second-hand, and rarely have wish-lists longer than one or two very reasonable items.
In those hard years, when I thought I was depriving my kids, they were internalizing some very valuable lessons on materialism, gratitude, and the true joy of Christmas. Looking back, I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade that season for anything.
Even now, we keep Christmas simple. It’s much more of a choice these days than it used to be, but the principle stays the same: we don’t need a lot of money to stay within budget and give thoughtfully this year.
Mamas, if this time of year is hard for you because Christmas is not in the budget, my heart goes out to you. I know how hard the struggle can be to give your kids everything they need—and to still fall short this time of year. I know what it’s like to believe that simplicity is good, and yet to feel guilty and inadequate because your kids have to do without…again.
This short series is for you on how to make a magical Christmas on a (nearly) zero budget. In the next few days, I’ll be posting tons of ideas we have gleaned from our thirteen years of “skinny” Christmases. They are all things you can do to give thoughtfully during this season and still stay within budget.
Be forewarned: This is not a series about spending as little as possible (remember, Scrooge was the bad guy); this is about doing the most with what you have so the people in your life feel your thoughtfulness, and you can enjoy this season with your kids and family without feeling a bit inadequate.
I hope you’ll join us, and as always, if you have questions or comments about this series or anything else, please let me know! My goal is to help you choose the better things this season so you can enjoy your family more…even on a zero budget.