I probably should hold off on posting this until AFTER Christmas when people are starting to line their budget plans out for the following year. But my brain seems to resemble a sieve these days and I'm pretty sure the holes are big enough to drive a Mack truck through them so I'm going to post this here and now before the thought skitters away like that $20 I had in my wallet last week.
Obviously, our budget has been pretty tight these past three years - the uncertainty of MacGyver's work situation has really forced us to cut back on unnecessary spending. We're not *quite* to an austerity budget but we really pared things down and tried our best to focus on what was truly important to us as a family. There's no better place to see that than our Christmas budget. In the past, our budget really wasn't a budget at all. We just kind of bought whatever we felt like buying - slapping it on the credit card and not really worrying about how much we were spending.
We're paying for that now. Dave Ramsey calls it "stupid tax". Yup.
This year, we knew that we really needed to put some limits in place. Not so that we can necessarily save money but so that our children don't have to feel the sting of our tight finances on Christmas Day. I have no problem explaining to them that we will wait for a movie to come out on DVD, rather than see it in the theatre because there are other things to do on any given day other than drop $50 (on TICKETS!) at the movies. But Christmas Day...there's something about Christmas Day and we want to preserve that as much as possible.
Most importantly, we wanted to maintain our tithing and our ability to give gifts to those that are facing tough times. There is nothing better in this life than sharing our abundance. And even in the midst of a tight budget, we are still so abundantly blessed and we feel called to share that with others. Now that our children are older, they grasp the joy and the blessings behind giving to those that would otherwise not have any gifts and I love that we are still able to do that.
Our children really only get 3 gifts from us - that's what Jesus received so that is good enough for our family. There are stocking stuffers and gifts aplenty from extended family and friends so we feel no need to over-indulge our children. That has helped our budget this year. However, our extended family extended significantly with the addition of a niece and a nephew. So we made the decision that gifts for extended family members would be confined to nieces and nephews. I'll probably include a tin of homemade cookies or apple-pumpkin butter or body scrub for the adults in the family but the main gifts will be for the kids.
We will buy for our parents, although none of them have given us anything that resembles a wish list or an idea of their preferences and likes so it's possible that their gifts will contain the words "Hanes" or "Jockey".
We've also decided not to send Christmas cards this year. The postage alone for our list was between $35 and $50, in addition to the cost of the cards, pictures, and/or letter to go along. Besides, in a few months, I'll be sending out 'change of address' cards so we'll count those as Christmas cards. And no real Christmas tree for us this year, either. We'll use our trusty old hand-me-down fakey tree that we bought from friends in Alaska back when MacGyver was a brand new E4, 14 years ago. I may supplement the tree with some cuttings of real trees if I can find some but it's so dry here that I worry about the fire danger. Growing up, I never noticed if our tree was particularly special - I noticed the ornaments. I know no one else cares if my tree is real, fake, pre-lit, or Charlie-Brownish. With the lights on it, it will look beautiful.
As for how we actually budgeted for the holidays this year, my attack was multi-pronged:
1. Amazon gift cards
3. plasma donation
4. spare change
5. budgeted savings
1. Amazon gift cards - Our local grocery store offers fuel points for every dollar you spend at the store. When you buy gift cards, you can earn up to 4x the amount in fuel points. Each month, I budgeted $50 for Christmas and used that to buy gift cards. $50 x 4 = 200 points = $0.20/gallon savings.
2. SwagBucks - For every 450 points I earn on SwagBucks, I can cash in and earn a $5 Amazon gift card. Doesn't sound like much but I earned about $100 this year doing just that! Most of my points these days come from referrals, so feel free to click THIS LINK and join. Basically, you earn points randomly by using their search engine (powered by Google) to search the internet. No cost to join, no commitment. Easy peasy!
3. Plasma donation - This one took me a while. I can't stand needles. And it seemed kind of...skeevy. But I looked into it, read up on what is involved and what the company (CSL) does with the plasma, and decided to check the local CSL out. I was impressed by how clean and efficient the place was. The phlebotomists and techs are all really nice and I'm usually in and out in under 2 hours. I usually earn $15 - $20 (it's based on weight) and I can't beat getting paid to sit and read! The only side effects I've felt is that I'm usually kind of tired afterward but I'm not sure that's the plasma donation or my insomnia.
4. Spare change - I don't usually spend change. I'll break a $1 bill or a $5 bill before I spend change. Then I come home and dump it in my glass jar (there's something satisfying about that 'clink!'). When that is full, I take it to the local grocery store and dump it into their machine and walk away with my Amazon gift card (no fee if you choose this option!). MacGyver and I started doing this when we were starving college students as a way to afford our anniversary dinner. Yay for good habits! My goal is to get to the point where I'm saving $1 bills too.
5. Budgeted savings - In addition to the money I budget for the Amazon gift cards, I also budgeted directly for Christmas cash savings. When we moved from Hawaii to Kansas, we took advantage of the Army's 'interest-free pay advance'. Basically, you can take an advance on your base pay and then you have 12 months to pay it off (they take it directly out of your paycheck) with zero percent interest. We used that to knock down a small bill that the pay advance would cover. Once the repayment was done, I simply diverted that amount directly into savings each month. I ear-marked it specifically for the holidays - whether it is needed for Christmas gifts, food, giving something like the Angel Tree...it's there and I don't have to tap into another part of our budget if a need arises. Should we get to the end of the holidays and I find I've not spent it all, it will either sit in savings or I'll throw it at the credit card balance (see "Stupid Tax" above).
I just finished up on Amazon.com. I went through eBates to buy on Amazon, earning about 4% of my purchase in cash back. I didn't score any 'killer deals' (there wasn't a single thing advertised for Black Friday this year that made it worth my time to get out of bed at that hour, go out in the cold, and deal with stupid people...) but the prices on Amazon.com beat the prices I'd researched elsewhere (i.e. Lego.com) and the free shipping (yay Amazon Prime!) and cash back via eBates really helped keep me under budget. I still have a few bucks left in my gift card balance so those will hang out until next Christmas or I'll use them to buy school stuff.
This will be the first year since I turned 18 that I will not use my credit card to purchase Christmas gifts. It feels pretty good. It will feel even better when I pay those infernal things off and cut them up. I can't wait to call into Dave Ramsey and scream "FREEDOM!!!".
How did you budget for Christmas? Did you scale back? Or is this year a 'good year' for you? I'm hoping that next year, our budget will be a bit more relaxed. We'll see.