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Transcript

Holiday Spending

With Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Business Columnist
Wednesday, December 3, 2003; 1:00 PM

The holiday season is rapidly approaching and many consumers are flocking to the malls to shop. But without a budget and a few tips on contolling your spending, you may find yourself getting burieddeeper and deeper in the red. Join personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary on Wednesday, Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss how to limit your holiday spending and quell your urge to overspend.

Watch the Video

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Michelle Singletary: Hello everyone. I'm so glad you're here and ready to talk about your holiday shopping and spending. If you haven't seen my holiday shopping video please take a look at it (after the chat of course). Despite what some people might think this is one of my favorite times of year. I love what this holiday means and how it really makes (or should) people stop and take stock of what is truly valuable in their lives. I just hope to remind people this season isn't about the presents but your presence!

So let's get started.

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Bethesda, Md.: Michelle-
What in your opinion is an appropriate amount of money to spend for each person on my holiday shopping list?

Michelle Singletary: Well, I really don't have an opinion on what is an appropriate amount on YOUR list. I'm not trying to be coy but the point is YOU have to decide what you can AFFORD. I know I recently recommended people read "Hundred Dollar Holiday" in which Bill McKibben suggested people limit their spending to just $100 but even McKibben said that was just a recommendation and a starting place. Really think about how much in total you can spend and then make that number fit into the number of people you have to buy for. Don't do it the other way around...make a list and assign a price to each person. You might spend $25 on grandmom and just $5 on a baby (I mean really babies aren't even sure where their toes are so why spend a ton on them:)See what I mean? Set a budget first and then see what you can buy for each person within that budget.

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Washington, D.C.: Michelle-
I'm trying to get creative this year since I don't have a lot of money to spend. But, I don't want to be chinchy. Do you have any ideas about gifts for coworkers, long-distance family?

Michelle Singletary: First, let's clean up your language. Don't say chinchy. Really I'm getting sick and tired of people saying I don't want to be "cheap" at Christmas. If you didn't have any money and couldn't give any gifts is that being cheap? If you have debt you're barely paying or you're not saving or you know you're struggling is it cheap or chinchy to skip buying something for a long-distance relative? Just say NO! For co-workers how about a really nice card (from the dollar store or one you make yourself on the computer--with your own paper not the paper from work). How about making a nice cake for Christmas and brining it into work. Or if your funds are low just pull aside the people at work you care about and say "I'm really trying to scale back do you mind if we don't exchange gifts this year? For long-distance relatives try a nice card or try to think of something they might like since you don't see them often. For example, for neices or nephews how about taping yourself reading their favorite books? See where I'm going?

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Frederick, Md.: Michelle,
Many folks shopping for the holidays have extended families, children from a prior marriage etc. How do you find an equitable way to include everyone and not go broke?

Kristin

Michelle Singletary: Repeat after me -- Life isn't fair. Everything doesn't have to be equal! I don't have to go broke buying for everyone.

You can't include everyone and not go broke if you're near broke know. Even Bill Gates has to set limits. I just read a news story that Peabo Bryson is broke and the IRS is going to sell his two Grammys. How sad. Now use this news to get a grip on your holiday shopping and spending. When I do my list I keep it short and sweet. Distance relatives, previous children from previous relationships get a telephone call to remind them how much I care. If I can afford it and it's in my budget I send them a little somethin somethin...like children I buy inexpensive books, adults I may go to the bargain book bin at the bookstore and look for books on topics they like. For $10 you can put together a nice little basket with needed stuff from the dollar store (like nail clippers, fingernail polish, foot buffers etc.)

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Credit cards: Ok, confession first - I just can't do a $100 total Christmas. But I do watch what I spend. Yes, I use a credit card rather than carry wads of cash or writing multiple checks. But, am I the last person in the universe that only uses the card such that I pay the entire balance off the day I get the bill? And yes, this is a way of life we are pounding into our kid's heads.

Michelle Singletary: Good for you. I'm proud.

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Washington, D.C.: Michelle,

I have noticed that most of the people that overspend, know full well that they should not be buying the things that they are purchasing. It is almost like an addiction. What do you suggest for people who just can not seem to stop themselves?

Michelle Singletary: Get help. Talk to someone. Get a thrifty friend. Really, if this is a real problem then the person should talk to a professional.

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Frostburg, Md.: Loved your video. I always fall for the 2 for 1 deals. Figure I can find a use for the second pair. Anyhow, there's not much shopping around where I live. Do you have recommendations for great online shopping sites?

Michelle Singletary: I like the home shopping network (hsn.com). I also like to see what Target and Wal-Mart have especially in the book department. Mostly, I think of what I want to buy and then just type it in the search engine and see what comes up. But watch the shipping and handling which can really jack up the price on online stuff.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,
I am considering ending receiving Christmas presents. I have money to buy what I want, and the commercialism and hype of Christmas really bothers me.
Instead, I would like the givers to donate money to certain charities I have selected.
How do I inform people of my wishes?
(P.S. This would be for 2004)

Michelle Singletary: Inform them of your wishes. As Christmas 2004 approaches (say in Sept. or Oct.) send people a nice card explaining your concerns and wishes. But don't be offended if people would rather not do what you say. But really just tell them.

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Alexandria, Va.: First, Ann Landers column 2 days ago was about gifts with 'no' cost -- gift certificates to wash windows, cut grass, take someone shopping -- basically giving your time.

I start my 'shopping' in August or September by getting things like jarred candles 3/$10, inexpensive gift bags with shredded tissue paper and a bow. This is 3 gifts for $15. Buying 6 or 8 boxes of candy when it's on sale for half price at CVS or Rite Aid. These are for the trash collector, newspaper delivery person, cleaning people in my office.

Now, my questions: 1. If I make charitable contributions and give the gift card from the charity with a token gift, should I feel any guilt about taking the contribution as a tax deduction? 2. I've loaned 2 friends some money ($2500 and $5000). Unlikely to get much if any of it back. Is it tacky to give them a 'credit' to reduce the amount of the loan as a gift?

Michelle Singletary: Okay lots of stuff here. I think the way you shop is fine. My Godmother shops for Christmas all year around just like you do.

Now, question one...if you are allowed to take the tax break, take the tax break and don't feel guilty.

Q 2: Loans to friends. Ask for your money. If wasn't a gift. You need to let them know that you expect your money back. Don't mix lending money with gift giving. Too many feelings are liabel to get hurt. Now if you don't feel like giving them a gift that I can understand. But give them a chance to pay you back.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle! I finally did it--I put out the word to extended family that I didn't want gifts, just cards. I think they were relieved! We don't need to exchange $20 gift cards?! Now we just keep the $20 for ourselves and chill out. Also, I am always the first in the office to state publicly that I don't believe in exchanging gifts with all co-workers--I just arrange a happy hour or lunch instead. Less stressful and cheaper! Plus, i always feel like my co-workers are grateful that someone had the guts to say it!

Happy holidays!

Michelle Singletary: Now you are my kind of person. Wear your frugality proudly. And you are right. Most people are relieved when some brave soul speaks up and says "Enough."

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Michelle -- This is making me crazy to even think about this -- but my bad holiday spending habit is to over-spend at the last minute. I buy all the gifts I need to buy, all within my budget -- and then I think of better ideas, or more stuff. That's when the budget gets lost by the wayside. I realize self control is the answer -- but how the heck do you do that when you're caught up in the season?

Michelle Singletary: Okay, so who is dragging you to the mall, making you spend money you know you don't have after you've already finished your holiday shopping?
Give me the monster's number so I can fuss him or her out.

Oh, it's you. Well then DON'T GO SHOPPING WHEN YOU'RE DONE! Yes, I'm shouting. Please, stop the maddness. Read last months book selection. Go visit friends. Go help out at a soup kitchen or volunteer to help others. Try to find ways to occupy your time that doesn't result in your pulling out your credit cards or wads of cash. Better yet find your credit card statements from last year when you overspent. Now tape them to your wallet as a reminder not to overspend.

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For the lady not wanting presents: I don't think there is a polite way to give someone a list of charities and basically demand that your gift be a donation to one of them. If someone asks, maybe; but unsolicited gift-giving advice from the recipient has always left me cold. Why not just announce that you are right-sizing your lifestyle and trying to get rid of stuff so you would much prefer non-material things like a donation in your name or just some time with the gift-giver (would -be).

Michelle Singletary: I don't think the person said they would "demand" people give gifts to their charity of choice. But I do think it's okay to say: "If you don'd mind I would rather not receive any gifts. If you still want to give me something here are the names of some charties that I like to support. Thank you and have a blessed holiday."

Nothing in that is disrepectful or would leave me cold.

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MD: suggestions for reducing the monetary (and emotional) cost of Christmas:
1. Why do you think about gifts for co-workers? If they are ALSO friends, then maybe. but co-workers? come on. bring in something for the holiday party and be done with it. Exception: I have an admin who makes my life easier - she gets something. But that's because I really do appreciate how much she does for me. And I DO tell her that too.
2. "Generic" gifts for people you WANT to give something too . . . if you can bake, get some cheap tins from the dollar store and go to town on cookies. Everyone loves homemade cookies, fudge, etc.
3. Buy gifts for people only when you know they would like a particular thing, you know you can afford it, and you want to give it.
4. The whole "it's the thought that counts" is nonsense. Don't wrap up any old type of thing and expect people to love it. Spend ENERGY and THOUGHT before you spend CASH. It will make it go a lot further. Personally, I'm sad to receive gifts from someone who felt obligated to get me something.

Michelle Singletary: I was with you all the way until your last point. It s always the thought that counts. As a gift receiver you should ALWAYS be grateful no matter what it is --even if it is a lump of dirt. Say thank you and trash them in your head or with your husband/wife later. At least they thought enough to wrap up any old type of thing. We have no idea about people's gift giving motivation. Maybe the gift is a regift or something they no longer need and thought you might need. But whatever it is or the reason smile and say thank you.

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Washington, DC: Now, I'm all for getting a bargain on things, especially when it comes to all the holiday spending, but I wonder what your take on "responsible" shopping is. (I wonder if I just made that term up)
While it's not always easy or even possible to do so these days, I'll gladly pay more for something made in a country where I'm pretty sure the workers have decent wages, safe working conditions, health insurance, etc. Do all your shopping at Wal-Mart and you can pretty much guarantee that won't happen.

Now, I'm all for free trade and such provided all people are treated fairly, and I wonder what your take on this is. thanks!;

Michelle Singletary: I think you have a wonderful take. I should do that more often. I use to look for labels that said "made in the USA" to support my fellow Americans. I think we all should pay more attention to where and how the things we buy are made. Good for you!

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Gifts for co-workers and distant relatives etc.: I understand the need to save money but I am tired of all of the cheap gift ideas. Why not move away from gifts altogether? I don't need anymore little candles, bath salts and homemade soap!; I know people want to do something but I just don't want to have to respond in kind and don't want to have to keep little gifts around that I don't need.

As the one poster said, co-workers will be relieved and distant relatives and kids will get over it if they are not filled with relief too.

I find that little food boxes work well when you really want to do something for a large number of people and keep it cheap. And so many people are skipping actually taking the time to bake/cook and have fun doing it to trudge through a mall. Best of all, it is almost instantly consumed (I am guessing that depends on what you cook) so people are stuck with more clutter!;

Michelle Singletary: Okay, there goes that word again "cheap." Please people be gracious. If you don't want any gifts say that but why trash people for trying to give what they can afford. If you don't want the candles, soap etc. then put the items together in a gift basket and give them away to folks who might actually need soap etc. like people living on the streets or in shelters.

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Arlington, VA: Hi Michelle,

I'm all in favor of scaling back the holidays to what you can afford and keeping the important things in mind.

But let's not forget: An inexpensive unwanted gift is still an unwanted gift. Please, everyone giving homemade soaps and candles--look around the house of your recipients. See any candles? If not, they're unlikely to use yours. Check the closets: how many mismatched bars of soap are sitting there from holidays gone by? Cookies are not good gifts for people on diets. A "gift of time" is not a good present for someone holding down 2 jobs and going to school--THEY don't have time!; Doing something free with someone is not a "gift"--it's nice, but you're supposed to want to spend time with them anyway!; Taking someone out to dinner is a lovely gift, but keep in mind it can cost more than buying them something. (you have to pay for 2 dinners!;) Giving to charity on behalf of someone who doesn't take an interest in charitable causes is more like a moral comment on their values than a present.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for scaling back the gift lists and finding inexpensive and creative ways to celebrate. It really IS the thought that counts, and you need to think about each recipient and what THEY would appreciate, not throw everyone in the same craft-project bucket. I would much prefer a nice card than yet another bar of soap.

Michelle Singletary: A gift is a gift. You may not want it but it's still a GIFT.

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"Cheap" gifts, VA: I am not cheap in the least, but I like the idea of creativity. Make personalized baskets for people. Baskets and colorful cellophane are inexpensive. Do a "tea" theme for the chicks, "junk food" for the guys. A mug or a fancy can opener for keepsakes. Blockbuster coupons and popcorn for a teenager. Face it, most people have enough "stuff" already. Small basket of homemade cookies, etc for co-workers. Coupons for babysitting or other chores (painting, gardening, dinner and a movie?) seem corny, but us overworked people love them. (just hope everyone does not "cash" them in at the same time). All of these things take more time than a trip to the mall, but I think they are better than another candle or houseplant.

Michelle Singletary: Right on!

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Washington, D.C.: I wanted to let you know I am having the best time cutting back my spending this year!

I'm surprised at how easy it is. I've gotten in touch with my family to let them know that they are blessings in my life and that I really don't need many gifts to celebrate this season. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with people also cutting back their gift lists and telling me how much they appreciate others in their life.

My initial motives were to cut down on the amount of "stuff" I receive yearly (and then up donating to Goodwill the following year anyway), but I've gotten so much more in return.

It's given me a chance to take those emotions I would have put into worrying whether I was spending too much or too little (what if I buy someone a decorative candle and they buy me a cashmere sweater?) and put it into really connecting with the people I was trying to impress with my gifts.

It also is helping me deepen my spiritual connection because instead of spending several days per week at the mall searching for the perfect gift, I am spending it in a faith-sharing group (I'm Catholic) reflecting upon this Advent season, and enjoying some time to relax.

Now it's true, I don't have children who are pressuring me for the latest gadget, so maybe my time is easier than most. But I wouldn't have known how much I would get out of this unless I had tried!

Michelle Singletary: Bless you. See folks this scaling back does work. Have courage and put away the cash and credit cards.

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Washington, D.C.: Michelle -- We have several relatives who love to get gift cards for their favorite stores -- so they can pick their own gifts. We also like getting gift cards -- or gifts -- or gifts for charity -- or thoughtful notes. However, last year, we basically ended up exchanging gift cards with several people -- i.e., I give a $25 gift card to my sister-in-law for Old Navy and she gives me a $25 gift card for Banana Republic. Multiply that by 6 sets of people and it gets pretty silly. We discussed gift cards over Thanksgiving - -and everyone else likes them and wants them, so agreeing not to spend doesn't seem to be an option this year. Any advice on how to get out of this cycle next year?

Michelle Singletary: Jump off. Just jump. Be bold. You're grown. Do what you want. Give the gift you want to give and maybe they will get the message. But I would warn them in a very, very nice letter that you no longer plan to do the gift card thang.

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My friends fun idea: I had a friend email me this morning and say that instead of buying into all of the commercialism of christmas we should all give each other gifts worth exactly $1.54-$1.64. Then we can get enough for all of our friends and have the challenge of finding something really interesting. More thought, less money.

Apparently the rule is no pennies just to top it off, gumballs OK, pennies not OK...

Michelle Singletary: Interesting. Love the idea. Let me know how it turns out. E-mail me at singletarym@washpost.com

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"cheap" gifts: My friends and I finally figured out a way to express our love for each other without buying more sweaters/books/lotion. We make an extra effort to spend the day together - food, movie, museum we always talk about going to, ice skating. Much more fun and enjoyable.

Michelle Singletary: Time -- now that is a priceless gift.

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homemade gift suggestions: Though I admit I love and can afford holiday shopping, this year I'm going to scale back and make some inexpensive homemade gifts I found just by searching the internet: chocolate/pistachio "bark", cookie mix(mix dry ingredients in a jar with a tag of directions), flax/lavender eye pillows, etc. Those gifts I do buy will be from a Tibetan fair trade store, Ten Thousand Villagers, or local crafters. (Ok, so I may peek in Best Buy for my hubby. Shhh!;)

Michelle Singletary: You go girl. Did I mention I love chocolate?

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Gifts for co-workers and distant relatives etc. (#2): I don't want to call anyone cheap. I am just saying that maybe the best way to save during the holidays is to really pare down the gift list in terms of recipients instead of finding low-cost gifts for all and sundry. I do try to appreciate every gift that I get but there are times when I would prefer that someone save their money (or spend it on someone they are really close to) than get me a generic gift. I think a card with a sincere note is one of the better gifts you can get!;

Michelle Singletary: We're on the same page my dear.

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Lanham, MD: Let's try inexpensive instead of cheap. Also giving baked goods is a great idea, especially if you have children. My almost 3 year old LOVES to help me make cookies, cakes, and pies.

Michelle Singletary: Exactly.

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Maryland: on charitable giving . . .
1. if you give in someone else's name, I don't think you CAN take the tax deduction. It is THEIR donation. check with the IRS.
2. PErsonally, I think the idea of giving a donation on someone else's behalf as a gift to that person is the height of humbug. First of all, you are giving to a charity of YOUR choice, not the recipient's. And then to call it a gift to that person? I just don't see it. Not to mention wanting to take the tax deduction. I am all for supporting charities, but do it anonymously - don't go yelling to the world (via the gift announcement) that you are a good person and gave money to charity.

Michelle Singletary: I'm not sure about the tax deduction. So you are right check with the IRS.

But I think you are wrong about gifts to charities. If someone says I would prefer you not give me a gift and instead if you must give to someone who really needs it. That is not humbug and I would be very grateful. And the point is to give to the charity they would support.

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Lake Ridge, VA: Hi Michelle!;
My husband and I have 3 nieces/nephews under age 4, living in TX. ALL THREE have birthdays in December!; That plus Christmas gets to be quite a bit. These kids have every toy and book they could want, so at first we were just sending really cute cards. However, their parents were hurt that we weren't sending gifts, so now we feel like we have to. What to send to kids who have everything!;? (I hate it when family members guilt each other!; or are we being stingy??)

Michelle Singletary: You're not stingy. I have a rule. Any person who is too young to remember anything until they get oh about 8 or so doesn't get much from me if they already have a lot. Let their mama and daddy go broke spoiling them. Be strong and remember nobody can guilt trip you. You LET them guilt trip you. Just ask yourself are you loving to them? Do you call? Do you ask that they visit and you spend time with them? That's what is important. My favorite aunt and uncle who live in Philly are my favorite aunt and uncle not because of what they have given me over the years (which isn't much) but because when I visit them it is the warmest, safest, most loving environment I've ever been in. That's what I keep dear.

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Re: a gift is a gift: Michelle,

Of course as gift recipients we should graciously say thank you to whatever comes our way.

But as gift-givers, even of limited means, a gift should be an attempt, at least, at something recipient will actually enjoy, selected with the individual in mind. I think it's a shame when scaling down the budget turns into "making the same thing for everyone I know regardless of their personal preferences"

Michelle Singletary: Guess we have to agree to disagree. I really don't think people who are making cookies or soap are saying to themselves: :I know they hate cookies and soap and yet I'm going to make them anyway and give it to them just to show them." Please. People do what they can and hope people will like it. And nowhere have I ever said give people what you know they won't like.

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Virginia: Wow - Now I am worried. I give an annual holiday party and like to send guests home with a small gift. Money is short this year so I scaled back the party and decided to make some small holiday themed soaps - but now I'm afraid too! I thought it was a nice gesture all these years to give a small gift to everyone who came - but it sounds like since I didn't personalize it for all 50+ attendees they don't want it! Tough crowd!

Michelle Singletary: Please, give your soap and let the ingrates be ingrates. Did I mention I like soap :)

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Anytown: For those of use who would like to give home-made gifts, here are some great ideas that I have either given, received, or heard about: "cookies in a jar" (layer the ingredients and give with instructions for cooking), bath salts, bulb-forcing kits (use paperwhite narcissus), homemade stationary and stamps, pictures and frames, "your favorite recipe" books, and vanilla extract (vanilla bean and rum in a jar). Also, shop garage or estate sales for gently used kids toys and books and other treasures.

Michelle Singletary: Love this!

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washingtonpost.com: Video: Holiday Shopping Tips

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Baltimore, MD: Michelle, I just wanted to thank you for doing this chat-- I really enjoyed the "Hundred Dollar Holiday" discussion, as well. This year I'm really concentrating on getting out of debt, and have firmly scaled back my holiday spending, which in years past has been excessive. I've asked my brother and his wife if we can discontinue present-giving between ourselves. I'd like us to focus instead on getting a few nice things for their kids, but putting more money into their college funds.

Michelle Singletary: You are so welcome.

Listen, folks I know I've been a very smarty pants this chat but you should see the mail I get. People are hurting financially and I want to be the person to say STOP IT. Give what you can. Make soap if that's all you can afford. Don't call people cheap for going to the dollar store and giving you yet another candle. Give time even to many who don't have time themselves. An overwork student or mom (dad) or worker might like it if you sent over a meal ready for them when they came home. And if you like giving gifts and have the money to do so I'm not telling you don't give.

All I'm saying is understand when someone can't do the same for you. If you're the relative of kids mad that your sister, brother, grandmother didn't send a gift shame on you. Gifts are gifts not requirements. Love them anyway.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle - Great chat with wonderful advice.

Question: My family is traveling to visit my dad's side of the family is the mid-west. My dad thinks everyone we are going to visit deserves a gift! That's gifts for well over 15 people and I think the spending for the gifts could get real out of hand - not to mention all the money we are spending on plane tickets, car rentals, and hotel rooms. I am on a serious "saving for a rainy day and house budget" and just do not have the much disposible income to. Do you think it would be appropriate to show up at Christmas time without bearing ANY gifts for the extended family? If so, what type of gifts do you suggest?

Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: I say you dad, however well intentioned, is wrong. Just showing up is a gift. If you feel compelled then read some of the low-cost gift ideas on this chat. Maybe you could take some holiday cookies although based on this chat I wouldn't take SOAP! But no I wouldn't worry about buying for so many if you don't have the money.

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Arlington, VA: Charitable contributions -- Michelle isn't going to like this -- but I buy a gift of reasonable price and then make a charitable contribution for more than I would just for myself and include the 'gift' card with the 'real' gift.

Michelle Singletary: Hey if that works for you what's to hate.

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Good idea that works in my family: This could work for the gift card family and some other people with large extended families.

We each bring a generic gift of $30 value (or around that - some people cheat by going over as there is pride in having brought the most popular gift). Then we draw numbers and the first person selects a wrapped gift. Then #2 can either unwrap another gift or steal #1's gift in which case #1 then has to unwrap another gift. Then #3 can take #1 or #2's gift or unwrap. It goes down the line until the last person steals someones gift and they have to unwrap the last gift. It makes shopping fun because you only have to buy the one gift and it allows us to spend a good 3 hours together playing this game, stealing each others' gifts, arguing about the rules. Plus it cuts down on about 15-20 gifts that you have to but so it is really nice!;

I could see this working well with gift cards - you could just wrap them all up and see who ends up with all of the different stores.

And if you do end up wtih something you hate, at least its not 15 things you hate and you had fun doing it.

Michelle Singletary: Sounds interesting.

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tysons corner: this year I'm not exchanging gifts with a few people. It is amazing how just saying why don't we take this year off is such a relief. Of course its hard to start the conversation but I recommend it.

I have given homemade baked goods for a year to a family member and it was a big hit!; Although I don't know if I spent more that year doing all that baking versus what I would have spent at christmas time on him. But it did help me to split the giving up.

I think the important thing is to echo what you said Michelle that you should do what you can afford.

Jen

Michelle Singletary: Amen!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,

Great chat. I just wanted to add a little perspective from the other side of the cash register. I have a second, part-time job in a local mall store and am working my 13th christmas there. We are known for our customer service and I think we take pretty good care of our customers regardless of their shopping budget. However, it would be great if customers could remember that just about everyone is shopping this time of year. There are lines, there is confusion and they may have to wait. If they see something in our catalog, they should BRING the catalog with them so we can see exactly what they want (not everything is available in the stores). Please keep your telephone questions short and too the point. I am happy to help you on the phone but for every phone call I get, I have multiple customers waiting in my store. Finally, they need to remember that we sell out of things. Don't yell at me because something is out of stock.

thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Good points. People be nice!

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No. Va.: I tried to suggest (politely - I know it is generally bad to ask for money!;) to my parents that instead of an overpriced gift for my daughter, plus shipping, they give us the money instead so we could put it in her college fund - -especially- this year when she is very young and doesn't know the difference. No deal - we got the present instead. How do you convey the message to people that more stuff just isn't wanted? I thought this would be a good alternative for them, because they do want to spend some money.

Michelle Singletary: You suggested. They ignored. Not much else you can do. It's their money and their gift.

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Washington, DC: What are your thoughts on tipping at Christmas? I have friends in NY that say it's a given that the tip to the building doorman is one months rent!; Do you include this sort of custom in your plans for the holidays, or just consider it an end of year expense?

Michelle Singletary: I say NY folks are crazy or rich -- one month's rent? And you really don't want to get me started on tipping.

Seriously, my husband and I do tip people who do work for us and other service people. Again, as with Christmas gifts tip what you afford.

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Arlington, VA: Michelle - For our nephews (3yrs old and a new baby), we decided to stop giving them presents. We will give them some stickers, or crayons, or something SMALL. Then, we just give them a savings bond, which you can get for any amount of money. Kids are just as happy with something small, plus we are giving them something they will really appreciate down the road.

Michelle Singletary: You saw what I wrote. If they can't recite the Gettsyburg Address they get a sticker or something very small and inexpensive :)

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Reston, VA: Well, my mother called and asked what I want for Christmas this year. I told her I actually am not wanting anything in particular but really would like her to say some prayers for me and my new baby. She was annoyed and insisted that I tell her what to buy as a gift. Sigh...I tried but not everyone is on the same page this year. I ended up blurting out "a coffeemaker?" off the top of my head to appease her. I think you're right - in the end, it's a GIFT. As recipients, being gracious may be the only thing left to do if the giver isn't on the same page.

Michelle Singletary: That's all I'm trying to say.

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Washington, DC: Some friends of mine hold a white elephant party each January where we donate our worst Christmas present and get another in return (it's a complicated - but fun - process for determining who gets what gift!;)

Some of the re-gifts are great, at least to others, and some of them are horrible to most people and that's what makes it fun. People usually leave with something they like more or is more useful than they came with, and it's a good chance to de-clutter a little bit.

Michelle Singletary: Hey, I like this as long as nobody who gave a white elephant is at the party and gets offended.

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Creative vs. Cheap: I recently read somewhere about someone who was going to make holiday gifts but didn't want to look cheap. They were asked to think back on a homemade gift they received were asked if their first reaction was, "Wow, that's cheap" or "Oh, how lovely!;" Spending time on something thoughtful is infinitely more valuable than some you bought just to buy something. People love food--in my family, baking someone something was special. That's what I plan to do for a lot of my gifts this year.

Michelle Singletary: I agree.

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Crofton, MD: We've never been big Christmas spenders and as the years go by, I find that my family like the small, thoughtful gifts than expensive but oddly generic gifts. For example, last year I found a tiny old black-and-white photo (1x2?) of my sister and me. I blew it up to 4x6, framed it and gave it to my parents for Christmas. I also gave the same picture to my sister. It didn't cost much but they seemed to like it much more than "designer" soap or other knick-knacks I've given them.

This year, I'm giving all my nieces and nephews one Christmas tree ornament, wrapped up in a zippered pyramid I sew to hold the ornament. Maybe this will be a continuing thing, so by the time they leave home, they'll have at least some ornaments for their own tree.

Michelle Singletary: What a lovely idea.

Well, folks I've got to run. Thanks for all the questions and I do hope I didn't fuss too much. I do have a wicked sense of humor. Anyway, to all (even the people who disagreed with me) I just want to say thanks for a very spirited discussion. I do appreciate the comments. It's healthy to talk about this. Most of all always be honest when it comes to your finances. Trust me if you are you will have a much happier holiday.

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