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Color of Money Live With Michelle Singletary
Staying Out of Holiday Debt

Tuesday, December 21, 1999 at 2 p.m.

Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary

If it's Christmas it must be time to shop. Unfortunately, thousands of people will load up on debt to buy just the right present for a family member or friend. Have we become so obsessed with shopping and buying during this time of year that we've forgotten that the most precious gifts in life often aren't found at the local mall? What are the best holiday gifts you've gotten or gave that didn't cost a dime? Have you found ways to cut your Christmas budget? Stop in and share your questions and comments.

Lorton, Va.: I love your column. I heard you last night on WHUR & I can appreciate setting a budget for gifts. I have a small family & a large extended family. In times past, I bought gifts for my family & my extended family. I realized I couldn't do it. Now, I set a budget for my family & just buy small gifts for the children. This year I plan to follow what my aunt did last year, in lieu of buying everyone in the extended family gifts -- make a donation to the family scholarship fund! Luckily, my family does not make a big deal out of Christmas. We just enjoy one another's company.

Michelle Singletary: Welcome and Happy Holidays. I was just like you once. During most of the year I'm as cheap as you can get but when Christmas rolled around I just wanted to give to everybody. I would be in the store Christmas Eve getting gifts for people I had just met that week. I was crazy with the spirit of giving. But by January when the bills came rolling in I would just get depressed. Now, I set a budget and stick to it.
And, I just love the idea of a family scholarship fund. You must e-mail more about it (singletarym@washpost.com)

Clinton, Md.: Michelle,
I'm a single mother of 5 teenagers. They have most of the things the want and I try to do a little more every time I can. They seem to understand that I'm not Bill Gates, but they expect to recieve a Christmas list full of clothes. How do I get them to accept the fact that after Christmas is the best time to shop for clothes.

Michelle Singletary: I can appreciate your dilemna. But it's important to stand your ground. Buy what you can and just ignore their whimpers. You've got the wallet and therefore all the control. Especially as a single mother of 5 teenagers if you listen to them all the time I'm sure they would have you buying $90 sweatshirts and $100 sneakers. They don't need to accept anything other than you the boss with the job!

Columbia, Md.: While i appreciate the sentiments expressed in your column, isn't there a difference between giving or receiving a heartfelt gift that may not cost a lot and just plain cheapness? the examples you wrote about were inspired by love and not by a desire to save money?

Michelle Singletary: Why is cheap such a dirty word? I happen to think that people who recognize their financial limitations aren't being just cheap but smart. Many of the examples I mentioned were out of a desire to give and save money. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive. It's out of love that you tell someone I can't afford a lot but here's what I can give -- like the little drummer boy in the Christmas song. Now, on the other hand don't buy me "cheap" or a poorly made gift. It's possible to find nice items or make things that fit your budget. I think the message for all of us is to know what you can afford and then give with all the love you can muster.

Takoma Park, Md.: I'd like to share my Christmas story. My first Christmas in grad school, I shopped 4 months for my family's presents. In thrift stores, craft sales, bargain shopped all the way. They each had a big bag of gifts chosen with them in mind -example: beautiful print of a cathedral in Paris for my sister. They all insisted I must have spent too much money, I shouldn't have, etc.

The next year I was not as organized and spent too much. In fact, in 3 years of grad school I ran up a lot of credit card debt. It took me 5 years to pay it all off.

I'm now debt free and plan to stay that way. My number one tip for the holidays: don't shop. Don't visit the mall. Make a gift certificate yourself. Buy a "family gift" of a game rather than individual gifts.

It can be done.

Michelle Singletary: I couldn't agree more with your idea of cutting back visits to the mall. This season I've been in the stores just twice mostly because I'm weak and have two small children. Remember the merchants wait for us all year long. This is the time of year when they ring in an enormous amount of sales. They know how to get us to spend. So, it's only fair that we find ways to defend ourselves against overspending. One way is to not shop for entertainment. I don't go to the mall, espeically at this time of year, without a specific purchase in mind. I don't hang out at the malls anymore. And, when you go limit your time there. Set a deadline to get out otherwise you will find yourself buying more than you had intended. It also helps to take a friend you is very budget-minded. I have one like that and I love shopping with her because she always asks "now, do you really need that." She stopped me from buying a $20 alarm clock for my 4-year-old. "You're her alarm clock," she joked. I promptly put the toy clock back.

Baltimore, Md.: When i was young, i used to believe that santa claus was the spirit that moved my parents to buy presents they refused to buy the rest of the year. i still sort of feel that way. what's so terrible about going out on a financial limb on one day of the year in order to make your loved ones happy?

Michelle Singletary: The problem with that limb is that it breaks and then you find yourself on the ground with a huge financial bruise, if you're lucky. Some folks go out on that limb and get seriously hurt, ruining their credit. According to some debt counseloring organziations, some folks spend so much during the holidays that it takes them 6 months to recover. I can't imagine your loved ones would want that in exchange for a gold watch (and if they do, how much could they really love you). I'm not trying to be a Grinch. I love the holiday season and the spirit of giving but not when it means putting yourself in financial jeopardy. I mean how smart is it to spend several hundred dollars at Christmas when you have creditors calling or stacks of bills that need to be paid. Love means putting that credit card away and telling your love ones you love them.

I like the idea of buying ONE toy and ONE toy only for your child and then donating another new toy to Toys for Tots or another such drive. Most of our kids have WAY TOO MUCH STUFF and are so overwhelmed with it that they can't possibly enjoy it all. We do them a favor by showing them that there can be joy in buying for others. I think you can do this with older children especially -e.g. the teenagers wanting piles of clothes- and encourage them to look beyond themselves at the holidays, instead choosing a sweater or new pair of shoes for someone who really does need them.

Michelle Singletary: While I agree with your sentiment, I think each family has to decide what method of giving works best for them. For those fortune enough to have the money one gift might be too little. For others one figt might even be a stretch.
But you are right that many kids are just overwhelmed with "stuff." And, many more of us should think about donating that stuff (new and old) to other children who have less. I do think it's a good idea to help your kids pick out a gift to give away to a needy child. Right now, I'm going through the toy bins in my kid's room and picking out nice but unplayed with toys to give away. I think we could all scale back, especially when it comes to the stuff we give our kids.

Ellicott City, Md.: i think you're on target about shopping wisely, limiting spending, not accumulating debt, etc. at the same time, i wonder how much of that philosophy is a carry-over from the "me" first attitude of the reagan years? wouldn't an earlier generation, while recognizing the value of thrift, have put greater emphasis on giving?

Michelle Singletary: When I think of an earlier generation I think always first of my grandmother, who gave the most when she took in me and my four brothers and sisters. She gave but it didn't mean "spending." I think older folks remember what it was like not to have and so they didn't live beyond their means. Besides, I think we associate too much to the idea that giving means buying. My grandmother grew up on a farm and lived during the depression. They found things around the house to make and created Christmas gifts. One of the best gifts I got from my husband was a letter filled with praise and love. I still have that letter rolled up in a red ribbon. He gave it to me over 10 years ago. I can hardly remember most of his "material" gifts but that one I remember.

Arlington, Va.: A few weeks ago a friend of my mother's called and told her that her son had just gotten laid off from work, and could my mother send out an email to her coworkers, asking for donations so that she could get her grandkids Christmas presents. My mother told her she wouldn't feel comfortable doing that, but offered to ask a few people for money for her. I realize that your friends are where you turn when you're in need, but would have it been better for my mother to refer her to a Toys for Tots type organization, or the Salvation Army? My mother is also concerned that the next time her friend is in financial need, she'll come calling again.
Happy Holidays.

Michelle Singletary: I think it was incredibly sweet for your mother to help. Besides perhaps the woman who asked didn't feel comfortable asking strangers for a handout. And, if there is a next time your mother seems capable of telling her friend what she will and won't do. She should continue to do that. She should give what she can and not feel ashame to say if she can't. There's no harm in people asking and no harm in you telling them no.

Rockville, Md.: One thing to remember is its not too late to take things back to the store if you've overdone it. We always do a pre-xmas assessment of the booty after buying is done to see if we really need to keep everything. Also, even after the kids open things, we make sure the boxes are preserved and receipts kept. If Bobby loses interest in the $80 had-to-have doda in the first 2 hours, and its not damaged, we return it and get something he would rather have.

Michelle Singletary: Now that's an idea. What I did this year is pay close attention to how my kids play. I've been watching what they really like and what just sits in their toy bins. My daughter loves puzzles. So I got her a few more. She's obessed with Barbie so I found her one on sale. She loves for my husband and I to read to her so we bought some books through her school at an discount. We really limited what we bought by just focusing on what she does day-to-day. And, when she pointed to some high-price toy or something we thought she just wanted cuz everyone else has it we just say it's not in the budget.

Arlington, Va.: My family now has set up two gift exchanges--one for the immediate family, and one for my mother's side of the family. So my husband and I just have to buy two $100 gifts for the immediate family and two $50 gifts for extended. You have to stick to the limit, and know ahead of time how much money to budget.

A good way to control how much you spend on gifts is to take out your limit in cash on the way to the mall, and don't take along any credit cards or checks. You can't spend what you don't have.

One final tip for the mother who wants to buy her kids clothes after Christmas. Give them gift certificates to their favorite stores. They'd probably rather pick out the clothes themselves, anyway.

Michelle Singletary: All good ideas, especially the gift certificate. It's what I'm giving my 13-year-old niece who is afraid of what her "cheap" aunt will buy her.

Hyattsville, Md.: How do you deal with the desire to "out-do" your loved ones when it comes to gift-giving? Don't you think setting spending limits takes the fun out of the christmas spirit?

Michelle Singletary: Basically, I have a don't care attitude. My love ones don't pay my bills. So, if they don't like what I can afford to give them tough. I try to find nice gifts within a budget I set for each person. And, I don't think setting limits is taking fun out of the christmas spirit. In fact, it's a fun challenge to find wonderful gifts for say $20. It forces you to be creative and really think about the small stuff that people don't usually buy for themselves, such as a nice bottle of lotion or scraf. What's not fun is opening up those Christmas bills in January.

Mt. Rainier, Md.: I am really mad at my credit union for advertising special 'Christmas' loans. Of all the people who ought to be encouraging responsible money handling. Anyone who feels the need to take out a loan for Christmas should seriously consider the impact of their kids. They're incurring debt that will have to be paid off at the kids' expense. Instead of real necessities for the year, they'll get toys, for one big blow-out day. Bad idea, guys.

Michelle Singletary: This is a very important message. I agree that people should be very careful about borrowing to pay for Christmas gifts, which if you think about it is exactly what we do when we use credit cards and let the bills roll over every month.

Arlington, Va.: My mother has been in a music group with five other women for more than 20 years. About 5 years ago, they decided instead of buying gifts for each other, they would "adopt" a local family, and provide them with gifts -mainly for the children, but they would always add something for the parents-, a Christmas tree if needed, along with the ingredients for a Christmas dinner. They locate a family each year through their church, and the parents give them ideas for gifts for the children. Of course, the women end up spending more than they would have on gifts for other members of the group -they also add in performance fees to the pot-, but it's an incredible feeling to know that you've given a poor family an entire Christmas.

Michelle Singletary: Now, that's the spirit of giving. They sound wonderful.

Vienna, Va.: COMMENT:

Michelle, I just can't see spending so much money for one day.

Tip of the day: Why not take the money you're planning to use to purchase gifts that really have no long term value anyway - toys, clothes that kids outgrow, uncecessary holiday trimmings - and invest it.

Better yet, give your family the gift that keeps on giving - information for the beginner investor. That's what I'm doing this holiday season.


Michelle Singletary: Preach on.

One way to start is to cut your Christmas budget by at least 10 percent and put that money in some sort of investment or savings account. Or give the gift of an investment instead of a toy. Open a savings account or mutual fund account for your kid. Many mutual fund companies will waive the initial investment if you agree to regular withdrawals from your bank account.

Or try giving books about investing or basic consumer information. The books stores are brimming with help these days.

Arlington, Va.: My husband and I set a spending limit on each other, and we both had the best time trying to come up with creative and special gifts. One year, when we were about to buy a house, we set our limit at $20, and the gift he gave me that year is my most precious possession -after him, of course.

Michelle Singletary: So what was the gift?

Rockville, Md.: To Hyattsville on "out doing"--remember in that scenario, someone always feels "out done"--where's the Christmas "fun" in that?

Michelle Singletary: You said it. I was blessed to be raised by a grandmother who could care less what the Joneses were buying or for that matter anyone in our family. Trust your judgment and give what you think is best and you will never feel "out-done."

WDC: One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received was a fresh pineapple, which I love - cost - less than $3.00, and it always fits.

Michelle Singletary: Food is always good. My 21-month-old son would love it if I just gave him a bag of apples. Thanks for the idea.

Washington: My husband and I have been in debt since we got together -former marriages- and never could afford Christmas.

The kids each received one gift only and last year could barely afford that. The tree was a musty used one from a friend's attic and the gifts were donated.

This year, we moved to DC and I have setting aside $30 each payday to buy one or two gifts for each child and found that now, my closet is brimming and I actually have too many.

This will be the most awesome Christmas my children have ever had and the wisest move I ever made. Shopping was done for the kiddies by Thanksgiving so I don't have to swim in the crazies at the malls.

Now, if only I could find that little pop-up workbench for hubbie

Michelle Singletary: That all sounds great. A debt-free Christmas. But I also hope you began putting away money to save and invest in your retirement and your kid's college education.

Arlington, Va.: I'm embarassed to admit it, but it's beer mat from the bar where we met, had our first kiss, and he told me that he loved me for the first time. He had to call the bar and after they got done laughing, they sent it off to him. I know, it's weird.

Michelle Singletary: Ah, that's so sweet:) Now that's a gift to remember and not weird at all. I'm sending this chat transcript to my hubby

Gaithersburg, Md.: One of most sobering things you can do when considering what to buy this year for family is to look around the house and try and remember what you bought last year, what's still being used, what's lying around, etc. Chances are you won't be able to remember half of what you bought last year. This always helps us focus on making better choices.

Michelle Singletary: I thought this was a great place to end today's discussion. It's something we all should remember. The holiday's should be about giving from the heart not necessarily from your wallet. Please join me again and have a wonderful debt-free holiday.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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