“I have two young kids and will need to at least get them a few presents under the tree,” wrote the wife. “My husband and I have $62,000 of credit card debt. We are working with a debt-management service to wipe it out in three years. It’s tough, I’m not going to lie, but I’m worried over what to tell people about not reciprocating gifts. Any advice?”
Before answering, I needed some background. How old are the children? How do you end up amassing such a huge amount of credit card debt?
A lot of the debt was accumulated after the wife lost her job during the Great Recession. It took her a year and a half to find a new one. Almost everything went on credit — rent, utilities, groceries, she said.
There were wedding expenses, followed by child-care costs for their two kids.
“Then, it was more living expenses, bad choices, impulse buys and retail therapy,” she said. “I tried to consolidate my debt into one credit card with a lower interest rate, but the fine print, which I only read later, said that it had to be paid within 12 months, which it wasn’t. Over the years, more balance transfers, on top of purchases, made the total credit card amount spiral out of control.”
So here they are now trying to fix their finances.
“I’m working overtime hours and penny pinching the best I can,” she wrote. “My focus is helping my family get to a better place in life, not keeping up with the Joneses.”
But the holidays make it hard to stay on track.
“Some people expect gifts,” the mom wrote. “I just don’t want it to be too awkward when I hand them homemade cookies. I’ve tried to lay the groundwork and tell them that we are saving money this year and not to expect too much, but of course the expectation is there anyway. We tried this last year, and they were disappointed, and the discussion of our choice of present was frowned upon.”
Since the couple is working on paying down the debt, I just focused on the question of what to say when you can’t give the way you want.
First, let me address what to do for the children, who are 7 years old and 20 months.
So, for the baby, you don’t need to buy anything, because he’ll probably be excited about just opening boxes. When my kids were tiny tots, I looked around for games, toys and stuffed animals that they didn’t play with and were buried at the bottom of their toy bins or stashed at the top of their closets. I wrapped up those items and put them under the tree. Seriously, who remembers what they got at 2?
For the 7-year-old, buy her just a few things — with cash. Pick one major thing she wants that isn’t too expensive. I also suggested, if they are having a family get-together, wait and open all the gifts at one time. This way the kids get all their presents at once, which will help you feel less guilty for not giving them a lot of items.
This brings me to the relatives. Own your financial truth. Be honest about the overwhelming amount of debt. You don’t have to share specifics, but let folks know you’re trying to be financially responsible, and until further notice you can’t afford to exchange gifts. You may be surprised how many friends and family members will feel relieved because they, too, are struggling.
There is always the possibility that you’ll get pushback, but ignore any efforts to make you feel guilty. You have $62,000 in credit card debt. This is your priority — not trying to please an adult acting like a child.
Don’t let your emotions lead you to derail your commitment to live within your means. Read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” as a reminder of what’s important in the end.
Give yourself the gift of financial stability by staying focused on paying down that debt. Besides, as I tell folks all the time, it should be about your presence, not your presents.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.