- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Christmas is not traditionally associated with financial belt-tightening. This year may be different, however. Many people have lost their jobs or are facing an uncertain economic future, and many may be looking at ways to minimize holiday spending.
The good news is, it's possible to celebrate the joyous season complete with the sounds, sites and flavors of Christmas without spending a small fortune, say local financial advisers, folklorists and retailers.
"My advice is, first, before you go out shopping, have an idea of what you are going to spend on the whole holiday season," says Steve Rhode, president and co-founder of Myvesta.org, a financial crisis and treatment center based in Rockville.
"Second, list what you need to get and then make priorities. Third, stick to the list."
According to an October survey by Myvesta.org, the average American plans to spend about $773 on holiday gifts this year, which is down 37 percent from $1,220 last year. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said they plan to spend $500 or less.
The age group that normally spends most on holiday gifts is the 35-to-44 bracket.
"They're the people who are generally the busiest, who have a lot of friend and family obligations," Mr. Rhode says.
The common culprits in landing people in financial straits during the holiday season include stores' "buy now, pay later" offers, which often lead people to spend money they don't have at the present and probably won't have in the future, either, Mr. Rhode says.
"I tell people to always subtract the money from their checking account, whatever payment method they used," Mr. Rhode says. That way, the lower checking account balance shows that the expense has already been incurred even if it's a "buy now, pay later deal" and the account holder won't spend the money that is earmarked for the bill when it arrives.
Another common pitfall is caused by the eternal sales that can entice people to get things that are not on their lists but which seem like a good deal.
"Remember that even if it's 50 percent off, it's still 100 percent more than you were intending to spend," Mr. Rhode says.

While using restraint when out shopping is one way of cutting holiday costs, not going to the store at all is a sure way of not putting a dent in the pocketbook.
But can you still have fun at Christmas without all that shopping? Certainly, says Margaret Yokum, English professor and expert on folklore at George Mason University.
"One of the things that I think is especially good for the holidays is remembering the people around us and telling each other stories," Ms. Yokum says.
She suggests putting a big bowl full of folded-up paper notes with story prompts in the middle of the floor in front of a fireplace if there is one. A story prompt could read, for example, "Tell me about your most wonderful Christmas gift," "Tell me how you got your nickname," or "Tell me about the first Christmas you can remember."
Several family members and friends can help come up with different prompts before the game begins.
The prompts are a way for people to get started on telling their own stories and it can help teach the younger generations about Christmas past, while giving grandma a look at a grandchild's ideas on Christmas present, Ms. Yokum says.
"We warm each other with our stories," Ms. Yokum says. "They give us roots for today and wings for tomorrow."
In some communities, caroling may be a welcome holiday activity. It's a long-standing tradition in the British Isles and several European nations, Ms. Yokum says. There, if carolers come to sing at your door, it is seen as a sign of a good year to come, she says.
Another family activity that is completely free of charge is going out to see how many stellar constellations you can see and then read about what folklore for example, American Indian traditions say about their origin and meaning.
As for cooking, Ms. Yokum suggests potlucks to alleviate some of the financial and other strain on the meal's host. After dinner, driving or walking around a neighborhood to look at Christmas lights can be a free or at least cheap and fun activity.
Another free activity is reading stories out loud to family and friends, Ms. Yokum says. Some may enjoy Scriptures, others traditional Christmas stories, such as Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
Keeping an eye out on church concerts and other free musical events can also be beneficial for the pocketbook while still providing plenty of Christmas spirit, she says.

If people still want to give a gift to family or friends, making their own can be both fun and cheap, Ms. Yokum says.
"Folding paper to make cranes, for example, is a symbol for peace in the holiday time," she says. Other cheap, homemade gifts for children include popcorn and cranberry necklaces.
A store that specializes on the semi-handmade is Michaels Stores Inc., a nationwide retailer of arts, crafts, framing, floral and seasonal merchandise for the do-it-yourself person.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Michaels in Alexandria had demonstrations on how to decorate gingerbread houses, for adults, and make mini-mittens, for children.
The red, white and green mittens are 69 cents and the decorations amount to a little over a dollar. When the store has classes on how to make the mittens, the cost is $2, material included.
Among mitten decorations, event coordinator and mitten decorator Angela Johnson uses miniature bells and ribbons, tiny Christmas balls and candy sticks. The items can be found in the "mini ornaments" aisle, Ms. Johnson says.
The store also gives out free project sheets with detailed instructions on everything from how to paint a Santa serving tray to how to make a teddy bear wreath.
Ted Hubscher, store manager at the Michaels in Alexandria, says he estimates that customers can cut their decorating and gift costs by about 25 percent by shopping for "raw" materials with which to make their own gifts.
The cost cutting takes place primarily when people buy material in bulk that they can then use for several different projects. But arts and crafts are not just about cost cutting, Mr. Hubscher says.
"What you make on your own is precious and unique.What people can do is only limited by a person's imagination."
Antoinette Driscoll, an Alexandria resident who was shopping for material to make wreathes and garlands, agrees.
"It's definitely cheaper to do it by yourself," she says while adding a couple of manmade pine-cone look-alikes to her basket.
She estimated that she had about $20 worth of decorations, which she plans to use to create wreathes and garlands.
While most people may consider gift giving an integral part of Christmas, giving doesn't have to be in the form of store-bought merchandise, Mr. Rhode says.
"If you are on a tight budget, your gift can be investing your time [in family and friends]," he says. "The holidays are supposed to be a time when we celebrate peace and good will among men."

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