A Frugalite’s Guide to Managing Holiday Expectations

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Have your kids hit you with their 3-page Christmas wish list? Has your significant other begun dropping hints? Have the party invitations and family event plans begun to trickle in? Are you already wondering how on earth to deal with managing holiday expectations?

And if so, are you facing the holidays with dread or excitement?

Sometimes I want to punch the composer of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” right in the throat. The media, Hallmark, advertisers, and Hollywood have set us all up to try and meet outrageous expectations of magic and delight, unless, of course, you don’t mind being thought of as a horrible parent/spouse/friend/co-worker/human.

For the love of all things sprinkled with glitter and topped with a bow, give yourself permission to take it down a notch (or three) this year.

Here’s why you may want to lighten your holiday load a little.

2021 is shaping up to be a holiday season like many Americans have never experienced.

First, there are the overall financial problems sweeping the country. The poverty trap is working overtime as more and more people slip through the cracks of their comfortable middle-class lifestyle into an entirely different situation.  Jobs have been lost, breadwinners have passed away, emergency funds have been drained, and prices have skyrocketed. Making ends meet is not like it used to be just 2 short years ago.

And speaking of skyrocketing prices, I just wrote about the fact that this year’s holiday dinner is shaping up to be the most expensive in history, should you take the route of clinging to the traditional standbys. And food isn’t the only thing escalating in price. Consumer goods are also increasing in price. In fact, we’re looking at the highest period of inflation in 30 years.

When you figure in the supply chain crisis and the global everything shortage, it may not even be the price of the goods that stops you from purchasing them. It could be the fact you simply can’t find what you want to buy.

To prevent disappointment, consider managing holiday expectations.

Nobody wants to get up on Christmas morning and see their children’s faces fall when the space underneath the tree is a bit more barren than usual. Nobody wants to see their kids tearing through packages searching for that one special item they really, truly wanted only to be disappointed when it isn’t there.

We don’t want to let down the people we love by not attending a shindig that will cost us hundreds of dollars in gifts for everyone, nor do we want to look like Scrooges at workplace gift exchanges.

But unless you want to put the whole holiday on plastic and pay it off at 27% interest for the next year (don’t do that), you are going to have to think about managing the holiday expectations of those around you. It’s a lot better to sit down as a family and discuss how you’d like to approach the extravaganza and the gift-giving frenzy when fewer emotions are in play than to just fail to meet expectations.

This is particularly true if you usually go over the top on holidays. The difference, in that case, will be even more dramatic and shocking.

Steps to managing holiday expectations

So how do you go about managing holiday expectations? Here are a few tips.

  1. Make sure your family understands the financial situation. It isn’t really fair if you haven’t told your children that financial issues are afoot to expect them to understand when Christmas is dialed back a few notches. Here’s an article on discussing financial problems with kids.
  2. Be very clear. Whomever you need to speak with about expectations, make certain that you are clear and succinct. This is no time for vagueness. Say to your kid who wants a new iPad, “I’m sorry, but we simply aren’t spending that kind of money this year.” In fact, for almost 20 years I’ve told my kids exactly how much I’m spending on them each Christmas so they could make their wish lists accordingly. (This is something I wrote about in my book, Have Yourself a Thrifty Little Christmas.) If you say, “I’m spending $100 on each of you” to your immediate family members and they still ask for thousand dollar items, refer them back to your conversation and let them know they will absolutely not see that item under the tree.
  3. Talk to extended family members about making some adjustments. Depending on your family this could be a difficult conversation. But I’d rather discuss it with them than avoid getting together. You might say something along the lines of, “Hey, you know that Hubby lost his job this year, so things are tight for our family. Would you guys be interested in drawing names or doing Secret Santas or something this year instead?” Your success depends upon your particular family but you may discover that other family members are super-relieved that somebody else brought up the elephant in the room.
  4. Just say no. There is no rule saying you must attend every party, potluck, workplace gift exchange, and cookie exchange to which you are invited. Maybe dial back on some of that stuff this year and make your holiday not only thriftier but also less hectic.
  5. Don’t feel obligated. Just because someone else buys you a gift, it doesn’t mean you need to buy them one. This is especially true if you’ve talked with them before about skipping the gift exchange this year. It’s hard not to feel guilty but you are under no obligation to reciprocate. If you feel you absolutely must give a gift to every person who buys one for you, consider handmade items, homemade cookies, childcare coupons, or something small.

Remember: YOU ARE NOT SANTA CLAUS. You do not have a factory full of elf-slaves making the gifts out of materials you magically sourced for free and are delivering to every person in the whole world in one night. Don’t set yourself up to feel like a failure.

Focus on traditions and activities.

It might seem like dialing back Christmas is kind of mean, but providing your kids with a realistic view of the world is far better than any gift they’ll ever find under the tree. When they are making their own money, they’ll understand that they don’t have to figure out how to make each Christmas bigger and better than the last,

When every day is a trip to Disneyworld, how are you going to be satisfied with climbing a tree and finding animals in the clouds that float overhead?

Here are some suggestions from my Christmas book about how to make the transition to a simpler holiday:

  • Focus on activities and traditions instead of gifts
  • For younger children, read books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods or The Boxcar Children.
  • Lower your own expectations. I hate to break it to you, but if you, as the mom or dad, expect a new car with a big red bow in the driveway, or a $500 tool set, or a diamond ring, or…..well, you get the picture. Lead by example.
  • Promote a handmade Christmas. One very “broke” year, we made all of our gifts except for one per person. We made our decorations too, from things found in nature and recycled items around the house
  • Help someone with less than you have.
  • If yours is a religious family, focus on the “reason for the season.” (Hint – that wasn’t a wide-screen TV hovering over the stable!)

If you’re interested in picking up my PDF book, Have Yourself a Thrifty Little Christmas and a Debt-Free New Year, it’s marked with “name your own pricing” so you can pay as much or as little as you want for it right now.

You can still make the holidays fun, magical, and joyful as long as you set the right tone from the beginning.

How are you managing holiday expectations this year?

Will this Christmas be different for your family? Are you planning to spend less than usual by necessity or by choice? How are you setting appropriate expectations so that nobody is disappointed? Do you have a money-saving holiday idea or tradition that others might find inspiring?

Share your thoughts about managing holiday expectations in the comments.

A Frugalite\'s Guide to Managing Holiday Expectations
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is an author and blogger. She's the single mom of two daughters and credits extreme frugality and a good sense of humor for her debt-free lifestyle. She is the author of numerous books, the editor of TheOrganicPrepper.com, and is the founder of a small digital publishing company in the emergency preparedness niche.

5 thoughts on “A Frugalite’s Guide to Managing Holiday Expectations”

  1. Some of my favorite holiday memories had very little to do with money and some of the best gifts I ever got were pretty inexpensive. The best gifts are given with a true understanding of the person you are giving something to. Even nonreligious families can be reminded of the “reason for the season,” which is usually kindness, togetherness, and sharing joy.

    Another cheap activity – caroling! It’s even social distancing-friendly! Even in big cities people could do that. Professional level singing isn’t needed and can be a riot at a party.

    (Thanks, Daisy, for the suggestion about the Tightwad Gazette. I bought the latest anthology, used of course, and have read it cover to cover. Great stuff! Also, an article suggestion. How about one for tips in finding work from home opportunities? That makes it much easier to be frugal and also, I could use some tips about that right about now.)

  2. Very nice thoughtful article, thank you!!
    I bought vegetable n herb seeds for my gift giving this year knowing full well that the recipients had not purchased them.
    Family Dollar had them 4/$1.00. I got each 12 herb n 12 vegetables, that was 24 for each for a total of just $6.45. Adding a gift bag, a bit of tissue n a handmade card with generic planting n care instructions for 6 people was less than $50.
    Some might be disappointed, but I m sure that they might come to a realization that my gift to them came from my heart.

  3. My company hands out ‘gift cards’ to a company specific ‘store’. You get these as an ‘attaboy’ of if a customer mentions you positively in a survey. I save these up and use them to ‘purchase’ gifts for birthdays, holidays etc. Sure, they have the company logo on them, but they have some nifty and practical items to choose from. My family is also okay with thrift store items. We have always shopped thrift stores.

  4. You know you’ve imparted frugal living and won the war against advertising when the kids grandparents note that there is very little on the kids Xmas list. While nothing (purchased) is inexpensive these days, lots of useful/fun stuff can be had. Toothbrush in the kid’s favorite color. Tape (as generic as can be), fabric scraps (I kid you not).
    As my parents were with me, my kids knew our financial situation (which thankfully was never “bad”) BUT did not know dollar details. Kids are more savvy than we give them credit.
    Only since post-WWII did Xmas (and other occasions) turn into give me your money venture.

  5. We told extended family years ago to stop buying us presents. We don’t need any more things to dust, if you want to get us aything make it consumable. They didn’t get it and seemed kind of hurt but they did comply.
    We still get things for our children and now that we have a
    grandchild;) Nana has a great time spoiling him. However we like homemade gifts far better and they last longer than anything store bought.
    Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one doing this, many blessings to you all.

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