In October 2008, Lee and I were looking forward to our first holiday season together, mostly with excitement but also with an edge of trepidation. The first major holiday season in a new relationship is often tricky to navigate, but we had an extra lump of coal in the proverbial stocking to deal with -- we had both been unemployed since March. We'd managed to stay afloat thanks to unemployment benefits, some small contract work and savings -- and our prospects of having jobs soon were really good -- but we decided we really needed to set some ground rules. Assuming that we both found jobs soon, neither of us was allowed to spend more than $100 on gifts for the other person, and we'd set strict limits on purchases for our friends and family. We would not go into to debt because of the holidays. We got jobs. We stuck to our rules, and we loved the rules so much we have continued them every year since.
Lee and I grew up in different parts of the country and in some ways had very different childhoods. He was a city kid, and I was a country/small town mouse. He has only one sibling, whereas I have six. Yet as we started our lives together, we discovered there were also striking similarities. Lee and I both grew up in blue-collar households. Our Christmases growing up were extravagant times of the year for us but looking back as adults, we can both see they were really quite modest. I know there were years the gifts under the tree stretched our parents financially, but the gifts were what they could afford. They may have rolled change and relied on layaway to afford them, but they did not turn to credit cards to purchase them. Living within our means and still displaying generosity in giving was an important lesson and one we are happy to carry forward.
Our friends understood why we went with the limit that first year, but they've struggled to fully understand why we continue to do so. Despite the fact that since that first year together we've each experienced employment setbacks in the way of lay-offs, we have been very fortunate financially. We could afford to spend more. We even tried it one year, extending our spending limit to $150, but the next year we dropped it back down to $100. I'm not going to say that we don't ever give each other extravagant gifts. We do. We just don't do it at Christmas. We've found our sweet budgetary spot at $100. Maybe for your family it is $50 or $500. I just know that $100 works best for us.
Our $100 limit has never included stockings and after our first year together, in which someone (hint: not me) decided to be tricky and skirt the rules by slipping some theatre tickets in a stocking, we stipulated that nothing in the stockings can cost more than $25. Stocking gifts must also must fit inside the stocking (that one was my bad). I could tell you that we stick to these rules because we both feel we really don't need much and the budget removes a lot of potential financial stress, but the real reason we stick to our modest budget is a rather selfish one -- we simply find it more fun.
Image credit: Shane Adams on Flickr
There is something joyful in seeking out things that will surprise the other person and in turn give them joy. I believe that's why so many people enjoy gift giving. I don't begrudge anyone who spends more than we do on gifts, but for Lee and me the constraints that we put on holiday gift giving are a large part of that joy. It becomes a bit of a game for us. Am I going to buy Lee one big gift or several small ones? What can I find that he never knew he always wanted?
As the leaves drop off the leaves in the fall, you'll find us searching the clearance sections of stores online. We'll hunt on eBay for hard-to-find items and great deals. We watch store promotions with an eagle eye. I have even scored some of his favourite items of years on Etsy. Yay for vintage! There are also the serendipitous moments when we have happened upon an item in a store that we didn't even know existed and it becomes one of the most beloved gifts of the year. With enough time and creativity, the purchasing power of $100 is really quite significant.
Most of all, we appreciate that our modest budget forces us to put more thought into what we give each other. Our budget does not allow us to shop blindly. Every single item that gets wrapped or put into a stocking has been carefully considered. When I decide on one item, it often means I've had to eliminate two others. When I purchase a Christmas gift for Lee I need to consider more than the financial impact. Is this item something Lee needs but will not buy for himself? Is it something that will make him smile? Will this item bring him joy?
The Christmas holidays already give us so much. We get together with good friends. We make and enjoy delicious food. We get to spent time with our family. When we sit down in front of the fireplace to open our gifts on Christmas morning, it's really not so much about the gift inside the box. It's really about the thought and care we put into choosing it and the joy we hope it will bring.