Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Saving Time and Money at the Mall

Ah, the great shopping mall at Christmas...the symbol of all that is so typically, well, American.  Everywhere you look are the signs of what so many of us consider to be the problem with the Christmas holiday, as well as the pressure cooker of keeping up with every other family.  Malls send us the mistaken message that all shoppers can afford hundreds of dollars in presents for their loved ones.  Walk by the Apple store in my local mall on any given day and one would think the average American has hundreds, if not thousands, in disposable pocket money.  The same mall is anchored with a Nordstrom's and a Dillard's, both high end stores.  So why in the world would this budgeting mama encourage a trip to the mall with a tween?

Because I remember very clearly what it was like to be a tween myself.  I remember vividly all the outfits presented to me at Christmas that were just slightly off, veering from cute to nerdy (sorry Mom!).  I remember all the exchanges my poor mother made after Christmas.  And I don't intend to spend my valuable shopping time after Christmas standing in the return lines.

My tween is almost thirteen.  She has definite ideas of what she likes and doesn't like, particularly when it comes to what she wears.  I have specific things I am looking to get her—a winter hat and gloves, and both can be found in a reasonably priced store hidden in a back corner of the mall.  We will do some window shopping to get some ideas of what she would like for Christmas other than gift cards (I hate giving gift cards).  We get to spend some time together looking at pretty things and getting some ideas of what the other wants for Christmas.  In addition, today is $5 movie day.  I have a rewards card with the movie theater, and the theater will also comp me the cost of my parking.  So I'll pay $10 for parking and a movie for two, plus get the credits on my rewards card, which may very well give us a free snack or drink.  Not a bad deal.

The trick with visiting a mall, I find, is to stay focused on the goal at hand, which is NOT to purchase anything today.  It's to get ideas of what my tween likes and wants.  Once I have those ideas, I can purchase the items from the semi-affordable store in the mall...OR I can purchase it somewhere less expensive.  Either way, my tween feels heard, we have a nice afternoon outing, and mom saves a few bucks.  Not bad for an otherwise boring Tuesday afternoon, huh?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Creative Christmas...or how to do christmas on a very strict budget

We moved to Virginia to be near my family approximately seventeen months ago.  In that amount of time I've had—and quit—three different jobs.  My husband has had one temporary job.  To say the job market is tight here is putting it mildly.  The last job I had caused me tremendous stress, which caused more trouble for my physically, to the point that I could not complete what I needed to in order to do well.  So I followed my gut and quit.

I'm not always the most reasonable person, as several people were quick to remind me.  On top of it, our cars, both of them, chose this week to break down.  One needs a replacement tire, and the other needs a couple thousand dollars worth of repairs.

Fortunately I'm a stasher.  I stash all sorts of stuff everywhere.  I have a "Disney account" that we'll be tapping into, and a retirement account from when I was in my early twenties that I never rolled over that I may have to use.  The most frustrating part is knowing we are just one phone call away from everything turning around.  So many of my friends across the country are in similar situations, doing whatever they can to make ends meet.

My first and biggest stressor, ironically, was thinking about how I was going to provide a fun and meaningful Christmas for my kids.  They're young teenagers now, and material goods are highly valued.  Gone are the days where a few puzzles and a dolly would make a grand Christmas.  These days it's video games, iPods, cell phones, and whatever other gadgety equipment they can get their hands on.  It's clear with our budget this year, there are not going to be a tremendous number of expensive gadgets gracing the tree.  But I am determined that my family will have a joyous Christmas no matter what.  So here's my plan.

1.  Focus on the meaning of the Christmas season.  Talk about how we give to others and how it makes us feel, and how that Christmas spirit is especially alive right now.  I think when times are tough, it's even more important to talk with kids about the "true" meaning of Christmas, and how God's gifts to us are still alive today.
2.  Schedule fun and free (or low cost) family activities each week.  Some of the things we'll be doing include baking cookies for people who are shut in, taking walks around the neighborhood to see the decorations, driving through neighborhoods to enjoy the lights as we sip cocoa, and watching classic Christmas movies and cartoons.  Making easy ornaments will be on the list too!
3.  Find out what the kids want to do to celebrate Christmas.  My twelve year old told me last night that she wants to have an "unplugged" evening, where all electronics are off, and we just sit around, drink cider, and talk.  Ironically, things like this are often the memories we cherish.
4.  Set an affordable budget and STICK TO IT.  My budget is quite small but it will purchase a couple of things my kids really want.  I also have an entertainment budget, and I use coupons and specials to stretch it farther.  Since my kids are older, we can do free things on the weekend, when they're more expensive, and more costly things during the week, when the rates are cheaper.  I have made a hard and fast rule for several years now not to carry ANY credit charges through the season.  If I can't pay for it with cash, it doesn't get purchased.
5.  Talk with your kids and explain how this Christmas may be different and why.  My kids are old enough to understand our financial constraints.  Younger children may be satisfied with an explanation of "We're going to do some things a little different this Christmas!  It will be fun to try these new things!"

The most important thing to remember, in my opinion, is that our attitudes as adults will carry over to our children.  If we have positive attitudes that focus on the important aspects of the season, we will be rewarded with children who will also begin to develop positive attitudes and respect for what we see as being important.

Check back here regularly for our plans for the season!  And feel free to leave your own ideas in comments as to how you're making this Christmas a special one!