Getty ImagesI know this sounds a bit bah-humbug, but I have to ask: Have you considered canceling Christmas this year?
No, I'm not suggesting that you hack up your evergreen wreath for kindling or pretend you're not home when the extended family arrives on your doorstep dressed in their holiday finery. But think about it ... what would it be like if you did kiss off Kwanzaa, say "sayonara" to your menorah, or give a big fat "feh" to Festivus?
From a strictly financial point of view, canceling Christmas might be the best gift you ever give to your family: "Hey honey, help me wrap financial stability and fiscal awareness amid uncertain economic times and put it underneath the tree before the kids wake up!"
Unfortunately, that's not the gift-that-keeps-on-giving kind of present most people have in mind this year.
Owe, owe, owe -- Merry Christmas!
According to the National Retail Federation, U.S. consumers will shell out $437.6 billion on holiday cheer. That's an average of $682.74 for stuff that'll likely be consigned to one of three piles -- regift, donate, or store-until-we-move.
So what would the future hold if you actually committed to not shopping 'til you dropped this holiday season?
Cue winter-themed dream sequence music ...
The Ghost of Christmas 2000
Let's take a stroll into an alternate reality -- the one that would have been had the cancel-Christmas idea come to you in the year 2000. That's the year you were planning to spend $836, according to a Deloitte & Touche survey at the time.
In our dream sequence, you decide not to blow $800-plus on that year's must-haves -- the Razor scooter, a robotic pet, Fashion Model Barbie, a PlayStation 2 and various Harry Potter-related gewgaws. Instead, you invest that money in your family's future financial stability. Here's what you'd have to show for it nine years later:
- Had you simply put the dough in a savings account earning a measly 1% a year in interest, you'd have $914.32.
- If that lump sum had been committed to an S&P 500 index-tracking ETF, sorry, you'd be out $39.18. (Hey, it's been rough for everyone!)
- If you had avoided the crowds at Target and instead zipped online and bought shares in the company, today you'd have $1,234.22.
- You could have really bummed out your teenager and bought $299 in Best Buy shares instead of the PlayStation. But the kids probably wouldn't be pouting over the $1,398.77 the investment morphed into nine years later.
- As long as we're in Alternate Realityland, let's say you had the wherewithal to stash away that money for four years and then buy $836 in shares of Google when it went public at $85. Hellooo, $5,773.81!
Although none of these investments were complete lumps of coal, obviously some brought more glee than others nine years later.
One thing's for sure, though, you could have done worse. A lot worse.
The Ghost -- and cost -- of Christmas Reality
Now we're back in the present day. Remember that $836 worth of holiday cheer you put on your credit card nine years ago?
Merry Christmas: You just finished paying it off in June!
Instead of earning interest (or even losing a bit due to the S&P's lackluster 10-year performance), you spent 115 months making minimum payments to fund a holiday binge in 2000. Oh, and at 15% interest, that $836 holiday loan ended up costing you an extra $594 in interest.
Think outside the big box
While celebrating a buy-nothing Christmas may not play so well on Dec. 25 -- "Thanks for the big box of nothin', gramps!" -- there's still plenty you can do to dampen the holiday damage without completely crushing some kid's holiday memories.
It's not too late to change your holiday tune. And, honestly, I'm not suggesting you completely abandon gift-giving. Simply think about ways to inject fiscal prudence and the true holiday spirit into your December.
I've got a few suggestions below, but I'd love to hear how you make your holidays special. Please share!
- Separate the meaningful from the meaningless. Before you add one more item to your online shopping cart, pause and reflect. Envision your ideal holiday if you had the chance to start planning from scratch. What would really happen if you had fewer gifts under the tree? Mentally remove all the things that cost money -- the travel, parties, new clothes, fake frost on the windows -- and then add back in, one by one, the parts that really matter to you and your family. What is it that you remember most about previous holidays? What toys are your kids still playing with? What activities stand out as the ones that brought the most joy? What would you do if you had more time to spend with family and not at the mall?
- Make a pay-back pact. If you've already done your shopping or it's too late to change your travel plans, take an evening to figure out how to pay off the holiday spending as fast as you can after the holidays. Write down what sacrifices you are willing to make in the early months of 2010 (e.g. eat out less, use watered-down shampoo) and plot your Credit Card Plan of Attack. (This How to Get Out of Debt Guide has a step-by-step battle plan.) If you're going to go all out in December, realize that it will require a few tradeoffs -- unless you've reserved a few pages in your family photo album for your credit card bill.
- Put Santa on hold. The calendars may all say that Dec. 25 is the day. But what if, say, you put off the holidays for another day or week? Those with jobs that require them to be away for the holidays know that the most important part of the celebration is not the datebook, but who's in attendance. The bonus for those willing to wait is even deeper discounts at the stores.
Remember, good tidings don't have to come with a gift receipt. Try something different for the holidays this year. Hey, if it doesn't work out, at least everything you wanted will be on super-sale in January.
What matters most to you about the holidays? Do tell! Share your best and most meaningful low- or no-cost tricks for making this time of year special to you and your loved ones.
In the mood for more holiday cheer?
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Motley Fool writer Dayana Yochim has considered joining the pro shopping circuit, but she couldn't stick the parallel parking requirement.