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How four families rein in their holiday spending


From an all-cash Christmas to traveling together, you can celebrate on a budget

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 Between Black Friday sales, pressure to reciprocate gifts and a desire to give kids magical holiday memories, many families who are careful spenders at other times of the year find themselves blowing their budgets each November and December.

This year, shoppers are expected to spend $908 on gifts alone (up from $839 in 2015), according to the American Express Spending & Savings Tracker. Among affluent consumers, the expected spending on gifts will increase to an average of $1,513 in 2016.

How will parents make ends meet – and stay within their holiday spending budgets? These are the stories of how four American families rein in their finances while celebrating the season.

David & Alaya

    Alaya Linton and David


All cash Christmas
In 2009, Alaya Linton and her husband David had $74,000 in debt, a combination of student loans, car loans, credit cards and medical and tax debt.

The couple managed to pay off their debts in 25 months, and during that time they significantly reduced their lifestyle expenses, including cutting back on Christmas gifts for their two children, then ages 3 and 13.

“Prior to paying off the debt, Christmas was limitless,” Linton says. “I stumbled across an old video when we just had one child. The floor was just littered with presents.”

To ensure that presents didn’t add to their debt, the couple agreed to forgo gifts for extended family and use cash to pay for the kids’ gifts. “Using credit was not an option,” she says. “It was all about establishing a limit and sticking to that limit.”

Linton’s debt repayment journey inspired her to start the blog Hope and Cents and become a financial coach.

Now that the family is on more solid financial footing in New Haven, Connecticut, she says they can afford to spend a little more on the holidays, but they still pay in cash to set limits. 2017 Holiday Shopping Guide


Go to “2017 holiday shopping guide”


“We make a list of everything that we need to spend money on, whether it’s gifts, tipping, contributing to teacher gifts or office gifts,” she says. “We try to list every obligation and assign a dollar amount to each one.”

To stretch their all cash Christmas budget even further, Linton waits until after December 25 to buy some of her gifts, especially clothes. “We brave the craziness the day after Christmas and go shopping then,” she adds.

The family Secret Santa
With a large family on her husband’s side, Elizabeth Hooper estimates that she and her husband used to spend close to $1,000 on Christmas gifts some years.

“We noticed that we were going for quantity over quality,” she says. “Everyone was getting a bunch of mid-tier gifts. The gift recipients were not super excited about it, and you felt like you spent $1,000 and nobody walked away with a big smile on their face.”

We noticed that we were going for quantity over quality. Everyone was getting a bunch of mid-tier gifts.

\u2014 Elizabeth Hooper,
Who now takes a family Secret Santa approach to gifts

Hooper heard from a friend who agreed with her sisters to give each other the gift of not exchanging gifts.

“She was raving about how it had cut her costs and her stress,” Hooper says. “She was actually spending time with family and doing more relaxing things. We were inspired by that example.”

Instead of nixing gifts altogether, Hooper and her husband’s family created a Secret Santa in which they draw names and buy a nicer gift for one person instead of lots of little gifts for everyone.

“People are happier because they’re not getting 15 pairs of socks or weird re-gifted lotions,” she says. “We’ve been doing it for about five years now.” She adds she just talked with her sister-in-law about doing it in their family.

Greutman family

    The Greutman family

The four-gift rule
Lauren Greutman, a mother of four in Oswego, New York, and author of “The Recovering Spender,” says she used to go overboard at holiday sales.

“I was that kind of deal-seeker where I would buy anything if it was a good deal,” she says. “You would find me waiting in line on Black Friday, but not having a list of who I was buying for. I was just in it for the rush of a good deal.”

Greutman also had 17 nieces and nephews under the age of 10, so buying gifts for all of them got expensive.

 “We were all going broke trying to buy for these kids and getting them toys they didn’t want,” she says.

To alleviate that pressure, Greutman and her extended family agreed to draw names of kids rather than buying for everyone.

She and her husband started a new holiday tradition with their own kids: The four-gift rule.

“It’s something to wear, something they need, something to read and something that they want,” Greutman explains. “When I’m buying, I’m buying in one of those four categories.”

Limiting spending to four gifts has helped focus her holiday shopping and avoid excess, she says.

Mike Catania

     Annie Mueller, Mango and Mike Catania

The gift of travel
As Mike Catania, owner of, and his siblings grew into adulthood, “we went a little overboard on gifts because we could.”

After his younger brother commented that giving presents “felt like a job,” Catania knew the family needed to rethink their approach to gifts and refocus on spending time together.

With his parents living outside Chicago, his brother’s family residing in Wisconsin, and Catania’s family in Las Vegas, their time together is limited.

Since 2012, the extended family has opted for a single vacation together in the spring rather than holiday gifts.

Most years, that spring family trip winds up costing less than gifts and airfare and accommodations around the holidays. Catania keeps an eye on travel deals on his website to help the family stretch their dollars.

In 2017, the extended family plans to take a Scandinavian cruise together.

Science supports Catania’s family traveling together instead of exchanging gifts. In fact, a Cornell University 2014 study shows that spending money on experiences brings greater happiness than buying stuff.

Catania says their new family tradition has allowed them to “re-center ourselves on what was actually important – our limited opportunities to be together – instead of so heavily participating in consumerism simply because we had the means to do so.”

See related: 7 ways rewards cards can trim holiday costsHow to unstuff your family’s holiday budget7 things you need to know about gift cards

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