BY PHIL LENAHAN

Most Precious Gift? Your Time

Q My wife and I are trying to get on a budget for the first time in our lives. Unfortunately, we've chosen the holiday shopping season to do it. Many of our family members will expect gift exchanges to all other members and we just aren't in a position to afford that this year. Still, it's important to us to create family memories. How far should we tighten our belts?

A Maybe you should have waited until the new year to start your budget! Seriously, holiday spending is a major issue for many families. In some cultures it is customary and expected that gifts will be given throughout the family, down to second cousins. Many of these families will succumb to this pressure and find their credit-card balances ballooning because of it.

Often these gifts individually amount to $10-$25. Yet by the time all family members are taken care of, several hundred dollars or more have been spent. Don't get me wrong. It's important to share in

a spirit of generosity during the Christmas season. It's just I think we need to re-examine what it means to be truly generous.

I've counseled many families to reconsider what they choose to give at Christmas. Rather than a $25 trinket, what about something that will be treasured because of the personal touch involved? That might be a homemade Christmas card or a gift of time (maybe in the form of babysitting for a new set of parents).

Be creative. It's so easy to fall into the trap of our consumer society that we fail to give gifts with greater meaning.

One of the things I enjoy when I give a seminar is the interaction between the participants. As we work together to save the Stewart family from financial oblivion, it's fascinating to hear the responses of people from varying backgrounds. Some look at how much the Stewarts are paying for their holidays and suggest they greatly simplify them. Others will then cry out: “But Christmas isn't Christmas without the gift-giving.”

We all get a laugh out of the discussion, but the point gets made that it's more important for the Stewarts to get their financial house in order than to spend irresponsibly on Christmas gifts.

Our most memorable times at Christmas should be the moments we spend reflecting on the awesome wonder and joy of the Incarnation. Certainly the sharing of gifts plays a role as we share with those we love. Yet many of our most enjoyable times as a family occur because we're spending time with one another, not because we're spending money on one another.

So work to keep the real meaning of the season in perspective and you and your family will truly have a blessed and merry Christmas.

God love you!

Phil Lenahan is director of finance at Catholic Answers in El Cajon, California.

Reach Family Matters at familymatters@ncregister.com