Family Matters

Around this time last year, you gave advice on following a budget for the first time, even as the craziness of the holiday shopping season was bearing down. Some of us could sure stand to hear that advice again.

I said it then, and I'll say it again: 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 families will succumb to this pressure and find their credit-card balances ballooning because of it.

Often these gifts individually amount to $10 to $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. I think it's important to share in a spirit of generosity during the Christmas season. It's just that we need to re-examine what it means to be truly generous.

I've counseled many families to reconsider what they choose to give for Christmas. Rather than a $25 gadget, what about something that will be treasured for the special memory it creates? That may be a homemade Christmas card or a gift of time (maybe in the form of babysitting for new parents). Be creative. It's so easy to fall into the trap of our consumer society's spending frenzy that we fail to give gifts with greater meaning.

One of the things I enjoy when I give a seminar is the interaction between 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 gifts.” We all get a laugh out of the discussion, but the point gets made: 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 flow from the awesome wonder and joy of the Incarnation. Certainly the sharing of gifts plays a role. Yet many of our most enjoyable times as a family occur because we're spending time together, not because we're opening presents.

So work to keep the real meaning of the season in perspective. Then you and your loved ones will truly have a blessed Thanksgiving, a fruitful Advent and a genuinely merry Christmas. God love you!

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