Overspending: A Tale of Christmas Past

Overspending can kill the Christmas spirit. Here's how to keep the magic -- and your budget -- alive.
Overspending can kill the Christmas spirit. Here's how to keep the magic -- and your budget -- alive.

It may be hard to find the silver liming in the economic downturn, but the recession has given me at least one important gift: It has cured me of my shameful habit of overspending at Christmas.

For years, I've vowed to cut back and spend less -- and in each of those years, I failed utterly. Despite my modest, carefully constructed list of presents, I would invariably fall prey to a last-minute shopping frenzy, fueled by the sudden fear that my children were going to find my gifts meager or lacking. Haunted by an image of their disappointed faces on Christmas morning, I would forget my firm resolutions and find myself randomly snatching up every train set, stuffed animal or fairy princess wand that caught my eye.

Christmas morning would arrive and I would watch in dismay as my two daughters grew exhausted and overwrought while plowing through this veritable mountain of gifts. First came the overweight stockings, bulging with small toys, chocolates and fancy hair clips – already more than enough. Then it was on to the enormous stack of brightly wrapped boxes that threatened to dwarf the Christmas tree, each one filled with a doll, game, book or scarf. The day would end with a trip to Grandma's, where they'd get a second round of presents from various aunts and uncles, pushing their already overabundant present haul into the realm of the completely obscene.

My husband, who would rather darn his old socks than go shopping, suffered through this yearly excess in disapproving silence. At least until the long, tense day was over and the two of us were alone, hauling armfuls of discarded wrapping paper out to the recycling bin. He'd look sadly around our living room, which now resembled an upended FAO Schwartz, and say, "Um, honey, you do realize our over-consuming culture is destroying the earth?"

How Overspending Can Kill the Christmas Spirit

I did realize it, and the knowledge never failed to squeeze the Christmas joy right out of me. Even worse, I knew that in my misguided attempt to provide my children with the kind of magical Christmas experience I remembered from my own childhood, I was teaching them all the wrong lessons: that more is, well, more, and that they should want -- and even expect – this kind of wanton excess.

But then another year would pass and, despite my good intentions, I would do it all over again. And like the hangover that follows too many cups of eggnog or a third helping of pecan pie, the recovery took much longer than the initial revelry. My profligate spending was followed by months of struggle to pay off credit cards, along with months of the guilt over my loss of control.

Then came the economic freefall of 2008. Our family had already scaled back our expenses after my husband left a corporate job for an environmental nonprofit and, while I had just sold a book, the advance was modest and I wasn't expecting much, if anything, in the way of royalties. But we had equity in our house, our investments were doing well, and we felt pretty comfortable.

Then the stock market plummeted, the housing market tanked and, like so many Americans, our comfort turned into panic as we watched our savings evaporate into thin air. Two months into the crisis, with Christmas looming, I set out with my usual good intentions, my carefully planned list of presents, and... this time, I succeeded.

Christmas Magic Without the Buyer's Remorse

Gone were the wild last-minute impulses, the feelings of nostalgia that made me confuse the creation of Christmas magic with the smothering of my children with things. With all that we had lost and all the uncertainty ahead, this was no time to rack up bills that I might or might not be able to pay off and it was this awareness -- call it fear -- that kept me firmly on the straight and narrow. If an item wasn't on my list, I didn't even consider it.

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Best of all, when Christmas came and my kids opened their small pile of carefully chosen gifts, no one complained or looked disappointed. On the contrary, I think they were relieved. For the first time in years, the day had none of that feverish, slightly sick feeling that comes from over-consumption of anything, whether it's presents or eggnog.

We were all more relaxed and more able to enjoy our gifts -- and each other -- and I could tell my husband was relieved. 2009 was a redo and this year will be the same. It turns out that the "magic of Christmas" does not rely on excess after all, which is a lesson to remember if the economy ever recovers.

Zoe Fitzgerald Carter
Zoe Fitzgerald Carter

Zoe FitzGerald Carter

is a former journalist who has written for numerous publications, including New York magazine, The New York Observer, and Premiere. She is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings. Read her blog on Red Room.