My First Christmas: Five Stupid Mistakes From a Personal Finance Blogger

christmas ornaments and a candle - dumb holiday mistakesI never thought that at age 45, I'd celebrate my first Christmas. But nine months after meeting my current partner, I'm all set to do just that.

Being Jewish, I never celebrated the holiday. When I was little, and on behalf of younger relatives today, there were Chanukah presents. But those are small and only given by, or to, close family members. Sure I counted many Christians among my friends and exchanged a few gifts over the years, but one present here and there doesn't require much strategy.There are non-Christians who celebrate the holiday with a tree and presents, just for fun, and many who've pooh poohed the idea that Christmas is just for Christians. They say that putting up a tree and opening presents is for everyone, regardless of religion. I beg to differ. A holiday should mean something. Encouraging an empty observance feels just that to me: empty and vaguely insulting to those for whom Christmas has meaning.

I won't get into how it feels to be on the sidelines of the holiday season (although it's a lot worse than getting picked last in gym class), and I won't get into how having a birthday in December adds to the misery of not participating in the dominant event (but the former is always overshadowed by the latter, something you don't even celebrate). WalletPop is a personal finance site after all.

All of the above is emotional, not financial. But as I've recently discovered, the two are inseparable when it comes to Christmas.

This year, I am seriously involved with a man who celebrates Christmas. He has a large family and three children, all of whom eagerly plan for the holiday. There are parties, dinners, wish lists, letters to Santa and church services, and I am lucky to be included in all of it. Better yet, for the first time in my life, it doesn't feel false.

But it's also humbling and I've done pretty much everything wrong when it comes to shopping. It's a humiliating thing for a retail reporter and contributor to a personal finance site to confess, but there's an end of the year urge to purge, or er... splurge. Let my mistakes be a lesson, to me and anyone else in a similar position.

1. I Didn't Budget. Yes, I write for a personal finance site, and sure, I'm considered financially savvy, but they say doctors make the worst patients. The same apparently applies to finance writers.

I thought, "There's just these few people. How much trouble could I get in?" Plenty as it turns out, as I struggle not to give in to every urge. "Look, these fleecy pajama pants are perfect for ______," even though I'd already gotten her two presents and would have to buy one more for her older sister in the interest of fairness. Had I made a budget, this would have gone down quite differently.

2. I Didn't Make a List, for them or me. I made a mental list, but not having something solid for reference has me waffling at the store, and this indecision is leading to over-buying (see mistake number 1) and not writing down things that I want, which means I'll likely ponder returning a gift and risk hurting someone's feelings or hanging on to dud gifts. I'm used to buying myself the things I want or need; it would have been nice to receive them as gifts instead.

3. I Procrastinated. I didn't know I was procrastinating and thought two weeks was still plenty of time to shop, even though I was the very person writing story after story about how Christmas shopping starts earlier every year and retailers are running very lean inventory, making it more likely that popular gift items will sell out.

They have indeed sold out and those Monster Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and Xbox Kinects are no longer options.

4. I Missed Sales. Black Friday notwithstanding, there have been some great sales in the past six weeks. But thanks to procrastination, most of those are finished, at least on the gifts I wanted to give. In fact, most of those gifts can't even be bought at full price any longer.

5. I Didn't Understand the Rules. I didn't know that my boyfriend's siblings still give each other presents, or that the big extended family party is one week before Christmas. One is leading to last-minute stress about whether to get something for them, too, and the other has significantly shortened my shopping window.

Next year, if there is a next year, I won't make so many rookie mistakes. At the very least, I'll have this story as a reference guide to pull up in November. And that'll be early November, when I start making a list, asking to see theirs and scoping out the sales with purpose. This year, at least, there will be cookies and new family to gather around. I'm still learning, but isn't that part of the true meaning of Christmas?
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