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'Santa' and 'budget' can coexist

As the economy continues to struggle along, so do many Americans, and that can make taking part in the holiday gift-giving tradition tricky.

'Tis the season for gift giving because we want to show our love and appreciation to family and friends. Or, maybe we just feel like we have to. Whatever the reason, as the economy continues to struggle along, so do many Americans.  That can make taking part in the gift-giving tradition tricky.

The Winter family from Allen Park, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, work for a parking company that does valet service. Combined, mom Heather and dad Seth, make $25,000 a year with no health care benefits.

"I would say that we're on the top edge of poverty," says Heather Winter.

The couple have two children, a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. The kids' health care needs are covered by Medicaid and Heather feeds her family with help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, also known as food stamps. She says the holidays can be stressful, especially when her seven-year-old asks for something they just can't afford.

"You know he'll want like a $50 Lego thing and that's just not in our budget right now and I've been trying to hint that Santa might be on a budget this year and he likes to come back with, 'well, his elves can make it.'"

Heather and her husband Seth in their role as Santa's elves saved $200 for Christmas this year. They keep it cash only, no buying gifts on credit. Seth scraps cars for extra cash.

"They were paying like $13 a car battery and he had like eight of them," says Heather. For her part, Heather fills out on-line surveys,"and I managed to get $56 dollars out of that."

Heather says she's going to use some of the money to buy the kids toys, but she makes most of her gifts: Home made jams, spice rubs, and pajamas from fabric store remnants.

Personal finance expert, Farnoosh Torabi says when you're low on funds, the Winter's cash-only rule is the way to go.

"It's hard to part with cash, it actually hurts from a psychological stand point as opposed to swiping that credit card," says Torabi.

She says if you're going to a holiday party where gift-giving is part of the tradition, but buying for more than one person is impossible, suggest Secret Santa.

"So maybe be the person who is a little daring and speaks up for everyone else and makes that suggestion," Torabi says you'll be glad you did.

She adds that if you are buying presents, don't wait until the last minute because that's when you spend more -- out of guilt -- and come January you'll be suffering from a painful holiday-debt hang-over.

Robert Manning, CEO of the responsible debt relief institute and an economic sociologist, says going into holiday debt is still pretty standard practice. According to Manning, it makes sense that low-income families stray from strict budgets over the holidays.

"This is the time that you have an opportunity to say the sacrifices were worth it demonstrating that things aren't as bad as they've appeared over the rest of the year," he says.

Unfortunately, Manning says, going off budget when you are struggling financially can mean putting gifts on plastic with out-of-control APR's or worse -- taking out pay-day loans.

"Americans as a society are kind of at a crossroads right now. They don't know if they are going to back to 2005 or if this is the new normal," he says.

According to Manning, because our fiscal future is up in the air, there's a split between those who throw caution to the wind and spend like it's 2005, and those who spend within their means over the holidays.

Back at the Winter's in that Detroit suburb, mom, Heather, is ready for Americans to tone down the all the gift buying and keep it that way.  

"I would hope that people are looking at their budgets and not going crazy with it, you know we need to look more toward what we need than what we want," she says.

About the author

Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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