Who says a happy Christmas has to be expensive? Not these Brigham City moms
By Sally H.N. Wright
--overheard in the Riverdale Target toy department
BRIGHAM CITY -- This fall, Sharla Durrant of Brigham City started college at Ricks in Rexburg, Idaho. She has been living in a dormitory, and put her bed on cinder blocks to make more storage space. For most students, that wouldn't be such an inconvenience, but Sharla is 5 feet, 1 inch in heels, and practically needs a running start to leap into her tall bed each night.
When he went to visit her, Sharla's 14-year-old brother, Matt, noticed her problem. He is feverishly working on a Christmas present for his older sister: a small, handmade, wooden stool to help her get into bed.
Such is the tradition in the Durrant household. Each of the four siblings draws the name of another, and either makes a gift or purchases an inexpensive treat to be opened on Christmas Eve.
Janelle Durrant, the mother of the house, says the tradition is a meaningful one, and describes her children's gifts to each other as thoughtful and clever.
Durrant is one of three Brigham City mothers who have learned that a holiday celebration doesn't have to be expensive. At a time when the Consumer Federation of America reports more than half of American families carry a credit card debt of more than $7,000 and the average American shopper spends roughly $1,100 on Christmas treats and trimmings, the idea of an inexpensive holiday is revolutionary.
Durrant works part time as a substitute teacher and sets aside money all year to save for Christmas.
"You can always be broke in January, big time," she says. To alleviate some of their holiday stress, she and her husband, John, opened a separate Christmas account at a credit union.
"We set aside a little every paycheck. We don't get as strapped at Christmastime because we've set aside a little all year," she said.
Becky Bown, a stay-at-home mother of seven, has a similar strategy. She says it is neither painful nor depriving because it is so gradual.
"You put away a little bit each paycheck and then you have all this money," she said.
Bown's husband, Charlie, works as a mechanical engineer at Morton-Thiokol. She said when the company did away with Christmas bonuses a few years ago, "for a lot of people, it was devastating. But not for us."
Bown's careful planning has given her family more than a few Christmas gifts. It's also kept them out of debt.
"It's always my policy that on January first, we are totally debt-free. [Otherwise] you never catch up, and who wants to start the new year in debt?" she says.
Brenda Anderson, a mother of three who also works part-time as a substitute teacher, has more of a money-saving philosophy than a strategy. She and her husband, Erin, say they spend far more on lessons and athletic activities for their children than on Christmas toys and treats.
"It's not the things they have as much as the experiences and opportunities," Brenda Anderson says.
"We've found it to be a batter investment," said her husband. "When Christmas is done, it doesn't matter if they have a stash of gifts, it's not enough. All we've done is succeeded in raising our stress levels if we spend $1,000 on toys that go to the D.I. by summer."
All three moms agreed it is important to set a limit on holiday spending.
"I do a lot of clearance shopping," says Durrant. She says she shops all year, storing gifts in a hidden box downstairs and keeping track of them in a notebook.
"Then come December, you open the box and you say, 'OK, I've overdone it for this kid,' 'This kid needs a fun thing,' and you compare on the list and get everybody somewhat equal," she said.
Becky Bown and Brenda Anderson are less zealous about early shopping. Anderson said she used to purchase toys on sale early in the year, but her children's ages, 12, 10 and 7, have made that strategy too difficult.
"When they're older, you can't predict what they'll want," she said.
Of early shopping, Bown said, "Sometimes if I find what I want, but usually not. I don't have that good of a memory and what they want might change." However, she does insist her kids be clear about their Christmas wishes.
"I tell them, 'There' no changing minds. You have to know what you want by December 1st. We've got to get our orders in [to Santa]."
Many parents feel stress because of their children's belief in Santa Claus. Even when parents are concerned about finances, their children's faith in the red-suited gift-bringer seems to obligate families to purchase more than they can reasonably afford.
The Durrant, Bown and Anderson children have all believed in Santa Claus, and the youngest of the Bown children still do. Even so, their parents have made it clear that Santa may not grant all their wishes.
Durrant says she's found if her kids want something reasonable, "it's better to get them that than 10 other things."
Her children have found more than one unreasonable thing to ask for, though. She says her children begged for a Power Wheels ride-on vehicle one year, something she and her husband deemed unpractical.
"I told them Santa wouldn't be bringing them a Power Wheels, and they said, 'But Santa brings Power Wheels to other families!' I said that for big things like that, Santa has to come to the parents. He only brings those things to people with lots of money and a sidewalk to ride it on," Durrant said.
"There're always crazy things they want that aren't even in the ballpark," she added.
Similarly, Bown's children have been asking for a Nintendo video game system for year, and she and her husband, for a variety of reasons, refuse to give in.
"Our children would say they want all these things. They'd say, 'Santa will bring it,' and I'd say, 'But who do you think pays for it? You're not going to get something that Santa and Mom and Dad don't agree on,'" she said, in true parental tone.
"Parents have a big say with Santa in our home, too," Anderson said. Her oldest child, Tom, is almost 13, and compares his Christmas gifts to what his friends receive.
"He'd say his friend got this, his friend got that, and I finally said, 'Even if we made more, we wouldn't give you more. There's no point in it.'"
Because Tom and his younger brother, Neal, are close in age, their parents are careful to purchase them gifts that are similar in price and prestige. Both boys have asked for a stereo this year, and have studied prices and features carefully. Even though their mom says she wants them to have different gifts to respect their individuality, she hasn't decided how to handle the inevitable gift comparisons.
All three families say they keep Christmas affordable by giving each child only one big gift and a few smaller treats.
"We give our kids different things at different ages," said Durrant. "In about fifth grade, they each get a 10-speed bike. Before that, they're just riding hand-me-downs. At about 14 or 15, they get a stereo. It's something they can look forward to and they won't get another one."
"And we're not talking big and fancy. They don't need everything on the planet," she said.
"We get one big Santa present for each kid -- under $50 -- and something in their stockings. A lot of people give a lot of gifts from Santa, but we just do one, and don't make a big deal out of it," says Bown. Her children also draw names and purchase a gift, with a price limit of about $20, for one other sibling.
Anderson says, "Our Christmas is smaller because we do other things. We limit it to one or two bigger gifts each."
Some traditions are both fun and money-saving. Both the Bowns and the Durrants give their children new pajamas to open and wear on Christmas Eve.
"One year I made my boys pajamas," said Durrant. Her husband has a preference for long night shirts, so she made each of her sons, Mark and Matt, a nightshirt and pants to sleep in.
'They put them [the pants] on and pulled them up to their armpits," she said, smiling at the memory. 'They wore those for years, they were so big. We had quite a laugh."
Bown's pajama gift has an ulterior motive.
"I always buy my kids new pajamas for Christmas. Might as well, so they don't look so scroungy Christmas morning," she said.
Bown also has made it a tradition to give each of her children a small toy, "something they can all play with together. One year, it was all the characters from The Lion King."
But two years ago, Bown was in the hospital, waiting for her seventh child to arrive. Her husband was in charge of Christmas, and although he tried to follow his wife's instructions, it wasn't quite the same.
"Charlie got a bag of those little, plastic cowboys and Indians, and put a few in each stocking," she said. "The kids called me at the hospital on Christmas morning and said, 'Mom! Dad got us cowboys and Indians!'"
"They're getting too old for that, I guess. This year they might all get socks," she said.
Each family opens a few family gifts on Christmas Eve. At the Durrants' house, those gifts are the traditional pajamas, as well as the homemade gifts her kids give each other.
"They could get lost on Christmas morning," said Durrant. "They're more appreciated when there are only a few to open."
Even though the malls are packed with last-minute shoppers, Anderson says she and her husband try to offset the materialism of Christmas morning by having a religious, reverent Christmas Eve. When they share their Christmas Eve with extended family, the children act out the Nativity scene with their cousins.
One year, says Anderson, all the cousins wanted to participate, making the Nativity less than traditional.
"We had two baby Jesuses, two Marys, two Josephs. One baby Jesus was 7 months old and kept crawling away from Mary," she says with a laugh.
All three mothers agree the best way to combat the commercial-inspired Christmas Greedies is to do something nice for someone else.
"It's important to teach kids to do things anonymously," said Anderson, who said her 7-year-old, Jane, is enjoying leaving small treats for her friends.
But there's no need to spend a lot of money to be nice. Bown and Durrant try to encourage the same spirit of generosity in their children, helping them make little gifts of candy or treats for their friends.
"If you can start thinking about someone else, you can't be disappointed,"