Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas on the Dole

This is it—the thing I thought never could happen: my second Christmas on the dole.

Last year, the whole experience was new. Instead of moping, I decided to savor that Christmas as a once-in-a-lifetime holiday month off work—something busy professionals never experience.

Enjoy every minute, I told myself. By Christmas 2010 you may be working in some far-flung locale—far removed from family and friends, maybe even having Christmas dinner alone. I determinedly decided to wring every drop of Christmas cheer out of the 2009 holiday season.

But Christmas 2009 got up-ended by illness, My body, exhausted after 11 months of unrelenting work stress that culminated in job elimination, could take no more.

Antibiotics put me on the right track for a beautiful Christmas until I sprouted golf-ball-sized lumps and the worse itching ever—an allergic reaction to the antibiotics.

No wonder I had little zest for Christmas after that. As I coughed my way through decorating the tree, I even found myself teary-eyed as I hung beautiful ornaments given to me by former co-workers.

Or, was my emotion just the reality of my then-fresh on-the-dole situation?

Unemployment was still a quirky novelty in December 2009—a sociological experiment to observe and dissect (Christmas presents had been purchased while I had a paycheck; lack of funds for gifts were not a real concern last year.)

Thankfully, I've been healthy this year. No nasty infections zapping my Christmas mood. Perhaps my wellness comes from getting adequate rest or maybe it is because I no longer mingle with germ-ridden co-workers. I haven't been sick once since last holiday's cough fest.

So, time to enjoy Christmas 2010.

But, when on the dole, what is "Santa" to do? Why joyfully give gifts of course!


My Christmas on the dole is not that different from previous years. And, no, I am not talking about buying with plastic (an absolute no-no for those of us on the dole).

Several years ago, most of my friends and I stopped exchanging gifts. Because we all had good jobs then and could buy what we wanted or needed, we decided our gift to each other would be getting together over the holidays without stressing over a gift exchange.

On the home front, some Christmases ago while we were all three still employed, my parents and I, by choice, changed our gift-giving approach. In order to participate financially in some causes we believed in during the season, we set a price limit on our gift giving to each other. We so enjoyed the challenge of finding great gifts for little money, that each year we kept cutting the amount. About six years ago it finally got down to a mere $10 per person.

Does that sound dismal and cheap? It's not, really. It's more fun than you might imagine.

Here are the rules:

  1. No more than $10 per person in actual money can be spent.
  2. You may give away anything you already own without including its value in the $10 total. (Some call this re-gifting. I call it getting Great-Grandma's cut-glass bowl decades sooner than I expected.)
  3. A "buy-one-get-one" deal at the store doesn't count as spending money if the giver actually needed the "buy-one" portion and simply gave away the "get one" part. (This works great on fancy food items.)
  4. Homemade items (candy, spiced nuts, potholders, etc.) don't have to be counted in the dollar amount, although in the spirit of the law we refrain from giving each other gifts that require buying expensive components not already on hand in order to craft the gift.
  5. Some pharmacies give away a gift card with a new prescription. (Target, for example, hands out a $10 gift card. Some stores give as much as $25.) Those gift cards can be used without being factored into the total cost.
  6. Modest gifts "purchased" with credit card reward points are allowed without the cost being included, but common sense should prevail to stay within the accepted bounds.
  7. Thrift-store shopping and garage-sale buying are encouraged but only if the item is useful or needed. No dust catchers or frou-frou just to be adding to the pile.
These days, the fun comes from our yearly contest to see who can give the most creative and appreciated gifts while spending the least money. Everybody agreed I won the year I gave my mother a gift certificate to her favorite charity thrift shop! Believe it or not, the store manager said it was the first time he'd ever been asked to do a gift certificate.

I have to admit my mother and I are pretty competitive. For instance, Mom called tonight pretending to be worried about her Christmas shopping, but we both knew she was gloating over her shrewd gift gathering: she and my father have 17 gifts wrapped and waiting for me; they purchased everything they thought I might want or need, but had only spent $20.14 total (Sometimes you can't hit it right on the button.)

I recently saw a news story about Queen Elizabeth's Christmas traditions. Surprisingly, royal family members buy small gifts to exchange. But, this year, in a cash-strapped economy, the queen will be celebrating what she calls her "credit-crunch Christmas," requesting no gifts for herself or Prince Philip. She's asked for all would-be gifts to be donated to charity instead.

Perhaps I'm not broke, I'm fashionable. I must be a trendsetter if the Queen and royals are following suit. (After all, the Queen lives off public funds herself.)

I've spent only ten dollars each, but my parents have 14 gift bags to open this year. Some bags even contain five or six items. And, there are even some expensive name-brand items among them.

This Santa has only spent twenty dollars for her entire gift-giving season!

I did make one Christmas-on-the-dole concession: not mailing Christmas cards. I dislike skipping this tradition, but postage cost me more than sixty dollars last time, and I can't justify that cost even when using stockpiled, discounted cards purchased two years ago at an after-Christmas sale. I'll be hand-delivering cards this year, which may be a nicer plan anyway since it means I'll be spending time with them, too.

The real irony?

I've celebrated a lot of past Christmases, but so far, 2010 is my favorite—yes, even rising to the top over many "perfect" childhood Christmases. Most holidays of my executive career have found me stressed out planning employee parties and desperately trying to finish some year-end work project so that I could take the actual day of the holiday off work. I remember one horrible Christmas in which I worked 90 hours in one week just to be able to take Christmas Day off. Many Christmases found me ill-tempered from fighting mall crowds to buy expensive not-well-thought-out gifts that ultimately got returned even before I could pay off the credit card bill.

And, I can't tell you how many Christmas cards have been addressed at 1 AM one stressed out night during Christmas week because I ran out of time.

But none of that for me this year.

As I looked through those Black Friday sale advertisements in the newspaper, I wondered if anyone really needed a cupcake maker or a fruit dehydrator and exactly how many sweaters, DVDs or PJs would be received before a person's closet overflowed? And, then I remembered, because of my life on the dole, I didn't have to get up at 3 AM to go to insane sales, and I'm able to drive past those long lines in the post office parking lot without a thought. Better yet, I don't have to worry about my credit card bill in January.

Like the rest of the world, I don't have a clue what 2011 holds. I don't know if I'll be working a traditional job or running my own successful business. I don't know if I'll be living in my own home or living with family. I don't even have a clue what geographic region of the country I might be in to celebrate Christmas 2011. (But, look on the bright side: I might live somewhere a white Christmas is at least a possibility—something I've never seen in my home state.) But, for now I am practicing carpe diem as I savor every moment of this delightfully, unstressed holiday season. I'm enjoying visits with family and friends. I'm keeping the reason for Christmas in my heart. And, this Christmas 2010 on the dole may be the best Christmas of all.

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Just for Fun: Don't let the Dole be the Grinch that steals your Christmas! Remember, without presents or feasts, Christmas came to Who-ville just the same.


Jo Upton said...

So wise...I think this is one of my favorite blogs of all times!

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I am so impressed with your gift buying abilities and I love the creativity that goes into the searching and the giving.

Sounds like something I need to implement.

Susan Sipprelle said...

Please take a look at "The Month before Christmas" poem on our site, too>


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