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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 12/15/2008 4:44:33 PM ET 2008-12-15T21:44:33

With the economy tanking and layoffs being announced almost daily — 533,000 American workers lost their jobs in November alone — you may be feeling anything but merry this holiday season. In fact, you may just be wishing that the holidays were behind you.

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If you are in fact plagued by serious money worries this year, here’s one of the best gifts you could give your family: Don’t overspend! As tempting as it may be to try to re-create last year’s holiday performance, the crushing anxiety over how to pay all those bills won’t be good for anybody.

“The worst thing in the world would be for a parent to overspend and then for the stress of that to leak out to the kids … or to your spouse,” said Melissa Tosetti, editor and publisher of Budget Savvy Magazine. “Even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can still put the positive spin on the things that you can do instead of the negative spin on all the things you can’t do.”

Tosetti is absolutely right. This is an ideal time to rally the troops — or, in this case, your family members — and brainstorm special, meaningful ways to share the holiday together without burning through wads of cash. The following ideas and tips can get you started.

1. Pursue free or very low-cost activities. Think about all the fun things you can do together as a family that will cost you little or nothing. You could:

  • Go for a drive through neighborhoods with elaborate Christmas decorations.
  • Attend free or low-cost holiday festivals sponsored by your city or county.
  • Go caroling (if your family members are game!).
  • Pull out those boxes of old family photographs and organize them into albums once and for all.
  • Plan to be vegetables around the boob tube and watch a whole slew of holiday cartoons or movies together.

“Have cocoa or hot chocolate while you’re doing these things,” Tosetti advised. “Anything to make it a little more special.”

2. Start new traditions, or rekindle old ones. Sure, you may read books to your little kids all the time, but when was the last time you read aloud together as a family? Again, this is the sort of activity that costs nothing but that can be truly memorable. You can plan to make your reading session special with steaming cups of cocoa or hot cider, and then have some fun figuring out what to read. Maybe everyone in the family can take a turn reading something they like? Or maybe everybody can gather around one family member who would do an especially good job reading “The Night Before Christmas”?

3. Share family stories. Are grandparents still alive in your family? How about great-grandparents? One of the most meaningful things you could do this holiday season is draw your family members out and have them share some fascinating stories and details about their lives. You can make audio or video recordings of them spinning their yarns — or, depending on your family’s style, you can devise a plan for getting the best stories down on paper. Even if you don’t have a large extended family, you can still make a point of sharing funny or special holiday memories or other memories with the people in your life this year.

4. Stimulate the senses for little or no money. Even if money is very tight, there are still ways to make your home cheery and cozy and a nice place to be. Tosetti suggested these ideas:

  • Play holiday music in the background.
  • Keep inexpensive candles lit at key focal points around your home.
  • Create pleasing scents by baking or by strategically placing cinnamon sticks and pine cones in various locations.

Video: Picking, decorating the perfect tree

5. Decorate without blowing too much cash. If this isn’t a good year for you to spend money on a large Christmas tree with all the trimmings, don’t despair. Instead, come up with a Plan B. “Home Depot sells rosemary plants in a Christmas tree shape,” Tosetti said. “They’re two or three feet tall — big enough to put a little bit of decoration on — and they cost about $12. At least you’d be bringing something green and fresh into the house without having to spend $60 on a tree.” Holly plants and holly berries can help accomplish the same thing. And to give your home the look and feel of the season, think about all the wintry items you already own: mittens, stocking caps, scarves and the like. “You can decorate with these,” Tosetti noted. “Just think of anything wintry that you can hang over a door handle.”

6. Keep meals simple. If you typically host a big holiday meal or an elaborate holiday dinner party at your home, don’t feel funny about turning this year’s event into a potluck where everybody brings something. You don’t have to put pressure on yourself to do everything you normally do this year. Everyone knows that this is not a normal year.

7. Donate to charities in innovative ways. Maybe you simply can’t give money to your favorite charity or cause this year, even though you wish you could. That doesn’t have to be the end of the matter, though. Could you give away toys or clothes that are in good condition but that aren’t being used anymore? Or could you donate food to a soup kitchen or food bank? If so, you could turn this act of giving into a family project or a family event. (Side note about this kind of giving: Call charitable organizations ahead of time to find out what they really need, and never burden a charity with broken, soiled or unusable toys or clothes.) Yet another surefire way to help a charity this year: Volunteer your time, either as an individual or as a family. You’ll find that charities in your area could use all sorts of help, from serving up meals to doing behind-the-scenes tasks such as office work and making deliveries.

10 DIY gifts

8. Make your own gifts. While this kind of giving can go easy on your wallet, homemade gifts don’t have to look cheap. On the contrary, they can make your gift recipients feel special because you went to the trouble of making them something so personalized and thoughtful. Such gifts can range from homemade sweets and breads to handmade jewelry and bath salts to gift certificates for your services. What kind of services? They could include baby-sitting, pet-sitting, running errands, cooking a nice dinner, doing handyman work, repairing or detailing a car or helping someone build a Web site, to name just a few possibilities. For 10 totally doable handmade gift ideas, check out this recent 10 Tips column on the subject .

9. Live by your list and save where you can. If you know in your heart that homemade gifts just aren’t your speed, then it’s important to have a plan of attack for buying gifts this year. Beyond just writing out a list of items that you might like to get for people, also write down a spending estimate for each gift. “I like to write down an estimate for each gift and also an actual,” Tosetti said. “So then if I overspent by $5 on that one, I have to save $5 elsewhere. Or if I only spent half of what I meant on that one, I have a little more to spend over here. That way you’re really living by that list, rather than just using it as a guide.” At the same time, though, don’t fall into the trap of assigning a certain dollar value to an individual. If you find the perfect gift for your spouse at half price, for example, you don’t have to keep on shopping for your spouse. “They won’t know that you found it for half price,” Tosetti said. “If you can find ways to save on your Christmas budget, do it!”

10. Refuse to do things simply out of habit or a sense of duty. At this time of year, we’re absolutely bombarded by obligations: Obligations to attend events and gatherings on almost every weekend in December. Obligations to send Christmas cards to all the people on a certain list, even if you’re not really friends with a good percentage of them anymore. Obligations to buy gifts for all the people on another list, even if you don’t really feel like it. At a certain point, it’s all right to say no. “It’s OK to take control of your calendar and only schedule things that you love and that are going to bring joy to you and your family,” Tosetti advised. “Just take a couple of steps back and think about what you want to do. It’s also important to take time so you can actually have some fun.”

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