When you're in debt, the responsible thing to do is to ignore the pressure to give. Suppress, as best you can, the misguided guilt that love comes wrapped in a pretty box with a red bow.
Of course, that's easier said than done, right?
You've been indoctrinated to give until it hurts, even if it means putting off paying down debt.
This was the predicament facing a Virginia couple whose situation may be relatable to anyone who is deeply in debt and also struggling with how to pull back on their giving.
"I have two young kids and will need to at least get them a few presents under the tree," wrote the wife. "My husband and I have $62,000 of credit card debt. We are working with a debt-management service to wipe it out in three years. It's tough, I'm not going to lie, but I'm worried over what to tell people about not reciprocating gifts. Any advice?"
Before answering, I needed some background. How old are the children? How do you end up with so much credit card debt?
Much of the debt was accumulated after the wife lost her job during the Great Recession. It took her a year and a half to find a new one. Almost everything went on credit — rent, utilities, groceries, she said.
There were wedding expenses, followed by child-care costs for their two kids.
"Then, it was more living expenses, bad choices, impulse buys and retail therapy," she said. "I tried to consolidate my debt into one credit card with a lower interest rate, but the fine print, which I only read later, said that it had to be paid within 12 months, which it wasn't. Over the years, more balance transfers, on top of purchases, made the total credit card amount spiral out of control."
So here they are now, trying to fix their finances.
"I'm working overtime hours and penny-pinching the best I can," she wrote. "My focus is helping my family get to a better place in life, not keeping up with the Joneses."
Special occasions — birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and other gift-giving holidays — make it hard to stick to a debt payoff plan.
"Some people expect gifts," the mom wrote. "I just don't want it to be too awkward when I hand them homemade cookies. I've tried to lay the groundwork and tell them that we are saving money this year and not to expect too much, but of course, the expectation is there anyway. We tried this last year, and they were disappointed, and the discussion of our choice of present was frowned upon."
Since the couple was working on paying down the debt, I just focused on the question of what to say when you can't give the way you want.
First, let's talk about what I suggested to do for their children, who were 7 and 20 months.
For the baby, you don't need to buy anything, because he'll probably be excited about just opening boxes. When my kids were tiny tots, I looked around for games, toys and stuffed animals that they didn't play with and were buried at the bottom of their toy bins or stashed at the top of their closets. I wrapped up those items and put them under the tree.
Yes, I did that. (All grown now, my children still like to joke about it.) But, seriously, who remembers what they got at 2?
For an older child, buy her just a few things — with cash. Pick one major thing she wants that isn't too expensive. I also suggested if they are having a family get-together, wait and open all the gifts at one time. This way, the kids get all their presents at once, which will help you feel less guilty for not giving them a lot of items.
This brings me to the relatives: Own your financial truth.
Be honest about the overwhelming debt. You don't have to share specifics, but let folks know you're trying to be financially responsible and, until further notice, you can't afford to exchange gifts. You may be surprised by how many friends and family members will feel relieved because they, too, are struggling.
There is always the possibility that you'll get pushback. Ignore it. If you're carrying a lot of credit card debt, you can't afford to worry about other people feeling slighted if you didn't get them a sweater they won't like anyway.
Your debt is your priority — not trying to please an adult acting like a child.
Don't let your emotions lead you to derail your commitment to living within your means and reducing your liabilities.
Whatever the celebration, give yourself the gift of financial stability by staying focused on paying down that debt. Besides, as I tell folks all the time, it should be about your presence, not your presents.
Singletary is personal finance columnist of the Washington Post. This column is an update of one that the Post originally published in November 2019.