We Can’t Afford Christmas

December 7, 2011

I don’t get it.

The math just doesn’t add up.

In case you didn’t hear, about half of us in America are afraid that we can’t afford Christmas this year.  That seems about right.  A bunch of us are out of work.  A lot more of us have given up on trying to find work.  We just don’t have a penny to spare.

But wait a minute…

Despite all the predictions to the contrary, Black Friday and Cyber Monday were a massive success.  We dropped more money than ever – $1 billion more at malls than last year.  That’s a 7% increase, which is also the largest increase ever.  We made it rain money all over cashiers and Paypal accounts.

So how does that happen?  How are half of us in the hole, and yet we’re Christmas shopping harder than ever?  I’ve been thinking about that this week.  The way I see it, there are three possibilities.  One of them involves yachts.

The Yacht Club

Possibility number one: half of Americans really are dirt poor and can’t scrape together enough money to buy an orange and a new pair of socks for the kiddies.  So where did all those Black Friday sales come from?

Yachts.  Yep, it was the super-rich billionaires going out to the yacht stores for some doorbuster deals on yachts, yacht accessories, yacht scarves, and yacht memorabilia.  While the rest of us poor peasants suffer under the cruel thumbs of our petty feudal lords as they live it up, using $100 bills to light their cigars (which are also made of $100 bills.)

We Get What We Want

Possibility two: We really can’t afford Christmas…but we also really don’t care.

It’s kind of the American spirit.  We don’t count the cost.  Hundreds of people died to build the Hoover Dam.  Did that stop us?  It cost billions of dollars to conquer the moon.  Did Americans say ‘boo?’  No.  Whatever it is, in America, money is no object.  We take it anyway and think about consequences later.

I worked long enough in a grocery store and saw enough families use food stamps for their kids’ peanut butter and then pay cash for the beer and cigarettes, that I do not doubt that the spirit of America is still alive and well.  Maybe we shouldn’t be buying so much for Christmas, but when have the words crippling debt and inevitable repossession of everything we own ever stopped us before?

A Bunch of Christmas Phonies

Finally, possibility number three:  A lot of us are pretending.

This is possibility I think is probably most likely.  Because, let’s face it, as far as recessions go, we’re in kind of a sweet spot.  Most of us have been relatively unaffected by the recession.  We’re still eating well.  We’re still living in our own homes.  But things are just bad enough that we feel really justified in complaining…a lot.

We are addicted to self pity.  We got a taste of it first when we tried to convince Mom that our tum-tums were too sick to go to school (and then spent the day like Ferris Bueller).  And there’s nothing more pitiful than the thought of half of American kiddos being deprived of their tiddly winks and cup ‘n ball games on Christmas.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen.  We just have really really high standards for what “affording Christmas” means.  When Americans say they “can’t afford Christmas,” it doesn’t mean Tiny Tim is going to go without his scrawny Christmas goose.  It means we can’t afford everything our little hearts desire.  We can only buy one giant, high def television this year, two iPhones (of course they’re 3G, so they might as well be dog turds), and a meager handful of Playstations.  Because even Christians who say that “Jesus is the greatest Christmas gift” would be pretty pissed off if Santa didn’t put any loot under the tree.

That’s what I think, and I’m usually right, but what do you say?  Are we really as bad off as we say we are, or have we betrayed the size of our bank accounts with our Christmas binge?

30 responses to We Can’t Afford Christmas

  1. Hi Matt,

    We spend money on what we value.

    Even if you’re in debt, you pay for the chemo treatment. You don’t stint on your daughter’s wedding reception, or on Christmas.

    And, if my yacht were sinking, I’d pay whatever to keep it afloat.

    As Jesus said when that red-haired babe lavished costly ointment on His feet, “The bills are always with you, and ye may pay them whenever ye will–or not”.

    (That’s from the original Greek–handy stuff original Greek).


  2. We wondered about this same thing. I guess people just go deeper into debt when it comes to making sure their kids get Christmas. Some people view credit cards as a bottomless money source. Personally, we cut back some this year. I didn’t get the snow blower I thought of getting once I saw that big price tag.

    • I was talking with someone yesterday who said the most memorable Christmas they ever had as kids was the year they got new coats, some fruit, and nothing else. There was no more money. People think memories are made of cash. They aren’t. They’re made of time spent together.

  3. We need another government program.

    A ‘Christmas subsidy’.


    • I’m with you on this one! Sort of like the old Christmas club that we saved up for all year, but now the government can do it like they do everything else for us. Great idea. A holiday stimulus.

      • That’s what we need! Mandatory Christmas bonuses. I remember working at the grocery store. My Christmas bonus was a $10 Blockbuster card. My boss was super cheap. Those were the good old days. I haven’t seen a bonus in years.

  4. The old adage about politics applies to we lowly consumers as well:

    “Follow the money.”

    Seems like even Jesus knew this:

    34 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Luke 12:34 NLT

    As John said, “We spend money on what we value.” This holds true year round, not just at Christmas.

    I agree with you, Matt. Most of us are doing ok; we really haven’t suffered. We’ve just been inconvenienced. We now have to drive a car that’s a few years old instead of going “new every two”. We haven’t been able to flip this small starter home (which was more than we could afford anyway) into the house we really wanted.

    It’s all about where we place value.

  5. Love the idea behind this post. Well-written and thoughtful. Checking out http://globalrichlist.com always gives me a little perspective when I’m feeling “poor.”

  6. I think you’ve pretty much nailed it. Christmas gifts now. Bills later (and by that time, the economy will be soaring–if we just elect those folks running for office).

    In our case, we’re finally getting regular paychecks (at the moment) after several years of sporadic-at-best income. At least I can budget. But in learning to trust God (nothing teachs us to trust God like a lack of money), I discovered the key is to pray about every purchase. If God says “Yes” then I assume He will find a way to pay for it. Often, God says “No” and we do without.

    It works. We have no credit card debt, and we’ve never missed a mortgage payment. God is faithful. The hard part is remembering to ask, and then obeying even if we don’t like the answer.

  7. We are taught by culture that more love = more $$ gifts we spend. That’s why we can’t afford $5000 engagement rings but buy them anyway (every kiss begins with K) because we have to prove our love. It’s easy to love by giving useless gifts, it’s hard to love by telling people what they really need to hear from us. We have learned to substitute gifts for love.

    Generally americans are rich and we have figured out how to get what we want even if we can’t afford it. We spoil ourselves with no thought how we can pay for it…maybe we will declare bankruptcy and make someone else pay for it!! Last thing any of us wants to hear is “NO.” That is the ultimate problem we face.

  8. I think there’s been an inflation of sorts in how much is considered “normal” in terms of Christmas spending.

    I used to work at the mall when I was in college (the memories still make me twitch) and I was kind of suprised by the people who felt driven to buy something for EVERYONE. I still remember one late-Christmas-eve customer who was flipping out because she just HAD to find the perfect sweater for her son’s girlfriend–and she wasn’t even quite sure what size she was! (I didn’t “qualify” for presents from my husband’s mom until after we were married–I thought that was the way things were supposed to be done.)

    That, and I seem to remember it being normal for the bulk of the gift-giving to be aimed at the kids while the adults sort of “outgrew” getting lots of gifts. I mean, if you’re an adult you can go buy whatever you want whenever you feel like it instead of waiting for one day a year to have all your wishes fulfilled–kids don’t have that luxury. Nowadays, there seems to be a push for adults to get a bunch of “toys” on Christmas, too (and we all know how expensive the grown-up toys are). Maybe that’s just me.

  9. Nice post, Matt. I’ve wondered the same things myself this year.

    It seems that our culture has gravitated more and more toward instant gratification–if I want it, I have the right to have it now. That mindset is probably one of the key factors that got us into this recession in the first place–and we’re awfully slow to learn from our mistakes.

  10. We vote with our wallets, our money goes to what we value, we show our love with our money… We forget that credit is money. I don’t think these things show our love of money and is evil, I think these actions show our disrespect for money, and is foolish.

  11. “That’s what I think, and I’m usually right, but what do you say?”
    It’s these little one line zingers that keep me reading!
    I can’t speak for all of America (that’s your job) but we are having a different Christmas. And not because we can’t afford it (we can, hubby had solid job w/ solid company) but because we don’t want it. We have decided not to buy into a comsumerism Christmas. After experiencing life in a 3rd world this year, accumulation of ‘presents’ leaves a putrid taste in my mouth. Lest you think I’m getting all scroogie on you, we are spending our money to buy things like chickens and honey bees for sustenance farmers, and buying young girls out of brothels. Those things won’t break, and the return & exchange line is REALLY short.

  12. “Presents are the best way to show someone how much you care. It is like this tangible thing that you can point to and say ‘Hey man, I love you this many dollars worth.’” – Michael Scott, The Office

  13. Interesting timing of this blog. Another blogging friend of mine commented on how full restaurants seem to be. If people were really hurting for money, they wouldn’t be eating out, would they, since you can eat MUCH cheaper at home than at a restaurant.

    My husband has a theory about all the Black Friday deals: people are buying stuff at Black Friday prices and then re-selling them at higher than Black Friday prices on ebay and Craig’s list to make money. That would also explain some of the violence at the stores–it isn’t just about Christmas presents, its about making a living. I helped my grandma sell the contents of her house last weekend as she was getting it ready to sell. Several people I know were there trying to get a killer deal on the stuff they were buying so that they could re-sell it at a higher price. They wanted Black Friday deals.

    Personally, I think we are becoming a nation of whiners who don’t really know what true poverty is.

    • I hadn’t thought of that, but it probably explains a lot. It sounds like an awful lot of trouble to go through to make money, though–the really deep discounts on Black Friday are usually on a few items that they sell out of right away, and when ebay gets flooded with a bunch of the same item it forces the prices down.

  14. I didn’t work for three months, and we are not doing much for Christmas except paying the heat bill and trying to catch up on the mortgage. People who have jobs, have the ability to pay, and those who don’t, can’t. Unemployment is only about 10% so that means that 90% can still do Christmas.

    What I find more interesting is that 84% of people want to get a Christmas Card, and only 12% want to send them.

  15. The material nature of our Christmas will be simple this year- hopefully it will be spiritually richer!

  16. Can’t “afford Christmas”?…

    I had trouble making ends meet on Columbus Day…

  17. Good post Matt. The right balance of sarcasm with truth and a Ferris Bueler plug to boot.

    I think we are, for the most part, posers. Generally what happens in tighter economic times is personalized socialism. I mean we take a look at spending and redistribute our wealth in a different way. We may cut our charitable giving to increase our credit card payments.

    I know it sounds bad when it’s coupled in the same sentence. Likely most people don’t set out to choose Sony over World Vision or Missonaries. What happens is we overspend and when the bills come we have to make adjustments. We want to be “good stewards” and pay our bills so we improvise.

  18. this year i cant offord christmas, i have no tree no job and i live unemployment check to unemployment check, i cant even put myself in debt over christmas cause i dont quilify for a loan or a credit card, also i have nothing to sell, nothing to get rid of and nothing to give away. does anyone have any ideas how to do something for the people i love at christmas?

    • happy and healthy December 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm

      Give love and laughter in large quantities…it’s free!! Or give them coupons. You know, “One free foot massage” for your lovy. Or maybe, “free maid service” for your kids. Or even “no chores for one week”. Be creative.

  19. happy and healthy December 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    We have very little money for Christmas. No worries though. We paid our bills and we want to be sure our bills get paid next month. We have two kids and set a $150 budget for each. Not much but enough to get them each a couple things they really wanted. My daughter’s big request was a Guinness Book of World Records (weird but cute) which I got at Walmart for about $10. My son just asked for a Skyrim game and a hoodie. We were able to get them what they really wanted and a couple extra little things. My theory on this is that maybe everybody that went shopping on Black Friday and Cyber Monday were on a budget too. Going early and getting these great sales helped them to get more for their money. Curious to know how overall Christmas sales add up. Maybe the majority of the shopping was done on those days and very little after that. Hmmm. Either way it’s silly. We’re not real religious so Christmas has always been about just being together and being able to give somebody you love something special just for the “warm fuzzies”. And maybe I’m a big grinch but my kids learned earlier than most the big secret about Santa. We have never been able to afford a lot and I hated that my kids thought less of themselves because Santa didn’t bring them lots of presents. I have great kids and I never wanted them to measure their value on the number of presents they received.

  20. I can’t get not Christmas gifts for my Two kids this yea or because i don’t have a job or anything i stuggle with everything to help my kids i cry every nite and day please i need help

  21. This is hard for me to ask for help with xmas an my bills i cant afford anything this year one income no job an a medical from keeping me out of a job if there is a angel out there willing to help me please let me know

  22. My family can’t afford not even a $5 toy for each.. My husband work and get good pay just enough to pay rent, elec gas and normal bills school lunch school bus ect.. I had to stop working since after 8yrs I got pregnant after been ready to not hve anymore. now my day care payments for one child its more than what I make in a week, we were left with one income that has to cover everything. I just sat my kids 4,12,15 and explain to them the situation. My heart is broken for them, but I remain them that we have been blessed every year and this year was just not possible. I remained them that we still have our home heat n food and we are all together and that is Christmas theirs others less fortune than us that have no home at all to be in for Christmas.

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  1. Affording Christmas — The Pastor's Blog @ Saint Matthew's - December 7, 2011

    […] Midwest house church pastor named Matt (I checked his blog and can’t find his last name) wrote about the seemingly odd cultural notion that while we all say we can’t afford Christmas this year because of the economy, we’ll […]