10/03/2012 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Be a Holiday Hero without Going into Debt

Two weeks ago I took my grandkids shopping for a little back-to-school treat for each of them. We walked in wearing flip-flops and before I had taken my sunglasses off, the kids were pointing at the Christmas trees, hopping up and down asking, "Grandma Neale, is there gonna be snow when we get home?" I know I'm not as young as I like to think I am, but did I miss Columbus Day? Halloween? Oh no! Did I sleep through Thanksgiving?

Now, I know that retailers try to hypnotize us to buy more, but Christmas in September just isn't working for me. Wal-Mart has already started its holiday layaway. The Toys "R" Us website has its "hot toy reservation" program which they say will make you a "holiday hero." For the next 100 days, our kids and grandkids are going to be nagging, "How many days before Santa?" How many months of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Up on the Rooftop" should any store clerk be expected to endure?

I'm afraid that instead of talking about summer vacation, kids will be splitting up into groups to work on their Christmas wish lists. Our kids are missing the chance to enjoy all the holidays. Just because you don't get a gift under the Jack O'Lantern doesn't make it any less special!


Here are my top five lessons to put the joy IN and take the debt OUT of the holiday season:

1. Pay It Now
Don't go into debt because of poor planning. Make a budget and help your kids with their own budgets. One year I decided to freeze my credit cards in a block of ice so I couldn't be tempted by impulse shopping. I could only spend cash. Just remember that in a moment of weakness you can't thaw the cards in the microwave... I hear it ruins the magnetic strip on the back!

2. Gift Giving
Gift exchange isn't an Olympic sport. One year I sent my daughter to a birthday party with a nice hat and scarf set as a gift. When that kid came to my daughter's birthday party she brought a complete stereo setup. She was 10 years old. My daughter was thrilled... me, not so much. We called the parents, thanked them for the thought but asked them to please take it back. The next day I called all the other parents and had them agree to a spending limit for gifts.

3. Giving of Yourself
A gift should say "I care" and not "look how much I spent." Whatever happened to homemade gifts, especially for grandparents and other family members? I will always cherish the ashtray my daughter made for me one year in arts and crafts. It doesn't even matter that I have never smoked. Giving also means giving to charity and volunteering is a great way to give back. For several years my kids and I helped serve holiday dinner at a homeless shelter. This is a great way to remember the spirit of Christmas.

4. Gift Getting
One year, when my son was 7 or 8, a family friend gave him one of those Chia things -- this one was a bald head that you spread seeds on and watched the "hair" grow. I closely watched his expression as he unwrapped the gift and I saw that look on his face. Mothers, you know that look. I was pretty sure I was going to have to fake a heart attack in order to stop my kid from saying something that would embarrass all of us. Awkward! I was so proud when my son managed to say quite convincingly, "Thank you, I never thought I would get one of these," and there wasn't even a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Whew, he remembered to be gracious. You have to do a lot of rehearsing and role-playing so that everyone remembers it really is the thought that counts.

5. Making a List and Checking It Twice
You and your kids need to make lists of what you want to buy and for whom -- to keep you on budget. Put your kids to work as "gift detectives" and have them secretly find out what grandparents and friends might want as a gift and then you can sit down with them and go over the list. Group gifts are a good thing. Your kids can pool their money and give one gift to the grandparents, perhaps something you can all make together. Give your kids jobs to do. Get them involved. Remember, every gift they wrap is one less for you to wrap.

We can all be holiday heroes by keeping things in perspective and welcoming the holidays at our own pace. Don't let anyone try to make us celebrate the 4th of July in April.