Personal Finance is Personal

I have a theory about why talking about money is mostly taboo in our society. I feel like it’s kind of like sex, or religion. It’s a very personal issue. How much money we make, and what we spend it on, is highly variable from person to person and sometimes even our self-worth and identity is tied up in it.

Asking the question “What do you do?” helps us to suss out the status of an individual we are just meeting. It would be extremely impolite to ask upon introductions “How much money do you make?” but essentially that is the signal we are searching for.

We also attempt to signal our value by the outward facing purchases we make – the cars we drive, our neighborhood, and our clothes and fashion choices. Most people assume that if you drive a luxury car or carry a Gucci bag, that you are worth a lot of money.

But most of our money choices are hidden. How much we donate to charitable institutions, or how much we save in our retirement funds. These choices make a much larger impact to our bottom line but are completely obscured from the view of bystanders.

There is also a lot of shame tied up in money. People are embarrassed about how much credit card debt they have, or how much they spend feeding bad habits each month. Opening up your income and spending to other people is very vulnerable. And most likely, you do not have the same values and priorities as anyone else. Some people choose professions that are not highly compensated but which they are passionate about. Some people go to McDonald’s everyday. Some people are subscribed to massive multiplayer online role-playing games (like World of Warcraft). Are any of these choices wrong? Of course not. These are just personal priorities.

Personal finance is extremely personal. No one can decide what your spending priorities are but you yourself. I can examine your spending and tell you that you need to cut back, and I can even suggest areas where you can trim. But the decisions are yours to make. If you most highly value travel and I suggest cutting your vacationing expenses, that won’t make sense to you, and you probably wouldn’t stick to that budget anyway. But maybe you are spending a lot more on restaurants than you’d like. If pricey meals aren’t what you value, cut back on restaurant spending and you might not even feel it. This is a cut that will work for you and that you can stick to.

An example: we have a happy, healthy dog. He’s our best buddy. Keeping him happy and healthy is a very high priority for us. However, he’s also extremely fluffy. Keeping him expertly groomed according to his breed was not high on our list, yet out of habit we were spending $80 every six weeks or so to do just that. Now, we couldn’t just let him poof out and eventually get dreadlocks. But one month, instead we shelled out $70 for pet clippers and did it ourselves in the backyard. I’ll be totally honest here. This was a learning experience. The dog looked kind of ridiculous that first time. But each month, we got better and better. We learned to bribe him into holding still with lots of peanut butter. We learned which size to use for his body and which for his ears and little mustache.

This saved a substantial amount of money over the years. And only required the $70 investment in clippers and a bit more time every month or two. (honestly not a lot more time than making appointments, dropping him off and picking him back up from the groomer though)

Now some of you are like “yeah but I don’t have a dog, so that doesn’t apply to me” and I’m here to say THAT’S ENTIRE POINT OF THIS ARTICLE. Personal finance is personal. Maybe you do have a dog or three and they are beautiful purebred show dogs and you would never dream of cutting back on their spa time. Perfectly fine, you do you. Not here to judge. But check your spending – because there is probably something in your budget (or lack thereof) that doesn’t belong there.

What could you give up? What will the budget police have to pry out of your cold dead hands?

The Sacrifice is Worth It

To get out of debt, you have to really want to.

I know that sounds really simple, but its SO true. No one ever just wakes up one morning and is like “Oops – I’m debt free! How did that happen?”

You have to be intentional, and focused, and really, really want to. It’s very simple to pay off all your debt, but it’s not EASY. I’ll say that again – its simple – you just pay it all off and don’t get any more. But its difficult – if it were easy, everyone would be debt-free and it wouldn’t require any sacrifice. (see Part 1 here)

We cut out a lot of spending to achieve our debt-free goal. Sometimes I’ll refer to these cuts as “sacrifices” although I know it is such a first world thing to say that I “sacrificed” getting a manicure. Let me assure you that I know that going down from 100 channels to 10 channels is not a sacrifice. But subjectively, these things all definitely impact your life and everything is relative.

Things we Gave Up:

Credit Cards (use debit cards)
Cable TV (got Netflix)
Movie Rentals (haha, remember when this was a thing)
Manicures
Expensive salon cuts/highlights
Almost daily restaurant/coffee outings
Organic expensive grocery stores
Trips to the Mall or Target for entertainment purposes
Movie theatres (oh, but we still see movies!)
Home Warranty
Newspaper subscription (for the coupons!)
Magazine subscription (I loved the magazine Real Simple and this one hurt)
Verizon Wireless (switched to Republic Wireless)
Gym Membership
Expensive Internet (switched to super cheap plan with a different provider)
Super Expensive Car Insurance (shopped around online and found Progressive)
Giving expensive Christmas gifts and fancy custom photo cards to every person we knew (DIY for the win)
Dog grooming (DIY baby)
Oil changes (DIY again)
Privacy (getting roommates)
Saturdays (listing things on eBay or holding a yard sale)
Expensive Date Nights

Remember – personal finance is personal. Your Mileage May Vary and these are just the things WE cut. If you want to keep your cable TV because you are addicted to HGTV and genuinely love to watch it every night – be my guest. No judgement. Don’t give up your favorite things. Just figure out what you most value (and you can’t say you most value EVERYTHING you are spending your money on!).

I can honestly say that I do not miss a single thing on the list of things we got rid of. I do not feel like we truly sacrificed anything. I have literally every single material object that I need. And I’m even more happy and grateful for what I have now than I was when I was spending a LOT more money.

Isn’t that the strangest conundrum? We’re spending MUCH less than we were, but appreciating what we have more. We go out to eat much less often, but when we do, it’s special, it’s fun, we enjoy it more. Humans get used to nice new things really quickly.

What could you give up? What are you spending money on that isn’t adding joy to your life?

I’m Not a Doctor

I want to put out there that I’m not a professional, and so this is part disclosure and part reassurance of my motives.

I’ve recently lost 25 lbs. Not a ton of weight by any stretch, and I’m taller than average so I guess I “carried it well”. But still, I felt kind of gross and so I read about losing weight, chose a strategy to do it, and followed through. Basically the strategy was the calories I ate had to be less than the ones I burned (this is called CICO – calories in, calories out). It wasn’t sexy or gimmicky, but it was free and very effective. The thing is, I didn’t take any advice from those naturally thin people who seem to eat candy bars for breakfast, or overweight people who hadn’t found a solution. But I also didn’t pay attention to the ads trying to sell me an expensive diet plan or weight loss program. I wanted advice from experts (doctors) or my fellow “losers” – the ones who had been there, figured it out, and lost weight.

Being financially fit is a lot like being physically fit. I don’t want to hear advice from a trust fund kid or a filthy rich lawyer or something. I especially don’t want to hear advice from someone who is broke! When I was looking for money advice, I wanted to hear a rags to riches story, someone who had made mistakes and turned it around. Dave Ramsey’s story resonated with me when he talked about declaring bankruptcy with two small children, being scared and vulnerable and having to figure out how to build his life back up.

And that’s kind of where I was, drowning in debt with no direction. Here’s the irony – I majored in Business in college, took lots of finance and economics courses, and then got my first “real” job as a Financial Advisor at Morgan Stanley! I passed my Series 7 license exam, as well as Series 66 and 31. (These are required licences for registered representatives who are selling stocks and things at an investment firm.) The Series 7 is a six-hour exam, so I had to study my ass off and it was no joke – you were fired if you didn’t pass after six months.

But the hysterical part of this is that I was 21 years old, with lots of student loan debt and an overpriced BMW payment. I had zero savings and a really great downtown loft with garage parking. I soon upgraded to a mortgage and some expensive home repairs on credit. My partner got a car payment as well, and I assumed that soon we’d be spending on a nice wedding.

So while I do have some financial management and investment experience, I also have the “drowning in debt and brought it back from the brink” experience. I’ve done the things I talk about and I know they work. So while your mileage may vary, and personal finance is personal, these principles work. But I’m not your doctor, just someone who lost the weight and wants to help you do it, too.

Click here if you are interested in a free one-on-one financial coaching session.

Get Some Breathing Room – The Impact of an Emergency Fund

Did you know 47% of Americans would not be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense? Is that surprising to you, or are you one of them? I used to be and it wasn’t fun. It kind of felt like living on the edge of a cliff. I was always watching my step, afraid to fall off.

There are different names for having a large pile of cash sitting around. Some people call it a Rainy Day Fund, or Just in Case Fund, but I prefer Emergency Fund. That name reminds me that this money is earmarked for an actual money problem that I may (will) encounter.

The size of your Emergency Fund is completely up to the circumstances in your life, and even your temperament. Not just the simple questions like How much money do you spend in a given month, but others like How stable is your job? Are you part of a dual income household? How many dependents are depending on you? How quickly do you think you could obtain a new income stream if you lost your main source of income?

When you are debt-free you need much less of an emergency fund because you are not making gigantic payments to the bank each month. But if you are struggling under debt, maybe your emergency fund isn’t very large yet.

In my case, my husband and I both work full-time. We have no dependents. His job is extremely stable (almost 20 years at the same company). I could reasonably find another job pretty quickly if I needed to, or at least unemployment insurance. We don’t spend as much as we make, so there’s some flexibility in our budget that we could take advantage of if something happened and we may be able to cash-flow it rather than dip into the fund.

We’ve opted for a six month Emergency Fund, meaning we could cover all of our expenses for six months if we both lost our jobs (highly unlikely). Notice that I said EXPENSES and not income. You don’t need six months of your income if you are saving 50% of that income into retirement accounts. You need to cover your expenses while you are job hunting or building a new business or whatever.

I cannot stress to you enough the peace of mind that having this money has brought into our lives. I can vividly remember losing a job and feeling extreme desperation, not being able to cover rent next month and scrambling for a new job (any job!). I remember checking my bank balance before grocery shopping. I remember Fear.

Having a strong foundation underneath you (that is not built of credit cards) is such a freeing sensation. We have so many more options now than before. It’s like a safety net that removes the stress and fear of any little thing going wrong. Now a flat tire is no longer a money emergency – it’s just a minor inconvenience. Removing the fear of small emergencies allows you to shift in your thinking from “getting by” to “planning for the future”.

Ways to Save a Baby Emergency Fund:

  • Hold a garage sale
  • Sell small things on eBay
  • Sell big things on Craigslist
  • Trade in your car for one less expensive (with a smaller payment)
  • Cut cable or expensive data plans
  • Cut little recurring expenses like warranties, magazine subscriptions, or gym memberships
  • Do a 30-day No Restaurant Challenge
  • Do a 30-day No Shopping Challenge
  • Do a 30-day Pantry Challenge
  • Any money windfalls (Christmas, Tax Return, Extra Paycheck) can immediately set up a small emergency fund.

Any little bit counts, and it can only get you closer to your goal. Make a fun thermometer and hang it on the fridge to color in as you make progress. Get the whole family involved. Plan a fun celebration (game night with grocery store pizza!) when you hit your target.

Having a little emergency fund as you are paying off debt will help ease the pressure to put unexpected expenses on a credit card or get another small loan. You’ve got cash, so you can cut up the cards and not look back. Get some breathing room. You can do this.

Tell Your Money Where to Go (Instead of Wondering Where It Went)

I use a budget. In general, I know how much money I’ve got coming in and going out each month. However, I’ve noticed many of the people in my life do not use a budget, and in fact, really dislike the word budget itself. It has a lot of negative connotations, apparently. I’ve heard many objections to budgeting, things like “it sounds so restrictive”, or “I just want to have fun without worrying about money all the time”, or even “its too complicated for me”.

So, let’s reframe the whole thing. I’m going to call it a Spending Plan. I’m going to encourage you to create a plan for your money, just like you would have a plan if you were building a house, planning a wedding, or tackling any large project. A Spending Plan is not restrictive AT ALL. The boundaries are only your imagination, your values, and your income (which let’s be honest, your income is limited whether you are writing it down or not).

Far from being restricting, I find a Spending Plan to actually bring me much greater freedom and peace of mind! I’ve never had to second guess a purchase – the money was there, it was in my plan. I don’t feel guilty for buying something crazy expensive or impractical – you see, it was in the budget. The vacation is much sweeter when you save up for it in advance, and when you come home with no lingering debt your memories are not tinged with guilt or worry.

A weird side effect of budgeting, at least at the beginning, is especially noticeable if you are in a partnership. When you are making a household budget, you actually have to communicate about things. Negotiate. Compromise. Talk about what’s important to you. A lot may come to light. He thinks HBO is vital. She may want a $200 line item for restaurants. He’s got no interest in curbing his addiction to new video games.

You also get to DREAM together. This is where things get fun. What are your hopes and plans for the future? What does your ideal life look like? Do you want to take an exotic vacation next year? That can go in the budget! Did you always want a vintage tea set, or to ride in a hot air balloon? What’s IMPORTANT to you? What do you value? These questions are huge, and money is really tied up in them. A lot of dreams cannot be reality without a bit of planning and some money. Do you want to have or adopt a child? I hear those little suckers are expensive.

So, for the practicalities. A spending plan is literally telling your money where to go, in advance. It’s a plan for spending your money. If you do not have a plan, you certainly will spend money, but it may not be on the things that you most value. A spending plan in its simplest form is your income and expenses. At the top of a spreadsheet or piece of paper, you list your income, and along the side you list all your anticipated expenses. You subtract all those expenses from the income at the top, and the bottom number should be zero. If it’s less than zero – you’ve got some decisions to make. If it’s more than zero, add more expenses until it is zero.

Now, your income is all the money you’ve got coming in, your salary, child support payments, things of that nature. Your expenses can be things that are fixed, like rent, or categories that fluctuate, like groceries or electricity. Expenses will also be needs (groceries) and wants (restaurants or entertainment). Expenses also include short-term savings like car repairs, long-term retirement savings, and donations to charity.

Now sometimes, when the line items in the “want” category are all added up, there’s less money in the “coming in” than the “going out”. In this case, priorities have to be set. What’s more important, Netflix or the cable package? Can you spend a bit less on clothes each month, and a bit more on food? Let me say that your plan will be different than anyone else’s, and let me also say that each month, your plan may change. You’re not going to get it perfect at first. It will evolve as you learn what you can drop without feeling pinched, and what you don’t want to sacrifice. If you write down all your expenses and the total income cannot cover them, at least you are aware of that. Awareness is the first step toward making a change, and you should be very proud of yourself for taking this huge leap forward.

The important part is just to write it down, to align your spending with your values, and to put your gold where your heart is. It feels really good.

Now that we have a plan for our money, I NEVER worry about money. I know that we are making decisions that align our most closely held values with our spending.

There are lots of tips for budgeting that I don’t have time for here (got a question? put it in the comments!) but one big hint: put a line item in the budget for cash to blow. That sounds crazy, and maybe it is. But hey, you’re probably going to blow a bit of money here and there, so may as well write it down. It has lots of advantages – you each get a little “free money” with no questions asked. No judgement in a partner’s eyes that you went to Starbucks twice this week. And it keeps things on an even playing field, you each get equal amounts of blow money (money to blow, not money for blow) so everything is fair, and no arguments that she got to spend more this month, no tallying up purchases to prove the other is a spendthrift. If one of you wants to save your money over a few months to purchase something big, go for it. If one of you has a vice that the other doesn’t want included in the budget (cigarettes?) it goes into this category. It’s like a pressure release valve for money arguments.

I do provide financial coaching, so if you have specific questions about setting up a Spending Plan or you are running into problems, shoot me an email or drop a comment below.

How do you feel about Budgets – love them, hate them? Set up your own, and let me know how it goes!

My “Extreme” Credit Card Free Lifestyle

Now that my husband and I have lived for ten years with zero credit cards, I can confidently say this life is not only possible, but preferable for us.

First let me give you my definition of credit card because I don’t want to lose you right away. A credit card is a little piece of plastic that allows you to borrow money for about a month (usually longer), and make a payment (or many payments) to pay off the balance of the card in the future, with interest. Sometimes they have fees, and sometimes they have rewards or points, but in general the principle is the same.

What I am NOT talking about are debit cards. Debit cards have the same brand names as credit cards, ie they are underwritten by the likes of Visa or Mastercard, but they enjoy the special distinction of being linked to your bank account, with money you’ve already earned being pulled out directly when you make a purchase. We DO use debit cards.

But wait, don’t you NEED a credit card? You can buy some things with a credit card that you cannot buy with a debit card, right? In my experience, there is literally NOTHING I cannot purchase. With my debit card alone, I have purchased everything I have required over the course of the last decade. This of course includes swiping at the gas station pump, all the stores, and everything online my heart desired. Also the big ticket items: flights, a rental car, a hotel room, a bed and breakfast suite, a hot air balloon flight. We funded our elegant wedding only through a debit card, as well as a honeymoon in Napa Valley. All our vacations, weekend getaways, and a road trip to see the Eclipse have been entirely on the debit card (or cash). We have paid exorbitant vet visits, car insurance, and all the expenses related to a house, including repair work, all new windows, and property taxes.

I have found nothing and no one who will not accept a debit card (or cash!) in lieu of a credit card. Actually, most establishments will not notice you are handing them a debit card. The only time it is even slightly less convenient than a credit card? The fancy hotel or rental car service MAY ask to put a hold on a small portion of the money in your account, say $200-300. (But if you are on vacation at a fancy hotel, I hope you have $300 to spare in that account anyway.)

I also want to assure you that your debit card has as many safeguards (the new chip, anyone?) and security features as your credit card. If your card number is stolen, or a fraudulent purchase is made, the company behind your debit card has the same guarantee that you will not be on the hook for the criminal’s charges. You can also link a savings account to your checking with overdraft protection if you are especially nervous about using your debit card for large purchases.

Let’s talk about why you may want to consider switching from credit to debit – this should be obvious, but the interest is killing us, folks. Remember, the credit card company is not your friend. The fees and interest that most everyone with a credit card pays for the privilege of spending money they don’t yet have is outrageous – Americans paid over $100 BILLION dollars in 2017 alone (and 2018 will be even higher). If you are tired of paying your hard-earned money to big banks to borrow money on short-term credit card loans, join me in making the switch.

Here are the steps you need to take to make a credit card free lifestyle possible:

  • Stop using your credit cards. Commit to living each month on the money you earn, instead of overspending. This will be easiest if you create a spending plan.
  • Cut up all your credit cards. I’m serious – pull out your scissors. Delete the saved number on Amazon or your online store of choice. Switch your online bill payments to debit cards instead of credit cards.
    • You are allowed to keep one of them if you have no money in the bank and are legitimately afraid of getting a flat tire (not a store card though, the Old Navy card is not for emergencies people).
    • If you kept one card, freeze it into a plastic container full of water. This will at least make sure you are desperate when you use it, and provide time to think twice while it’s thawing. You also won’t have it in your purse when you are at Target and find a gorgeous throw pillow you just can’t live without.
  • Now start to save. Save up $500 – 1,000 that is reasonably accessible in a checking or savings account. (If you already have this money, congrats.) This is your new Emergency Fund. This Emergency Fund will replace your credit card addiction. The next time you have a large unexpected purchase, you can use your own Emergency Fund instead of falling back on Visa to bail you out.
  • Bonus points: keep a buffer of funds in your checking account. This means that you pay this month’s bills with last month’s paychecks. So there should always be at least one full paycheck in your account at all times.

Having your own cash set aside, a spending plan, and no credit cards on hand to tempt you into overspending frivolously, will help you avoid the temptation to go into credit card debt. Now you can create a plan to pay off your credit card debt without digging yourself into a bigger hole in the process.

The peace of mind that comes with knowing you can actually afford to spend the money you are spending, no longer dreading opening a credit card statement, ending the cycle of each month getting more and more difficult just to pay the minimum amount due… believe me, it’s worth the time to make the change. It may not be easy at first, but I promise it’s worth it.

What about you? Have you ever tried a credit card free lifestyle? Think I’m crazy?

Credit Cards are Not Your Friend

Many people in my circle have wallets full of credit cards, and they act like these cards are doing them a favor when they are able to conveniently swipe one for something they couldn’t otherwise purchase. They cannot imagine what they would do without them, like an old friend who’s always there for you.

Credit card companies are not in business to make your life easier, to send you gallivanting around the world with free miles, or to provide you help with building a good credit score. They are in business FOR THE MONEY. I know you know this already, but let’s just start there.

They make bah bah billions on us schmucks that are just trying to make “ends meet” when we run out of money at the end of the month. Or the savvy travelers who are racking up “monthly spend” limits in hopes of a free flight to Shanghai. Or the young’uns who were given a card and a free T-shirt at their college orientation event and decide to put their expensive books on it – no harm in that right? It’s just too easy.

Even when credit cards send you the nicest, most convenient letters in the mail with blank checks included! Even when they offer you a year of no interest. Even when they will let you balance transfer ALL your other credit card debt onto theirs. Even when they give you 10,000 Bonus miles. Even when they tell you that you can “skip a payment” for the Holidays. THEY ARE NOT DOING THIS BECAUSE THEY ARE NICE.

They know something you don’t know. They know that statistically, the House always wins in the end. They know that once in a while you’ll miss the fine print. They know that most of those miles expire, most of those balance transfers will not be paid off by the end of the promotional period, and that you will, about one month out of a dozen or so, miss your payment date (especially when they change it). They know this.

Look, I’m not saying you’re not smart. I’m smart! I could probably win this game most of the time. But why even play when the odds are stacked against you? They would not offer all these “rewards” if it didn’t make them gobs of money. They are not Santa. They may be the Grinch!

Just a few of the many, many reasons I’ve opted out of the credit card game:

  • To simplify my financial life. No bills, no balances, no payments.
  • To reduce risk.
  • So I don’t have anxiety when I realize I missed the payment date and have to wait on hold trying to beg them to reverse the fees.
  • So I have incentive to keep my emergency fund accessible – without credit cards to fall back, the need for actual cash is much higher. (If you don’t plan ahead, credit card companies will be happy to bail you out.)
  • To preserve my independence – owe nothing to anyone.
  • Because literally not a single person has ever gotten rich off their credit card rewards.
  • Because there is nothing I cannot buy with my debit card instead.
  • Because just like Oscar Wilde, I can resist everything but temptation. (And it’s very tempting to swipe the card and figure out how to pay for it next month.)

What about you – is your best friend a credit card? Are you winning the game, or did you opt out?

Choose Love for the Best Christmas Ever

Can you remember when you were a kid, and there was magic in the air around Christmas? Yes presents... but something else too, something special? My most favorite things about Christmas hardly cost a cent. We made hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. We cuddled in our fuzzy pajamas. We spent lots of time with family and friends. We made candy and cookies at grandma’s house. We visited Santa. A very, very small part was opening presents on Christmas morning, and the best part of that were the special little things in our stockings (that we opened last). The only presents that I remember were the experiential presents - the board games we played together. The crayons and the legos that we used to create our own worlds. The easy bake oven (and oh how I love to bake), the bike that I rode every day, the roller blades (remember those?!). Even the pogo stick (haha!) that I promptly fell off, and only lasted about a week.

But now. Fast forward to this year, or better yet, last Christmas. What was your favorite memory? Was the holiday just sort of a blur, full of stress, and money flying out the window? Did you put pressure on yourself with a huge list of presents and parties and specially designed cards with your photo and a stupid newsletter and mailed them to everyone you know? Did you have any fights? When Christmas was over, were you left with too much plastic stuff and a gigantic credit card bill?

I’ve been really intentional with my new frugal holidays. I’m not cheap. I’m not “skipping Christmas”. I’m just opting out of the things that do not make me happy. Like waking up at 4am (or 2a? Or now midnight?) on the day after Thanksgiving to fight through the bad weather and the crazy people and trying to “shop more to save more”. I honestly have family who went shopping on Thanksgiving day this year. “Dear God, we’re thankful for this food - oh CRAP WALMART JUST OPENED. LET’S GO.” Can we please not? There is no sense in it. If you really NEED that gigantic TV (and you don’t), just buy it online with a coupon code. No fuss. There was probably a sale in October that was better anyway. (Side note: if you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford it.)

What else? Fancy photo Christmas cards. No. Just stop. You DO NOT NEED to impress all the people with your matchy matchy outfits and props and expensive photo card and glitter calligraphy addressed envelopes. NO. Opt out of that shit and breathe a sigh of relief. Literally no one will miss it. You least of all. And you know what - if you do miss it, and its something you truly value - keep it up. No judgement.

As for gifts… there are very few plastic crap gifts that you give that people enjoy. If you find yourself at Bath & Body Works picking up miscellaneous lotions and candles on a buy 7 get 1 free sale for all the ladies in your life - just STOP. We don’t need that junk. We’re probably just going to rewrap it and give it to another friend next year.

Give instead - I’m not going to say “your time” because that's such a cliche. But seriously, do give your time. But also - cull your list down to the few people that are very important to you. Think really, really hard about them, preferably all year long. Make something at home that they would appreciate. Cookies are always a hit and anyone can pull off. Tins of three different kinds of cookies - no one will turn that down. Bonus - cheap, easy, and MUCH more fun than fighting crowds at the mall the week of Christmas desperately searching for the latest gizmo that all the stores are probably out of, or worse yet, looking for YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT. Trust me - cookie/candy tins go a long way. Or do you have a skill? Maybe you can knit, sew, or crochet - handmade scarves or throw pillows?

Or I have an even better idea. Want to just show up and spend time together, and skip the gift giving obligation? Odds are, so do they. 69% of Americans would skip gift giving at Christmas if their friends and family were on board. Just ask - they might be just as relieved as you to stop the consumer cycle of doom.

Also - opt out of the stupid Secret Santa and the million gift exchange games in your life. Do not sign up. No one will notice. Save yourself the time and money and just show up instead and laugh at all the stupid gifts people swap.

The last few years my extended family was basically just swapping gift cards on a far fetched guess of what each person wanted/needed. Thank you - but there’s no Speedway gas station anywhere near my house. Thank you - but a $25 gift card at William Sonoma will buy me one fancy spoon, and I’ll feel really bad when it gets stuck in the garbage disposal.

Seriously. I empower you this year to say NO to these ridiculous marketing schemes we’ve adopted as requirements. Save time, money, and your serenity this year by opting out of “Pinterest Christmas” and opting in for the very best and most important parts. After all, the reason for the season is love, not plastic stuff. YOU are in charge of how much you spend, and how stressed out you feel. Choose love instead of shopping and you will be much happier, I promise.