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The Color of Money

Get a grip on urge to buy holiday gifts you can’t afford

It’s here, the time of year we say it’s not about the presents — and yet we spend like it is.

The question is: Do you have a method to resist the annual spending spree if your money is tight?

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More than 147 million people plan to shop Black Friday weekend this year, according to the National Retail Federation, which also is forecasting that holiday sales will increase 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion.

As my holiday tradition every year, I try to find some way to keep the heavily indebted from caving in to the pressure to buy. I recently sat down with a mother of two young boys who wanted me to look at her spending and help her figure out why she couldn’t make ends meet. She thought she was spending too much on housing. It wasn’t the mortgage payments that were breaking her budget. It was the debt she had amassed trying to live above her means. Personal loans and credit card debt took far too much of her monthly paycheck.

So we worked out a budget, which didn’t leave much to spend on things other than basic necessities .

“What about Christmas?” she asked.

“What about it?” I said.

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“I have to give my boys something,” she pleaded.

I took out a piece of paper and wrote four words: “I don’t have it.”

I handed the note to the mother.

“This is your situation,” I said.

She fought back tears and agreed that this Christmas, she would have to curtail her spending. She would have to show her love by her presence, not the presents she couldn’t afford.

But I wondered if she could pull it off. Realistically, how can she and you — if you’re in a similar position — not spend on the kids, your husband, wife, parents, in-laws, or friends? They have expectations you want to fulfill.

So I have an idea to help you this year. Think of the fire safety training you might have gotten in school. What do the experts tell you to do if your clothes catch on fire?

Stop, drop, and roll.

If on fire, you should stop moving because running feeds the flames. You should drop to the floor and cover your face. And then roll around to help put out the fire.

Now let’s apply this advice to your holiday spending:

Stop. Don’t even think about putting any purchases on credit. Just like running while on fire, continuing to use credit will make things worse. To help drive home this point, do what I did for the mother. I had her list all her debts. It was only then that she realized how bad things were.

Drop. It’s important that you drop the attitude that your family will be deprived. What is it that they really need? OK, since I know you’ll feel guilty if you don’t buy something, just keep the amount you spend low.

Roll. Roll right past the malls except perhaps the one trip you make to purchase the few gifts you think you have to buy. Don’t open the e-mails about the enticing online deals. You never save when you spend.

If you’re trying to cut your holiday spending, use the stop, drop, and roll drill as a reminder that this time of year is truly not about the presents.

Michelle Singletary writes for the Washington Post.

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