FIVE IDEAS: The happy holidays edition

Saturday, November 29, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST

Holiday money woes

The economy could scarcely have picked a worse time of year to take its historic downturn.

The recession is having a noticeable affect during the latter months of 2008, when people are most likely to spend disposable income on gifts for Christmas, the nation's most commercialized holiday. CNN reported the average American household will be spending $53 less on Christmas presents this holiday season.

People may be looking harder for details, whether they’re online or in coupons that are often ignored. Things are even more dire for those consumers who are among the thousands of people who have lost their jobs in the last few months.

At least traveling to be with family and friends will be cheaper, with unleaded gasoline dipping below $2 a gallon for the first time since 2005. But more than a million Americans with jobs related to the automotive industry are probably more concerned about the way GM, Ford and Chrysler are all struggling to stay afloat.

The country’s unemployment rate, which started the year at 4.9 percent, rose from 6.1 to 6.5 percent in October, and most indications say it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Americans can no longer rely on their stock portfolios or mutual funds as sources of Christmas money, as most of them are suffering losses at historic rates.

As bad as the economy is right now, Americans may be more concerned with how they can avoid losing the money they have, rather than spending it on gifts.

How has the sinking economy affected your investing and spending habits?

— Luke Thompson

Get crafty for the holidays

As stocks fall and budgets shrink, families are looking for cheap gift alternatives this holiday season. Craft stores around town are offering the supplies, tips and training to build your own solutions to a growing gift list.

Bring out your inner Martha Stewart, and try asking friends and family to exchange only gifts they make. Why spend $40 on a candle when with a little hot glue and last year’s candy canes, you can turn a glass candle holder into a festive (and cheap) decoration?

Or, use this holiday season to tell your loved ones how you really feel. Write a poem or note on a decorated card. Michaels craft store and Hobby Lobby sell special paper, stickers and other craft supplies. Otherwise, just keep it simple with markers and colored pencils.

If you just don’t have the cash, try giving the gift of time spent with that special someone. Bake cookies together, buy each other dinner or watch a holiday movie. Offer to give them a back massage or a ride to work.

And if you’re worried about getting something for everyone you know, try organizing gift exchanges among groups of friends and family. That way, everyone gets a gift, but no one has to make 10 individual scarves, wine charms or picture frames.

How are you and your friends and family getting around buying expensive gifts for each other this holiday season?

— Lindsay Toler

Give a little, give a lot

The sound of bells ringing for loose change outside department stores and public buildings is already part of the sounds of this upcoming holiday season. Yet as families cope with tough financial times, some organizations are predicting less charitable giving this season than in previous years. In June, the New York Times reported that last year charitable giving actually rose 1 percent from the year before, with inflation adjusted. The article, however, predicted a decline in large donations in 2008 and mentioned some large donors are asking for longer periods of time on donations they’ve already promised.

According to an article from The Associated Press, however, charitable giving is "recession-proof," meaning that when there are problems with the economy, individuals' financial hardships don't stop them from giving to others who are dealing with their own hardships. In essence, charities are meant to help out others during hard financial periods.

In Columbia, where several charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Central Missouri Food Bank and the Salvation Army gear up for the holidays to provide needy families with clothes and food, the holiday season can mean large contributions. After surviving the fall’s economic surprises, this holiday season might mean those who usually turn over a check for charities will look for other ways to help. Some alternative ways of donating might be volunteering time and energy, clothing, furniture, or food products instead of sending money. Through World Vision, people can purchase animals for families in Africa who benefit from the profits of the animal longer than a direct donation. A goat is $75 and two chickens are $25.

How will the economy affect your charitable giving?

— Jennifer Herseim

Travel on the cheap

With each new day bringing worse economic news than the previous one, it should come as no surprise that the experts are forecasting a slow season for holiday travel. The American Automobile Association expects air travel around Thanksgiving to drop by 7.1 percent from a year ago, although automobile travel should only drop by 1.2 percent, thanks to plummeting gas prices.

And while gas prices are driving flight fares down as well, the major airlines that impose fees on checked baggage don't appear likely to reverse course. President Bush did announce a moratorium on lost baggage and consumer violations fees, which will kick in around mid-December, but this is a savings most travelers won't see ever reach their pocketbooks.

So what can travelers do to save this December? Savvy packing and smart carry-on use is one way consumers can save bundles. Travelers should also take advantage of guaranteed airfare policies, which give travel credits if the price drops at any point after purchase. However, many such policies are only valid if tickets are purchased directly from the airline—so do the research before purchasing tickets through external travel Web sites.

How are you spending the holidays with your loved ones this year?

— Brian Eason

Happy holidays or Merry Christmas?

Oh holiday tree, oh holiday tree, how politically correct are thy branches ...

This could be the tune heard in many areas across the country this winter as more and more cities have taken to decorating a holiday tree, trying to keep the separation of church and state alive. Yet, every year at the White House, the president and first lady light the National Christmas Tree. There is no universal rule or answer to the Christmas controversy.

This indecision extends to the commercial sector as well. Many retailers try to refer to the "holiday season" in an attempt to include all customers. But sometimes, that decision backfires.

In 2005, for example, the Catholic League threatened to boycott Wal-Mart for shying away from the term "Christmas" in its advertising and store decorations. As a result, Wal-Mart decided to ditch the word "holiday" one year later and return to its Christian roots. However, many other retailers, like the Gap clothing conglomerate, have stayed the PC course.

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly has been at the forefront of the public debate. O'Reilly argues that a liberal conspiracy has been enacting what he calls a "War on Christmas" by trying to undermine the Christian presence in the media, advertising and government.

While public officials and high-profile companies squabble about the terminology for the winter season, everyday people are left confused about how to greet their friends and neighbors. Clearly, there is no one right answer.

How much does the name of the season actually matter to you?

— Chelsey Pollock


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Troy Kite December 9, 2008 | 9:35 a.m.

It appears there is a war being waged in our country..... a war against religion. How much longer will the very name of our Lord be allowed in our society? What is happening in America? Are we being programmed to become a nation of non believers? Why is religion under attack?

There is always a motive and seeking out that motive is the most important question of this century. It will determine mankind's fate.

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Jeff Strum December 9, 2008 | 1:23 p.m.

I had a great income and a promising future in the auto industry. My wife was in the mortgage industry. This year we have gone from the American dream to barely hanging on. Now I am being as creative as possible to just get the mortgage paid and food for my children. With healthcare out the door, I am praying that the cough does not go south, or my boy does not get hurt in gym. It is truly a trying time when we have to define our character and make the best we can. I am thankful my son, who is 12, will not be heartbroken when there are no presents under the tree. He is making all his gifts for the grandparents this year, and having fun! I am doing little things to keep in the spirit by getting together old clothes for donation, a little text from Santa letting him know I care. Please remember, SMILES ARE FREE!

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