I'm a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. Here's how I cope during the holidays.

A mom shares how she gets through the holidays when money is tight. (Photo: Getty Creative)
A mom shares how she gets through the holidays when money is tight. (Photo: Getty Creative)

“Yay, Thanksgiving’s over! That means we are closer to Christmas!” My daughter screeches the words in delight on our drive home from my parents’ house and my son chimes in, “Christmas is my favorite day of the entire year!” The holiday music blares as my kids soak in the magic and excitement of what’s to come, and I immediately feel the smile fade from my face. It’s quite possible that my eyes actually roll for all to see. I don’t share my kids’ enthusiasm. My thoughts immediately turn to finances: How the hell am I going to pull it off?

I live paycheck to one week before paycheck. On any given day, there isn’t enough money in the bank to make ends meet, and inflation hasn’t helped. But on most days, I don’t sweat it. I have a roof over my head, two steady jobs, my health and the health of my kids. We never go without.

So why do I sweat it once December arrives? Each year, as Thanksgiving ends, the pressure and anxiety build. Each year, I plan to put too many gifts under the Christmas tree. Each year, the pressure turns me into a bit of an extreme mom. One year I stumbled across a "buy now, pay later" site and I went as crazy as they would let me. Guess what? Most of what my kids got that year was junk: plastic, quick-to-break toys that didn’t offer much fun or joy after the unwrapping. I was left with mixed feelings of guilt and disgust, but my kids had plenty of gifts under the tree. More does not equal better. Lesson learned.

Each year I tap into my creativity to make it work, even when the numbers aren’t adding up. I have been known to skip a bill or two in December and opt out of some parties and gift exchanges. I like to spread out my spending, too. I might plan an outing for the spring, but wrap a brochure for the kids to open on Christmas morning. Monthly subscriptions (magazines or socks of the month club) are always a great option, too, because you can break up the payments. And never underestimate the power of thoughtful homemade gifts. I once turned my son’s favorite photograph into a huge poster, which still hangs in his room four years later. Coupon books for things like breakfast in bed and mom-administered massages are always well-received.

"I have been known to skip a bill or two in December and opt out of some parties and gift exchanges."

Some years are easier than others, but the holidays always bring about additional, financial stressors— Secret Santa here, teacher gifts there, a new expense at every turn. The crazy-making is understandable. But I think it is also something more than that. Maybe it’s because my kids are so damn wonderful, patient and understanding all year long when they hear the words "no, I just don’t have the money" over and over again, I want to reward them with extra gifts on the holidays. Sometimes I think — or know — that guilt over my divorce plays a role, too. I’ve had a slew of difficult years. One of the hardest was one when I was newly divorced, newly sober and out of work. Not only did I feel the financial stress and the holiday pressure, but I also felt like a failure. I couldn’t scrape together $50. I knew (and everyone was reminding me) that the holidays were about so much more than presents, but I was full of self-loathing and self-pity. I thought money would not only make Christmas special, but solve all of my problems.

What happened that year taught me something different. I didn’t win the lottery, put toys on layaway or secure a high-paying job. However, just when I thought there was no way to put presents under the tree, which was devastating to me, the holiday spirit had other plans. Multiple people helped me. I didn’t ask. I didn’t expect. But my God, did I appreciate. My sister sent me a generous check in early December. My aunt and uncle paid my electric bill. Three anonymous gift cards came in the mail. My town’s Social Services helped, too. With all of this support, I was able to keep up with bills, buy a Christmas tree, provide a nice meal on Christmas Ev, and put presents under the tree. To say I was overwhelmed by the generosity of others is an understatement.

The feeling I had that year, that was the magic of Christmas, and I promised myself I would never forget it, would never get caught up in the material side of the holiday again. Of course, each year, I struggle not to break that promise. I’m not sure why; maybe it's because the messaging of "buy, buy, buy" and "open, open, open" is all. around us. Maybe it’s just that no matter how much Christmas magic is available, a mom will still want to put too many gifts under the tree. Maybe I need to prioritize volunteering and giving and gratitude above all else during the holidays and every other day. That’s where the real magic is — it’s just that sometimes I have to look really, really hard to find it, see it and believe it. But it's there. I know it is.

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