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A rotten economy doesn’t mean you’ll have a lousy holiday

Posted 12/16/2008

Local experts say lean times could bring rich rewards

This is shaping up to be a real great holiday season, isn’t it?

For starters, a lot of people lost their jobs this year, and those who found another one often had to settle for less pay.

Even if you kept your job, your net worth plummeted as your 401K tanked and the value of your house dive-bombed. And most everybody had to work harder as companies trimmed their workforces and asked three or four people to do the work of five or six.

All this leaves some wondering how they’re going to afford a Christmas tree, let alone the presents underneath. They’re picturing sad faces on Christmas Day, maybe even a few tears.

Well, if you’re one of those wondering if these lean times are going ruin the festivities and scar your kids for life, take heart: many local experts on family finances and relationships say there are plenty of ways to have a joyful holiday despite our current economic doldrums. In fact, some predict this could be your best holiday season ever.

"The greatest gift you can give your children is to teach them how to cope with difficult situations like this one," says Jeanne Hilton, a state specialist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and an associate professor in social work.

"Life is going to hit you once in a while, and if you don’t allow your children to see that, they are not going to be prepared when it happens to them. You can despair, or you can decide that you’re not going to let it get you down. That’s the only real choice you have. Make the best of what you’ve got."

Bill Evans, a Cooperative Extension specialist in Human Development and Family Studies, agrees.

"A lot of families these days are anxious about job loss and what the future is going to look like," he says. "You have to be upfront and honest with kids and manage their expectations. If there is going to be a big difference in Christmas this year, they need to be talking about that."

A 2007 American Psychological Association survey found that money and work are two of the top sources of stress for 75 percent of Americans. The events of 2008 — the stock market contraction, the foreclosure crisis and the recession — can only have pushed that number higher.

Hilton isn’t surprised by those numbers. In her view, the current economic recession will have a more profound affect on Americans than previous ones because our society has become much more focused on work and consumption than on family.

"I’ve seen this as a crisis waiting to happen," she says. "In our country we work more hours than any other industrialized country. We don’t take the vacations we’re entitled to and we’re afraid to take those vacations because we might not have a job when we come back."

In previous eras, most families had one source of income — the father. These days, both parents typically have full-time jobs. One-income families always had a cushion; when times got hard, the wife could get a job and bring in more money. Today, that option is gone.

"Before, there were a lot of things you could do to save money because you had the time," Hilton said. "You could make your own bread or shop around for savings. You didn’t have much money, but you had time. Now we don’t have either."

If you can’t keep up with your spending when both parents are working, you have to take a long, hard look at your spending. Hilton and Evans aren’t alone in their opinion that spending has, in Hilton’s words, "spun out of control" in our society.

"It’s time to stop and look at what’s really important," Hilton says. "Just as we’re having a market adjustment, now we need to have an attitude adjustment."

Evans said a good time to have that conversation is when your children are making out their Christmas lists.

"You don’t want to avoid the conversation, that’s the big thing," Evans says. "Openly communicate about it. Bring the children into the solution."

It’s also wise to include your children in the discussion about what the family can do around the holidays to have fun.

"They can come up with some pretty creative ideas," Hilton says.

Hilton’s children are all grown now, but she remembers raising them under some pretty lean circumstances — times when she would mix fresh milk with powdered milk in an effort to make it last longer, or when she sewed the kids new pajamas by hand. Money was in short supply, but happiness wasn’t.

"To this day, my kids don’t remember one toy, but they remember the goofy things we did," she says.

"These are lifelong lessons. We’ll all have to deal with a disappointment at some point in our lives. If parents look at it as a challenge and include their children in solving it, the children will feel proud that they are part of the solution. It’s something they’ll always remember — long after they’ve forgotten about the toys under the tree."

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