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Cheap ways to enjoy the holidays

Americans will be watching their budgets carefully this holiday season. According to the National Retail Federation's 2006 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, the average consumer will spend $791 during this holiday season, up from $738 last year. On top of that, shoppers are expected to spend an additional $99 on themselves.

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Author Bill McKibben thinks that it's time to rethink the tradition of the cash-intensive Christmas. In his book "Hundred Dollar Holiday, The Case for a More Joyful Christmas," McKibben contends that most people want more of the intangible traditions of the season -- companionship, music, spiritual reflection, love. But we're so obsessed with the Christmas gift tally, that we wind up with stress, hassle and shopper's burnout.

"We can have a far more meaningful and satisfying holiday by sharply reducing the amount of money we spend on it," McKibben says. "By setting an informal target budget for gifts and substituting homemade presents and gifts of time for playstations, camcorders and five irons, we can begin to recover the things that really matter: family togetherness, community, faith and fun."

"There's a real focus on simplicity today," says Mona Simmons, former assistant professor of consumer science at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. "A lot of people are looking for ways to back away from the rat race. One way to get away from that is to get away from holiday spending."

Enjoying the holidays
Check out these five ways to create traditions that will warm your holidays without leaving your bank account in the red.
5 cheap ways
1. Celebration
2. Ambience
3. Loved ones
4. Spiritual traditions
5. Community

1. Celebration
It's true: You can have a holiday party without ordering a truckload of champagne. Instead of footing the bill for a holiday bash for 100 of your closest friends, agree with your inner circle to collaborate on an annual progressive dinner. Pick an evening to move from one friend's home to the next, noshing on a different course of the meal at each. And forget turkey and stuffing -- go Chinese! Go Mexican! Above all, go cheap!

2. Ambience
Don't pay Rodeo Drive prices to dress up your home for the holidays; craft your own decorations. Before she sends her Christmas tree to be recycled each year, for example, Simmons and her husband saw a cookie-shaped slab off the bottom of the trunk, and store the piece for a year. Then, while decorating the Christmas tree the following year, the couple scribbles down significant events of that year on the slice of the previous year's tree. They drill a hole in it and attach a ribbon loop. Each Christmas, these homespun mementos decorate the tree and provide a nostalgic look back through the years.

3. Loved ones
Don't let the season speed past in a blur of spending. Early each December, enjoy the gift of time well spent by getting together with loved ones to create a Christmas countdown calendar. Start, say, two weeks out, and plan a special holiday event to mark each day of the season. But your plans don't have to be elaborate. Mix warm little treats -- like an evening with hot cocoa in front of a crackling fire -- with big events, like tromping out to pick the perfect tree. Counting down the days in small, special ways sure beats counting down the shopping days -- and it saves money.

4. Spiritual traditions
Explore the spirit of Christmas around the world, and borrow books about international holiday traditions to read aloud throughout the season. Plan to attend city events that commemorate the holiday traditions your family holds dear.

5. Community
Volunteer to serve Christmas dinner at a women's shelter. Deliver the gift of warmth to the homeless by organizing a community sock drive. Buy holiday-themed paper plates and muffin cups, and bake cupcakes for your neighbors. Bundle each plate in colored cellophane and ribbon, and go door-to-door delivering plates of holiday cheer.

"There is no ideal Christmas," McKibben writes in "Hundred Dollar Holiday," "only the Christmas you decide to make as a reflection of your values, desires, affections ... the point is not to stop giving; the point is to give things that matter."'s corrections policy
-- Updated: Dec. 4, 2006
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