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Spreading Holiday Cheer on the Cheap

Published 12/04/2011
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

Bridgette A. Lacy writes about resources for the unemployed twice a month.

Raleigh resident Elise Enders Thompson is spending less money this holiday season, but her gifts are just as meaningful. She's combining bargains with her imagination to create real keepsakes.

Thompson, a former administrative assistant for BB&T Bank, was laid off in September 2010. She still receives unemployment benefits, but they help keep the bills paid and leave nothing for extras. That can make it tough when you're trying to navigate the most commercial holiday of the year.

But her dilemma is one that more and more families in the Triangle face.

Sharon Cece, the holiday family adoption program coordinator at Triangle Family Services, says that last year 11 of the 33 families the nonprofit adopted for Christmas had one or both parents unemployed, and four had one or both parents underemployed. This year, that number has jumped: 21 of the 37 adopted families have one or both parents unemployed, and nine have families where one or both are underemployed.

Many of the parents are asking for basic needs: jeans, underclothes and coats for their children, though Cece says she had one person who asked for a gas card so he could drive to job interviews.

According to a recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling survey of 1,200 people, 40 percent don't plan to buy holiday gifts this year.

But that doesn't mean you can't have Christmas.

While many decry the holiday as being too commercial, giving to others can make us feel good about ourselves. If you've been generous in the past and suddenly can't, that may add to the depression that can come with unemployment. But it doesn't have to.

Dr. Jeff M. Greeson, a psychologist at Duke Integrative Medicine, says think about what kind of currency you do possess. "Unemployment gives you an opportunity to become more aware of what you can give," he says. "If you don't have a job, are there other ways you can show appreciation and gratefulness.

"Identify your signature strengths, the things you are good at or care about. Ask how you can use those skills in a new way to help your family, friends and community. This increases your happiness and decreases depression."

Thompson, whom friends have dubbed the "queen of clearance," employs her money-saving skills and creativity to ensure that her 4- and 5-year-old sons still have a good Christmas.

She scours discount stores and clearance shelves to pick up toys and books. For friends, she looks for costume jewelry and picture frames to which she can add her own special touch. Most items were $3 or less.

"You have to be creative and organize," she says. She makes her own version of a movie snack bundle that she saw priced at $20 in a discount chain. She bought a bucket of microwave popcorn from the grocery store, added two bottles of soda and large movie candies purchased from a Family Dollar store. Before she was being laid off, she would have included a $20 Blockbuster gift card, but now the snack container is more than enough.

Other versions include one she calls "Snack Attack," a plastic bowl with a bag of chips, salsa and some individually wrapped snacks. Or a measuring bowl filled with cookie mix.

Thompson is proud of her ingenuity. She tells the story of a picture frame with matting she bought at CVS for $3. She plans on presenting that frame to the host of a church gathering. But she's going to elevate the frame into a keepsake by asking church members to sign the matte, and then she plans on including photographs she takes of the event.

Not all of Thompson's ideas come from a sale table. She's giving her neighbors, who have twins, a baby-sitting certificate. "That way they don't have to pay for dinner and a baby-sitter," she says.

Roger Cameron, a Wake Tech instructor who teaches a course on "How To Live on A Reduced Income" at Wake Tech, also has learned how to get by on less during the holidays.

When he was laid off almost three years ago from PC maker Lenovo, Cameron decided he'd buy gifts only for children, not adults.

Adults get his speciality: a batch of hot chocolate powder in decorative, one-pound metal containers or canisters bought at after-Christmas sales. "Something you make often stands out more than something you buy," he says.

Experiences create cherished memories, he says. Toys break. Trinkets can be lost. But the fun of gathering his family in the car and cruising through neighborhoods known for decking their lawns with Christmas decoration is priceless. He even drives a group of senior citizens through those same areas during the holiday. It's a treat for any age.

Other places he likes to visit during this time of the year include are churches featuring special events or concerts along with historical sites. Cameron and his wife recently spent the day at Historic Stagville in Durham, which was one of the largest plantations of the pre-Civil War South.

"Since we have been laid off, we look to see what we can do in the area without driving too far," he says. "We look on the Internet for museum exhibitions and openings like the one in Pullen Park ... you can do a lot."

On the drive back from Stagville, Cameron and his wife stopped by one of their favorite places to shop, the Durham Rescue Mission Bargain Center. She found a nativity scene snow globe and music box. It was a steal for $7.

"You can get things you can enjoy that don't cost much. ... They don't have to be new."