Dear Come Correct:

I'm starting to squirm: The Halloween clearance candy isn't even gone yet, and the stores in my town are already selling Christmas lights! I was in a store yesterday that was playing Christmas music. I used to really enjoy the season, but now all I can think of is how much I'm going to have to spend to "enjoy" it. My co-workers exchange gifts (they don't cost much, but still), my extended family will all send me presents. Members of my jogging club give each member a present. And have I gotten to my twentysomething kids, who all want fancy electronics, and my husband, who wants us to take a trip?

I can see why some people find the holidays depressing! I'm trying not to go there. I'd like to have a sane, relaxed holiday without a lot of money worries. Suggestions?

Bah Humbug

Dear Humbug:

Boy, do I feel your pain--and millions of other people do, too! Every year, many of us vow to have a sane Christmas. And every year, most of us break that vow. Lack of time, pressure to conform, not wanting to break your nephew's heart when he really, really wants a (your choice of expensive, battery-operated toy that will be broken in three months here) all build up to not-so great expectations.

So, some suggestions:

At the Office

Instead of exchanging $5-$10 knickknacks with everyone in your office, organize a celebratory seasonal potluck: You get a great meal, time together, and you don't put one more piece of cute junk on each others' desk.

Clubs and Organizations

If you normally give each other gifts, consider pooling your money and sending, as a group, a contribution to a charity that's close to your collective heart. It could be as nearby as the local childrens' shelter or as far away as packages for military personnel overseas (or their families at home, many of whom are struggling). There are several organizations that support women's economic independence in developing countries, or that help to build schools or provide teachers where they are badly needed.

The Extended Family

If they're nearby, substitute time for money. Does your 92-year-old great aunt really need another bottle of cologne? Maybe she'd rather have you come take down her Christmas lights, or reorganize her shelves or pick up her Rx at the pharmacy a couple times. Make your own certificates for what you think they'd like, wrap them up real nice and send them off. Or give the gift of your expertise: If you are a whiz of a baker, a cake your cousin can serve when company drops by can save her a trip to the bakery. If you know your way around a can of WD-40, Grandpa might enjoy having his squeaky doors de-squeaked. Your 12-year-old niece who thinks you're cooler than her mother (yeah, your sister--but refrain from gloating, please) might enjoy being invited over for a private showing of a DVD for the afternoon, complete with popcorn and snacks. (She can bring something from her collection, or you can share ones that were favorites when you were her age. Sparkle, anyone?)

Your Own Family

Consider one gift the entire family can enjoy in favor of lots of other things. (Maybe a weekend at a nearby ski slope or a marked-down TV to replace the old one that keeps blinking on and off...) Or tell your children they can choose one thing, within a certain price range. They might make surprisingly modest choices. You and your S.O. can challenge each other to give each other gifts that are more symbol than substance--a photo album to hold pictures of the two of you that never ended up organized in one spot. A recreation of the meal you enjoyed on your secret getaway to Napa Valley. A glass vase full of shells and a promise to visit the beach this summer. The more you can decide upon and get done ahead of time, the more time you'll have to enjoy the holidays the way you'd really like to. And when you think about it, a relaxed holiday will be the greatest gift you can give to yourself.

Jingling all the way,

Come Correct