By Karen E. Bender
December 19, 2014
IDEAS
Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms.

It’s the holiday season. The economy has rebounded! Gas is ridiculously cheap! Everyone in the nation is supposed to be doing better. Well, we’re not. Somehow, this new, hopeful economy has bypassed us. We can’t figure out why.

Actually we’re fine. We’re okay, kind of. Which means that we are on the perilous life raft of the American economy; we are okay if nothing at all goes wrong. And while I love the holiday season, it is, sometimes, an economic minefield. But while the Federal Reserve dallies with interest rates, my economic salve for the money stress of the holiday season is one thing: pumpkin bread. (See “Do #6″ below.) Here are some ways to get through the holidays on a shoestring:

DON’T:

  1. Don’t go into any store that features shopping bags that can stand on their own accord, in the middle of a table. This sort of shopping bag denotes prices that will start chipping into your children’s college education fund. Avoid it. Remind yourself to put money into your children’s education fund. And oh yes, your retirement–next year, when things are better. I hear the economy’s improving.
  2. Don’t bid on anything at the religious institution’s Silent Auction. Walk by coveted items, smile at them, nod thoughtfully, but walk on. Or do bid but only when people are watching, and make it so small you can be outbid in an instant.
  3. Don’t monitor your online savings account in real time. It is tempting, but don’t do it.
  4. Don’t buy holiday cards to send out to people (the costs of stamps, my god!) Instead, post nice photo of family with loving caption on Facebook and see “likes” build.
  5. Don’t assume that a restaurant is good if it uses the words “Seatings are at” in its description. The word “banquet” will also do unmentionable things to your bill. You don’t have to pretend to be Henry the VIII, and you actually may not want to be.
  6. Don’t feel that your (or dear relative’s or friend’s) cat or dog will be insulted if you don’t buy him or her the crazily priced cat toy or sweater. Trust me: the pet will not know. This tip also applies to babies.
  7. Don’t assume that you have to wear a new fancy dress or shirt or anything to a New Year’s Eve party. No one is going to notice. Wear last year’s. Everyone’s going to be focused on the champagne and the mini-quiches. Helpful note: properly wrapped, mini-quiches can fit neatly into a purse. They heat up nicely later. By the way, I hear the economy is improving.
  8. Don’t feel that when relative sends gift card for X amount, you are required to send X amount back. Gift cards should not be an economic hostage situation. Send what you can and/or send pumpkin bread. (See #6 below)
  9. Don’t forget to buy books as gifts, as they will nourish the soul, far beyond the cover price.
  10. Don’t forget to give something (money or time) to causes, because you should.

DO:

  1. Tell your children that their Secret Santa gifts for their friends in class will be a re-gifting extravaganza.
  2. Tell your mother that any clothes she wants to purchase you as a gift has to be suitable for a job interview.
  3. Tell the children that the word “upgrade” has been banned in the household and nearby vicinity for the time being.
  4. Buy present at thrift store and sneakily give it to friend in fancy shopping bag received from other friend who foolishly went into store that used such shopping bags.
  5. Make pumpkin bread as the default gift for everyone. It is cheap, it is beloved, it is carbs. And you can make a batch sufficient for many gift recipients in an hour. Don’t worry about fancy cellophane wrapping, though bows are fine. You can use gluten-free flour if needed, too.
  6. Do remember that the dollar store is only a dollar store if you buy only one thing.
  7. Do remember that if it’s to grandmother’s house we go, that’s a good thing and grandmother can pay.
  8. Try to laugh, because not everyone can. And, by the way, it is free. And above all, know that after January 1, everything goes on sale. And did you hear? The economy is improving.

Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and others. Her debut collection of short fiction, Refund: Stories, will be published by Counterpoint Press in January 2015.

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