If there were ever a year for Americans to tighten their belts, it's this one. Credit card debt, inflation, mortgage worries, and still-high gas prices will force people to cut back more than ever on spending, says Suze Orman, CNBC financial guru and author of Women & Money (Spiegel & Grau). "Agree with family and friends that this year you are going to share the gifts of love and time," suggests Orman. "The good news is that since most people are feeling the pinch, others should understand." Focus on family rituals, or create some new ones. Pick up an Elf or A Christmas Carol DVD and invite over some close friends (with whom you typically exchange gifts) for a movie night with popcorn and hot chocolate instead. If you don't already celebrate all eight days of Hanukkah or the 12 days of Christmas, start now by finding a way to give rather than get. Have your children do a closet cleanout one evening and then donate the toys and clothing to charity. Call your local hospital and find out how you and your kids can visit the sick. Contact an animal shelter and see if you can help walk the dogs.
Don't be afraid to shake up status quo gift-giving practices; homemade cookies or copies of a special photograph mean more than a pricey knickknack. If your kids typically give you a list of what they want, tell them to keep it to five items under a certain dollar value. That way they won't expect a high-priced item and you'll be able to give them presents they want while putting a cap on how much you spend. Instead of giving gifts to all the nieces, nephews, and grandkids, suggest picking a name from a hat so that each family member only buys one extra-nice gift for one relative.
When money woes mean that flying the entire family home to see the grandparents is outside the budget, consider creative alternatives: Is there a halfway meeting point? Or try to schedule a visit for early January instead of peak travel time to save hundreds of dollars in airfare and hotel fees—and ease the stress for everyone.