I pulled my hand back into the car from the ATM and looked down at the five, crisp bills. "This is it," I thought to myself. This is all we have to spend for Christmas.

My husband had entered the arena of unemployment thanks to an unexpected layoff a few years prior; the subsequent job he picked up only lasted a year. We found ourselves in a scary, frustrating place not one, but two, times.

Money was tight and our identities were shaken.

White collar privilege and suburban comfort became obvious, and painful. We quickly learned getting a job isn't as easy as creating a resume and applying online.

I had to accept a Christmas at home wouldn't look like scenes from TV and glossy magazines - bright red packages full of expensive, new toys were not going to be covering our fireplace and filling our living room.

Struggling to see light from the hole

I felt disappointed overall - not with anyone in particular, but in the situation.

It's stressful when money's tight, and especially during the holidays. Although our bank account could spare a little bit to spend (yet not nearly as much as previous years), it felt like we'd be celebrating Christmas with no money.

Bitterness and comparison wafted into my heart like smoke from the fit pit, rendering it nearly impossible to not envy others who obviously didn't struggle with affording Christmas.

But envy wasn't my only battle - pride chimed in too.

I knew if we asked for help, it would take only seconds to receive it. But I didn't want to share our need; it was hard enough living on a super-tight budget. Bruising my ego by letting others know made it all the more painful.

I knew to not define the holidays by purchasing habits - Christmas isn't just about buying gifts - but getting that message into my head, not just my heart, became harder than I wanted to admit.

Unexpected blessings at Christmas

A few unexpected blessings came our way - a bonus check from my job, a love gift from a family member, and a few coupons in the mail. They gave me the boost to see the situation more positively, and I slowly turned off some negative thoughts.

It's not that we literally experienced Christmas with no money, but our budget was simply smaller. I realized I needed to change my approach to spending so I didn't feel so broke at Christmas, and so we could financially survive the holidays.

A Christmas Budget

So, here's what we did as we drew up a Christmas budget:

  • Avoided using our credit card (unless we bought something online) - which we then paid right away.
  • Didn't buy "the big deals" that year (and we soon learned we didn't need the products in the first place).
  • Bought only what we needed for decor - a few strands of lights for the tree.
  • I used left over wrapping paper, bows and bags from the previous holiday instead of buying new.
  • Made a list of everyone to buy a gift for, starting with the kids, and put a maximum dollar limit next to their names. We gave ourselves permission to make the dollar amount small.
  • Relied on giving gift cards to help us stay inside of our budget.
  • Gifted many homemade treats because it was affordable and it also served as a Christmastime activity.
  • For some family members, we agreed spending time with one another was the gift.
  • Relied on the power of encouraging words and cards to show and receive love.

At the end of the season when we tallied up what we spent, we stayed within our budget. Those five, crisp dollar bills from the ATM carried us through.

Christmas ideas that cost no money

For a few people, we gave gifts that didn't cost us any money (or less than $5). There's a lot of ideas like this! Like what?

  • Prayer books - encouraging notes and prayers for a person inside of a small notebook that's gifted to them.
  • Babysitting - offer childcare instead of a gift.
  • A night out - get friends together for a meal; the time spent is gift enough!
  • Volunteerism - give time to an organization on behalf of someone who's passionate about the cause. Even better to volunteer together.
  • Listening - sometimes sitting down for tea or coffee, looking someone in the eyes, and listening to them is the best gift.
  • Scripture - writing verses on cards to stick around the home costs nothing but can be very meaningful, especially if the verses were put on your heart specifically for that person.
  • Cleaning - offer to help tidy up, rake the leaves and other house chores. (GREAT for working moms)
  • Playlists - compile a playlist for someone based on songs you think they'll like and inspire them.
  • Something personal and special to you - re-gifting something meaningful that you already own isn't only emotional, but it's priceless.
  • Hug coupons - for the personal touch lovers, cashing in hug coupons is a perfect gift.

Beyond the bank

The cliches about the holidays are true - the spirit of Christmas isn't about dollars and cents.

But the reality, especially for those of us in America, is that Christmas is intertwined with money. When finances are lean and you brace yourself to have a Christmas with no money, it can make for a really difficult holiday.

The ads, store-wide sales, extra "cash" and door-buster deals don't help.

Neither do the white elephant parties and the events where it's expected everyone bring "something small." Even the small gifts add up when you're broke at Christmas.

But adversity often brings wisdom, and what we learned a few years ago is that while money inevitably comes up during the holidays, the power of a gift isn't how much it costs.

The power of a gift is the love coming from the person giving it.

If we give from what we've already received, the gift is so incredibly powerful. Many times, it doesn't cost us a thing.

Looking for an affordable gift?

My Advent Devotional, Unexpected, costs less than $10 on Amazon!


Read more from Danielle – subscribe now.