Eight days of giving for Hanukkah and one grand bonanza for Christmas have turned late autumn into the largest spending season of the year throughout the United States and much of Europe, but some Central Coast families are cutting back.

“I am on a super strict budget this year, really being challenged to make Christmas happen on $100,” said Bethany Hester, an Orcutt mother of four.

That’s a far cry from the season average.

Shoppers around the U.S. are planning to spend an average of $854 for gifts this holiday season, according to the 27th annual survey on holiday spending from the American Research Group Inc.

A 2011 Deloitte report showed an average of $763 among European shoppers. Luxembourg led the pack at $1,200 while Netherlands, which celebrates gift giving Dec. 5 or 6 during Sinterklaas rather than Christmas Day, offered the continental low of $260 in holiday spending.

“Our kids are going to learn a true lesson, I think me more than anyone, about what Christmas really is, and to skip the commercialism, forget Black Friday, the pile of presents, the spending and the trap of trying to keep it equal,” Hester said.

The family decision to cut the budget came after years of digging themselves into a financial hole with extravagant holiday spending.

“I’ve fallen into that trap so many years in past of buy-now, pay-later, and it snowballs from there. The day comes where you have to pay up, and that day has come for me,” Hester said.

While the Hesters’ financial situation has them cutting back, they’re not asking for help or handouts. Instead, they’re taking it as an opportunity for the entire family to learn about finances, needs versus desires, and the history of the holidays.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but at the same time, it’s really going to be an opportunity to think about my kids; to choose something small but meaningful for each of them. When you have less to spend, it really narrows down your shopping because you look for what you can afford to buy and that’s it,” she said.

Extended family and friends might notice a change. The Hesters won’t be sending out Christmas cards or taking part in holiday gift exchanges.

“We have lots of nieces and nephews. That’s probably part of when things are getting out of control. I think for the little kids it’s always harder, but at the same time, they’re not going to miss out. They’re coming from families where Christmas is about the commercial side of it, so they’re going to receive plenty,” Hester said.

But they don’t plan to come to holiday gatherings empty-handed. Instead, they’ll bake, or travel to visit family rather than ship gifts afar.

Brenda Gilardone of Orcutt will also be refocusing her holiday gift-giving efforts on programs that help those in need. Rather than buy for extended family members and friends who have plenty, the Gilardones are donating to programs like Heifer International, a global nonprofit humanitarian assistance organization. Through gifts of livestock and related training, the organization helps families in need lift themselves out of poverty through self-reliance.

“We just wanted to do something more meaningful than buying something they’re going to give away to the thrift store or sell at a garage sale. Instead, a family in need will get a truly needed gift while our friends and family who have everything they need will receive a card,” Gilardone said.

Shelley Candelario of San Luis Obispo isn’t buying gifts at all. Instead, her family has focused on spending time with family and great food. They spend Black Friday hiking rather than shopping.

“By taking this stance, my husband has accused me of being a little bit of a Bah Humbug,” she said by email.

Other families reported gift alternatives that included replacing physical gifts with gifts of family time and special outings with loved ones, replacing costly holiday card giving with electronic holiday greetings, sewing for family and friends, giving anonymous gifts of food baskets to a person in need, making jams, candy or soaps, and providing grandparents with framed family pictures.

“I know a family that does all their holiday shopping in thrift stores. You can get great stuff, and some of the thrift stores have gift cards now,” said Sarah Conley of Orcutt.

Hester knows going against the flow is going to be a challenge.

“I think my kids are really still thinking, ‘Mom’s going to pull it out of a hat.’ It’ll be interesting to see. It’s exciting. And my shopping is done,” Hester said.

Freelance writer Jennifer Best can be reached at JBest@BestFamilyAdventures.com.

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