Dear Margo: Chri$tmas $hopping Blue$

Margo Howard’s advice

Chri$tmas $hopping Blue$

Dear Margo: As you and the rest of America know, we are in the Christmas season. (Who could forget with the never-ending ads?) I’m 22 years old, and here’s my problem: I can’t help over-spending on gifts.

I’d like to know when it came about that one should buy presents for friends, friends’ children, aunts, uncles, cousins and the mailman. By the time I’m done shopping, I’m stuck with a credit card bill I can’t afford and have spent money I could’ve used on necessities. I miss the Christmas spirit I used to love. Now I dread the entire thing.

I like the feeling of making people happy, and seeing how everyone’s a little broke these days, I find it nice to get them something they wouldn’t get themselves. But … I work two jobs just to support myself, and I’m trying to pay off student loans. So my question is: Would it be terrible to only buy gifts for my mom, dad and brother? — Don’t Want To Feel Like Scrooge

Dear Don’t: Given your young age and circumstances, by all means winnow your list. And don’t forget that it’s always meaningful to give a homemade gift, like baked goodies. If you do shop for your immediate family, I would set an outer limit, and a modest one at that. Since you have identified your proclivity to overspend, decide on a budget before you go shopping — and stick to it. It sounds hackneyed, I know, but it really is the thought that counts. — Margo, rationally

Company Fare

Dear Margo: I’m in a relatively new marriage with all the taking care of kids, cooking, etc., happily behind me. We are both middle-aged and have an active social life. My husband has suggested we have a few couples over and, knowing I don’t cook, says he’s perfectly happy to serve Chinese take-out. That is very sweet of him, I admit, but the cardboard containers would embarrass me when I actually live here. I suppose I could have a caterer come in, but I feel that would seem like overkill for just a few couples. What do you think? — Penelope

Dear Pen: I think the key here is more attitude than food. What you would be serving is what many people choose to have when it’s just family. You could follow your husband’s suggestion in one of two ways: Using your good china, you could let people serve themselves from the little cartons, or you could put all the different selections into serving bowls. (I doubt you would be fooling anyone, however, because, really, who makes that kind of food themselves?) If your manner is more “Isn’t this fun?” than apologetically announcing regret that the dinner is not homemade, that will allow you to finesse the fact that you don’t cook.

For whatever it’s worth, I don’t cook, either, like a fair number of the older “girls,” and I am not embarrassed by it. What gets me over this hurdle is something my mother used to say: It’s not what you put on the table; it’s who you put in the chairs. Truly, when there’s good conversation and fellowship, the food is secondary. — Margo, festively

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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46 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Letter #1:  I too used to overspend on Christmas gifts (when I could afford it) but at your age and with your income, no one should expect an expensive gift from you who knows your circumstances.  And, you may be surprised if you talk to those friends and say something like…I’m really strapped for cash this year but want to do something special with you for the holidays…lets all go out to dinner together…dutch treat…and call it our mutual company our gifts to each other.  If your friends are your age, they too are probably feeling the financial strain (not too many people are not these days…no matter what age) and would be happy to spend a nice evening with friends in lieu of spending time and money shopping.  I was surprised when I was forced to tell my family that I could not be so generous anymore…everyone seemed a little relieved…because they didn’t feel obligated to do a lot for me when they couldn’t afford it.   And this year, with everyone in my family hurting financially, we’ve pretty much decided the only gifts we will give each other will be our company….and small gifts for the children among us.

    Letter#2:  Why are your restricted to Chinese takeout?  Many fine dining restaurants will prepare to go meals which you can pick up and reheat.   And calling in a caterer doesn’t mean anymore than having them prepare the food and delivering it to your house for you to serve to your guests yourself…you don’t need people in white and black uniforms standing behind each chair to serve your guests.  And while I agree with Margo to an extent that it is the people in the seats and not the food…I think good food and drink helps the people in the seats be better guests.   My husband has dear friends who just are not *food* people.  One dinner we were served burnt barbeque ribs (I actually lost a filling at that meal)…another….half-baked half- frozen lasagna.  And while they are lovely people…I went away HUNGRY…(and in the case of the ribs with a sore tooth).  Of course, it served me right to (privately) complain because when we had THEM to dinner…I planned this wonderful meal (nothing fancy) which normally turns out great.  For some reason (hubris?) it just wasn’t as good as it usually is!  To make matters worse, I went to great pains to set a lovely table with good dishes and glasses and flowers and candles but got distracted in the middle of setting it and forgot the forks!  But as I said, they are lovely people and I hope forgave me (I’ve forgiven them for the broken filling but I haven’t forgotten it obviously). 

    • avatar julpfeif says:

      Many of those same fine restaurants also have a catering department. So you can order entrees, appetizers, sides, etc in bulk (rather than individual meals). For example, a tray of lasagna with garlic bread. (I’m getting hungry now.)

  2. avatar Toni Jean says:

    Chinese sounds great LW2! Do something fun – like get pretty chopsticks from an oriental grocery store (couple bucks for a big bag!) or pop bows on the containers and say, we worked all DAY on dinner! I would be thrilled to see potstickers and general Tso’s appear!

  3. avatar LuckySeven says:

    LW#1: take a deep breath and get some perspective. I buy six gifts: My parents, brother, sister-in-law, and two very close friends. I may occasionally buy other small gifts if needed, but I’m more likely to send cards or bake something. You don’t have to give something to everyone, and not all gifts have to be big, or even moderately big, items. One of my other friends invited me to her Christmas open house: She’s getting homemade Christmas pot-holders. Small, inexpensive, and useful.

  4. avatar Jane H says:

    LW1: I have my Christmas shopping done by July. I hit stores like Marshall’s, Tuesday Morning, etc, in January and February when they’re clearing out for inventory and get deep discounts on already reduced items. Something that was out of my reach at regular retail is very affordable after the holidays. I have a stash box in my closet and store stuff in there through out the year. When I take it out in May or June to check my own inventory, I list what else I might need to look for. My friend and I brag to each other about how little we spend and it’s fun. Merry Christmas!

    • avatar Jan Hall says:

      I have done the same thing for many years not only for Christmas gifts, but also for gifts I might want to give during the year. I avoid the Christmas hassle, save lots of money, and people always love my gifts.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      I do that too, but I’m not as good as to be done by July. I gather things over the year that I see would make a good gift and save it for later.

      My mom used to try to do that but it became a big joke in our family because she can’t wait and then ends up giving people half of their Christmas presents before Christmas rolls around, lol.

      This year she said: Ohhh I got you something for Xmas, can I tell you what it is?
      Me: No, I’d rather be surprised when I come visit.
      Next day there was a picture of it in my e-mail and a note saying: Couldn’t wait – I’ll have to get you a new present now 😀

    • avatar Carib Island Girl says:

      Me too! And I always have things on hand to give even at the last minute. My holiday shopping is done by the end of summer. Stress free!

  5. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #1 and Letter #2 – IMO, I find it ironic that the true answer to both your letters is identical.

    Intention. What is your true intention?

    We give gifts to make people happy. We sit down to eat with friends to enjoy their company far more than “what” we shove into our faces. These are lesson young women and those of us in our middle age should learn and let it take hold. If one can not afford to give a gift that is meaningful and heartfelt, don’t give it. At the risk of my ethereal airy-fairy way of looking at life showing through, energy means everything. If you give someone a gift begrudgingly, that will be all over it! 🙂

    To spend money you don’t have and go out and buy something for someone you really don’t want to, will leave you feeling resentful. Instead as you already know, keep your gift small and for only those in your immediate circle (it that). True and close family and friends will appreciate that you wanted to do something, but couldn’t.

    As for the letter writer pondering about what to serve…..Hubby is spot on. And just for the record Margo “Who makes that kind of food for themselves?” Millions of people that’s who. 🙂 Margo is spot on however in terms of this writer infusing a little humor into the aspect of the cartons. I have had dinner parties like this and to that end, buying extra fortune cookies and using them as centerpieces and handouts for discussion can be fun. She can even find silver fortune cookies online for less than $10 each that allow you to insert personalized messages. That would be a thoughtful, classy and meaningful small gift to give each couple as you hug and say goodbye for the evening.

  6. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: “I like the feeling of making people happy, and seeing how everyone’s a little broke these days, I find it nice to get them something they wouldn’t get themselves.” 

    No, everyone is not broke these days, because many of us exercise restraint, putting more thought than big bucks into gifts. Bake cookies. Make coupons for free babysitting. Look for elegant martini glasses at the dollar store (Yes, Dollar Tree has them). 

    LW2: Dump your take-out items onto your most festive china serving dishes, set your table with colorful disposable plates (some may merit washing for another use) and enjoy your party, capped with fortune cookies.       

  7. avatar martina says:

    LW1: I made Moravian paper stars last year for the people in our office and they loved them. Making snowmen out of socks this year and I guess I really better get started on that. You can make little soldiers out of old fashioned clothes pins. There are many different things you can make and I think that people appreciate the effort you put into it. You’ll also find that it puts you in the holiday spirit and there’s nothing like seeing the smiles on peoples’ faces when they open the gift and knowing that you made that you made what they are smiling at.

  8. avatar misskaty says:

    LW#2: I was recently at a (small) dinner party and the hostess served takeout on china, as Margo suggested. Of course I noticed but I didn’t care! If you’re still squeamish, another option would be to make a home-made dessert. There are many cheesecake recipes out there that take no time at all. Nice wine smooths things over as well.

  9. avatar animelily says:

    The vast majority of my gift giving is homemade goodies. (I’m making marshmallows this year! Last year it was buckeyes. The year before was various cookies. The year before was blueberry rhubarb jam.) Everyone else is immediate relatives and they’re all budgeted at around $20-30 max.

    A while back on the Suze Orman show she went around and interviewed people on if they remembered what they got for Christmas the year before. There were a whole lot of blank and searching faces of people who couldn’t remember. If you really want to give something truly heartfelt and thoughtful, write a card: a really meaningful and heartfelt card of all your nice feelings about the person that you might not say throughout the year. That’s something that will be remembered far after whatever debts you could’ve racked up were finally paid off. And if something like that wouldn’t be remembered, do you really want to give a gift of your hard earned money to a person like that?

    • avatar Ariana says:

      Out of curiosity – what do people do with homemade marshmallows? The only thing I’ve ever used them for is Rice Crispies Treats and it seems a shame to do that to home-made ones.

      • avatar martina says:

        Eat them. Taste of Home has a great recipe and I spread them out on a pan then top them with graham crackers and after they’ve set I cut them up and dip them in chocolate. Instant s’mores. Homemade marshmallows are tastier than the store bought ones.

      • avatar animelily says:

        Eat them! They’re really nothing like their factory cousins and more like really soft and silky bite sized candies.

        I’m making a number of different flavors as well. So far I have orange, mint, and gingerbread (along with the original vanilla), and am going to experiment on making lemon and green tea.

        BTW, if the original letter sender is interested, if you have a stand mixer and a candy thermometer already (the only relatively expensive investments), these cost about $5 to make a batch that can easily be divided among two people. Multiple batches of multiple flavors divided appropriately, and it’s a fancy, thoughtful, and tasty gift.

        Just search Alton Brown’s Homemade Marshmallow Recipe at the Food Network website. For the flavors, I just have been substituting the vanilla extract for other extracts or, in the case of gingerbread, some spices. Plus a couple drops of appropriate food coloring.

  10. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Very sweet of you! 🙂 But there are options as Margo suggests, and you don’t want to face the post-holiday stress/blues again. Giving nicely prepared baked goods, making a craft item, etc are money savers and usually appreciated. Give *yourself* a gift: Keeping your credit card debt DOWN. You’ll thank yourself for years to come.

    L #2: I agree with Margo. It’s also nice that your husband doesn’t expect you to cook for hours (and who gets stuck with clean-up/dishes too?). You’ve got a happy marriage and active social life; what’s a few bowls of food taken fresh and delicious from a carton?

  11. avatar Susan Gee says:

    LW#1:  Let everyone know that you are cutting back.  This prevents the embarrassment of people who are no longer getting presents giving you one.  Also, you may be surprised  at the people who are relieved that they no longer have to get you a present.

    LW#2:  Last Chirstmas eve was six weeks after my mother-in-law’s death…and she had never shown anyone how to make the Ukranian/Polish dishes that she traditionally served (even though we repeatedly asked).  We inherited the holiday…so, we went to a local Polish deli that family members loved.  A few days before Chirstmas we ordered fabulous pierogi, kielbasi, cabbage rolls, etc.  Our niece made the fish as closely as she could to Babchi’s.  There were no complaints and we still honored my MILs traditions and heritage.  This year we are doing the same thing…a new tradition.

  12. avatar editoranne says:

    LW1, this is a place where parents are a great resource. Talk with them about family expectations and gift suggestion. Most people want your time, so offer to cook dinner (with their groceries) for your parents and grandparents. Babysit or go to a movie with others. The mailman makes way more than you do, so a card is a nice gesture.
    LW2, who cooks?? Most groceries have takeout sections with fabulous dishes ready to pop in the oven. Add a bag of salad, a loaf of artisan bread and dessert from the store’s bakery and you’ll be fine.

  13. avatar Brooke Schubert says:

    LW#2-My mom gave up on cooking too, but she refuses to let my sisters and I do it (even though we’ve offered and we’re good at it).  Hy-Vee, the local grocery store (and I know Kroger does something similar) has a lovely fully cooked holiday dinner package for a reasonable amount of money, so she buys Christmas dinner the day before and we reheat it and eat.  It’s delicious and easy!

    • avatar Carib Island Girl says:

      That is odd, it costs so much more than simply making your own. My hubs and I travel a lot and bank a good amount of money every month. People are amazed….it’s because we don’t drop our money on continuously eating out and spending!

      My sister did that and had to declare bankruptcy. Use some common sense people.

  14. avatar lebucher says:

    Back in the 90s I found myself unemployed right before Christmas.  I felt pretty inadequate about not being able to afford gifts.  I put that energy into baking a huge amount of Christmas cookies, then picked wonderful navel oranges off my 2 trees.  Went to the dollar store and loaded up on gift bags for the fruit and pretty tins for the cookies.  It might have been cheap in cost but the presentation was gorgeous!

    For years the recipients talked about how great a gift that was.  And my mom asked for more oranges in January because they were the sweetest things to pass your lips.

  15. avatar mayma says:

    LW2: Here’s a crazy idea: you or your husband could cook something. I mean, if you have so much agita about this that you have to write to an advice column, just bite the bullet and cook something. I doubt that either of you has made it to middle age, with children, without knowing how to make one meal. You really don’t know how to make a huge salad and buy two pans of lasagna at the store? Really? It’s a puzzle to me, because I just don’t believe that you are this… let us say, unresourceful.

    LW1: Society isn’t making you do anything, nor are the “never-ending ads” forcing you to do anything. (I barely even notice those ads.) You are not “stuck” with a credit card bill; you yourself created it, as well as the dread you’re feeling. Start learning some boundaries. Putting yourself at risk (financial or otherwise) for other people is a trait that needs to be curbed ASAP.

    I’m as liberal as they come, but the helplessness is both letters is glaring to me.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      LW#1: I was thinking the same thing: Get thee to a library! Check out some cook books. Go online and pick easy company recipes. Seriously, you probably spent more time worrying about this chinese meal than it would have been to pick out an easy recipe with your husband and whip something up.

      I didn’t know how to cook either when I got married, but at some point I got tired of eating white rice and microwaved chicken breasts. I started by thinking of the things I most liked to order at restaurants and looked up recipes for it. One by one my repetoire grew. I still don’t enjoy cooking, but I sure do enjoy eating well. Besides, whoever cooks doesn’t have to do dishes in my house 😉

    • avatar Carib Island Girl says:

      Cooking is easy, people just don’t want to take the time to learn.

      • avatar ilovemypillow says:

        It may be easy for you, but you cannot speak for everyone. Some people are no good at cooking just like some are no good at drawing or playing golf or carpentry. Even the experienced chefs on the cooking shows sometimes screw up their dishes. Cooking is easy? Hah! I don’t think so.

        • avatar Carib Island Girl says:

          There are many recipes that have only a few ingredients. Taste as you go and experiment for what best suits your palate. Just learn some basic techniques like not cooking pork to death. ALWAYS use a meat thermometer, ignore the pop up thingines on the meat, it will overcook every time. And deduct about 10 to 15 degrees what the thermometer says, 160 is WAAAAAY to much for pork and poultry.

          The point is anyone can cook, and yes I have had disasters, but I learn from every one. I applied myself and learned my flavor profiles. I got catering gigs and eventually wrote a cookbook. My hubby is one happy guy and we save a ton of money.

        • avatar Dorisan says:

          It’s not even a matter of “it’s easy!” as it might not be an enjoyable task for everyone.

          I hate to cook – it’s just plain drudgery to me. That’s an opinion I’ve held for some 50 years, despite efforts to find a resolution, and I know it’s not going to change, no matter how judgmental (on this forum) some can be. I recognize that some enjoy it; some see it as an art or craft form; I don’t – at least for myself.

          If a family is involved, with more than two people, the cost can be prohibitive, but just the two 0f us? Not in the least. We nearly always bring half of the main course home in a doggy bag and make two meals of one eating out experience. And since I’m very much the accountant when it comes to keeping track of our $$, I’ve noted over the years that our restaurant expenditure comes to about 6% of our net income – hardly something that will drive us to bankruptcy.

        • avatar Hellster says:

          Balderdash! Anyone who can read can cook. Is everyone GOOD at it? No, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it. After all, not everyone is good at making love, but that doesn’t stop most people from doing it.

          Get up off your pillow and into the kitchen.

  16. avatar ann penn says:

    LW1 – are many of your friends also friends with one another?

    My son and his friends of long standing have a holiday party at a local bar. They either draw one name of another person to buy a gift for, or they do a Yankee Swap. That is where each brings a wrapped gift, then draw numbers to see who goes first, second, etc. They select a gift in turn, and unwrap it. If they don’t like it, they can “force swap” for an earlier opened gift. The person who was #1 can choose at the end to force swap with anyone else.

    Either way, everyone has a good time, a spending limit is set, everyone gives something and gets something. And they get to enjoy seeing the others open gifts. No one goes broke shopping for everyone.

  17. avatar Carib Island Girl says:

    Tis the season for stupid letters and yes, I always get crabby…sis and I had a bitch fight the other day regarding Xmas.

    LW1: Get a grip on yourself and your spending. We have taken to either “no gifts” or buy one and draw a number exchanging it with someone is acceptable or buy throughout the year when you find a great deal. I have a number of gifts in my storage room that can be rolled out at any time. I only give to immediate family and no one complains the largely does the same thing. Overspending is just dumb and if it needs to go on a creditcard…DON’T BUT IT. Geez people, this is just common sense.

    LW2: Who doesn’t cook? Come on! I can’t wrap my brain around this. Have we gotten this lazy? It’s not hard to learn and much healthier and cheaper!!! But then, I did write a cookbook so………

  18. avatar Carib Island Girl says:

    BUT = BUY…..sorry for the typo

  19. avatar Allaroundtheworld says:

    I’m very up front with my family and my in-laws regarding the gifts of presents during the holidays. I refuse to buy presents for anyone. Period. I grew up very poor, and had many very wealthy family memebers who did give gifts out to everyone. As I grew older and finally had a job and a credit card, that year I over did it and spent way too much on Christmas. It took my 4 years to get that card paid off. During that time I really sat down and thought about what the season truely meant. It’s about the birth of Jesus Christ not the giving of presents.  I also realized that this wasn’t the religion for me, due to certain emotional and psychical situations. I found myself and am happy. I do enjoy making cookies and jams and different typies of foods so I give those as presents. But I tell all family not to buy for me because I wont put myself into debt ever again because of what a commercial says. 20 years later my family still buys for me even though I don’t buy for anyone else. I’m not a scrouge, I do go over to spend time with my family and in-laws, we cook and talk and watch movies and spend quality time together which is more important to me than the next new fad item. My family is now debt free and we are keeping it that way, but my family keep watching our in-laws going broke each year tring to out due each other. Plus with Christmas now overshadowing Thanksgiving and even now approaching Halloween, Christmas has lost all it’s special meaning and has become nothing more than a consumer holiday. Signed someone who remembers when Christmas season started on December 1st.

  20. avatar Miss Lee says:

    I hit the Xmas shopping wall a couple of years ago.  The recession hit most of my family pretty hard with one notable exception.  So I went to purchasing a nice poinsettia for each family group.  Most of us would not buy one as it is not a necesity but it sure makes the holiday bright.  My elderly mother was thrilled not to have something she would have to pawn off on someone else the next year.  The notable exception and his family are still rather miffed but they have more money than common sense so we all ignore them. 

    I am thrilled when anyone feeds me.  Don’t really care what it is.  Food and good friends are more than enough…bring on the paper containers!  

  21. avatar jennaA says:

    LW1: That’s a huge problem with a lot of us. I started having the neices and nephews over for cookie baking and then send each family home with a tin of cookies in lieu of a gift. That works so well… now I just have to figure out what to do about my immediate family because you can always go overboard with your own kids!

    LW2: At my house, take-out Chinese is always shared with friends! It became a tradition because where I live, the restaurants close a little early and could have gone on talking for hours after the meal was over. So, the meal moved to my house where we have unlimited time to chat and enjoy each other’s company.   

  22. avatar Frau Quink says:

    I work hard for my friends all summer long: I do canning. They can’t wait to get their hands
    on peaches in brandy, pears in brandy, plums in brandy, apricots in brandy.
    Beats going shopping.

  23. avatar mmht says:

    LW#1: I buy for my nephews and niece, husband, parents, and grandparents. My siblings and I came to an agreement years ago that we would stop buying for each other and I have made it very clear to my friends not to buy me anything b/c they will get nothing in return. They are often more relieved than anything else. Sometimes I’ll make them cookies, which I enjoy doing and they get just as much enjoyment out of. If I were you, I’d make it clear that after this year you are limiting your shopping lists to immediate family only and don’t feel bad about doing it.

  24. avatar NomiGirl says:

    LW#1: I had the same problem! Then, I had an idea this year that’s worked out great! Starting in January, I made  “Christmas Fund” jar and just put a little bit of money in it everytime I got paid. Now that Christmas time is here, I’ve got enough to buy everyone on my list something nice without breaking the bank!

  25. avatar Michelles11 says:

    LW1…I love baking so I make a specific cookie every year and use cheap plastic plates (like the Solo brand) to put them on.  Place some Christmas colored candies (red and green m&m’s, kisses, or something like that) and give them to people I care about but don’t have the funds to buy an expensive gift for.  Bar cookies are always good, fast and easy.  I make cutout cookies that I decorate, and it’s time consuming but I have the time so I do it.  You could also make a large cookie on a stick (any retail store has these sticks) wrap with clear or colored plastic wrap and tie off with a ribbon.  Looks like a lot of effort has been put into it and it’s fun!  Also the larger cookies make it less time consuming 🙂  .  Just an idea…I really think it’s the thought that counts and people should be very understanding of your situation.  I think most people dread the thought of post-holiday debt and are really stressed out over it, you are not alone!  Also, in my family we do a secret santa where we pick a name out of a hat.  The adults exchange only with their secret family member with a limit of 30 dollars.  This year we are doing a five dollar exchange due to some major family transitions going on.  We don’t care, we just like to get together and have fun!  I still buy for nieces and nephews even though they are older now but they are great kids.  Just some ideas to share, hope I didn’t ramble on too much!