Tag money

When Santa Lives Paycheck-to-Paycheck

Many parents are concerned about how to provide a wonderful holiday experience for their family when money is very tight.  This entry is designed to provide strategies to provide magic on a budget. (Much of this material is discussed from a Christmas perspective, but is easily adapted to other traditions.)

• Kids need and value time with you much, much more than presents. Give decorated coupons for fun activities and trips together (e.g., good for one trip for an ice cream cone, good for one bike ride/walk around a local lake, good for two hours of board game playing, good for one fishing trip, etc.).

• Remember: crisis = pain + opportunity. Yes, it hurts to not have the money to spend on presents to a degree that you are used to. Give that pain its due. But, when you’re done, wonder what opportunities await you and your family because of this pain.

• The magic of the holiday season can be created, expanded and enhanced with very little expenditure of money. For instance:

√ Get a cheap stuffed elf, reindeer or snowman and declare that it is a magical creature that travels to the North Pole each night with a report on how your child behaved that day, only to then return in the morning for a new day of scouting (there is a commercial product that does this titled Elf on the Shelf). Kids love looking for the new location each morning.

√ Encourage your child to write letters to Santa as often as he or she likes, asking questions throughout (e.g., what is Mrs. Claus’ favorite desert? What do you do when the reindeer get into arguments?) Tell them Santa wants to get to know her or him as a person so the letters should not just be about requests for presents. Then, put the letter(s) in your outgoing mail receptacle, or tape them on your door (make sure to use Santa’s address and a “magic stamp,” which can be a sticker of your choosing that you make magical by dipping it three times in reindeer food, which can be oatmeal in a pouch); later swap out the letter with a return letter from Santa.

√ Buy another cheap stuffed creature and leave it for your child, with a letter from Santa, declaring that it is a magical being that gets warmer whenever Santa is in the vicinity. Practices such as this can cause bigger pupil dilation than many presents.

√ Arrange for your family to give service to others. Many churches, soup kitchens, and charitable agencies could find something helpful for your family to do. These kinds of experiences can create a degree of warmth and magic that no present can touch.

√ Check out the website www.noradsanta.org, especially on Christmas Eve (they offer regular video updates of Santa’s travel around the globe).

√ Establish as many joyful rituals as you can: sing holiday songs at home, bake cookies from scratch, create photo montages, join a group that travels from house-to-house singing carols, make holiday decorations, offer to help your local town or church decorate, and so forth.

When it comes to actually buying presents, consider the following:

• You can get more bang for your buck at discount and dollar stores. The visual image of lots of wrapped presents, each of which can be very modest in cost, can help to create that response I know many of we parents want from our kids when they first look under the tree.

• Use websites that compare the pricing of a wide assortment of retailers (e.g., www.pronto.com, www.pricegrabber.com). Also, be sure to do an internet search for coupons for the retailer you have chosen.

• Lots of families chase the hottest, current generation of electronics. This means that the reseller market (e.g., as found in this newspaper, on ebay, and on craigslist) is often jammed with opportunities to purchase the previous generation(s) at slashed prices.

• Look for sellers who offer refurbished items, or ask retailers if they have floor models or open box items they are willing to sell at discounted prices.

When all is said and done try to avoid sacrificing your wellness on the altar of commercialism. Your child benefits much more from you being well than from some gizmo that will lose it’s charm after a short period of time. Moreover, no research exists, as far as I know, that correlates child happiness and wellness with the amount of money spent on a kid’s presents. But, plenty of research associates child wellness and happiness with the quality of the parent-child relationship, the presence of enjoyable rituals in the family’s life and the wellness of the parent(s). As the poet e.e. cummings noted, the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful. Money is not required to enjoy this wonder and magic, even during the holidays.

Advertisements

Four Holiday Stress Busters for Parents

Of course, the holidays are quite stressful, even as they offer us joy. There is less light. The weather is colder. Your life’s circumstances may not be in concert with a “joy to the world” message (e.g., you’ve suffered a recent loss, your child is ill). You may be faced with having to interact more with people with whom you have less than a peaceful relationship. There is a lot of hustling and bustling and, of course, financial pressures often mount. So, I’d like to review a few stress busters. I’m not going to cover obvious ones such as maintaining a good diet (avoiding processed foods and intoxication and eating fruits, veggies, Omega-3, etc.), getting enough sleep (8-9 hours/night) or getting enough physical activity (as one clinician put it, get some physical activity on any day that you eat). Instead I’d like to cover a few that may be less in the front of your mind. I’ll first review a common trap and then suggest one potential antidote.

Trap #1: To overspend

Antidote: Focus on relationships

Discussion: At some point in time it got embedded in our collective parental psyches that acquiring a lot of expensive stuff for our kids is the way to give them a magical holiday experience. And, if we don’t, we guilt ourselves with the notion that we may be depriving our kids. However, our research indicates that shared positive experiences with us is much, much more important to our kids’ happiness. For many years I’ve been asking people, up and down the age spectrum, for their best and worse memories. I can’t remember the last time someone told me that a best memory was the acquisition of some expensive thing. But, I’ve had countless people recount a family ritual or interpersonal moment as a best memory. For some ideas on ways to promote holiday magic, mystery and meaning for your kids, on pocket change, click here.

Trap #2: Act like you don’t have limitations

Antidote: Kind declines

Discussion: We know that our possessions all have their limitations and we are not surprised when our things break if we ignore those limitations. Many of us are also aware of our kids’ limits and likewise try to not exceed them. However, we often act like we are the only humans on the planet who don’t have limits. We work, serve, transport, host, donate, wrap, bake, cheat sleep and pin-ball around creation like frenetic hamsters on crack. On a related note, it is interesting to me that when I suggest to parents that one way to become more fulfilled and happy is to love more effectively many will respond with things like “how can I be expected to give more?!” Or,” My veins are empty doctor so I have no more to give!” However, this may be more of a western, industrialized bias as many other traditions realize that loving and cherishing oneself goes hand-in-hand with loving others. Sometimes one of the most loving things we can do for those around us is to realize our limitations and graciously decline invitations and pleas for us to exceed those limits.

Trap #3: Letting one’s mind or body be tense for extended periods of time

Antidote: Daily calming

Discussion: I don’t know how much the Dali Lama would be willing to participate in the crazy busy lifestyle many of us lead during the holidays. But, if he did, even he’d likely experience a tense body and mind. When our minds and/or bodies remain in a tense state for extended periods of time we become more susceptible to an assortment of physical and psychological symptoms (e.g., headaches, irritability, stomach pain, sadness, worsening of illnesses, anxiety). One way to combat this is to create a daily practice of calming ourselves and focusing just on the moment before us in a non-judgmental way. Some sample ways of doing this include starting a meditation practice (e.g., click here), using biofeedback strategies (e.g., for a device you can purchase click here), doing a pleasing and relaxing activity that limits our focus (e.g., knitting, going for a walk in nature) or just trying to sit still and quiet for a few minutes (e.g., click here). Even 10 minutes a day portends to offer dividends over time.

Trap #4: Maintaining unrealistic expectations

Antidote: Acceptance

Discussion: Despite years of experience that would suggest the value in throttling down our expectations, many of us go into the holidays expecting to engineer heaven on earth for ourselves and others. As the old saying goes “people make plans and God chuckles.” I think its fine to make plans, and even ambitious ones (as long as the previous traps are avoided). However, we do well to accept whatever comes along knowing that obstacles, surprises and changes are woven into the fabric of our lives. (To read more about how this antidote applies to holiday meals with family, click here.)

Here’s wishing for a meaningful holiday season for you and those you love. And, if you have other ideas for holiday stress busters I’m very interested to learn about them.

Affording Mental Health Care

This entry reviews the cost issues affiliated with mental health care.  While paying a provider for counseling can be expensive, it need not be. Some thoughts to help:

• Many health insurance policies cover some portion of the cost. Often a client is left with only a small copay. Moreover, with the signing into law of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, many policies have expanded their coverage of mental health services.

• Monies spent on counseling are usually considered a medical expense and so may be deductible from your taxes..

• If you have a university in your region with a graduate program in the mental health professions (e.g., clinical psychology, psychiatry, etc.), they may have an outpatient training clinic that offers services at a very low cost. In these clinics those working towards advanced degrees often provide the care under the supervision of experienced faculty. For instance, I direct such a clinic and our most common fee is $10/visit.

• Most people do not live far from a community mental health center. These centers receive public funding to support their charter. Therefore, many of them will offer services on a sliding scale or otherwise arrange for flexible payment plans. If you’re unsure where the one by you is, call up any psychologist in the yellow pages and ask.

• There are a number of charitable organizations that sponsor mental health services on a sliding or a reduced fee scale (e.g., Catholic Charities, Jewish Social Services, etc.). In all of the instances that I know of, one need not belong to the sponsoring religious group in order to get care.

• If you or a loved one suffer from a chronic medical or psychiatric problem you may qualify for support from social security. To find out more be in touch with an attorney that specializes in disability applications, your local community mental health center or your state’s mental health or disability offices.  Other programs may also be available if you cannot afford health insurance.

• Many providers may be willing to reduce their fee if you can show cause. I would not ask for this up front. But, after the evaluation is concluded, and the provider has come to know you and your circumstances, it never hurts to ask. The large majority of the thousands of mental health professionals I’ve met over the years are a mission-driven lot who care deeply about what they do. To find such a person near you, click here.

In factoring cost issues please also consider what it would be worth to be free of the problems that are having you consider getting care. What would it be worth to be free of depression, to have your child stop acting defiantly or be free of anxiety, to have your marriage healed, etc.? Imagine life with troubling mental health burdens either eliminated or controlled; then ask yourself what that would be worth?

For my post about common myths about counseling click here.

Communicating with Kids About Financial Stress

In today’s economy families commonly need to cut back or make significant changes in how they live. Many parents find themselves wondering how to discuss these changes with their children. Experienced child psychologists know that once you’ve seen one family you’ve seen one family. For this reason, there is no counsel or set of  procedures that can be universally applied. However, it is possible to provide some general guidelines to address common questions.

Is it possible to hide our financial stress from our kids?

Probably not. Most of us tend to show our vulnerabilities more when we’re stressed; smokers tend to smoke more; people in troubled marriages argue more; people inclined towards impatience yell more, etc. A young child, sensing these changes, can become fairly upset and believe that he is at fault unless a parent provides some degree of clarity.

Should I lie to my child about what is going on in order to protect her?

We parents love our kids so much that it can make us crazy (i.e., we’re parent-lunatics—my post on this topic can be found here). So, the motivation to give false assurances is certainly understandable. However, it would generally be a mistake to assert something we do not believe. While doing this in the short run can seem humane, it can damage our credibility in the long run. And, as is the case in adult relationships, credibility can be a difficult thing to recapture. Moreover, kids can usually tell when something is wrong.

What should I tell my child about what is going on?

The younger or the more psychologically vulnerable the child, the more selective I might be in what I share. The older the child, and the more that he is thriving, the more open I might be. A central parental goal is to help my child to learn how to cope well with stress. It’s useful for kids, through the course of development, and in doses that they can handle, to be exposed to a wide variety of stresses so that they can learn how to cope effectively. Yet we parent-lunatics, because we can’t bear to see our kids hurting, sometimes deprive them of such valuable learning opportunities. Then, when they’re on their own, they may experience a diminished ability to respond to multiple kinds of stress and challenges (e.g., many freshmen arrive on college campuses with a compromised capacity to make effective decisions when stressed).

Can you give me an example of what I might say to a younger or a more vulnerable child regarding the significant financial pressures we’re facing?

Let’s say that you’ve been downsized and you’re going to have to move out of your house if you can’t land a new job in three months. I probably would not tell an eight year old that the mortgage is in danger. I would, however, tell that child about the job change, because Dad is going to be home more, or someone else might let it slip. It’s like sex education: you want as much information coming from you as possible. However, a child is like a bridge that’s still being built. How much weight he can handle changes over time (i.e., we don’t want to take a caravan of heavy trucks across a bridge that’s not completed if we can avoid it). If there are serious issues that would significantly stress or frighten a young child, I’m probably would not share that information until I have to.

What would you say to a healthy, older teenager about that same situation?

I might say to the teen, “I need to tell you something troubling. I got laid off. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen and what kinds of changes we might have to go through together. I’m somewhat worried and sad about all of this, but I’m also confident in my abilities and our abilities as a family. I just thought that you’re old enough to hear about this straight up.” Such disclosures can promote closeness with a teen and affirm that you recognize her growing maturity. Then, there is the follow up opportunity to model how to cope well with stress. I can’t tell you the number of times, in my practice, that a teen has expressed surprise to learn that her parent was previously dumped by a significant other (this happens in the context of the teen being devastated by such a loss in his or her own life). We’re often not used to telling our kids about our vulnerabilities and failings, even though doing so can help them in many ways (for my humorous blog entry on this topic click here).

What do I do about the shame and guilt that I feel that I’m not able to give my kids as many things, and as many experiences, as I could in the past?

I’d suggest trying to redirect the mental energy you are putting into guilt and shame into thinking through the following formula: crisis = pain + opportunity; a related corollary is that as the pain rises so too usually does the opportunity. Maybe we can’t go to the shore this year. But, maybe we can spend more time hanging out at a neighborhood pool together. Maybe I can’t buy the top-of-the-line sneakers, but I can start to collaboratively consider whether chasing expensive corporate branding is good for us.

In closing I can share that our research makes it clear that one of the most important things our kids need from us is undivided and positive attention. The things we purchase sometimes own us more than we own them, so reduced questing for material possessions may actually  be offering us the opportunity to create deeper and better bonds with our kids. Required is love, creativity, flexibility, presence and persistence. Not required is money and Ralph Lauren (well, except in his family).

%d bloggers like this: