When I was a child growing up in New York City, our home was beautifully decorated for every major holiday. Every significant celebration was honored with a dinner party or a gathering of friends. My mother would spare neither funds, nor personal energy to create the 'perfect experience.' . . . and it was all dreadful!

You see, my mother worked so hard trying to create this mythical perfect experience for everyone else, she had no energy left over to enjoy what she had accomplished. I'd sit at a festive table, eat a delicious meal, look at picture book decorations . . . and wish I was a million miles away. I imagine everyone else felt as uncomfortable as I did.

Do you recognize yourself in this description? Do you whip yourself into a frenzy so that when the holiday actually arrives you are soul weary and depleted of all resources? Why not give yourself a break this year? Why not make it your goal to enjoy what you decide to do for others?

We live in a cause and effect universe. Unless we consciously give new directions, life replicates itself, which is why year after year the holiday season is more of a burden than an opportunity for joy and celebration for the vast majority of us.

Let's examine the area of gift buying and see if we can't approach it differently this year. Avoiding the January shock when all the bloated credit card bills arrive will be our secondary goal. Our primary goal will be to treat ourselves with self respect. A person who remembers to care for himself while tending the needs of family and friends is one whose loved ones will not only enjoy the holiday without guilt but will delight in his company.

The exercise I suggest requires a commitment of time and energy on your part to be successfully accomplished. If your first thought is that you do not have any spare time, consider how much you currently squander when you set out without a plan. It's not unlike a driving trip made without a map because you have a general idea where your destination is.

Never being able to make time in your schedule for planning can be an expression of a lack of self love or low self esteem. Some folks are attached to the 'drama' that accompanies every achievement. Try this method once. Feel free to adapt parts of it that fit your personality and to alter others that seem too much like homework. This is one suggested route on the journey to a more pleasant holiday; it isn't the only one.

Please sit quietly with pencil and paper at hand. Let's create a battle plan by answering the following questions:

How much money would you ideally want to spend this holiday? Note this figure in the upper right hand corner of your first page.

Now list everyone for whom you'd like to buy a present. Next to each, write in your dream gift and approximately how much it costs. Don't rush through this part!

Are you absolutely blank about some folks? With each person for whom you are stumped, ask yourself the following kinds of questions: Did they take up a new sport this year? Do they like to cook or do crafts? Are they considering a job change? Would they like to travel? Are they religious? Do they speak frequently about their hometown?

Get the idea? We often know more about others than we realize.

Let's add up the total indicated for each gift. Does it exceed your budget? Don't panic! It happens to just about everyone on the first pass. Time to revamp our list.

The first thing we need to do is to see who can be eliminated. Don't feel bad about this! I'm certain even Donald Trump has to cut his list down to size.

Perhaps in lieu of a gift, some folks would be delighted to receive a handwritten expression of your thanks for the contribution they have made to your life. Words of appreciation are empowering and few of us take the time to express them.

The next step is to alter the amount of money we designated for each person. For example, let's say your mother and father would love to take their first cruise. You want to make it possible. This may be the year, however, that you give them a series of dance lessons with a note saying you want them to be prepared when they do set sail. Get the idea? Looking to save money doesn't mean you have to purchase cheap items. It does mean you challenge your creativity! Let's consider a few more unconventional gift ideas to spark your thinking process.

Did your best friends just have a baby? Contact their favorite babysitter and purchase a few hours of his/her time. Give your friends a gift certificate telling them they now have the luxury of a few hours for shopping, some quiet time at the beach, or a night on the town. Share your idea with other friends and perhaps they can add to the event by providing a specific free-time activity like dinner at the new parents' favorite restaurant.

Every home I go into has at least one box of pictures that are intended for an album. Why not 'sneak' into your parents' home and take photos from a favorite vacation or holiday past and surprise them with an album? You can also have these photos or slides transferred to video. Most companies that do transfer work will even let you add music from the time the event was recorded!

Call your local university and ask for a continuing education brochure for the January start of classes. You might find a reasonably priced class and be responsible for several friends learning how to line dance!

Several passes at our initial list with an open mind and a willingness to depart from what others may expect of us and we'll have gifts that will make our friends happy and keep our expenses under our control. Let's go back to that list when these choices have been made.

Remember to be 'geographically wise' when you shop. Don't retrace your steps and make multiple visits to the same mall.

Put a red 'X' next to all the gifts that must be sent out of town. Note a target date in your weekly planner for visiting the post office. Purchase your holiday card stamps at the same time. Remember too that many catalogues now gift wrap and this could be a prudent way to shop for friends and relatives at a distance.

Check your supplies: do you have gift wrap, ribbon, bows, tape and mailing paraphernalia? Schedule a stop at your local gift store and stock up.

While you have your calendar out, why not schedule an afternoon for your Christmas cards? In this day and age, don't be shy about generating labels on the computer to make this process go faster. Use a festive font!

Does the prospect of planning and shopping leave you breathless no matter how much advance work you contemplate doing? Call a professional organizer and have one of us do everything for you, or at the very least, handle the details you find most difficult. We swear never to reveal to Aunt Tilly that you yourself did not brave the crowds at the mall to purchase her new sweater!

I'd like to close with a final word of encouragement. No matter what feelings the holidays bring up for you, remember that you are in charge of your life. You needn't have a knee jerk reaction to this time of year. Don't allow the inner pressure to be 'perfect' cloud the realities of your life including the economic ones. Celebrate within your means so that the new year will begin with a harvest of happy memories to be cherished. Be an angel to yourself this holiday season!

Regina Leeds is a professional organizer based in Southern California. She travels throughout the United States teaching, lecturing and working one on one with clients and can be reached by calling the Awareness office at (714) 894-5133.

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