We've officially entered the Holiday Shopping Season, that special time of year the Christmas-Industrial Complex has been building to since Father's Day. Despite the long, national nightmare of the "War on Christmas," we now have extended the holiday season to the point where it's best to just don a Sexy Santa costume at Halloween and wear it straight through to Boxing Day.
I always joke that we should move Christmas to July so that the stores won't be so crowded. Now retailers are making that punch line come true since the big Christmas-shopping kick-off has crept from Black Friday to Black Thursday. It's only a matter of time until Black Monday becomes the new Black Thursday, and then the whole shopping shebang will start on Black Columbus Day.
I understand why retailers do it, and why the media obsess about the holiday shopping season. The estimated $620 billion in projected 2014 holiday spending constitutes more than 19 percent of the $3.2 trillion annual retail activity in the U.S., so merchants really need those sales.
But I also understand how easy it is for consumers to get stampeded into over-stressing, over-spending and ruining not just their holidays but their finances, too. To avoid all that, I have one piece of advice: Tune in to the sound of the holidays.
And rather than a ringing cash register, that sound is ... schlooop!
Yes we can!
Schlooop! is the noise store-bought cranberry sauce makes when you plop it out of the can and onto a plate for your holiday feast. And, according to an online debate among friends and co-workers, it's either gauche and lousy, or the single best part of the holidays. For some people, an entire history of family tradition lives between the ridged rings of a jiggling can-shaped hunk of cranberry sauce. Even if you hate eating it, just the sight of that quivering dark red roll of congealed bog fruit brings back powerful memories.
Best of all, canned cranberry sauce is cheap and easy — all you need is $1.49 and a can opener. Sure, you could spend five times as much on organic, artisanal, free-range individually hand-selected cranberries and spend hours concocting your own relish and, if you enjoy that, you should. But before you drive yourself crazy by adding one more expense to the holiday shopping list and one more time-sucking chore to the holiday to-do list, stop and remember that you can simply grab a can and be done with it.
Which is exactly how you should handle the whole holiday run-up: Don't be stupid, don't kill yourself, have fun. It's an entire holiday ethos captured in the sound of schlooop!
Just say schlooop!
Feeling pressured to overspend on the perfect presents for an entire roster of friends and family? Schlooop! Make a list, pare it down, figure out what you can afford, and that's it. Maybe this is the year everybody gets a book. After all, there are lots of terrific books (besides mine), a book lasts a lot longer than a Pepperidge Farms cheese tray, and you don't have to worry about the color or the size.
Going nuts untangling 47 miles of Christmas lights that you wadded into a trash bag in -5 degree weather last year? Schlooop! New lights are buy-one-get-one-free at the drugstore now. Or skip turning your home into a carnival midway, put a simple electric candle in each window and let the neighbors think you've suddenly developed a little class.
Killing yourself cooking a holiday meal for 40 that you can only afford with Visa? Schlooop! Make the one or two things you enjoy cooking and turn the rest into a pot-luck. Or try these two magic words: deli tray. Or these even more magic 11 words: "On your way over, can you pick up a deli tray?"
Running yourself ragged running from store to store to build a mountain of gifts under the tree? Schlooop! Cut back on presents and do things with your family instead. Cut down your own Christmas tree. Go sledding as a group. Buy one small gift for everyone and put the rest of the money toward something you all choose, such as a great family vacation or a trip to the symphony.
Whatever sets your teeth on edge about the holidays, just schlooop! it by choosing the simple, easy or inexpensive option that lets you breathe, keep some money in your wallet and enjoy your holiday instead of resenting it and its bills for months to come.
In fact, you can even schlooop! the canned cranberry sauce if your family won't touch it. Take an ounce of leftover sauce, combine with an ounce of bourbon and amaretto in a cocktail shaker. Shake, pour into a glass and top with ginger ale and lime. It's just the thing to make me forget how itchy it gets in this Sexy Santa costume.
Brian O'Connor is author of the award-winning book, "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese."