Coping with Christmas without a jobby Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Allen Peterson is one of the 200,000 unemployed Minnesotans facing tough choices about how not to spend this holiday season.
The Petersons love Christmas, and the decorations on their house in Bloomington show it.
Animated statues of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim greet you at the front entrance. Red lights twinkle around the doorway.
Inside, Michelle's favorite music box plays songs from the Nutcracker, and tiny ballerinas twirl around in the box. It reminds her of their 11-year-old daughter Alexandra's early years.
"Alex was in the Nutcracker in her Montessori school for several years, so it's got a special place in our hearts," said Michelle. "Isn't that cute? I just love it!"
In the living room, the family's Christmas tree gleams with lights and ornaments. A handful of gift boxes lie underneath. But they're mostly just decoys.
"These are all empty. They're for looks. We just put them under there so they would look festive, right Alex?"
"Sure..." says Alex.
Christmas this year follows a big shift in the Peterson household. Allen got laid off in August. He was a factory manager.
"Sales just weren't moving along. We knew this was going to come about, and I tried everything to keep it moving to help the company, but also to keep us employed," said Allen.
But the recession claimed Allen's job. Michelle, who works part-time as an accountant, put the family on a strict budget. No more fast-food. No new school clothes for Alex.
And the empty gift boxes under the tree signal one of their toughest budget decisions: they're not buying presents for Christmas.
The Petersons think going without gifts is an important lesson for Alex.
"You don't spend money you don't have, and you plan for the future," said Michelle.
Michelle and Allen say Alex has been a good sport about not expecting big presents this year and seems to understand their situation.
Alex says her perspective from age 11 is slightly different than her parents hope for a teachable moment.
"I was really kind of mad about that because I kind of want to be able to give my friend gifts; I want to get gifts," Alex said. "It's one of the Christmas spirits, giving gifts and getting gifts. But I do know if we don't have any money going in, we could lose the house, lose the cars."
But Alex adds that she knows what it's like to burn through cash.
"I do know how it is, because I have overspent on vacation once. I got over $100, and I spent it in like two days," said Alex.
Maintaining their pledge to skip presents has been hard for the Petersons. They usually shop for 80 people and enjoy doing it. And this year, they even turned down a generous offer from a friend, who sent a $200 check and told them to spend it on presents for Alex.
They worried about hurting their friend's feelings but decided to stick to their principles and decline the money. Michelle says they wanted to be consistent in their message to Alex.
"We would never accept it, but even had we accepted it, how would we explain, "Here's what we've been saying and all of a sudden here are some really cool gifts." So then we're kind of like, 'Are we really being grinches?" Kind of second guessing. But I don't think so. She's a happy kid, she's got plenty of things," Michelle said.
Alex doesn't know it, but she'll get a few "stocking stuffers" Christmas morning, including some books she loves. Michelle and Allen hope their daughter will get a special kick out of the gifts, since she isn't expecting anything.
Meanwhile, they say Alex is making big strides scaling back her ideas about what they can afford. She recently saw a Santa outfit for dogs at a store, and thought it would be cute on their dog.
"I was thinking I could go buy it," Alex said.
"And she immediately said, 'I know we can't afford to buy it,'" Michelle pointed out. "No, this is not on our list of practical items. Dog suits," Michelle laughed.
The family's hoping their budget will be looser in the new year. Allen Peterson recently had a couple job interviews. Alex is pulling for him. Her birthday's coming up in a few weeks, and she'd really like some presents then.
- Morning Edition, 12/24/2009, 6:50 a.m.