Trimming down the tree

Wtih unemployment rampant, some of us are recalibrating our holiday plans

Karen Heinze, a single mom, has been unemployed since the fall. She’s looking for inexpensive gifts for her two young daughters, Lucy, 10, and Echo, 8. Karen Heinze, a single mom, has been unemployed since the fall. She’s looking for inexpensive gifts for her two young daughters, Lucy, 10, and Echo, 8. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / December 19, 2009

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Ten months ago, Kaarlo Maki lost his job managing a quality assurance team for a Boston financial institution. For Maki, 43, who lives in Quincy and is still seeking employment as Christmas nears, this holiday season is all about making prudent choices, holding what are sometimes difficult family conversations, and generally downsizing expectations: a trifecta familiar to millions who find themselves out of work during a time of year when everyone wants to feel generous and jolly, and retailers promote consumer spending as practically a sacred civic duty.

“We’ve certainly scaled back this year when it comes to our kids and ourselves,’’ says Maki, whose children are 13, 9, and 3. “We’re buying things that have more value, as opposed to toys that only get played with for a few hours and then put away.’’ He’s been candid with them about his job situation. Because his wife teaches school, he also realizes his family is better off than some. But, he says, “it’s still Christmas, and the kids have their lists. I don’t believe they’ve been going around telling their friends they won’t be getting much this year because Dad is unemployed.’’

Karen Heinze’s job with a Cambridge pharmaceutical company ended in October. Heinze, 52, a single mother living in Medford with two young daughters, has already crossed several items off her Christmas shopping list, beginning with a new bicycle for her 10-year-old. She’ll be looking instead for less costly presents such as books, puzzles, and gift cards and, feeling badly about not being able to afford gifts for other relatives, has asked family members to skip the traditional gift exchange this year.

“This is reality, though. It’s part of life,’’ says Heinze, sitting in a conference room at Career Source, a Cambridge job resource center where she’s come on a recent weekday to further her employment search.

Interviews with more than a dozen local job-seekers - blue collar and white collar, married with children and divorced, mid-career and inching close to retirement age - yield similar sentiments about facing the year-end holidays unemployed. Many express relief that the economy shows signs of rebounding, notwithstanding a national unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent. Some are gratified, too, that the stigma around being jobless has lessened, one byproduct of so many finding themselves out of work through no fault of their own.

Perhaps the most constant refrain, though, is a resolve to put family first and pocketbook second. To embrace the true spirit of the season - family, faith, charitable giving - over its more material aspects.

True, the “Santa’’ conversations can be painful ones, many admit, especially where younger children are involved. Not being able to visit loved ones far away is another emotional hardship. Yet when all is said and done, they say, a little creativity and honesty go a long way toward making the holidays feel more festive.

“To me, it’s a time to do great things for your community, not spending money on things we don’t need,’’ says Michelle Brock of Dedham, who was laid off last June from her marketing job. “You have to ask yourself: Is this a want or a need? Does it further our future?’’ Brock’s husband makes high-end cabinetry and has set aside extra cash to buy Christmas gifts, she says, so whatever the couple does spend won’t wind up on their credit card statements.

Psychologist Bruce Cedar of CMG Associates, a Newton firm specializing in workplace health and safety issues, says the best approach for stressed-out families during the holidays is setting reasonable expectations. “Parents should talk openly and realistically, but not negatively, about why they’re doing things this way,’’ Cedar says. Since job searches typically slow down this time of year, he points out, there’s more time for family-oriented activities anyway.

Children’s Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Goldman says the first priority for parents struggling with a setback such as joblessness should be reassuring children that the family is intact and safe. “The conversation about there not being a Wii or PlayStation 2 this year is different from, ‘Kids, this is the last Christmas we’ll be spending in our house,’ ’’ Goldman says. “Things have to be put in context.’’ Parents should think such conversations through beforehand, he adds, and not brush aside any feelings of disappointment or anxiety that may arise.

The message of making more with less rings true for divorced dad Tim Tripp, 47, of Stoughton, whose office copy service job ended this fall. Tripp has moved in with his mother and even sold his personal computer to raise cash, yet he hasn’t been able to buy his two children, ages 12 and 10, much for Christmas. “They know my situation, but it’s hit me pretty hard emotionally,’’ Tripp admits. Over the holidays he usually takes his kids to Cape Cod or New Hampshire for a family weekend. Not this year. “It’s more like, let’s go to the movies and eat at McDonald’s,’’ he says somberly. “I know what they want. Kids their age all seem to want electronics. They know they’re not going to get that, though. But I’ll do the best I can. And a hug goes a long way.’’

So does making do with less, according to Eva Doucette of Medford, a business analyst laid off in August by her Atlanta-based employer. Doucette, 62, has also seen her unemployed 40-year old daughter move back in with her. The line going around her family, says a smiling Doucette, is the person with the most stable income is her 86-year old mother, who has pension money and Social Security rolling in.

More seriously, Doucette says her jobless friends are demonstrating more creativity this year, some by cashing in frequent-flier miles, others by buying less expensive gifts with more thought behind them. “It’s not going out and buying someone another scarf they don’t need,’’ she says. “It’s more like, hmm, how do I let people know I care about them without spending money? Spending time with friends rather than money on friends.’’

Kaarlo Maki says the range of phone calls he’s been getting lately tell a lot about pressures and priorities in a season when money is tight and unemployment widespread. Some calls are from concerned family members offering to host the Christmas gathering, which Maki and his family still want to do. Others are from charitable organizations to which he has donated in the past.

“They start out by asking you to give more than what you gave the year before,’’ Maki says. “You explain you’re out of work, and some are sympathetic. But I’ve had a few hang-ups, too.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at