Playing Santa: $150 Christmas

In November, the call came out from the local Red Cross office that at least 40 people were needed to make sure their Letters to Santa program benefiting needy children was successful this year.

One lesson about charity I have had to learn over the years is that when charities (or individuals) are in dire circumstances and sincerely need help the appeal is often made very subtly and in an understated way. You have to be listening and ready to step in when this type of call comes. If you are used to corporate pitches, where they hound you and hound you with multiple phone calls, emails and letters, and speak with exaggerated language, you won’t see that in charitable situations. The pitch is often so subtle or made in such a small way that it is easy to miss.

So, we stepped in, offering to help one child. The Letters to Santa program is extraordinarily well organized and has numerous rules to help make it run more smoothly. Among the guidelines they give to prospective Santas:

  • Plan to spend between $100 – $175 but not more (if you can spend more, they wanted you to sponsor a second child rather than indulge one fully–probably to keep things fair amongst the children)
  • No used stuff (except for some things like computer games)
  • If you are buying a bike, you have to include a helmet.
  • Wrap all items (or include gift wrap and ribbon so the family can wrap them)
  • Try to honor the child’s requests.
  • “You are this child’s only sponsor. What you purchase may well be all that they receive for the holidays.”

We were assigned a young girl, age 8 who wanted the following:

  • a bike
  • hair accessories
  • clothes
  • art/crafts
  • games

The form also indicated that this girl was in need of a winter coat that we were expected to provide. I knew it was going to be an incredible challenge trying to find a bike, helmet and coat for $150, let alone all of the other stuff! But we did it, and I will show you how.

First, if I had this same list for one of my own daughters, the first way I would save money is to go used with the bicycle. And I can say this confidently because last year, I gave my then-3-year-old a bike for Christmas and we bought it used off of CraigsList for $25! We freshened it up with some new streamers and a zippered bike basket and it was good to go! Yes, the tires were a bit dinged and smudged, but she really didn’t notice and thought it was awesome. We saved about $40 this way. Good used kids bikes are all over CraigsList because they either sit in garages unused or the kids outgrow them too quickly.

My daughter's used (but new to her!) bike from last Christmas.

I often see the “no used stuff” restriction when it comes to charitable donations and it has always puzzled me. Why do these people object so much to used stuff? What if it is in really good condition? I have to chalk my puzzlement up to the fact that I have (fortunately) never been poor enough to know this circumstance.

I only began to understand when I read the book Below Stairs which is the terrific memoir of a 1920’s English kitchen maid that inspired the English dramas Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Consider the contrast between the descriptions of two of her employers below:

Employer 1
“Talk about Christmas! When we got to the Christmas tree we deferentially accepted the parcels that were handed to us by the children and muttered, ‘Thank you, Master Charles, thank you, Miss Susan.’ Oh I hated it all. . . . The presents were always something useful; print dress lengths, aprons, black stockings, not silk, of course, they never gave you anything frivolous; black woolen stockings. How I longed for some of the things they had, silk underwear, perfume, jewellery, why couldn’t they have given us something like that? . . . So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill, and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”

Employer 2
“They were the most thoughtful and kind people I’d ever met . . . . [T]he servant’s hall was an absolute revelation to me. This one was comfortably furnished and it had a colour scheme to it. We had comfortable armchairs, a carpet on the floor, a standard lamp, and other small lamps around, pictures and ornaments. Things that you could tell were bought specially for us, not cast-offs from their rooms. . . . Everything was done to make you feel that they really cared about you.”

–Margaret Powell, Below Stairs

Trying to keep the budget of $150 was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I stayed up late Thanksgiving Eve and ended up doing my shopping as my children and houseguests slept. Our Santa child was the first person I shopped for.

I found quickly that no one was beating Wal-Mart’s prices on bikes. Wal-Mart had a Black Friday in-store only deal on a 20” bike (the size I needed) for $39. You could add a helmet for just $8. I knew I had to have this deal to make the budget work. I was trying to figure out who we could nominate to brave Black Friday at Wal-Mart when all of a sudden the deal was available to purchase online! It was really one of those Christmas miracles. For $49.35 with tax, we had the bike and helmet but we also said goodbye to 1/3 of our budget!

Our $39 Black Friday bike deal!

The next major item to get was the coat. Wal-Mart came through on this too and we snagged an all-pink puffy coat for $19.84 with tax. For fun, we also added in a set of Lalaloopsy branded earmuffs and gloves to go with it for $10.39.

The pink puffy coat and the Lalaloopsy earmuffs my daughters covet.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I had the two most important items in hand. I now had roughly $70 to get everything else.

After watching Frontline’s Poor Kids documentary, I knew that basics like clothes were important. I picked up two outfits that I hoped the little girl would feel comfortable wearing to school. I knew my own girls would have no objections wearing them. The first outfit was a pair of jeans with a pink long-sleeve polo shirt; and the second a velour pants and sweatshirt set that came with a cute matching scarf. The clothes ate up about $25 of my budget. I added in a large package of socks for $9.34 since we are always hunting for socks around our house. I had about $36 left to spend.

The outfits and socks we found.

I went back to the little girl’s wishlist. She wanted hair accessories, arts/crafts and games.

After looking at several options, I decided to combine two of the desires and get her an arts and crafts kit to make your own hair accessories for $10.50.

Make your own barrette kit.

I also found a small travel-sized game that contained just marbles and holes but said it came with directions to play hundreds of different types of games in both 2D and 3D spatial orientations. The educator in me thought this would be a terrific challenge for her and would be easy to carry with her as well. $8.89 later it was ours.

The Lonpos Colorful Cabin 066 Brain Intelligence Game at

It was important to me as a homeschooling mom to get her an educational workbook as part of her gift. My kids do a lot of these. I’m pretty sure when she opens it she will groan and think “Geez, what kind of Santa is this?!” but I hope it will impress on her that education for her is absolutely critical. The Poor Kids documentary pointed out that children in dire economic circumstances are often shuttled from one school to the next as they move homes and sometimes are out of school for periods of time. I also hoped that the workbook might help give her something to keep her skills up. I found a thick workbook with reading and math concepts for the third grade for $10.61.

The Santa gift my recipient will likely be least enthused about.

That left me about $6.

I picked up some note cards and some Twistables crayons (for drawing or writing down flashcards for school).

The Red Cross instructions mentioned that we should include some “stocking stuffers.” Since we didn’t have a stocking, I extended our budget by making a stocking out of some spare fabric I had. My 7-year-old helped choose the fabrics and design, informing me that all good stockings have a pocket on the front (like hers does). I embroidered the girl’s name on the pocket with my sewing machine. There was something about adding in a homemade gift that made the whole gift feel a lot more personal and meaningful.

Our homemade stocking, complete with pocket.

To fill the stocking, we stopped by the dollar store to pick up silly string, pencils, a candy cane filled with M&M-like candies and some ring pops, along with a pink cat to peek out of the stocking pocket.

Stocking stuffers from the dollar store.

We also picked up some cute Santa-themed wrapping paper and ribbon to wrap up all the gifts.

Wrapped and ready!

In the end, our grand total was about $159. So, we went a smidge over budget but not too bad considering this was our first time participating in this exercise!

We bagged up our gift per the detailed instructions. Our donations were due by December 8th. We dropped it off to an energetic Red Cross volunteer dressed in reindeer antlers. At least 10 other bikes and gifts were arriving at the same time.

We didn’t get any feedback about how we did and we don’t get to see our recipient open her gifts but I hope we did OK and that we will make someone’s Christmas a little brighter. We will certainly be thinking of her.

How do you think we did? Would you have spent the $150 differently? Could you stick to a $150 budget for your own holiday shopping? Please share in the comments.

*Other than being a donor, I am not affiliated with the Red Cross Letters to Santa program. Other than being a very small shareholder, I am also not affiliated with Wal-Mart.