It's a holiday ritual as practiced -- though perhaps not as cherished -- as unpacking the Nativity set or untangling the Christmas-tree lights: How much to spend? Balancing generous impulses with economic realities is never easy, but it can be particularly tricky during the holidays, when gift-giving decisions can mean the difference between cherished memories and a sound fiscal forecast or the anxiety triggered by months of crushing post-celebration bills.

Reason for the season

"It's hard to not be impacted by the messages you hear," said Phil Lenahan, founder of Veritas Financial Ministries and author of "7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free" (OSV, $19.99). "Between television, radio and the Internet, we have a lot of messages thrown at us. You're going to be bombarded with them. What's important is that we stay well-grounded in what the real reason for the season is."

"It's very easy for people to get sucked in by these influences," agreed Father Daniel Mahan, executive director of Indianapolis' Marian College Center for Catholic Stewardship, "and to go out Christmas shopping without even thinking of things like the budget, or whether they can afford these elaborate and lavish gifts -- and without thinking of what would really make a truly significant gift for the person they have in mind."

Colleen Smith, editor of Our Sunday Visitor's Grace In Action stewardship bulletin insert, said "it really does take some restraint -- all the forces are coming at us at the holidays, and at a time when people might be trying to balance those ghosts of Christmas past and present. We're vulnerable at that time, and it does feel good to give."

"The type of generosity we show to our loved ones is in imitation of our heavenly Father giving us the priceless gift of his only-begotten Son," Father Mahan noted. "But a budget is in keeping with good stewardship."

Balancing expectations

While generosity is an admirable trait in harmony with the spirit of the holiday, Lenahan, too, maintains that an even perspective is required. "On the one hand, yes, we want to show people that we love them. But on the other hand, the things that we give are just a sign of our love," he said.

"At the holidays," Lenahan added, "some feel a great pressure to give to a lot of people, and they really don't count the cost until it's over."

Expectations can be particularly intense for members of some ethnic groups, Lenahan said, because "they feel a tremendous pressure to give not just to direct family, but to all the aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews." The result -- which Lenahan has witnessed in his ministry -- can be families spending well beyond their means, even to the extreme of borrowing money against their own homes to make purchases or retire holiday debt.

Feeling coerced can also shortchange the authentic intention of gift-giving, Smith suggested, reducing it to a mechanical response more akin to a transaction. "You know when somebody gives you a gift that means something to you, that they understand something about you, and that they've taken time to think about what would please you," she said. "And you also know when you get a gift that's more than just checking something off a list. People have to take some time and think about it."

Lenahan's advice for those perhaps already feeling the unwelcome pinch of financial regret?

"You ought to go into the holiday season with a spending plan -- and actually it's not just the holiday season, it's the whole year," he counseled. "Getting on a plan for the year is really key -- and part of that plan ends up being holiday spending." Otherwise, Lenahan warns, "you're going to sit there in January kicking yourself saying, 'Why did I do this again?' So much of navigating life in general, but particularly our finances, is being able to look ahead just a little bit."

A family dialogue, Lenahan suggested, might sound like this: "Here's what we're able to allocate in the context of this bigger picture -- and we've thought that through and we're comfortable with it. We wish we could maybe do more, but we know that if we're going to fulfill these other responsibilities we've got and live within our means, then this is all we have."

Simply being there

"There's no substitute for sincerity," suggested Father Mahan. Time together doesn't have a price tag attached, he observed; nor are the most memorable gifts necessarily the most expensive. "The experience of just being able to go downtown to see the lights doesn't cost a thing. The opportunity to go on a nice walk through the woods doesn't cost a thing," Father Mahan said. "Or the opportunity to make a special pilgrimage at Christmastime -- to go to a church that might be a little distance away -- would be a very memorable way to celebrate Christmas. Simply give the gift of being there for one another, which is so very important today."

Smith echoed Father Mahan's urging that families should find ways to spend "quality time" together, or to provide that opportunity as a gift to others. "We've enjoyed cultural Christmas outings -- everything from the symphony's Christmas concert to Messiah to Celtic Christmas concerts to Rockettes to the Colorado Ballet's Nutcracker to a local folk music Christmas concert," she said. "Tickets are tangible," Smith noted, and they "give us a chance to experience something wondrous and extravagant during the holiday season, spend time together, and at the same time support the arts."

Financial realism and restraint can, Lenahan said, "take a great burden off of you." Charitable giving, mortgage payments, taxes, education, groceries and utilities, transportation -- all can be reasonably projected to yield an estimate of feasible holiday spending.

Responsible spending is, Father Mahan explained, a form of stewardship closely linked to spiritual well-being. "When we're grounded spiritually, it's much more natural for us to spend responsibly."

Lenahan agreed. "It's understanding that God is Creator and Owner, and he's entrusted certain resources and gifts to us to be managed in a way pleasing to him," he said. "That puts a whole different perspective on it -- these are the Lord's gifts that we're entrusted to use."

Ultimately, in the midst of competing or outsized expectations, commercially inspired impulses, and strict fiscal realities, Smith asks families to remember that "the holiday is really about love -- love graciously given; love graciously received. Then it seems simple."

Kimberley Heatherington writes from Virginia.