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For many Americans, a season of saving

Cristi Harris and her husband are both relatively secure in their jobs, and they’re far enough away from retirement that the recent stock market drop isn’t weighing heavily on them.

And yet this holiday season Harris and her husband plan to cut their gift-giving budget by 75 percent.

Harris and her family, who live in Colorado Springs, Colo., will make peanut brittle and play board games instead of heading to the mall. They’ll spend about $100 on each of their grown sons instead of the usual $400 to $500, and give low-cost gifts like magazine subscriptions to their extended families.

“We’re really just trying to take a deep breath,” said Harris, 45. “It feels like the country is reeling at this point.”

As the nation heads into the holiday season deeply mired in recession, plenty of Americans have been forced to curtail their gift shopping for understandable reasons: They have lost their jobs or retirement savings or have seen their finances devastated by the housing crisis. But many others say they have decided to spend less even though they are still in relatively good financial shape.

Some cite worries about what the future might hold or want to pare down debt in an era of tighter credit. Others say the recession has served as a wake-up call that spending habits have gotten out of control or say it just doesn’t seem right to spend lavishly when others are facing tough times. For some, an environmental awakening has left them wary of giving gifts that might end up in a landfill.

Even first lady Laura Bush has talked about cutting back this holiday season, saying she is reusing ornaments from years past and focusing on family.

“This year, we’re going to be very, very careful at Christmas," she told The Associated Press. "I suspect that a lot of other American families will be the same."

Americans often tell researchers that they plan to cut back on holiday spending at the beginning of the holiday season, only to give in to the urge to pull out the plastic in the frantic final days. But this year things seem different, said analyst Marshal Cohen of NPD Group.

“There is so little new product, there is so little availability of credit and there is so little desire to go out and try to show the world — you know, that keeping up with the Joneses, that’s over,” Cohen said.

Many families say their cutbacks come after years of feeling like the materialism around the holidays was getting out of control.

Over the years Kim Hobin of Clemmons, N.C., has grown increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of her four children, ages 7 to 13, making lists of things they “need” for Hanukkah. Now, with the economy in such bad shape, Hobin wants to make sure her children understand that there are other families who are less fortunate.

(This story has been corrected. Click here to see the correction.)

So this year, Hobin, 41, decided that instead of getting gifts from their parents each night of Hanukkah, the kids would pick charities and give a donation for each night. Her children have embraced the idea, she said, especially since they get a hand in deciding who they can help.

“It just seems like a lot of people are suffering, and frankly we’re not, and I just want my children to realize that to be in this position is a blessing, and so we need to share,” she said.

The plan also is saving Hobin the time and stress of shopping for and wrapping more than 40 gifts for her kids and husband, a veterinarian, to open over the eight nights of Hanukkah.

“I’m thrilled,” she said.

Brian Moore also won’t be doing much shopping this holiday season — in fact, he hasn’t been shopping for anything but essentials since August.

Moore, 22, isn’t worried he will lose his job as an architectural drafter, but watching the impact of the recession on others has been sobering.

“The downturn kind of set me off,” said Moore, of Portland, Ore. “Like everybody else, I was spending more than I could afford, and I figured if I didn’t do anything about it, it would probably catch up to me, too.”

So, Moore set about paying down credit card debt and canceling credit cards. Now instead of perusing stores on the weekends, he spends his time doing projects around the house, playing video games and walking around the city.

He admits that life without shopping can be a bit boring and that it’s been difficult to avoid the temptation of holiday promotions. But he’s hoping it won’t last forever.

“I’m paying off my debt, I’m starting to save. I’m putting a solid foot on the ground,” he said.

While many have embraced the new frugality, for others old habits die hard.

When Bruce Bracken first floated the idea to his family that they should severely curtail gift-giving this year, “they wanted to know what I was smoking," he said.

But gradually the family came around to his way of thinking, swayed by worries that one of them could face a job loss next year and a general feeling that this isn’t a good time to run up credit card debt.

Bracken said he convinced the adults in the family to give up gift-giving by reminding them of all the various gifts that have been unwanted, unneeded or unused over the years. He said a defining moment came when his grown children couldn’t remember what he’d given them last year.

Bracken and his wife will still give gifts to his grandchildren — who, incidentally, did remember what they’d received the year before. But they are sticking to a budget.

“Nothing is going on the credit card this year,” said Bracken, 58, of Draper, Utah.

Bracken also will give up a tradition of taking the family to an expensive Christmas dinner, instead opting for a home-cooked meal that will save hundreds of dollars. Family members are  planning more get-togethers, including a sleigh ride party, Christmas caroling and a trip downtown to see the lights and go ice skating. And they are volunteering more than in years past.

“We have been feeling more of the real true meaning of Christmas than we ever had before, and it’s not involving money,” he said.

Although it’s still early in the season, many others say that they, too, are seeing more than just a financial benefit to cutting back.

Harris, the mother of three in Colorado Springs, remembers a time years ago when her husband had just gotten out of the military, she was volunteering full-time at a church, and “we were broke — dead broke,” she said.

Using a small donation she had received, Harris bought each child a laundry basket and filled it with their favorite junk food. Then she gave them a cleaning tool along with a coupon giving them a weekend off from cleaning.

Even today, the family still has a tradition of giving their boys a bottle of soda for Christmas, and she said all of her sons still have the cleaning tools from that Christmas years ago.

“They remember that Christmas far more intricately than any other Christmas we had,” Harris said.

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