I sent the card to Sherry, who blogs at Blind Not Invisible. Here’s the result, in Sherry’s own words:
Christmas 2016 was looking pretty bleak. With three out of four of us out of work, we’d spent the year limping by on my self-employed husband’s income. Then, due to a miscommunication about the scope of the work, he’d massively underbid a major project.
Our emergency fund, already anemic, took a hit. We managed to stretch his billing to cover almost all of December’s expenses, but in the end we had to decide between groceries and the cell phone bill - and we were afraid we might have to use the credit card for gas or groceries before the end of the month.
Things weren’t the worst they could be. We had the house, we had our health (more or less) and we had each other. One way or another, we’d have food to eat. But it didn’t look like there was going to be much of a celebration, either.
We agreed not to exchange gifts, except to send out a couple that had already been planned. I didn’t mind not receiving any presents, but though they are adults, it hit me hard not to be able to give my kids a Christmas.
We debated setting up the Christmas tree, but nobody had much enthusiasm for the project, so we gave that a pass, too. The Christmas CDs stayed on their shelf, unplayed.
I think my lowest moment came in church. Members came forward to offer up items and monetary donations to fill gift bags for individuals in halfway houses and shelters. I sat in the pew while my husband brought up the two dollars he’d happened to have in his pocket that day and our reverend spoke movingly about the importance of giving to those in need.
“Im on the wrong side of this equation,” I thought. Any other year, I’d have been first in line. Now we’re living below the poverty line for the second year in a row. I can’t even give my kids a Christmas. Why isn’t someone making a gift bag for me?"
It was an unworthy thought, and I knew it, but the sentiment was hard to shake.
A day or two later, I got an email from Donna Freedman.
J Money of the Rockstar Finance Forums had given several people $20 gift cards, on the condition that they give the card to someone in their life as a holiday gift and tell the story of what that person did with it. Would it be all right, she asked, if she gave hers to me?
I hesitated. Despite my earlier thoughts, I knew our family was in a better position than many. But Donna had offered it to me. I emailed back and told her I’d be glad to accept.
And then I had to decide what to do with an unexpected twenty dollar gift.
One of Donna’s suggestions was that we could add it to our emergency fund. A very sensible idea, and one I considered carefully…but that didn’t make for much of a story, did it?
Had the offer come a week earlier, the twenty dollars might well have gone into the church’s gift bags. But it hadn’t. I’m sure I could have found another good cause. But, perhaps selfishly, I wanted to do something special for us.
Yes, us. My family might have understood, or even encouraged it, but there was no way I could justify spending that money just on myself.
I could have split the money four ways, or divided it between our sons. I could have bought everyone some little present to open Christmas morning. But nothing seemed quite right.
And then it hit me.
Things have sometimes been plenty tight in years past, but in our worst years, Christmas has been a time of abundance.
When the boys were small, my parents would send us a Christmas check shortly after Christmas every year. One of our traditions was to use that money to renew our Sam’s Club membership, then to pick up a few items we didn’t normally indulge in: Big bags of chocolate chips and walnuts for baking well into the year. Tubs of pitted dates. Monster jars of Greek olives.
In later years, when I’d let the Sam’s Club membership lapse, there were other treats. Plastic candy canes filled with miniature Reese’s cups. Holiday-colored M&Ms. Homemade cookies. Nuts.
With the food budget so tight, those little indulgences had gone by the wayside. And it just wasn’t Christmas without them.
I’d been hankering for summer sausage. It’s available year-round, but for me it’s always been a Christmas treat. But of course this wasn’t just about me. I polled the constituency.
“Cashews,” my husband said. “And, of course, egg nog.”
“White chocolate peppermint M&Ms,” our older son said, because he has very specific tastes.
“I don’t know,” our younger son said. “I’m good with anything, really. What about muffins?”
And there it was.
Now, let me tell you what kind of person Donna Freedman is. When I reported back to her with this information, she unsealed the envelope she’s already prepared for me - and stuck in a coupon for $1.50 off two bags of M&Ms. Because she’s that good.
Donna’s card arrived the Tuesday after Christmas. I suppose I could have given my husband a list and sent him shopping, but part of the fun for me was getting out of the house, so we waited until Friday afternoon and made an excursion of it.
We wound up at Wal-mart, because they were the most likely to have all of the items we wanted. We started in the snack aisle.
A 12-oz can of cashews was $5.48. A 24-oz container was $7.98, only $2.50 more. After some discussion, we agreed that the nuts would keep well and would definitely get eaten, so we opted for the larger size, deciding that we could supplement Donna’s gift with some household grocery money if we had to.
Our son had warned us that the M&Ms he’d wanted didnt’ seem to be available and had switched his request to a big bag of pretzels and a packet of ranch dressing mix to make flavored pretzels. Pretzels, also in the snack aisle, were $1.98 for a big bag.
We tracked down the summer sausage ($4.98) - and the ranch dressing mix, $1.49.
That left muffin mix. I could have made muffins from scratch, but wanted the greater variety of flavors a mix would provide. Our son hadn’t specified a type, but after some discussion, my husband and I settled on two packets of mix, apple cinnamon and strawberry cheesecake, at $.98 each.
Our running total was roughly eighteen and a half dollars ($18.39 to be exact, but I didn’t have a calculator on me)plus tax, and we’d gotten something on everyone’s list.
We added a half-gallon of milk and some other grocery items like tortillas and cheese that we needed anyway and hustled home with our loot.
All in all, Christmas 2016 didn’t turn out so badly after all.
I might mention that Donna’s gift turned out not to be the only one we received. My aunt and uncle sent a small check that we used to celebrate our son’s birthday with a movie matinee and dinner at home. My mom sent a check that not only paid the phone bill - before it was due! - but left enough over for each person to have a little bit of personal money. And one of my husband’s clients surprised us with a bottle of wine and a spiral-sliced ham.
But Donna’s was the first, and for me the one with the most emotional impact. It wasn’t just the money or the chance to enjoy a few holiday goodies when it seemed as though the joys of the season were passing us by - though those sure didn’t hurt!
It was the feeling of knowing that someone out there was thinking of me. That someone I’ve never met in person cared enough to send a little cheer my way in hopes it would help me enjoy an otherwise lackluster season.
Thank you, Donna. Thank you, J Money and Rockstar Finance forums. Your action meant the world to me and my family.