Santa Claus will make it to the home of John and Geraldine Swann and their three children this Christmas, but it will be a very pragmatic Santa.
Instead of leaving Nintendo games and Barbie dream houses and super Lego sets and school jackets, he mostly will be placing socks and pajamas and underwear under the Christmas tree of the family's Highlandtown home.
"I told the kids [Jonathan, 16, Julia, 10 and Kenneth, 8] we will have a nice Christmas," said Geraldine Swann. "We will have a tree. There will be gifts under the tree. They'll just be different. It used to be wants under the tree. Now there will be needs, and maybe just one want."
The grinch responsible for the Swann's penny-pinching holiday was a Pentagon decision to cancel the Navy's A-12 attack-aircraft program. As a result, Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group laid off 1,200 employees last February. Among them was John Swann, a 12-year employee who lost his job in manufacturing engineering.
"It was like a death in the family," Geraldine Swann said. "We thought he'd be there forever. The money was good, the benefits were great. And then in one day it was all gone."
After months of fruitless job searching and several false starts, John Swann is now three weeks into a new job as a technical sales manager for a small company. He loves his new job, and the couple thinks it will work out. But he's making $12,000 less than he did at Westinghouse.
"It's still going to be very, very difficult to make ends meet," said Geraldine Swann, who has become such a tenacious bargain-hunter that she feels she's more valuable economically at home than she would be in the work place.
The Swanns have survived since February by cutting spending to the bone, seeking out free or inexpensive entertainment and figuring out how every dime is spent.
The couple are "desperately trying" to hang on to their remaining savings to handle any medical emergencies that might arise from John Swann's hypertension or their daughter's epilepsy until those conditions are covered by his new company insurance. Mrs. Swann maps out plans for her shopping expeditions to thrift stores, outlets, second-hand shops and discount warehouses with military precision.
"If you don't absolutely need it, don't buy it," she said in describing how she now runs the household. "You find out you don't need as much, and you're not as choosy."
"We have to make our money walk, talk and dance a jig."
The Swanns are getting through the holidays by practicing the same tight budgeting.
"We used to spend $1,000, easy," excluding food and decorations, she said. "This year, $300, tops."
The kids used to get just about everything they wanted for Christmas, Mrs. Swann said, but they know things will be different this year.
"You can't be wrapped up in brand names," she said.
Where in previous years each child received one big gift costing close to $100 plus other smaller ones, the emphasis this year is on supplying necessities: Clothing, school supplies, personal items, things that in previous years the Swanns would have bought as a matter of course. The few "wants" the children will find under the tree will come from their grandparents.
The couple have agreed not to give each other gifts, and presents for members of their large, extended family will be "token" gifts costing a dollar or two, Swann said.
There won't be a lot of treats and goodies in the house and no new decorations. For Christmas dinner, the family will go, as it always does, to her mother's.
Mrs. Swann said she generally charges her purchases on a Discover credit card, but only to get the 1 percent rebate the card pays.
"One dollar is one dollar you didn't have before," she noted.
She never lets the balance carry over from one month to the next.
"I can't afford that finance charge," she said.
Other special holiday treats are out, too.
Last year, for instance, the family went to see The Nutcracker at the Lyric and then went to dinner at Haussner's -- an evening that cost around $200.
Now the family attends a lot of church events, like an upcoming spaghetti supper.
The economic downturn in the family's fortunes has had some positive effects.
"I'm more resourceful, less wasteful," Mrs. Swann said. And the hard times have brought the already close family closer together and deepened its strong religious faith. The family often has prayer sessions, she said.
As for the future, Mrs. Swann said, the family has learned to take it one day at a time.
"There are no guarantees," she said.
But if her husband ever regains his former earning power, Mrs. Swann said, she would expect the family to revert to its previous life style although she said she would remain a bargain shopper.
The one thing the family hasn't cut during its tough times has been the $15 a month it sends to Catholic Charities to support a girl in a Philippines mission.
"This child is depending on us," she said. "I don't want to give that up."
"I've become more understanding of other peoples needs," she said. "Now when I give I know, because it's precious to me, that it's even more precious to them."
Getting through the season
* Make a written list of whom you need to buy gifts for, and how much you can spend on each person.
* Pay cash. If you must use a credit card, use just one so you track the balance more easily.
* Don't be swayed by offers of deferred billing.
* Comparison shop. Look for sales, especially this year.
* Keep an eye on prices of items you've bought. If a merchant puts it on sale within 30 days after you bought it, take in your receipt and get the sale price.
* Give handmade gifts and cards.
* Give a gift of service. For example, three evenings of babysitting or six car washes. Gifts of service are especially good for grandparents and other older people.
* Suggest that instead of office gift exchanges people bring canned goods for food pantries.
G; * Cut your Christmas card list to people you don't see.