Christmas has always felt like a lot more trouble than it’s worth. The crowded malls drive me batty. Buying presents pose a bigger financial strain every year. Between my family and my husband’s, we have four different houses to visit on Christmas Day, so we spend most of our time in the car. And hey, let’s throw in a bunch of snow to make it extra treacherous! Sounds like fun, right?

Yeah, say it with me: BAH-HUMBUG!

No, I’m not a total Scrooge – far from it, in fact. The real issue that I take with the holiday season is the crazed spending. Punch-outs in the toy aisle? People getting trampled in the rush to nab that bargain on the flat-screen, gazillion-inch TV that, dare I say it, you don’t really need? Come on!

I’m not a religious person, so I’m not going to lecture about the true meaning of the holidays. Instead I’m going to tell you a story because that’s what I do.

Flashback to December 1995, I’m 16 and I’m actually happy to be wrapping presents – an activity I normally loathe. Why? Because I’m sitting in the dusty basement of the apartment building in Oak Park that discreetly houses the offices of Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence agency that I’ve recently started volunteering for. I’m sorting toys and articles of clothing that were donated into different piles according to sheets of papers that list the needs of families displaced by violence. Every child will get at least one toy. Every mom will get a new sweater and a warm pair of socks emblazoned with purple letters that read “Sarah’s Socks.” To this day, I know that the time I spent there is the best Christmas present I have ever given.

This memory popped into my head last week when I was anguishing over the sorry state of my bank account. The holidays were making me resentful yet again – why was I worrying about buying Christmas presents when I could barely afford to pay my bills? But what bothered me more is that I always give money to charities at the end of the year and I wouldn’t be able to give as much as I normally do.

What little I do have will be split among local charities that serve people in our community, like Sarah’s Inn and West Suburban PADS. But I also realized that there are small ways to help that do fit into my budget. For example, I can buy extra non-perishable food items every time I go grocery shopping and begin to fill a box to bring to the Forest Park Food Pantry. PADS also has a list of various items they need for their programs on their Web site.

My time is stretched almost as thin as my money these days, but the Forest Park Public Library is only a short walk from my house, so I messaged their fancy new Twitter account (@forestparkreads) to see if there were ways I could share my love of the written word with Forest Park teens. Then, on their Web site, I discovered that an individual can become a friend of the library for only $5. What a wonderful way to support learning!

All of these ideas truly cheered me up.

So pick up an extra scarf when you’re at the mall and donate it. Buy one fewer thing this year and give the money you saved to a local charity. Or simply volunteer. Even if you’re a bit of a Scrooge like me, I can guarantee it will get you into the holiday spirit.

Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site