Finance Magazine

Five Ways to Handle Holiday Hyperconsumerism

By Kathleen O'Malley @frugalportland


Forgive me if I use this alternate name for the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. I mean no disrespect. But, according to ample research, the average American will spend close to $1,000 on holiday gifts, decor, events, etc. this year. And, for most folks, it’s money they don’t even have: One survey found that fewer than one-quarter of Americans would pay off their seasonal debt in 30 days. Almost half said they would need at least four months to get out of the red for their holiday indulgence.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our focus on spending – and going into debt – during the holidays is not immutable. You CAN do something about it. Here are five ideas for starting down the path to a saner December.

# 1. Participate in Buy Nothing Day

Tomorrow is Buy Nothing Day – or Black Friday – depending upon your consumer perspective. Read more about BND in last week’s post.

This is an EASY one – “participation” requires NO ACTIVITY on your part! Be a True Portlander and Buy Nothing!

# 2. Stop Exchanging Gifts With (Most/All) Other Adults

Don’t you already have enough? Of, well, everything? My family of five siblings came to this conclusion about 25 years ago. With the siblings, our own kids, and all of the nieces and nephews in the family, gift giving had become, quite simply, an expensive chore for most of us. We had “The Talk” (see # 5) and, with great sighs of relief, stopped the sibling exchange.

As a substitute, we began holding…

# 3. White Elephant Exchanges

These staples of office holiday parties have become increasingly popular at family gatherings as well. My extended family started Christmas White Elephants on a lark decades ago. And we are Oh So Happy that we did. The WE exchange is the most anticipated and beloved aspect of our gatherings, even for the kids. I talked my in-laws into doing this too (it was EASY – they were ecstatic to be given an “out” from at least the adult portion of the chaos).

The rules are simple, although there are numerous variations and personal touches added by families: Everyone brings a wrapped item. Some families put a dollar limit on these (make it LOW, like $5). Others prescribe that it must be a recycled item. The idea here is to make it FUN, not to ADD to your gift-giving stress. Creativity has become a hallmark of the festivities. One year one of my kids sprinted over to McDonald’s and wrapped up a Happy Meal as his WE donation. Leftover Christmas candy and been-sitting-in-the-liquor-cabinet-for-years alcohol are common (these are popular; it doesn’t take much to be a “good” WE item in our family). And then there are those items that show up every year. For my family, it’s the single bottle of Hog’s Breath beer that started out as a six-pack a couple of decades ago. It’s still circulating…

Everyone picks a number from a hat. The fun commences. Number One picks a gift and opens it. Number Two can either “steal” that item or open another gift. And so forth. The third “possession” is final; no more stealing allowed. Chicago Rules – my family just made this name up; I have no idea if folks in Chicago do things differently – dictate that once all WE gifts are opened, Number One gets to steal one last time. My family added another: If you participate in the WE, you MUST take the item you end up with off the premises. You cannot leave it behind the potted plant in the foyer. (It happens.)

# 4. Alternatives to Traditional Gifts

If you decide to continue to exchange gifts – with family and/or friends – you can make an effort to greatly alter the nature of those offerings. The recipients will be relieved. And our over-plundered planet will thank you.

For example, you can give consumable gifts. Parents of young kids in my extended family – in lieu of renting a storage space for All of Those *&$#@^ Toys – have started asking the adults to give the kids stuff like bubbles, art supplies, even favorite foods. This applies to adults too (if you haven’t scrapped the adult gift giving tradition). Think chocolate, coffee, alcohol, chocolate, baskets of fruit, chocolate – you get the idea.

Another alternative is giving the gift of experience: taking a niece out for tea, buying tickets to a play for young parents along with a promise of babysitting, offering to teach your cousin how to play guitar. The sky’s the limit.

Charitable donations in the name of the giftee are excellent presents for those who already have enough. It’s the ultimate win-win-win for gift givers because you get to deduct the gift/donation on your tax returns. (But please note: If the Republican tax reform ideas are passed as is, the charitable deduction is going the way of the dinosaur. This could be your last year to subtract those donations as an itemized deduction.)

# 5. Have ‘The Talk’

No man/woman/family is an island. To implement any of these changes you will need a consensus (or at least majority vote) on your new plan.

NOW is the time to talk with your family – perhaps around that bountiful Thanksgiving table – about gift giving. In fact, it may be too late for a discussion about this year’s holiday buying. That makes it a perfect time to have the conversation about NEXT year’s seasonal giving debacle. For guidance, you can check out The Center for a New American Dream’s website. (This website will also help you with ideas on how to simplify the holidays for your kids .)

I can almost guarantee you won’t regret it. And perhaps you can get back to the stuff about the holidays that really matters – which we all know is not the stuff under the tree.

Marie Sherlock is an award-winning, Portland-based travel writer. Follow her on twitter @SherlockTravels.

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