merry giftmas!

December 9, 2009

Consumerism: the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable; also : a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods

To what extent does the mindset of consumerism affect your life? It’s an apt question considering that we are in the midst of the consumerism – er, Christmas – season. Do you find yourself mentally making lists of things that you “need” in order to improve your quality of life? Do you think “if I just get this and that, I will really be happy?” These are issues that I still wrestle with. Others may have issues with going into debt for nonessentials. Many of us may feel that we cannot adequately express love or appreciation for another person unless a certain sum of money is spent. We are told that it is better to give than to receive, as if this is justification for a spending frenzy.

When does enough become enough?

This is an especially challenging question when buying gifts for others. A gift conveys a silent message, whether intentional or not: a message that you care, or a message that you are trying too hard, or a message that you can afford nice things or that you are frugal, or a message that you are only doing the bare minimum. When it comes to buying gifts for family and friends, we often want to choose a gift that is enough; that conveys enough love. And we often equate that with a number of some sort – a number of gifts given or a number of dollars spent. We turn relationships into something that are measured in quantitative terms.

Despite the issues surrounding holiday gift-giving, it can still be fun to give and receive gifts. It’s fun to give. It’s fun to open a surprise package. It’s fun to look at something new.

There are many options for the person who wants to enjoy some of the gift-giving ritual without the spirit of consumerism that often accompanies it. It’s probably too late to change your traditions this year, but you can use this holiday season to evaluate what you do and do not like about the gift-giving experience. Then after the presents have been opened and you are enjoying the company of family and friends, mention your ideas for next year:

  • No gifts. This is certainly the most radical of all the options, but it can still be fun. Plan instead to share a special meal or have a game or movie night. Everyone can bring a dish or a homemade treat. A poster on my favorite message board explains how she does it.
  • Homemade gifts only. This is a popular option in frugal circles. I’m not a real big fan of it because most people aren’t excellent craftsman and frankly I would rather not have to keep your attempt at an arts and crafts project. If you are intent on giving a quality homemade gift, here are 50 homemade gift ideas. If there are kids on your Christmas list, check out homemade creative play gifts for kids.
  • Food gifts. This may be a subset of “homemade gifts,” but it doesn’t have to be. You could host a dinner party or treat others to a dinner out. Food gifts may be very indulgent if you decide to give Godiva chocolates or very useful if you make homemade vanilla extract.
  • White Elephant gift exchange. There are a number of variations of this classic holiday ritual. In my experience the version that is the most fun is the no-cost variety that involves finding a fun item in your home that you no longer want (or never wanted in the first place). It’s always fun to see the odd things that people find and to hear the stories behind these items. The item may turn out to be quite useful – about ten years ago I received a very strange mug in a white elephant gift exchange, and to this day I use it as a pen holder.
  • Group gift exchange, white elephant style. This technique is risky as it’s difficult to buy a generic gift that will please just about anyone. Try to stick with a theme (favorite book, favorite movie, best kitchen gadget, etc.) to ensure a fun, worthwhile exchange.
  • Draw names. This is the method that my family has chosen this year. Each person will buy a gift for another predetermined person. I think that this option presents the best of all possibilities: everyone gets a fun gift to open and they get a chance to present someone else with a gift. But they don’t get stressed out trying to find the perfect gift for several different people and they don’t have to worry about spending too much.
  • Dollar cap. This can be used in conjunction with any of the options above.

You can have a wonderful, meaningful, enjoyable Christmas season with much less fuss. You’ll save money. You won’t waste countless hours wandering the mall or searching the internet. You won’t fill your house with stuff that you don’t need. Best of all, you will remove the focus on things and instead you’ll be free to focus on what truly matters to you.

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