Christmas Consumerism – It’s Time to Nip it in the Bud

October 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Spending

Barney Fife of the Andy Griffith Show, played by the late Don Knotts, is one of my favorite TV characters.  Ol’ Barney is known for a number of now famous quotes, including “Nip it, nip it, nip it – just nip it in the bud!”   

According to a telephone survey conducted by the American Research Group, the average U.S. adult spent $535 on holiday shopping in 1995.  This almost doubled in 2001, reaching $1057.  In 2007, the average adult holiday shopper expected to spend a whopping $859, less than in 2001 but still a huge increase over 1995.

Mr. ToughMoneyLove thinks that if Barney were around to witness the excess in debt driven consumption practiced by American consumers over the past decade, he would likely have something to say about the approaching holiday season.  Indeed, Barney would probably launch into one of his “just nip it” tirades. 

Why do I believe this?  Because this holiday season will be the first real test of whether spendaholic consumers have learned any lessons from the economic conditions that have overtaken us.  Retailers, of course, hope that is not the case.  I hope that it is, even if it means the demise of some retailers who depend on excessive purchases of luxury items and gadgets by those who cannot afford them. 

What Does it Mean to Nip Christmas Consumerism in the Bud? 

We are at the leading edge of what is for most people the holiday shopping season.  This is when lists are made and gift ideas are floated around for further consideration.  It is also the time when feelings of dread creep into the psyche of consumers who, at some level, understand that they are likely to use credit to fulfill the gift-exchange patterns and expectations of family and friends.  Well, “nip that Christmas consumerism in the bud” means changing those expectations and breaking those patterns now before it is too late.  

Even if you discount the conflict between the spiritual message of Christmas and the way it has been commercialized, there is little to gain and plenty to lose by succumbing to the “buy, buy, and buy some more” message promoted by malls, retailers, and now Treasury Secretary Paulson.  The short term reward of the purchase is quickly replaced by the sick feeling that arises from the elevating credit card balances.  People, you need to nip that feeling in the bud.  You need to fight back to a place that gives you peace and comfort both before and after the gifts are opened and the bills start arriving.   Even if you can easily afford substantial Christmas gift purchases, consider how that creates pressures to reciprocate on the part of friends and family who are not so fortunate.

How Do You Nip Christmas Consumerism in the Bud? 

Let me answer this question by describing what has occurred in the Mr. ToughMoneyLove family.  I have four siblings with ten nieces and nephews.  They have the same or more in return because we have three children.  Over the years as our families have grown we had maintained a practice of exchanging gifts with everyone, top to bottom.  We are scattered around the country and although we try see each other several times a year, it is hard to keep up with interests and needs that would add meaning and/or practicality to our gift exchanges.  Because of that, there ended up being a lot of guesswork involved in gift selection, with gift certificates becoming the default position.  In the minds of many, the entire task had become a huge chore and a financial burden, with little meaning behind it. 

Finally, some family members with more wisdom than me simply announced to the family at large that they were opting out.  No more gifts would be sent, just lots of love and holiday greetings.  Were these announcements received with hurt or disappointment?  Absolutely not.  Indeed, many of us asked ourselves why we hadn’t reached that point earlier.  Of course, some of our more senior family members (grandparents) declined to participate in the mass “opt out.”  They enjoyed the tradition of sending gifts to grandchildren and did not want to give it up.  We all understood this.  Everyone was free to give or not give, without creating reciprocal obligations or hard feelings of any kind.  

All it takes to get this done is a little honesty and openness.  Just tell everyone (or most everyone) that you have reached that point in life that holiday gift exchange is not that important in the grand scheme of things.  You would rather celebrate the holidays in other ways that show value in your personal relationships.  That’s it.  If they cannot appreciate this sentiment, it’s their problem, not yours.  If helpful, you can explicitly blame it on the economy.  Heck, blame it on Mr. ToughMoneyLove.  Being a lawyer in my day job, I am used to being blamed for injecting all sorts of hard truth into other folks’ business. 

Can it Work for You? 

Some of you might think that breaking the gift buying habit creates excessive risk of generating hard feelings and embarrassment among friends and family members with whom gift exchanges have become part of the holidays.  Actually, you will be pleasantly surprised at how positively your statement will be received.  If anyone in your circle of friends and family gets permanently bent out of shape over it, maybe it’s time to reconsider the beneficial nature of that relationship. 

One positive benefit of ending the tradition of Christmas consumerism is that it has actually become easier for family members to travel and get together over the holidays.  Less time spent shopping, more money available for traveling, no bags full of gifts to carry, and no fears that the gifts you give won’t meet the competitive standards set by big spender family members.  It is hard to complain about these benefits.   It’s quite a liberating feeling to be relieved of the shopping obligation.

If you have children at home, I am not suggesting that you cut them off completely.  However – and this is particularly true if you are in debt – now is the time to de-escalate the Christmas consumerism and lower the expectations among your children.  Give according to their realistic needs and wants, and according to your ability to buy without borrowing.  Do this instead of trying to meet some standard set by past buying binges, by what your friends and neighbors are doing, or by what the retailers suggest you should be buying.  Do it now – nip it in the bud – and everyone can adjust and be content with what the season brings.

I’m sure that some of you readers have reached similar decisions in your own lives.  If so, how did that work in your family?

Feed Mr. ToughMoneyLove

FREE UPDATES: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe to receive the newest hard truth from Mr. ToughMoneyLove automatically by RSS feed (what is RSS?) or by spam-free Email.

  • Banner


18 Responses to “Christmas Consumerism – It’s Time to Nip it in the Bud”
  1. Thanks for getting this out there now. I could believe I saw my first Christmas TV ad of the year last night. Givem e a break! Live within your means and everything wil be okay. Thanks for hte post!

  2. Debt Reduction: Thanks for visiting. The onslaught of Christmas merchandising has begun. If only we can resist this year.

  3. G. Jules says:

    My family negotiated a Giftmas truce this year. In the past, each couple or single family member used to give gifts to every other person attending the Christmas celebration. The fact that different family members had different budgets made things stressful, and all the unwrapping took up most of the time we had together at Christmas. I have nothing against presents, but things were getting out of control.

    So over the summer — before the economy got really bad, actually — we had a family discussion and got everyone on board with a new plan. Now we’re drawing names out of a hat, with each family member purchasing a gift for one other family member. We also put on a $25 limit for the gifts, which should even the playing field.

    We are planning on exempting children under twelve from the gift exchange once we have children under twelve in the family again.

    I’m delighted about the change — it’s made thinking about the holidays much less stressful. Coming up with eleven separate presents was getting to be a bit much. My mother and I were both surprised by how quickly we got everyone on board.

  4. G. Jules – Great concept and plan that your family adopted. We used the single gift recipient plan on one of our big family get togethers as well. The senior family member was in charge of selecting and assigning names. Each family member published a list of wants/needs. It worked great. Thanks for visiting.

  5. Constant Learning says:

    I have four siblings (and they have spouses and children) and a fairly large extended family. For a while we tried to keep up with everyone. Then we moved to drawing names. It has taken time to get past the guilt of not giving gifts. Even when we drew names, we ended up giving gifts for the name we drew AND giving the young children gifts.

    Now we have cut back to just giving gifts to the young children. And it turns out that no adult seems to miss the gifts, the clutter, or the stress. We just enjoy seeing the children’s pleasure.

    In the future, I would like to start a new Christmas tradition of doing things together instead of giving gifts.

  6. Constant Learning: You have a family size similar to mine. It sounds like you have gone through some of the same gift-exchange issues and are finding a happy medium. I sure do like the idea of joint activities in lieu of family gifts.

  7. Brilliant! (because I agree with it).

    I’ve convinced both my sisters and parents not to exchange gifts at Xmas – we all live in different cities and even countries so who cares about gifts if we can just get together.

    Gifts for adults who have their own money are a complete waste of time in my opinion.

  8. RetiredAt47 says:

    I’m coming in late to this one, but just have to chime in since it’s a topic near and dear to my heart. The consumerism that has overtaken Christmas was robbing me of all my holiday joy for years. Finally, the SO and I decided to stop exchanging gifts with our family members (many of whom we rarely see). To my surprise, they were almost all as relieved as we were. This has had a really positive effect on our holidays, and also helped validate to me that I need to do what I think is right without always worrying about how others will accept it.

  9. Retiredat47 – It’s never too late to hear about stories like yours. I’m glad that your decision worked as well as ours did. I enjoy your blog by the way and appreciate that you and I are closer in age as compared to so many other PF bloggers. Please come back often.

  10. Blondie says:

    What a good idea!

    I’ve dreaded doing the Christmas shopping for years now; it’s gotten worse ever since I got married (instantly doubling my list) and as the family has grown through the births of new babies.

    Logistically, it is just absurd to be expected come up with 25 thoughtful, unique, and affordable gifts every year, and then ship them all over the globe in time for Dec 25.

    In 05, I spent over 1500 dollars on gifts… and now I hardly even know what I bought, and doubt any of my relatives do either. Ridiculous.

    I’ll bring up the exchange-list idea this Thanksgiving.

    But I refuse to be miserable and harried again this year over STUFF.

  11. Blondie: I feel your pain (or at least I did). I encourage you to suggest an alternative to your family ASAP. I’ll bet you will be pleasantly surprised by the sighs of relief you hear in response.

  12. Skulegirl says:

    My mother’s family consist of 8 siblings, their SOs, and upwards of 20 grandchildren, some of whom are now married with children themselves. We’re a close knit group and get together every Christmas to enjoy each other’s company, and we used to do a gift exchange, with names drawn out of a hat at Thanksgiving. It was only one gift per person, but with that many people, you still ended up opening gifts for 2 hours, tons of gift wrap everywhere, and mostly people got stuff that while somewhat thoughtful, was not really necessary.

    A few years ago we decided to scrap the whole thing. The young children still participate in a gift exchange, but everyone else decided to pool their money together and donate to a charity in my Grandmother’s name.

    We’ve bought school books and cows for families in Africa, we’ve paid for soccer equipment to go to remote northern native communities here in Canada, and this year we’ll likely send our money to the local food bank.

    The thing that amazed me most about the whole process though? Even some of the younger grandchildren – only 10 or 11 years old – wanted to move from the gift exchange pool to the charity pool. The moral: our children can learn from us to love charity and selfless giving, instead of mass consumerism, but we have to be willing to set the example!

  13. Skulegirl: I love your story and what your family is doing with its money at Christmas. This will create a lasting impression on the young ones in your family. Thanks for sharing.

  14. DRiPpyChick says:

    Like others here, my family used to buy gifts for everyone, regardless of age. One year we implemented a challenge that all gifts had to be hand made… not a problem for me (I sewed close to 20 pairs of pajamas that year!), but for others it was more of an issue. Eventually we dropped down to drawing names + gifts for the under 18’s, and then just gifts for the under 18’s and now just for the under 12’s. It’s a lot less stressful for everyone, and our collective collection of “dustables” (kitchy nicknacks that no-one really cares about) is no longer growing.

    For the past many years, I have been hosting a Christmas party for friends and people who have been special in my life in the past year or two in mid December. Good food, good company, fabulous conversations and the occassional spontaneously erupting Christmas carol make the season special.

    For me (and my family, whether “related” by blood or not), Christmas has become about the sharing of time and togetherness, rather than the distribution of presents to those who have everything they need and most things they want. The money I used to spend on unappreciated “dustables” now gets donated to overseas charities that create sustainable living situations in developing nations.

  15. Drippychick: Isn’t it amazing how dropping the gifting part increases the overall enjoyment of the holiday. We have many “dustables” still collecting dust from Christmas’ past.

    Thansk for visiting and sharing.

  16. OverIt says:

    I come from a large family — currently numbering 28 in three generations, and growing. Our Christmas events were like Skulegirl’s — 2 hours of frenzied unwrapping. And nobody remembered an hour later who gave or got what. It was not exactly quality family time. I’ve tried for years to get people to only give to children or, better yet, put the money toward a charity or nice dinner or family activity. No deal. Finally this year a couple of us have put our foot down and said we’re not doing gifts and urged the others to join us. The rest have said we’re welcome to opt out but they’re still giving gifts. The problem is that they still want to do their gift exchange during the family holiday get-together. The whole point for us was to enjoy one another’s company and do away with the materialism! We can’t make them not give gifts, I suppose, but I feel as though they should schedule another event for the gift-opening. Any opinions?

  17. Overit – I feel your pain. Long-standing traditions are hard to break 100% in large families like yours. Some sort of compromise is in order to manage things until everyone figures out that you have the best idea for the long run. How about appointing one of the family elders as a “Santa” to deliver the gifts at the family party to those who are receiving one. Santa can work the room with the gifts at his/her own pace without making a huge deal. Those who are not participating as a gift giver can watch Santa if they choose or simply continue to socialize with other family members without appearing rude. We did this once on a family Christmas cruise and it worked great. By the way, I promise you that if you stick to your guns on not giving this year, others will follow suit in due course. Thanks for visiting and let me know what happens.

  18. Well, I just wanted to say congratulations. You are the first blog I’ve read that was able to successfully incorporate Barney Fife into an article. I loved Don Knotts too. He made several very funny movies.

Speak Your Mind

Please leave a comment and tell us your version of the hard truth...

You must be logged in to post a comment.