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