Decoupling Christmas From Spending

By Monday, December 15, 2008 6 0

It’s about time that I write about Christmas, given that my blog is about happiness and consumption. I suggest we can decouple Christmas from spending, especially overspending, i.e. we can celebrate Christmas happily while living within our means, and the earth’s means.

What we all need is a rich quality of life: loving relationships; health; meaningful work or other pursuits; clean air, water and food; good, warm shelter; a sense of security and belonging; the chance to use our talents.

High quality of life is separate from a high standard of living. The latter is measured in numbers, i.e. the size of our houses, the year our cars were made, the labels that our clothes and wine bear . . . . . and the number and size of Christmas gifts we give and receive.

Accept that love and spending money are two different things. They’re simply not the same. They don’t have to go together, so decouple them in your mind like handcuffs from a prisoner’s wrists. While it can feel great to spend money on those we love, we also spend on lots of things unrelated to love. And when we love someone, we have hundreds of ways to express it besides spending money on them.  Love. Spending money. Two . Different. Things.

Even if you can afford the old-fashioned high-spending Christmas, consider simplifying for two good reasons: 1.) you can build your reserves (savings) with what you don’t spend (helps build peace of mind and quality of life) and 2.) you’re making it more normal and acceptable to everyone around you to consume modestly. The earth benefits from this.

When gifting, try focusing on experiences rather than stuff. If your family’s income is middle class or above (like that of most Internet readers) then people may already have all the stuff they need. Research shows that most new stuff ends up in landfill within a year.  What does your loved one really love doing? Dancing? Nature hikes? You listening to them sing, or watching them play sports, or you singing or playing a sport with them? Eating that specialty dish you make once in awhile? I would turn cartwheels if a certain family member would read my writing and discuss it with me for a Christmas gift-experience.

When you do buy, buy from locally owned businesses, and self-employed people, especially artisans. That way a higher percentage of your dollars-spent go directly toward a person making a living doing meaningful work he/she is invested in. You’re also building relationships and financial strength in your community.

Create new traditions if the old ones aren’t working or don’t apply this year. If unemployment has struck your family, then shared experiences (see below) and few to no ‘wrapped gifts’ might be the right new tradition. Ask some trusted friends or family to support you in your new policy, or to join you in not buying gifts.

Wrap gifts in newspaper or aluminum foil with colorful ribbons, rather than buying fancy wrapping you’ll throw away. A newspaper from a foreign country that’s of interest to the recipient is a lovely touch. Reuse the aluminum foil in the kitchen (aluminum requires enormous amounts of energy to produce).

If you are dollar-poor, make up the difference with boldness and creativity. One starving-artist Christmas (I had several of these earlier in my life) I actually gave a boyfriend a library book as a gift. Sure, he had to return it in three weeks — but it was the exact, obscure book he had wanted, about this man who had canoed all the way down the Columbia River. My brothers howled with laughter, but the boyfriend was very happy with it. I know you’re thinking I’m way too eccentric, and you’re not about to give someone a library book — but the point is for you to travel outside your own box, and have fun doing it.

Consider gifting something you already own and can happily give away. I have done this with books, jewelry and artwork when the item was clearly suited to a friend. The friends were delighted, and it fostered a closeness that store-bought gifts generally have not.

Be audacious. Decouple Christmas from spending, and focus on people instead of stuff. Barter rather than buy, if you get the chance. Foster a high quality of life that nurtures your loved ones and the earth, rather than on a high-dollar high standard of living that may nurture neither.

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  • Alison
    December 14, 2010

    Donna: YES. My favorite gift in the world would be a coupon promising me help in purging and organizing the stuff in my garage. I reeeaaly hope my friends are reading this comment.

  • Donna Freedman
    December 12, 2010

    Handmade rules! I’m not clever with my hands, but I *can* make jam and jelly from gleaned fruit, which cost me 31 cents per jar this year. People go mad for it. My sister makes peanut brittle, which she says is very easy, and people are wild about that, too. She packages it in tins she gets at thrift stores and yard sales; that’s where I get my jam jars, too (and if I’m lucky, I find new-ish boxes of jar centers and rings in those places, too).
    For a few years, while my daughter lived in the same apartment building, I gave her coupons for things like “one item of hand laundry” “one load of clothes washed, dried and folded” and “one pumpkin pie baked from scratch (at least 24 hours’ notice required).”
    The coupon thing can be a bit cloying (“Good for one big hug!”), but it can be swell if someone figures out what you don’t like to do and offers to do it for you: organizing the garage, cleaning the fridge, pulling leaves from the rain gutters.

  • Marci
    December 20, 2009

    Another way to wrap gifts with something reusable is to make it part of the gift. I found a lovely kitchen towel at a garage sale and used it as wrap for a small gift for a friend that loves everything kitchen.

    Thanks again for sharing your insights. Have a joyous holiday filled with people and experiences that bring you joy.

  • Marco Fioretti
    December 17, 2009

    Well said. I have included the “decouple Christmad from spending” concept in my Prayer for a Sane, Slow Christmas:

  • xanz
    December 17, 2008

    Thank you for the “handmade” plug.

    i have given my own handcrafted gifts for years and that very tradition became my vocation years ago.

    In the process, my now 25 year old son learned that gifts are not chosen from a list of expensive wants, but an act of love, creativity, intimate, small and only a brief punctuation to a season of humble delights.

    When i do purchase a gift it is almost always from another artist and i appreciate any effort that keeps us going. i think most of us would far rather receive something unique and maybe even designed just for us than a mass produced, overpriced, over packaged and likely quite temporary addition to our lives from the local Walmart.

    There is not a thing i can think of not provided by a handcrafter somewhere and i encourage anyone who has a mind to totake the “Hand Made Only” pledge at

    Your other suggestions are well suited also, especially considering that as we age, there is really little that we need anymore. i have given up the amassing of “stuff” and ask that if someone just MUST give me a gift, let it be consumable (read as perfume, coffee or candles), or a contribution to one of my pet “causes”.

    Intelligent, insightful and above all USEFUL blog. Thanks and have a lovely holiday season.

    gentle thoughts…

  • Colleen
    December 16, 2008

    Thanks for this lovely post! Giving “the gift of experience” is a super idea, especially for adults. That’s exactly what we are doing this year with our visiting out-of-town family, all adults. The gift to us is the time/energy/money they spent to come, and our gift to them is hosting them and getting ‘out and about’ in our amazing city and state.
    Your post did get me thinking about children, though, and their delight in opening a wrapped gift or two at Christmas. I think children, like adults, are capable of appreciating experiences as gifts, but only when they are a little older. Anticipating a promised experience (a trip to a zoo, or a play ,or a children’s museum) teaches kids delayed gratification and gets them away from wanting the next new, trendy toy. For little ones, though, I think toys made of recycled materials are good, as are “hand me down” or secondhand toys. Vintage is in!