Don’t Give More, Give Better

December 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Holidays, Tips

Spend time together focusing on each other more than the gifts you give. Photo: ©

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.” — Will Rogers

During the nineteenth century, merchants began encouraging a greater focus on holiday gift-giving because, of course, it fostered gift buying. Two centuries later, we are confronted with holidays overwhelmed by consumerism. According to Grist magazine, “Nearly a quarter of all retail goods move out of stores and into homes between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, we suspect, often into landfills by January).”

For many of us, holiday shopping means dealing with crowds.

For many people, holiday shopping means dealing with the stress of crowds. Photo: ©

Not only do we overspend, we also deplete our time and energy negotiating traffic and crowds, wrapping countless presents, and fretting over questions such as, Did I get more for Betty than I did for Bill? All the stress and anxiety of shopping, combined with other struggles that holidays often bring, leave many of us secretly wishing it were January already.

Whether all this consumption makes for a better life is questionable. Compared to much of the world, most Americans have far beyond what is necessary to meet our basic needs. More stuff means a need for more storage, plus time to clean, maintain, repair, and organize it all, not to mention the stress that such heavy consumption puts on environmental resources and geopolitics.

How can we maintain open and generous hearts, giving gifts that show true appreciation for the receiver without running ourselves ragged and breaking the bank? Can we somehow reclaim the spirit of the holidays, simplifying gift-giving without turning into Ebenezer Scrooge?

A Mental Reboot

Here are a few tips for getting started down the road to more meaningful holidays:

Recall holidays past. Our fondest recollections usually revolve around warm connections with friends and family. Look for ways to foster such experiences this year, rather than the picture-perfect, consumer-driven holidays pushed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

Connect with your family to relive old memories and make new ones.

Connect with your family to relive old memories and make new ones. Photo: ©

Celebrate your values. Don’t simply change your old holiday habits; replace them with new ones that are richer and more fulfilling. What is important to you about the holidays? How can you make space and time to celebrate those values? Create new holiday traditions or emphasize existing ones you find meaningful.

Explore your connection to stuff. Advertisers target our desire for happiness, youth, success, luxury, status, convenience, and beauty. Will the item you are purchasing actually deliver any of these things for the eventual owner? Opt only for gifts that are truly meaningful.

Avoid advertising. Recycle catalogs and newspaper fliers as soon as they arrive, turn off the television, and stay away from the sparkle of large shopping centers and department stores.

Let value be determined by the thoughtfulness behind a gift, not the price tag. Memorable gifts usually require more thought than money. Shop for presents with the interests of the receiver in mind. A gardener might enjoy a gift basket of seeds and bulbs for spring planting. Cooks will appreciate a collection of unusual spices with tasty recipes to match.

Avoid tit-for-tat gift giving. You don’t necessarily have to give a gift to someone just because he or she gave one to you. A sincere thank-you will often suffice.

Increase altruistic giving. Open-handed giving to causes we care about, without expecting anything in return, can transform our relationship to material wealth. In the spirit of the Millennium Development Goals, many advocacy groups encourage individuals to give 0.7% of their income toward charities that target extreme poverty. You can also give your time: “Buy Nothing Christmas,” a national initiative of the Canadian Mennonites that seeks to revive the original meaning of holiday giving, recommends donating one hour to charity for every $20 you spend.

Children can create their own gifts. Photo: ©

Don’t give things as substitutes for time or to assuage guilt. In the words of Lennon and McCartney, “Money can’t buy me love.” Even the most expensive or thoughtful gift is no substitute for your time and attention.

Explain your decision to friends and family. Be upfront, yet positive. Let your loved ones know that you won’t be taking the usual consumerism track this season, not because you are a cheapskate and don’t care about them, but because you want the holidays to be richer and more meaningful. Be prepared for surprised reactions, or worse.

Be courageous. It is more difficult to lead than to follow. Part of the pressure to consume is the idea that “Everybody else is doing it,” and swimming against such a powerful tide isn’t always easy. Some people in your life may feel threatened by your decision not to go along with the status quo. Avoid coming across as self-righteous, and instead offer alternative ways to show you value the person. Though you may meet resistance, many will secretly envy your new-found freedom, and you will probably find more family and friends following your lead next year.

Guilt-Free Gift Ideas

Here are a few ideas for meaningful and conscientious gifts that won’t leave you in debt until spring:

•    Donate to charity in the name of a loved one. Honor the recipient while also doing your part to create a better world. Many relief and development organizations, such as Heifer International and OxFam, offer ways to donate items needed in developing countries (farm animals, mosquito nets, etc.) through alternative gift catalogs.

Keep the joy of the season by focusing on what's most important — the ones you love. Photo: ©

•    Give coupons. People love to receive free babysitting, household and lawn chores, car washes, a homemade dinner, and so on. Share a useful talent or skill, such as financial planning, resume consulting, or web design. Volunteer to take the recipient on an adventure — a camping, fishing, or canoeing trip.

•   Create something. Anyone can collect family photos, memorabilia, stories, anecdotes, aphorisms, or recipes for a simple album or scrapbook. You don’t need to get too crafty; it’s the content they will cherish. Digital versions also will be greatly appreciated, as would a “greatest hits” arrangement of old family video footage. For children and grandchildren, create a book describing games you played as a child, or write and illustrate a book with the child as a main character. Of course, traditional holiday baking is always popular.

•    Hand down family heirlooms. Why wait until you die to pass along Grandma’s quilt or Dad’s old fishing pole? Let your heirs begin enjoying these precious items now. You’ll also have the benefit of decreasing the number of things needing storage around your own house.

Give an experience, such as a concert, play, or ballgame.

Give an experience, such as a concert, play, or ball game. Photo: ©

•    Go green. Look for recycled or recyclable content, and opt for items with minimal packaging.

•    Look for gifts that create little clutter or waste. Gifts that won’t end up in a corner somewhere include tickets to plays, concerts, sporting events, amusement parks, or ski areas; gift certificates to a favorite local restaurant; movie and ice-rink passes; museum memberships; spa packages; frequent flier miles; and membership to a nonprofit organization the person cares about.

•    Buy durable gifts. These items can be used over again, can be easily repaired, and won’t quickly wear out, become obsolete, or go out of style. Examples include well-made furniture, tools, and clothing in classic styles.

•    Use alternative shopping resources. Seek out alternative gift fairs and fairly traded world markets, such as Ten Thousand Villages. Give fair-trade agricultural products, such as coffees and teas.

•    Don’t overlook vintage. Antique and consignment shops are a great source of unique items.

Plant a tree together and watch it grow.

Plant a tree together and watch it grow. Photo: © Vitaliy

•   Give a seedling that you can transplant together in the spring. Choose a fast-growing tree and watch it develop.

•    Re-gift it. If you have an item you can’t use but that others may value, consider re-gifting — but only if you can avoid offending either the receiver or the previous gift-giver.

•    Opt out of gift exchanges at work. Suggest that your workplace adopt a needy family in the community or contribute to a charitable organization instead.

This holiday season, we can choose not to step into a flurry of shopping and spending that leaves us physically, mentally, and financially drained. By purchasing fewer, but more thoughtful gifts, we save not only money but time, freeing ourselves to connect more deeply with loved ones and celebrate the meaning behind the cultural traditions we hold dear.

We can also contribute to a more just and sustainable world by adjusting our shopping habits in a few simple, but significant, ways. We might even find that more meaningful holidays give us new energy, propelling us through the rest of winter — exactly as they were meant to do all along.

Karen Nichols

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)