You have likely noticed that Christmas is coming again soon, a delightful time of joy, expectation, family, and relentless consumerism.
For the past few months, the biggest questions in my personal finance Twitter feed have been either how to opt out of Christmas gift-giving altogether, or how to accomplish gift-giving on the cheap. I have heard otherwise very kind people complain when they didn’t receive an equally valuable gift in return to theirs. I have also read the mockery of those “above-it-all,” who refuse to descend into Black Friday shopping with the plebes. (Penny has a great blog on that topic here.)
Gift-giving is a fraught social currency, perhaps moreso in a community of fiscally-minded folks. Therefore, I would like to present some basic steps for how to chill-the-eff-out this holiday season, brought to you by my past personal humiliations and Scrooge-like behavior. Learn from my example, friends, and have a lovely Christmas.
Gratitude should not be that hard. After all, someone took their hard-earned cash, picked out something you might like, bought it, and gave it to you for free with an actual freakin’ bow on top. What is there not to be grateful about?
Nonetheless, I have been a complete jerk when it comes to receiving presents before. The first major gift I received from a non-family member was a sewing machine from my first boyfriend. I was sixteen, and my then-boyfriend had just joined the Marines. I had a sewing machine on my Amazon wishlist, and had mentioned many times that I would like to learn how to sew. So what happened when it arrived in a huge box on my doorstep?
I freaked out, and not in a good way. I told him his (what I perceived to be) extreme generosity made me very uncomfortable. I told him he should not have spent the money on me, but instead saved it for a variety of more important things he needed. His feelings were understandably hurt, and so began our first big argument. At the time I felt quite justified. Looking back, though, I see that my logic had a whole lot less to do with wanting the best for him monetarily, and instead had more to do with my own feelings of vulnerability and embarrassment at not being able to reciprocate on the same level. Frankly, at sixteen, I also did not understand the diminished scale of a few hundred dollars when someone is making adult money.
Now I try to be much more open-handed with gratitude. Regardless of the gift (and whether or not you feel the person can afford it!) the gift-giver deserves to be recognized for having thought of you positively. Moreover, I’ve learned that any fears about being indebted to the gift-giver is a really unkind judgment of them. Such thinking assumes that the gift-giver has a selfish spirit. Even if it were true, it is not a helpful way to think of others, because…
You Can Only Control Yourself
I’d love to say I learned from the sewing machine fiasco, but last year I again found myself feeling like a flaming pile of poo in response to another gift-giving situation. Bean was tiny, and I was having a hard time adjusting to the sheer volume of stuff that seems to magically apparate along with a baby. My coping mechanism was to try to talk everyone out of spending money on my child in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas.
I remember the situation vividly. I was sitting down on my grandmother’s floor, facing the matriarchal firing squad of my mom, aunt, great-aunt, and grandma seated above me on the couch. They were discussing all the toys that were going to appear on my doorstep regardless of my wishes, because “that’s what grandparents do.” Yet again, I lost it. I told them all in acid tones that they could do that if they wished, but nothing would stop me from immediately taking it back out the door to a resale shop or disposing of it as I wished.
Now friends, I don’t think what I said was factually wrong. People aren’t allowed to make you feel guilty with gifts, or have a say over what you do with them after they’ve been given. However, throwing my annoyance in the gift giver’s face at the time or even before they gave me the gift is incredibly rude and ungrateful. It robs the giver of the appreciation that they deserved for thinking of me, just because they wouldn’t conform to my wishes. I behaved like a full-on dictatorial Scrooge.
Instead of trying to change what others do–because seriously, has anyone succeeded at getting grandparents to not buy for their grandchildren?–we now modify our own behavior. After all, that is the only behavior we can control. We buy almost nothing for Bean on most occasions. Instead, we try to do special things for her for no particular reason, and save for big future expenses like college. I still try to suggest experiences rather than things when asked for gift ideas, but in the end, we will smile, enjoy the love the gift is meant to convey, and deal with the physical stuff later.
Put People First
I think the care that frugal sorts give to thinking about their expenditures can lead us (or at least me!) to focus too much on the spending or “stuff” aspect of Christmas. Spending way less than the average person on Christmas does none of us any good if it is only a mechanism whereby to judge others who spend differently or feel self-righteous about ourselves. Any measures of cost-saving or frugality should be undertaken only if they help us focus on the more important things in our lives–faith and love.
Has worrying about what others spent or what you’re spending made you a Scrooge at Christmas? What are some of the problems you experience surrounding holiday gift exchanges?