Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The impact of holiday gift giving

I keep hearing ads to encourage people to go crazy shopping on the upcoming black Friday. As such, Friday is the annual "Buy Nothing Day", which is the alternative to spending all that's left in your wallet. It suggests that, instead of buying, you refrain from shopping. Some see this anti-consumerism as a threat to our American way of life, but let's stop for a moment and consider our holiday spending and its financial, emotional and environmental impacts.

It's really easy to get caught up in the shopping fever, especially when you perceive that you are getting a deal. But, are you really? Does buying something for others make you feel better about yourself? I know that I really enjoy giving gifts, but if you are buying gifts for people because you feel obligated to do so, or if you are buying gifts for people without knowing what they want, what does that really mean? At that point you are just checking things off of your Christmas stress list?

On one hand, feeling obligated to purchase products for somebody doesn't necessarily leave one feeling the holiday spirit. There are no warm fuzzies as a result. There is stress in worrying whether or not the recipient will like what you got for them, and there is concern whether or not the reciprocal gift will match in either quality or cost. I know I also get stressed when someone spends a lot on something for me that I really just don't like and won't use.

I think one of the main reasons people get so stressed about the holidays is because of the obligations of gift giving, particularly if you are already financially strained. The shame or disappointment that is associated with not being able to buy for loved ones what they really want to get them tends to make people overspend. No wonder people are depressed during the holidays.

So, what's a person to do? I know it goes against tradition for many, but what about talking with friends and loved ones about some alternatives? Finding out what they actually want is a good first step. Buying unwanted items equals buying unused products and the carbon footprint of all that excess that is going to waste is not negligible. Second, discuss other options for gift giving.

Buying experiences instead of stuff will not only result in a more memorable gift, but will also potentially have a much smaller environmental impact. Suggesting that time spent together is far more valuable than the latest gift and gizmo is another option. I know this isn't exactly realistic for some of you when familial obligations to spend time together aren't exactly pleasant, but I suspect the feeling is mutual on both sides and perhaps others don't exactly like the whole gift expectation thing either.

I also know that fighting against cultural norms isn't exactly pleasant and can be a nerve wracking experience, but once it's done, it doesn't need to be revisited every year. The end goal is to rethink how we spend (and what we spend on) the holidays, reduce the amount of stress involved and perhaps reduce our carbon footprint in the end by buying a lot less gifts.

How do you feel about gift giving during the holidays? Do you feel obligated to get and/or match other's gifts? Or, do you enjoy buying gifts for people?


Sarah Miller said...

My family was just talking about this the other week, very topical :-) Our in laws have a nice system of kriskringle, where everyone puts their name in the hat and they only buy a present for the person they pull out... that way they can give far more thoughtful gifts to eachother... I like that idea!

koolchicken said...

I really like giving gifts. My Mum and siblings aren't as fortunate as me so it's a chance to give things they need, not just want. Also I like to craft so instead of being swamped by all my creations I give them away, everybody wins. For my BF he doesn't like reciving presents, so I try to give things he needs and will use on a regular basis.

I'll admit I'm guilty of giving things no one needs, but sometimes it's fun. After all isn't it nice to open a box and discover something you love but wouldn't have bought for yourself?

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

My holiday "gifting" has changed drastically in the past 10 years or so. I usually make a deposit into my grandchildren's education account and then give a small gift for them to open Christmas morning.
I give gift cards from local grocery stores, restaurants, movie passes...the type of gift that my sons and their wives/girlfriends will use.

I stay away from stores on Thanksgiving weekend but one of these Black Fridays, I want to go see Rev Billy and his Church of Life After Shopping!

Eco Yogini said...

i'm seriously contemplating buying my dad a goat or something (you know...) this year. i have NO idea what he needs... blegh.

i'll be getting my mom a facial- so that she can make a special trip into the city and we can go together (organic facial :) ), and i'll be splitting it with my fiance and brother.

black friday seems pretty darn scary to me- from Canada all we hear is about the deaths... :S

Fleecenik Farm said...

ugh...this just came up this morning when I opened my email to find the annual kris kringle swap with my in-laws. The way it works with them is you pick a name. You spend 50.00 on something from a very specific list. Each in-law is married with someone so that become 100.00 that each couple has to spend. Sheesh...

I have never followed this tradition and always give something handmade and knitted because I if I am going to give something I should be able to give it and not be dictated as to what to give. I always make something practical but with a little luxury to the materials. I always include some nice fair trade chocolate and a picture of the kids.

I don't have to spend 50.00 for someone I see once a year but i can give a thoughtful gift that I believe is worth much more.

Brooke said...

Great post! I have switched over the last couple of years to making almost all of the gifts we give. I have encouraged other family members to do the same, but they are not interested. My mom says that she just enjoys picking out "just the right gift" too much. So, this year I asked for a crabapple tree and a columnar apple tree...and I think I'll get it, too! Win-win! Thanks for a great post!

Katy said...

We had the "gift" talk in our family this year. For the last few years we have dawn names with extended family so instead of buying something for all 10 cousins and 4 aunts and 6 Uncles, we just bought one present for the name we drew. They year we talked and decided...

When it comes to extended family, if you are over 18, you don't get a gift. We come together with food and drink, to talk, laugh, and play games.

Panamamama said...

We have started getting a registry at Heifer International and trying to all give money to buy cows, goats, chickens etc! Really a fun and beneficial program. (Also tax deductible!) I still give to the kids and my mom and inlaws, but it seems like a burden most of the time to try and think of something. I used to like to make things until I realized they didn't like the things quite as much as I liked making them!

Lil said...

"when familial obligations to spend time together aren't exactly pleasant" ! What a nice way to describe my future christmas holiday ! :-)
To me, I must say numerous gifts are a way to increase probability to get at least one right (true when I give gifts to people I don't really know/understand, true when I get them !). But this year, and as the last time, even with very numerous gifts we didn't manage very well to fit wishes, at least this year we are trying to reduce a little. And we are overusing (lots of shipping, but more natural products, and less consumerism). As we will go by train(another good point, isn't it ?), my man is okay to reduce luggage volume, this is my chance ;-)
This really stresses me out, especially in my family-in-law where I always have to fake feelings "oh, that's so cute !" "this is a lovely idea" "It doesn't matter if she doesn't like it, I should have chosen a Disney toy" (training here...). I'm draining my brain to get presents that people will like (and don't go against my principles, like Disney plastic toys...), and doing my best to fake delight when opening my presents... That's exhausting !

Jenette said...

Some people I give to out of family obligation. Other I want to give things to. I find it harder to give gifts to people who like 'junk'. I really want to give somthing useful. Sigh.
I think I will try books again this year ... Oh well.

Lil said...

I also have experimented two kinds of presents with mixed feelings :
- handmade gifts : I've tried offering handmade gifts around, but only my mother really appreciate them ! From my in-laws it has been sometimes quite cold ("Ow, it's very blue !" or a toddler who just prefers not using the toys I made...etc). So now I limit it to my parents, bf, and the women of my family.
- Numbers in a hat : My collegues started a tradition last year. Each one had to buy a 10$ gift then numbers are attributed to the gift, and everyone takes a random number in a hat. Fun, but also boringly unpersonal ! (and highly dependent on imagination or lackof...). I got a poker game set (quite cool!), and my bf got a jokesbook (so not funny we ended laughing at its crappiness) and candies

Aimee said...

I had thought we were going out of the country for christmas (in-laws) but as it turns out not, so now IU will have to deal with the gift issue. I always make great stockings for my own kids and give them each at least one present to open, but they are usually quite small, like coloring books, crayons, etc. My teenager is getting knitting needles. Harder is what to get for my mom's family and my sister's family. The last couple years I have been making a family-basket instead of individual gifts for everyone in the family, and often the basket is filled with homemade treats and a few small storebought luxuries like good hot chocolate mix, etc. I shamelessly re-gift books off my bookshelf to people I know would love them. I put a lot of energy into nice wrapping, you can really dress up a bar of soap if you try.

Nonie said...

I'm very much in favor of the gift of experiences over the gift of stuff. We gave the kids sets of coupons last year for things like 'baking with mom' or 'go to the children's museum.' They were THRILLED with them.

I do enjoy buying/making/getting gifts for others. I don't generally find the experience stressful. But then, I ask for wish lists (or questionnaires about favorite things) so that I can get something I am fairly sure the recipient will enjoy.

My biggest quandary with gift giving is when the sought-after gift is something that doesn't fit in my worldview. What to do when the nephews want some crap-plastic-mass-manufactured-electronic-noise-producing-made-in-China item? Buy it because it's something they want, or buy something I think they ought to have instead? Ugh! Still, it was pointed out to me that I'd be peeved if I asked for an item or class of item and it was ignored because that didn't fit in with their worldview, so if I expect them to respect my wishes for 'odd' gifts, I should respect their wishes for ... crap....

I'm blathering. I'll stop now with a last note that I'm in for the buy nothing Friday.

Anna said...

I am 100% on board with the buy nothing aspect of Black Friday. Unfortunately, I also work in retail, so I will participating in the selling lots side of the equation. The only saving grace is that the items we sell at the store where I work are for the most part not cheap crap and encourage people to get out and about in nature.

Oh, and it happens to be my wedding anniversary as well.


Lisa said...

I don't know what we will do Friday but I rarely buy anything lol. Though I don't control my hubby. I have however finished Christmas shopping and I think I did well environmentally speaking. Cant say what I did but lots of handmade, organic, USA made products. And my brother and I are donating to causes for each other for the second year and my friend and I are going to do something together in place of gifts.

Shari said...

"Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas", he thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas.. perhaps.. means a little bit more!". Dr. Suess

It's sad that we have lost the true meaning of Christmas. We are a family of haves so I buy very few gifts. I buy for my grandmother and two nieces every year and I alternate years for my parents. I do not buy for anyone else, not my sister, my husband, no one. Our 3yo son gets a few items in a stocking but that's it because we know he will get plenty from his grandparents. This year my nieces will be getting a donation type gift and a small gift.

Our favorite gift last year was a Heifer International donation.

Anonymous said...

Four or five years ago, we decided to buy fewer gifts for family members and donate the money we woudl have spent on them to a local charity. On Christmas, we put a card to the family on the tree, and someone reads what has been donated.

The first year we did it, everyone was a little surprised/puzzled by it, but now that we've done it for a few years, it's expected.

travelling sheep said...

I can manage not to buy gifts (being due to give birth next week is an excellent excuse not to shop), but how do I persuade my parents to stop buying crap for me that I neither want nor will use?

Rachel said...

My gift giving theory is that I don't want to buy people things they "need" - they can buy them for themselves. I want to buy something that jumped out at me and said their name. I only exchange gifts with my parents and a few close girlfriends, and we all feel the same way, so Christmas gifting is really a pleasure, especially now that I mostly buy from local artisans.

Rechelle said...

Thankfully I will be able to skip Black Friday as I won't be celebrating with my MOM! She makes me go shopping on black Friday if I am with her - and I truly hate it. But I love my mom. But I hate Black Friday. But I do really love my mom.

Cheap Like Me said...

I love buying/making/giving gifts. But I definitely don't do Black Friday. I am making a lot of nice gifts this year, and was pleasantly surprised to see that my holiday savings account will have more left than I expected. I think Mr. Cheap and I are going to do less for each other (most of the things we REALLY want are huge, like built-ins in our family room, so why spend on what we don't REALLY want?), and instead make a sizable contribution to a local food bank. Other family members don't always really love a donation instead of a gift, so we give them gifts instead, but we do try to give what they will like and use.

Anonymous said...

I would have said that I don't feel any particular obligation, but last year there was a family situation that pointed out just how zen I am NOT. It was hard to be the one who didn't chip in for the expensive gift. I would make the same decision again, but you're right when you say that fighting cultural norms isn't pleasant.

This year, I'm aiming to make a lot of the gifts I'm giving. Although, honestly, I'm probably not super on-the-ball with that, so we'll see how it goes. But it feels better to me on a number of levels, so I'll give it my best effort.

Sparkless said...

I love gift giving! I'm always up for the challenge of finding just the perfect something for that special someone.
We do make many of our gifts. Family gifts are usually baking, bath salts or anything I can zip up and know they would like. Books are another thing I love to give and they can be old or new it just depends on what I find and how much I have to spend.
But the emphasis is not on the spending or the obligation for me. I just enjoy the hunt.

utahlawyer said...

I worked retail for five years while I was in high school and college. The experience ruined the holidays for me. I hated having to work 12 hour sifts on Black Friday, working the rest of Thanksgiving weekend, working midnight shifts before Christmas, working Christmas Eve,the day after Christmas New Years Eve, and New Years Day. I spent very little time celebrating with family and friends only to be overworked, underpaid, and abused by angry customers. People eventually stopped inviting me to parties because I could never go. Since then, I have considered what the holiday spending traditions do to the people who work retail. Not only do I not shop on Black Friday, but I do not shop Thanksgiving weekend, Sundays, late nights, Christmas Eve, the day after Christmas, New Years Eve, or New Years Day. There is nothing I need badly enough to contribute to the working conditions these people have to endure. Not only that, but the deaths seen last year in the US should be more then enough to boycott Black Friday.

I also enjoy selecting and giving thoughtful gifts. For many years, my gift giving policy has been to select one perfect gift for each recipient. I can almost always find the perfect something for $20 or less. There is no need to overspend.

Fortunately, my extended family have given homemade gifts to one another for years. They are often some of the most loved. I am also fortunate to have a family that has no objections to gifts purchased from a thrift store. In fact, they usually love when someone can get a such a great deal on the gift. I will be giving homemade and hand-me-down gifts this year.

As an alternative to Christmas gifts, I know a family who, several years ago, chose to travel together to Honduras and build homes in a hurricane devastated areas instead of exchanging gifts. I also know several others who paid for a family vacation together instead of exchanging Christmas gifts. All of them treasured their time together more then the gifts they would have received.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

I wonder if participating in Buy Nothing Day really does any good. So the retailer of your choice doesn't get your money that Friday but they will the following day or later that week. If someone wants to get up at Oh God Early to shop, fight the crowds, buy a few gifts their people will like and save some money doing it, who am I to judge them as greedy or materialistic? Insane - yes. I did the Black Friday thing one year and it was like the Running of the Bulls! I thank God my MIL still uses that breadmaker I bought her - I almost got trampled trying to find it in the store :)

I like giving gifts. I especially like it when I can give the person something that they may not have the opportunity or means to buy themself and will use constantly.That's why I'm always on the lookout for gifts or gift ideas year round. Some things I buy. Some are experience gifts. Some I make. (Darn you and your Christmas Challenge I ended up sewing stuff for 23 people and 2 dogs!) I was excited to hear that Mr. H wants to make his gifts this year and wants me to make his. That was until my MIL sniffed that she thought it might be because of their finances. Now I'm worried that she won't like the gift I made her (and she asked me to make it for her!) I guess the holidays and gift giving can stress you out no matter how you go about it if you let it stress you out.

Rosa said...

My actual family, only the kids get presents and we capped those at $10 - the same-age cousins are matched to each other so some of those gifts are going to be toys people already had.

My in-laws...every year I hate Christmas more and I think this is the year I declare I'm powerless over it and it's not my problem and I can't do anything about it. Every year, my unhappiness at being forced into his Christmas traditions makes me angry and he gets mad at me for not liking it and we have a horrible fight.

So next year I'm just abstaining from Christmas. If he thinks everyone needs a $50 present, or will feel unloved if we don't make lists so they can buy us presents, he can do all the shopping and listmaking and stuff. I'm done.

Jordan said...

I will probably do a bit of online shopping on Black Friday, as I am hoping to find a computer battery; I decided to repair the broken bits of my laptop rather than treating it as disposable, and this is the result. I do like Utahlawyer's idea of respecting those in the service industry by not shopping at certain hours, though.

My gifts to people this year are not handmade, but they are also not very numerous or expensive, and they will all be something I think the person really wants. So, I'm ok with that.

Allie said...

I completely agree w/ everything you've said in this post.

I'm kind of weird about the holiday gift giving thing. For the majority of my adult life, I told everyone I knew, upfront, that I do NOT want them to buy me presents, and that I will NOT be buying them presents. Primarily because I object to the notion of compulsory generousity. I like to buy people presents when I see something that makes me think of them, that I think they'll enjoy and use. Not because a specific day rolled around.

However, over the years I've relaxed a bit about it. Now I'm willing to do small gift exchanges, but I feel uncomfortable if people spend a lot of money, and I know I won't spend a lot of money on these sorts of gifts.

With my mother this year (and our respective partners), she's sending us some of her incredible home-knitted or home-crochetted blankets (and a bed for our dog), and we're sending her a huge box of home-made cookies (short bread, palmiers, double chocolate and almond biscotti and molasses cookies). The total cost of this baking will be at most $20, and that includes shipping.

Homemade is the way to go. Shows actual thought, and the things given actually get used. The holiday shopping experience is depressing and usually winds up causing an accumulation of crap no one ever wanted in the first place.

Penny Basket said...

I grew up not expecting presents under the christmas tree. Not that our parents were poor, it's just that they chose to spend the money on experiences rather than material things. And if I do ask for something expensive, they will say it's my christmas present for x number of years.
I would occasionally buy gifts for them because I happen to see something that they would like/need. Otherwise, I won't get anything at all.
The same goes for birthdays. I guess it's just the way we're brought up.

Laurie in Mpls. said...

I also have experienced retail "holidays" from the other end of the cash register so I rarely shop on holidays. Only if I'm in the middle of a project and would need to go out anyway -- otherwise, it waits. I will have to consider making Sunday a "no shopping" day, too. I already get bent out of shape if people call me for my business or try to set up appointments for that day. And I'm not religious. :)

We do a gift exchange with the adults in my family, but it's been cut WAAAAY back this year due to financial issues for several of them. Only a few of us are participating, and the rest have a cap of $35. We established a few years ago that we will not buy presents for the nieces/nephews after the age of 18/high school graduation, whichever comes first. Then the adult gift exchange program was initiated. *sigh* We do lists, usually with a few choices so there is some sort of surprise, but I dunno -- it still feels a little forced. We sure don't need any more *stuff* in our house, so we asked for restaurant gift certificates this year. The list that I got from my giftee includes something that I might be able to make for her, so I am contemplating doing just that.

The one thing that bugs me is that my (step) mom seems to think that tons of cheap stuff is better than one or two great, durable items. It was REALLY bad when my nephews and nieces were smaller. And she plays a dice rolling game that involves presents and present "stealing" once all the packages have been handed out. Yeah, Mom -- real Christmas spirit there. *rolls eyes* We just choose not to participate in that particular game....

Allison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allison said...

I own and operate a retail business (small, internet, selling yarn) and I proudly participated in Buy Nothing Day, not spending a dime. I am so sickened by the excessive marketing - the newspaper that's 90% ads, the 50 emails I received with deals of a lifetime (whatever!) - and how rabid people get over acquring STUFF. The behavior is bewildering: the camping out, the running around and filling baskets. I wonder if we are headed for another wave of bankruptcies.

For immediate family, I bought a few gifts at larger stores a few weeks ago and some from etsy sellers, but the majority are handmade by me. I started in July and am pretty much finished. I like giving gifts, but definitely more the ones that are handmade. I also made a donation to Heifer in extended family's honor.

Lisa said...

I spent a lot on my husband but all was saved up in cash for just that reason. And everything was sustainable (can't say more than that as he could see this.).

We got gifts for our close family but we also shopped green for everyone, largely handmade.

For the 2nd year my brother and I are donating to causes for each other in place of gifts.

Also this year my best friend and I are going to do something together (go out to eat out of town and use any gift cards we get).

My parents, brother, husband and I are going to a Flaming Lips concert on New Years Eve as part of our gifts. Since it's out of town we are also staying in a nice hotel that night.

Pretty much I try and make Christmas about memories and when buying gifts I want them to be special and sustainable, often handmade or fair trade.

Billie said...

We were talking about gift buying for the holidays and I think in a few years - if not next year - we are going to quit buying for the adults in our family. Instead, we will adopt a family through some organization and purchase gifts for them. All of us are reasonably affluent and can buy whatever we want (or at least that which is in reach of the buyer's budget) and have no more need for 'stuff'. I think this is a great idea and I hope we go for it!

I quit buying for my nieces and nephews at age 13. This was more due to the fact that I live very far away and don't see them or know them. I haven't seen most of them for 4 plus years.