Leaner Holiday Gift Giving, Bountiful in Spirit
Of all years, this may be the one to stop the holiday gift madness — out of necessity for some of us or simply out of reason.
These next five weeks normally mark our season of overspending. Bound by some unnamed obligation to do right by everyone gathered round the table at the end of December, many of us march headlong into the stores to gather and wrap and pile the presents high.
The instinct to give is still pure, deep down there somewhere. But at a time when so many people have so much less than they did just a few months ago, there ought to be a way to ease the pressure on them and relieve the crushing social obligation that others feel to dole out to an ever-lengthening list of people.
You should be so lucky as to have such problems, since plenty of people have few surviving family or friends seeking them out during the holidays.
And in calling for an effort to make gift giving more meaningful than mandatory, I’m not suggesting that everybody has to — or should — spend less, though many families may have no choice this year. If you add philanthropy to your holiday gift routine, for instance, you may end up spending more.
So this is simply a reminder that there may be another way.
At the beginning of the week, I thought I had the right solution, a grand alternative that would allow everyone to start next year with at least one great present and a sense of spiritual uplift. But when I tried it out on an ad hoc Your Money focus group this week, it became clear just how hard it would be for some families to adopt new gift giving patterns.
I derived my big idea from a Web-based company called ECHOage, which two mothers started late last year to stop the madness around children’s birthday parties.
Instead of shopping for and wrapping a $10 or $20 trinket, guests send whatever they would have spent on the gift to ECHOage. The company, after taking a 15 percent service fee, splits the rest in half. The first part goes to a charity that the child chooses from the handful that ECHOage lists. The birthday boys and girls then receive a check for the rest, which they can then use to buy a single gift that is presumably more useful or meaningful than a dozen or two smaller ones.
Why not, I wondered, take the same approach to holiday gift giving? Everyone in the family puts their gift budget into a pot. A designated banker sets half aside and divides it by the number of gift recipients. Everybody takes their share and buys one special thing, though I might exempt small children.
Everybody wears or brings their gifts to the holiday gathering for appreciation. Then, over dessert, the family votes on how to distribute the rest of the money to a worthy cause (or several).
But my impromptu panel raised a number of objections to this approach. Several had doubts that some people, generous grandparents in particular, would stick to the rules. They love their families and feel as if they’ve earned the right to spend money on them without restraint. Giving your older relatives a hard time about ignoring the rules would kind of violate the spirit of the holiday. In fact, any rules might seem Scrooge-like.
A related concern was that people might actually take offense to an attempt to impose a new plan on everyone. Some families have been exchanging gifts the same way for decades and don’t take kindly to a new daughter-in-law suggesting that their traditions are too extravagant and wasteful for her tastes.
Other people I heard from felt strongly enough about their philanthropy that they want to make up their own minds about where to give, without any compromises. Then there are those who work for nonprofit groups for a living, who, in effect, give at the office every single day. Some of them might like to be spoiled for a change, with wrapping paper and ribbon and a few extravagant things, thank you very much.
Several others resented the relentless practicality of my approach, that it seemed almost transactional to them.
It could suck the joy out of the process for people who love to select the perfect gift for everyone. Or it could sap the spirit from those who like the surprise of not knowing what’s in the shiny boxes. (If you’re one of them, I’ve created a separate list of some of the most meaningful gift ideas people sent to me.)
It’s entirely possible that none of these problems would crop up in your circle of giving. But if you’re concerned enough that they might, you can simply start by asking people to change the way they give to you. Perhaps a spouse or parent could get your one special gift, while everyone else donates to a charity of your choosing.
The trick here is to ask carefully, so as not to make others feel greedy if they still want a big pile of gifts. Perhaps send an e-mail message around when everyone is exchanging wish lists that simply says that you’d get the most joy this year out of one special item and donations to a particular cause. It’s possible that no one else has thought of that, or is simply waiting for someone else to be brave enough to suggest a more meaningful way of giving.
And here’s one final idea: In the responses to my original proposal, I was touched by the number of people who suggested extending the Thanksgiving spirit through the end of the holiday season this year. Their recommended gift? A thank-you note.
This isn’t the usual sort of note, the obligatory one you dash off after the season is over. Instead, it’s a heartfelt look back at specific memories from the last year and the ways in which this person has touched your life in a positive way. It takes time, but it probably feels much better to spend your time this way than trolling the malls.
The nice part about this gift is its versatility, since it complements anything else you’d like to do on the gift front. You can paste it on top of a tower of gifts for a child or include it in an envelope with the one special gift your recipient has selected.
Or, it can simply stand alone if you have little money of your own or if the circumstances are right. “What did we get from our daughter last Christmas?” Ken Gallaher, of Bartlesville, Okla., the parent of a University of Michigan sophomore, said via e-mail this week. “A thank-you card, and a kid who is grateful for the chances she has and is making the most of them. What more could a parent ask?”