Resisting the holiday spending trap

Every year, I fail to really account for the cost of Christmas. “A few hundred dollars,” I think, for gifts, and then by the first few days of December I’ve bought several pounds of butter, and lots of my favorite seasonal chocolate, and the big size of maple syrup because I’ll be baking and pancake-making a lot this winter. And suddenly I’ve already spent a few hundred dollars, and not a gift among them.

And because my children are children, having grown up in a big extended family of good Christians who are totally O.K. with Santa, (and let me reiterate: a big family, with traditions including fat, stuffed stockings and gift-giving to aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, going to public school and occasionally coming across those toy ads in the circulars from department stores like the local Fred Meyer… ) well, they expect something. Like, a big something. They want their Christmas-morning minds blown.

I’ve done this to myself.

This year as in years past I have, utterly without thinking or planning, built up the anticipation against my financial best interests and my professed desire for less consumerism. “Well, maybe you might ask for that for Christmas,” I’ll tell my five-year-old when he asks for a toy in September, while we’re shopping for a new lunch bag. “Why don’t you look at this LEGO catalog and tell me what you want for Christmas,” I’ll tell my oldest when he’s claiming boredom in October. “Christmas is coming and I want to save my money for that,” I’ll tell my middle child when he asks for yet another iTunes game around Thanksgiving.

And then the whole frenzy of Thanksgiving comes. I’m not much of a Black Friday shopper — ok, I have not seen the inside of a mall on Black Friday for as long as I can remember — but I do get caught up in the early holiday Pinterest-ing and the Instagram-ing and the Facebook-ing and the tweeting that starts about that time. Some of my knitting friends begin their annual holiday rush to knit gifts for everyone they know. My photographer friends are putting the final touches on calendars and coasters and everything else you can make with photos. There is a flurry of crafting and craft-desiring like none that will occur again until Valentine’s Day.

I get caught up.

And then come the Christmas tree photos.

Let me stop here and say that I am an enormous fan of Christmas trees. I love the smell of a Douglas fir and I love the look of lights glimmering on a tree and I never want to turn them off for weeks and weeks. But to get a medium-sized tree even here in the middle of this Christmas tree land (I think my uncle even grows them on his farm 20 miles away) is $40, plus the inevitable hot chocolate and sugar cookie that must be purchased during the ritual getting-of-the-tree. Usually, I agonize over the cost and then find it in my budget somehow and commence Christmas thrill.

But this year I feel done. I bike around Portland looking at the lots full of trees, trees everywhere, trees in wagons and bicycles and on Subarus and Volvos and I think how ridiculous it is. (I may get over this soon.) All this growing and fertilizing and trucking trees around, all this buying and decorating and lighting and watering, all this sawing and taking down and composting — for what? Over a billion dollars spent just on trees every year!

One day one of my friends (a person I know in real life, even) said on Twitter that her tradition was to get a different angel ornament every year for her tree. I’m quite certain that my friend, who has excellent taste and is not known for excess, had no idea that her little statement would send me into a tailspin of guilt and frustration. But I didn’t have any such tradition and I’d not even bought a baby’s first Christmas ornament for each of my boys and I thought, “maybe I should start a new tradition like that!” and at almost the same time thought, “I don’t wanna!”

I don’t wanna

I waited a respectable amount of time. And I tweeted something about not having energy for the holiday spirit, about getting myself into a tizzy about what I hadn’t done (no wreath-making party, what?) and then realizing I just wanted to write. Several people from a variety of internet circles chimed in, agreeing, commiserating. And then I kept seeing more and more expressions of exhaustion. One friend in the Midwest said she’d given over the reins of the holiday spirit to her husband. She felt conflicted about “raising little consumers.” Another friend was writing a post for a major food website on the topic — enough with the cookies already!

I realized I was done spending money on Christmas just to take pictures of my family following a cultural tradition that brought up so many feelings of guilt, insufficiency, and financial stress. I could do this my way, right? Right!

Now, how to convert the kids?

I bought my oldest son’s big present for him around the first of December: a bike trailer, a very heavily-used one from a friend. I’d been meaning to get this for him anyway, because pulling his little brother around behind him is a big thrill. (For all of us!) And his pride and gratitude was a big inspiration for me. I came up with a several-pronged strategy that I hope will turn the holidays lower-key without making them feel cheated:

  1. Give the kids the power. Instead of handing down traditions from on high, I’m going to let them direct me as to which traditions they want to follow. “We could go Christmas shopping for each other at Fred Meyer with this money. Or go to the thrift store. Or go out to Little Big Burger. Or save it for gear for our next family camping trip.”
  2. Make the kids do the work. We’re going to go get a tree and Everett gets to pull it back in his trailer. I have an idea this is going to keep the tree pretty small — and cheap. (And if it doesn’t, I’m sure the bragging rights will be well worth the extra money.) I’ll let him do the setting up and decorating, too. This will hopefully keep me from that insane desire to buy new ornaments (so I too can start one of those traditions! Or go with an all-blue theme this year! Or…) and give them the chance to make ornaments if they like.
  3. Give gifts that are collaborative creative projects. We’re making calendars out of my photos and the kids’ art to give to grandparents and cousins. And my big gift to the boys will be wool traveling cloaks straight out of Harry Potter (also practical; they’ll be very warm while riding bikes). I’ll let them pick the fabric and help me design them, letting me engage all my creative energies with a minimum of time spent shopping.
  4. Only bake together. Those December issues of food magazines are like cocaine for me. (And I don’t need new ones; I have over a decade’s worth of Gourmet and Saveur and Martha Stewart Living.) I have three separate cookie cookbooks and I barely eat sugar any more! I will declare baking days and only make cookies if they’re helping the whole way along. And, sorry, no new cookie cutters!
  5. Cleaning before buying. Want a tree? We have to clean the living room first. Asking for new toys for Christmas? I’d better see room for said toys in your bedroom. It’s kind of working! I’ll take “kind of” right now.
  6. Everything used. I’m not buying any new toys this year. You know what they say about cars, that they lose value when you drive them off the lot? Same with toys. Open the package, zap, 50% of the value (if not more). But my kids don’t give a darn, as long as most of the parts are there. I’ll go thrift-store shopping for LEGOs and buy a couple of new-to-them Wii games at the CD and game exchange, and some used books at Powell’s.

The hardest part of all for me is to hold myself back from the desire to look like everyone else does (but with my own creative twist!). The holidays can be such a way to express the highest version of your cultural self. But really, my cultural self is a writer and a mother. I’ll try to remember that, and to resist the urge to see what everyone else is doing on Instagram, and think, “Oh, I can do that too!”

More about...Frugality, Giving

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