With the retailers already selling bones, severed limbs, and other Halloween paraphernalia, it's only a matter of (short) time until it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I know, summer's not even technically over yet; why talk about the winter? But if you're like many people — such as my mom, who asked me yesterday what's on my kids' wish lists this year — you might already be looking for bargains with the aim of breaking the holiday spending into more manageable, monthly chunks. It may not be the most jolly thought in September, but the season of giving, receiving, and eating — it's the most consumption-ful time of the year! — is not as far away as we might wish.
But before you loosen your wallet and your belt, pause to fill your head with dancing visions of what you gave during last year's holidays. Do the recipients still value your gifts? Do they still use them? Are you still paying for them…with interest?
The Brokamp family mantel, Christmas 2011.
When it comes to your extended family and friends, this may be difficult to answer, though the next time you're in their houses, you can see if your past presents are in a utilitarian location or a dust-gathering location. Or maybe the next time they have a yard sale, look for presents of yore being sold for a 10th of what you paid for them.
This always occurs to me during our annual summer yard sale, for which each member of the household goes through their closets and puts a price tag on anything no longer wanted. To me, it's always a little sad, since some of the items my kids choose to sell had sat, just six months earlier, all wrapped and expectant under the Christmas tree. Our driveway becomes the Island of Misfit Toys, but instead of Rudolph and Hermey coming to the rescue, it's someone offering to pay a quarter instead of the 50 cents on the price tag.
Do Your Gifts Keep on Giving?
If you've procreated, and your creations still live with you, it's pretty easy to evaluate the current appreciation for what Santa or Hanukkah or Grandma brought them in December. In fact, on a long Labor Day drive, I asked my kids if they remember what they got for Christmas last year. They each could remember just two or three things out of the 20 or so gifts they received, including stocking stuffers and presents from relatives. (Non sequitirs: In the middle of this conversation, and after an hour in the car, my 7-year-old began singing the old Batman theme song, but she changed the words to “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, my butt hurts!” Later, she referred to the Bible as “the Jesus dictionary.”)
Here's the real kicker: The first answer that came out of my 10-year-old daughter Noelle was “I'm not really sure.” In other words, the girl named after Christmas couldn't remember what she got for Christmas.
This has much to tell us about how the holidays are about more than the presents. But as much as we sorta believe that, our credit card statements tell a different story.
Giving Is Consuming, Too
It's not just about the getting; it's also about the giving, and I'm not talking about the spirit of the season. Most of us are programmed to consume, and the holidays give us an excuse to do it but rationalize the purchases because they're for our family; after all, it's tradition. There's a ritual and excitement about the shopping for, and buying of, presents. I have to admit that I enjoy going to the mall — with all the decorations and music and seasonally flavored coffees — during the holidays.
The conundrum for my wife and me is this: We often are wrong about which gifts the kids will value most. We think it'll be the big dollhouse, but it's the small sewing kit. We envision our son playing with the new Star Wars thingamajig, but it sits in a box while he plays with a bunch of magnets. This has led us to justify a shotgun approach to gift-giving: Buy a lot of stuff, and hope a few hit the mark. Or maybe this is just an excuse to get more seasonally flavored coffee at the mall.
I'm not sure I know the answer to the transient value of holiday gifts. But here's a hint as to what Mrs. Claus and I will tell the elves what to make this Christmas: We also asked our kids to choose their favorite gifts of all time, and they said things like Legos, art supplies, Bucky Balls, a trampoline, a gymnastics mat — in other words, things that involve building, creating, and exercise. (They also continue to wear the pajamas they receive each Christmas Eve, a Brokamp family tradition.) As my son, Lukas, put it: “The best presents provide multiple options — not the same thing twice.” Too much of what we've bought breaks easily (think remote-controlled toys), is repetitive (e.g., anything that involves a track), or just another version of something the kids already have (how many stuffed animals does a kid need?).
In the coming months, I'm sure there will be plenty of articles on GRS about how to trim your holiday spending while you trim the tree, such as making gifts (as I do for friends and family in the form of a CD of holiday songs — feel free to suggest cool, quirky, lesser-known carols for inclusion in this year's edition). Although we just entered September, it's not a bad idea to give a little thought to what you'll buy or make in November and December. You can start looking for deals now so you can get the best price and spread out your purchases. Maybe even check out the sites like eBay, Craigslist, and others that sell pre-loved items. Maybe you'll get the perfect gift, for a 10th of what someone else paid.