zenhabits : breathe

The Case Against Buying Christmas Presents

Post written by Leo Babauta.

I love Christmas. I love the snow-themed everything, even when I was living on tropical Guam, and Santa and elves and reindeer and snowmen and candy canes. Yes, I even love the non-stop playing of Christmas music for two months.

Most of all, I love getting together with my family — eating Christmas cookies, singing Christmas carols together, gossiping and laughing at each other. It’s tremendous fun.

I don’t love Christmas shopping, or the overconsumption, frenzied malls, consumer debt, environmental waste, wasted time wrapping, and over-accumulation of needless stuff that goes with it.

Bah humbug! I love Christmas, but the shopping has got to go. Here’s why. Warning: This will be a rant of near-epic proportions.

1. The focus is on buying, not on sharing. I love the idea of giving to people you love, but that idea has been twisted. Now people go out in a mad rush to shop, like ravenous vampires feasting on new blood. We shop for a month, rip apart the packaging one morning, and then forget about it the next day. Is this about giving, or buying?

2. Giving is great, but buying is not the solution. Again, I’m in love with giving … but do we need to buy to give? We seem to think that buying is the solution to any problem, but that has lead to a society that is deeply in debt and piled high with needless stuff. We can find other ways to give: bake cookies, wash someone’s car, babysit so they can go on a date night, create a photo album, be there when they need help moving.

3. The waste, oh the waste. Let’s start with packaging: the packaging for every toy is double the volume of the toy itself. From cardboard to plastic to metal twist-ties, it’s ridiculous. Then every item we buy must be brought home in bags. We often put everything in boxes. Then we buy wrapping paper and wrap it all up. All of this gets thrown away on Christmas day. Finally, there’s the gift itself — people get so much stuff they can’t possibly treasure everything. So it goes into the closet to be forgotten.

4. The sorrowful debt. Most people spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on gifts and wrapping. Not to mention all the money spent on gas, driving to different shopping places, and the money spent on fattening food at mall food courts. This goes on credit cards (and around our waistlines), and we then must pay for this — with high interest — during the year. Even if you don’t get into debt, you’re spending money earned from long hours of hard work — is this really how you want to spend your life, paying for needless stuff so corporations can get rich?

5. The horrendous, insipid, seizure-inducing advertising. I can’t stand advertising, and it only gets worse on Christmas. The ads pound on you relentlessly until you give in — and it works. That’s been proven — those ads are getting you to buy more, to want more, to lay down the credit card. I don’t watch TV, read newspapers or magazines, or allow ads in my browser (AdBlock) so that I don’t have to be subjected to this.

6. The fuel. If you drive all over the place to shop, you’re using lots of fuel. Even if you just order online, think of the fuel it takes to deliver these products (overnight!) to your home. And the fuel used to create the products, to get the raw materials to the factories, to cut down the raw materials, to ship the finished product to the stores or warehouses from around the world (most likely from China), not to mention all the fuel used to create and ship the packaging. It’s a few million metric craploads of fuel, wasted for giving some presents that will be forgotten.

7. There are still hungry people in the world. In the frenzy that is Christmas shopping, we spend ridiculous amounts of money that is pure waste. In other countries, people are struggling just to eat, or get medicine, or find shelter, or get clean drinking water. We spend so much in a show of consumerist greed, when that money could go to feed a few dozen families. If you have money to waste, consider donating it to an organization that is helping these types of families. I know this sounds preachy, but really, this kind of reminder is necessary in times like these.

8. The neverending clutter. What happens to all the gifts? They go on our shelves, in our closets, on the floor. We already have so much clutter — do we need more? We already have problems figuring out what to do with everything we own. Why do we want to clutter our homes even more? Why do we want to force clutter on our loved ones, oblige them to find a spot in their already cluttered homes for this gift we’ve given them, so they won’t offend us when we come to visit? Is this obligation really a gift?

Questions

Q: But what about the kids?
A: Kids love getting presents (I have six kids — I should know!). I sure did when I was a kid. Are we to rob them of this? It’s a difficult question, but another side of the equation to consider is what we are teaching the kids. They don’t just participate in the opening of presents — they see all the shopping too. They are being taught to shop, and to value material goods over anything else. Imagine their lives when they’re grown — a life of shopping and debt and waste, because that’s what’s important, right? So for the joy of opening a few presents for a couple hours on Christmas day, we’re imparting on them consumerist values that will last them a lifetime.

I think, instead, this can be a great opportunity to have an open discussion with kids about buying and spending and debt. Did you receive this kind of education when you were a kid? Would you have been better off if you had? This is also a great opportunity to teach kids about giving to others, about volunteering and helping the less fortunate, about finding other ways to spend time with loved ones that don’t require shopping. My kids do want presents — but I don’t want them to think that’s what Christmas is all about. We’ve been having this discussion and we will continue to this month.

Q: But what about family?
A: Family, believe it or not, will survive without a few presents from us. They can continue to shop and give presents, but you can simply tell them that you don’t want to participate this year. Send them a link to this article to explain why.

This is also a great opportunity (you see how I love turning problems into opportunities?) to create new traditions with your family — go caroling, string popcorn for the tree, make Christmas cookies, bake pies, play football outside, create Christmas scrapbooks, volunteer.

Q: But I love giving presents!
A: Sure, who doesn’t? And you might also love shopping. Shopping, for many people, is a pleasure like no other. This can be a problem, in my mind: you might be using shopping to give you temporary happiness, to fill a hole in your life, to make you happy when you’re depressed or stressed or lonely. I’m not saying you are, but many people do, and it’s good to take a look at these things. Richer happiness can be found in simpler things that don’t involve spending: being with loved ones, creating, reading, getting outside and doing something active.

Even if you aren’t addicted to shopping, you might just love giving presents. And that’s OK — but you might consider giving more meaningful presents that don’t require lots of shopping. Creating a photo album or scrapbook for someone takes time and thought, while laying down a credit card at Macy’s doesn’t.

Q: How do you convince a spouse who equates lavish gifts with love & appreciation?
A: This definitely isn’t easy. It’s an important discussion to have, however. You’ll need to do it without accusations, without resentment, without making the other person feel he’s under attack. Bring it up as an ongoing discussion about things you’re thinking about — maybe even point to this post as a starting point.

This is such an important discussion because so many couples get badly into debt for this reason — one partner has different values about material goods, shopping, debt, gifts, and so on, and the other partner hates to fight about it so doesn’t talk about it. Financial issues are also a big reason couples split up. So finding a healthy way to talk about values, about financial goals, about how you want to live your lives, is so crucial. Do it gently, with compassion, as a way to live together as a team rather than two people struggling against each other.

A good way to get started is to write a blog post or a letter to your spouse about your feelings — again, without being attacking. You might explain why you’re not into giving presents, that you still love your spouse but want to show it in non-consumerist ways, that there are other traditions the two of you could start together to share your love.

Alternatives to buying

There are so many good ideas, but a few:


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