A friend recently told me she’d already spent more than $1500 on Christmas presents.
She doesn’t have kids, nor a relationship with Santa Claus to support. But with an army of nieces and nephews to buy for, as well parents, friends, siblings and grandparents, it was proving to be a very expensive time of year.
And she questioned whether or not those she was buying for would actually want the gifts she was purchasing.
We live in a world where ‘retail therapy’ is a thing. We’re told – through constant messaging – that it’s supposed to be therapeutic to walk through a store, hunt down a shop assistant (good luck if you’re in a Myer or David Jones), wait in line to pay for such goods, and then pull out a piece of plastic in order to spend money that in some cases we haven’t actually earned yet.
Shopping online is supposed to be just as therapeutic, even better because you’re in control and there’s no waiting to hand over your credit card details. You can get your hit at 3am if you want, and many of us do. And you don’t even have to physically deal with the stuff you’re getting (that you may not really want) immediately.
We’re told that in December, spending such time and energy on buying products for other people is important because it shows we care. It enables us to meet the expectation of participating in a significant social experience. It’s fun, at first, before it becomes stressful and ridiculous.
And every Christmas tree, piece of tinsel and carol playing on the store-wide stereo system is reinforcing the message that it’s Christmas time. It’s giving time. You’ve been waiting all year for this. And you don’t want to miss out on the social experience of spending and giving, giving and receiving, (then receiving and chucking).
Post Christmas, it’s sales time. We feel a different kind of desire to spend. It’s the only opportunity to buy the stuff you kind of wanted but didn’t get for Christmas at a price that seems like a bargain.
You’re practically making money when you visit a mall in the days following Christmas, aren’t you? You’re going to need new sheets and new towels, and a new blender for that juicing diet you’re going to start in the New Year. These aren’t gifts, these are things that help you live, right? You’ll be better and stronger and leaner and more financially responsible in 2018, once you have this new stuff at your disposal. And if you don’t buy it now, when will you get it? What if the price goes up? What if somebody else gets it? What if it disappears, forever?
It’s all a part of the ‘affluenza’ too many of us suffer from. An affliction that economist Richard Denniss describes as:
“The desire we feel to spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t know.”
Afluenza is endemic in Western societies, writes Richard in his latest book Curing Affluenza. It’s a cultural problem, a new idea, encouraged by those who profit from generating waste. We’re taught to believe that spending time, energy and money buying more stuff that will ultimately end up buried in the ground, is a way to enjoy life and a reflection of our wealth.
Even worse, we’re often told it’s ‘good for the economy’ to shop and do our bit for the country. To chuck out the perfectly well-functioning old, to make way for the slightly better and shinier new.
But we can cure ourselves of affluenza– and possibly be happier and better off in the process.
Curiously, Richard is not anti-materialism. Rather, he believes we could have a higher standard of living and a less stressful life if we rejected “symbolic consumerism” and embraced materialism instead – that means better loving and caring for what we actually have, and putting the work into re-homing what you no longer need. It means buying and having things you really, really love, but loving them enough that it’d cause you pain to throw them away.
He also promotes the idea of spending money on doing things, rather than on buying things. On ABC radio yesterday he noted the rise of the café culture as evidence of how consumerism can change. Did you spend money on scrambled eggs and smashed avocado growing up? Did your parents regularly buy a coffee on the way to work?
Probably not. But many of us do now. And it’s a way to choose to spend money that has far less consequences on the environment, than if we were to buy physical stuff instead.
At Christmas time, however, it can seem difficult to avoid the push to purchase tangible objects for other people. Of course we participate because we want to give, and giving makes us feel good.
But perhaps we also participate in order to make ourselves feel better about all the things we bought ourselves throughout the year.
So what are better options for giving at Christmas? Some ideas:
Give stuff-less things. If you want to spend money on someone, consider giving them an experience. For example, a gift voucher to a restaurant, an offer to babysit the kids, theatre or movie tickets.
Give chocolate, if they like chocolate. Chocolate gets eaten (usually) and demands less on the environment and storage than pointless crap. You can also put a lot of thought into chocolate, especially at a great store where you can individually select every single square.
Buy online subscriptions. Being in media, I have some bias here, but consider buying online subscriptions to newspapers and magazines as gift for others. It’ll keep them informed, and give you both more to talk about. Couple it with a great message on a card (see below).
Consider the ‘family outing’ option. Instead of gifts, organise a night out in the lead up to Christmas as a gift to each other. A great option if you don’t have young kids to deal with.
Write really thoughtful, long messages on cards. Spend half an hour writing a card for someone, rather than half an hour (and $50) shopping for a gift. They’ll remember the message long after the gift’s plonked in landfill.
Re-gift and recycle. If you have something somebody else could really use, ask if they want it and give it to them. And keep a ‘re-gift’ drawer for things you end up with that can be re-purposed.
Suggest to others what you might like. If somebody’s going to buy you a gift no matter what, drop subtle hints to ensure you end up with something you actually want and they don’t walk stores aimlessly trying to guess the perfect gift.
Have less storage space. This will really force you to think small when it comes to gifts, to promote recycling and to drop hints to those who’ll by you gifts no matter what.
Promote grateful kids. Just when you think you have Christmas and its associated consumerism sorted, you have kids and everything changes. They want toys and plastic and things that “do things”, as my eldest son likes to say. Promoting gratitude is important, as is encouraging them to give without expectation (perhaps along the lines above). Also encourage them to understand the need for generosity for those less fortunate, as well as just where their toys and ultimately end up.