Give Until It Hurts

Richard Quinn

I’M GUESSING OUR credit cards are excited. It’s the holidays, so they’ll get to see the light of day more often. December is a time for spending, for throwing caution to the wind, for rationalizing what we and our children need or deserve. It doesn’t help that we’re barraged with advertising tugging at our heart strings.

Perhaps it’s time to counterattack, to apply logic and to think not about the joys of Christmas morning presents or the next Chanukah gift, but about January and February’s credit card statements. It isn’t going to be easy. Santa driving down a snowy road in a red Mercedes is pretty appealing, especially when they’re promoting what appears to be an affordable lease.

Need an antidote? You might check out two of my favorite holiday movies. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s family’s focus on traditions and a few simple gifts—even the unwanted ones—brings back childhood memories, including the fact that I never did get a Red Ryder rifle. Meanwhile, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol reminds us of what’s really important.

Surveys vary and may understate total spending, but it appears each adult will spend more than $900 on gifts alone, up sharply since the 2008-09 recession. Holiday sales for 2019 are predicted to increase by 3.8% to 4.2% from 2018’s level.

About to join the crowd? Before rushing off to the mall or logging on to Amazon, here are 11 thoughts worthy of the Grinch:

  1. What gift did you receive last holiday season that you remember, actually use and know where to locate?
  2. How many of the gifts that you gave or received last year were returned or exchanged?
  3. Look around your house at the accumulated toys. Do the kids need more stuff? When they aren’t asking to use your smartphone, do they play with what they already have?
  4. Check your credit card statements from last winter. Are they still scary? Are the balances paid off? How much of holiday spending was interest payments?
  5. What is this year’s advertised “must have” toy? Be prepared to tell the kids “no.”
  6. Look at your lawn. Does the holiday spirit require a large $200 inflatable Santa riding in a helicopter? How about making your own decorations? Be warned: Stringing popcorn isn’t easy.
  7. If your list of presents includes cash or a gift card, are you really in the holiday spirit?
  8. If you’ve been married or in a relationship for several years, how about giving up the gifts and instead spending the money on an experience you’ll both enjoy, preferably one you don’t have to carry for months on a credit card? One year, my wife and I went to Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts, and participated in cooking and eating a Christmas dinner using an 1830s menu, tools and traditions. We’re talking whipping cream with tree twigs.
  9. If there’s something the kids want and you think they should have, but you can’t afford it right now, explain that to them. Tell them you’re saving up and will buy the present as soon as you can—and, of course, make sure you keep your promise. With any luck, it’ll eventually make a great gift—and perhaps a good life lesson, too.
  10. If you’re a grandparent, buy a modest present and make a contribution to a college fund. My wife and I do that for Christmas and birthdays. We place a note in the card showing the contribution we made. One grandson recently said he didn’t want any more “coupons” for his birthday. Tough luck, Danny, that’s what you’re getting.
  11. Make a New Year’s resolution to sleep in on Black Friday next year. Saving money on things you don’t need, or that you have to charge to a credit card, isn’t saving money.

When I was growing up, under our Christmas tree each year was a 1920 Lionel train engine—just the engine. That was all my father had left from his childhood. Shortly before Christmas one year, my mother sold the engine to a collector. I learned of the sale by chance.

My wife, knowing I was devastated, convinced the buyer to sell it to her for the price he paid. I purchased an old transformer, a few pieces of track and three 1920 railroad cars to accompany the engine. That Christmas, when my parents came for dinner, the train was running under our tree. My mother stared in silence. My dad cried. After 60 years, he played with his train again and, thereafter, did so for a few minutes each Christmas until he died. Now my grandchildren and I do the same.

Despite my curmudgeonly tone, I always look forward to the holidays. But 76 years as a child, parent, grandparent and old man have taught me many lessons about what’s truly important—and one of those lessons is that it takes thought, not money, to buy gifts that are truly appreciated.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Fashion StatementYou’re on Your Own and What’s Your Plan. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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Mik Barbasol
Mik Barbasol
3 years ago

Giving to charities in the name of the recipient is another idea for special occasion gifts….do we really need more stuff ??

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 years ago
Reply to  Mik Barbasol

Good point indeed.

Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
3 years ago

You just wear me out. You make these long lists of “rules” to follow so
that we can all be as smart as you are. How about this one?
Adults(over age 22 or so who have regular job) do not need to get gifts
for other adults either inside their immediate family or to extended
family members(except in those situations like husband and wife or other
situations where there is an adult who wants to give a gift to another
adult for any desired reason). Gift giving from adults to kids up to
college age is expected but those kids do not have to reciprocate by
giving gifts to adults except in situations where it is desired by the
child to give an adult a gift for whatever reason. It makes the
holidays easier and less stressed, especially for those adults who do
most of the work preparing for a family’s holiday. Or how about helping out a poor family have a great Xmas? Contrary to what you might think the essence of Xmas is GIVING not RECEIVING.

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 years ago

I think your last idea helping a poor family is a good one. My giving points were about prudence and not just spending money, especially money we don’t have to spend. I don’t think one has to be smarter than others to figure that out, perhaps a bit more practical and growing up when gifts were quite modest.

Handy Randy
Handy Randy
3 years ago

I still remember what Lucy said on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, that it is a racket run by a big Eastern syndicate. Retail stores asked FDR to set Thanksgiving as the 4th Thursday of November, not the last Thursday as it had been up to then, because they saw the calendar had sometimes November has 5 Thursdays, which leave less days for Christmas shopping.
I was thinking of changing my Christmas decorations, too, to use flyers from the stores that have ‘Christmas colors’ just to show people that the Reason for the Season has more to do with shopping than anything else.

I had a physics teacher in high school who told us of a college prof he had that went into stores to study the labels, as cultural investigation. I don’t remember what else was taught in that class, but that comment has stayed with me, and I do practice it myself sometimes.

For me it is more like a game, so on BF I went to an office supply store before 8am, expecting a line. No line, and the manager came out to invite me in. I said, Wait, it’s not 8am yet (as if we were waiting for the ball to be kicked off), but he invited me in anyway. More worker bees there than shoppers (that store is not long for this world, methinks).

Another author talks about ‘love languages’ and for some people, getting physical objects as gifts is their preferred language. A kind word, a kiss on the cheek or hug just won’t do. Something like that song, if you love me, put a ring on it.

And I must add the Far Side cartoon about the 4th wise man, who was left out because the gift he brought was…a fruitcake!

3 years ago
Reply to  Handy Randy

I think that Lucy was right. On Dec 25, 1828, the government in New Jersey did something that Congress cannot do today. They worked and passed legislation by incorporating my fire company. Washington’s birthday was a much bigger deal back then. I guess the one day president day sales were not good enough. On December 25, 1841, after the fire company meeting was completed, the fire company did authorize to spend $2.00 for oysters as a Christmas treat for the members. Boy did they know how to celebrate Christmas. No 12 days of Christmas for them.

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