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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