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4 Ways Gift-Giving Is Broken and How to Fix It

Broken Window with Love

“You will be tempted with holiday focused food, decor, entertainment, charity, sales and other things designed to make you feel like you aren't good enough unless you fully participate in the spending mayhem. Spending on any of those things isn't bad or wrong and in some cases, it's wonderful, but it is so important to be aware of why you spend what you spend and to decide in advance how much you want to spend.” – Courtney Carver

*****

Look out.

“The Holidays” – trademark Walmart, Hallmark, Amazon, and a million other wallet-emptiers – are upon us again.

And … crap. You're grasping to thwart decades of social conditioning that insist you're a lazy, thoughtless, penny-pinching hoser if you don't spend, spend, spend.

Lucky for me, I was born a slothful, inconsiderate scrooge whose love language is anything but giving gifts.

However, I know the commercialization of the holiday calendar when I see it. In fact, I've been inches from a Christmas tree stuffed with toys, clothing, wrapping paper, and cards since I was a baby.

My mom's side of the family is Lutheran and I grew up heading to grandma and grandpas in Marble, MN for holiday cheer. I still recall the numb toes from playing boot hockey, the warmth of the glowing TV showing cartoons, the smell of my older cousins farting on my face, and the holler of my grandpa to “shut the damn door” after coming inside.

These days, the Christmas tree is secular and the smells are sweeter as we enjoy time with my in-laws outside Madison, WI. But the cultural issues with gift-giving are still present.

Case in point: our current seasonal binge means American “consumers” will spend almost $500 on gifts for their family and a lot more on friends, co-workers, the babysitter, and the trash removal crew.

Do you want to end the insanity as much as I do?

Some wise people can help increase the love and decrease the drama.

What to Get Everyone for Christmas

Gifts, Gifts, Gifts

The first stop on our intentional gift-giving tour is understanding the role of presents.

To shed light on the modern application of this ancient tradition, David Cain of Raptitude has a precise breakdown of why we buy holiday gifts.

Spoiler alert: feelings are what you're actually trying to buy with every purchase.

Consider the context:

Christmas gives most generously to those who are doing the selling. This is true throughout the year, but at Christmas in particular we open our wallets out of conditioning and momentum, rather than a clear-minded reflection on the real value gained (for either ourselves or the recipient.) When you feel like you're buying abundance, it seems like you can never buy too much … Many, or maybe most Christmas gift exchanges disperse the value something like this: the giver comes away with some debt and the mildly relieving feeling of having fulfilling one of his social obligations; the recipient gets a bit high opening it and possibly enjoys using it, but will soon forget it; the retailer adds a bit of money to his money pile. Retailers want this kind of exchange to happen as often as possible. – David Cain

Long-lasting abundance comes from maximizing your “joy-per-dollar” ratio while minimizing the hit to your wallet and environment.

The Case Against Buying Christmas Presents

There's nothing inherently wrong with buying presents. It's the intention and impact that's messed up.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits explains this well by writing that:

  1. The focus is wrong. There's too much on buying instead of sharing.
  2. The waste we create is nutso. There's plastic wrapped in more plastic housing a plastic what-cha-ma-call-it. And, of course, very little can be recycled. Oh, and don't forget to bring your gifts home in overstretched bags that are too deformed to use again!
  3. There's carbon everywhere. Whether you drive to buy gifts or have someone deliver them to your house, there's carbon going into the air from someone's tailpipe. That doesn't even factor in the carbon used to create the thing-a-ma-jig, get it from a factory to a warehouse, or any other step in the distribution process. All for a gift that's more likely to get lost, forgotten, or clutter up the joint than used or cherished.

The impact on our youngest generation is especially harmful:

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. – Leo Babauta

Let's credit Leo for his solutions and alternative buying suggestions at the end of his article.

We Can't Fix the Problem with the Problem

Teddy Bear Band-Aid

“But Joel, wouldn't our economy crash if everyone acted like a minimalist?” That's a dangerous, loaded, and all-too-common challenge to simple living enthusiasts..

Here's a better way to frame this issue:

 … Our economy is already broken. The economy is not what needs fixed. And capitalism is not broken. Neither “problem” is the real problem. Rather, we are the problem. We have turned ravenous and self-indulgent, and, as a result, we are less happy than ever. That bottle of Jack won't fix the problem; it will only make it worse. Stimulating the economy won't help either. Changing how we live – how we think about consuming, how we make decisions – will slowly fix the problem … not everyone is going to become a minimalist; not everyone is going to live intentionally. But if we base our lives on the average person's life, then we're almost guaranteed to be unhappy – because the average person is unhappy. – Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

What to Get Them Instead

I'm a systems guy through and through.

And I want to see our current economic system cured of its consumer-centric illness. But when it comes to gift-giving, sometimes you just need an alternate system.

Don't look to Wikipedia or Google to find your alternative gift-giving guide. Use these two instead:

  • The Ultimate Clutter-Free Gift Guide. Brooke McAlary of Slow Your Home has one of the best alternative gift guides, especially if you have kids. You'll find great variations on the “experiences over things” theme here, plus ways to broaden horizons while living healthier and helping the less fortunate. You'll appreciate the “why” behind the “what” and there's a boatload of both.
  • 72 Clutter Free Gift Ideas. This Getting Organized Magazine infographic is most helpful if you need lots of ideas and like bullet points. Actually, I'm tempted to aggregate the categories and sub-categories in this picture with some other sources for an upcoming Spreadsheet Spotlight. Would you dig that?

Spread the gift love and share your own resource in the comments if you have one.

You Have a Decision to Make

We can bust so many consumer-driven paradigms together.

It doesn't take much to make an impact. Skip the wrapping paper, save a tree or three, and give your gift au naturel.

If you're going to buy feelings, get the tree of joy, not the mayfly of gratitude.

And to become a gift-giving trendsetter, just ignore the unsustainable status quo. Your friends and family will be confused at first. But then they'll become intrigued. And as intrigue leads to meaningful conversations, that's where we'll make our long-term impact.

Give the gift of being intentional this year. Your environment, bank account, and the people you love will thank you.

Photo credit: Gere, steinchen, Steven Depolo
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