Wednesday, December 20, 2017

It’s the season for gift giving: how should you participate?

Is everyone ready for Christmas?  This is the happiest time of the year, when friends and family gather together to celebrate the birth of Christ and look forward to the coming of the New Year.  There are family dinners and holiday parties filled with cheer.  I love the magic of Christmas time.  I love seeing lights and decorations.  I love hearing holiday music.  I love seeing people share kindness. 

Underneath the cheerful surface of Christmas, there is stress, anxiety and sadness.  Common traditions and the media will have you believe that Christmas is less a religious holiday, and more of a gift-buying and gift-giving holiday.  Our consumerism society has ingrained into our minds from childhood that giving gifts is the best way to show how much you love someone.  There seems to be tremendous social, marital, and family pressure to shop for and give gifts to everyone that you care about.  Gift giving is even considered one of the “five love languages” of commitment to your relationship.  Many people feel obliged to buy for others just to keep up with the status quo.

Millions of dollars in advertisements will have you believe that you have to purchase a gift for every special occasion: Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation, work promotions, milestones, etc.  The list goes on and on.  

Many people around me find December to be the most stressful time of the year.  A great deal of that stress revolves around money, or not having enough of it.  There is also a great deal of anxiety finding the perfect gift for important people in their lives. 

People end up spending way too much money when they aren’t financially qualified to be buying expensive things.  I know people with significant credit card debt hidden from their spouse, yet still looking to buy an expensive Christmas gift way over their budget.  I’ve already heard several coworkers talk about how “money is so tight right now.”  Some of these individuals are making between $50,000 to over $100,000 a year.

In the past, I’ve been guilty of overspending and stressing out over finding the perfect gift.  I remember the year that I got my first decent paying job.  I really went all out and bought nice gifts for all of my family members: a digital camera for my dad ($500), a Playstation ($400) for my cousins, a Louis Vuitton luxury purse for my mom ($1,800), and much more.  I felt proud to give them such nice things.  Then I received my credit card statement and started the New Year heavy in debt. 

In the past, I’ve felt the heavy weight of gift giving obligation on my back.  I’ve gone to the mall and battled the crowds trying to make last minute gift purchases a few days before Christmas.  I’ve experienced the disappointment of receiving gifts that I had no interest in: clothes that don’t fit or random knick-knacks that go straight into the trash bin.  Looking back, this was all extremely stressful and pointless. 

One of the best decisions that my wife and I have made regarding gifts was to just agree not to shop for surprises for each other.  If we really need or want something, we just agree to go and buy it – no need to connect the purchase to a random “gift giving” holiday.  We already have almost everything we could possibly want.  We are trying to minimize the junk we own.  Anything else would just clutter our home.   

Sometimes it is hard for people to understand why I don’t buy an anniversary gift for my wife, or why she doesn’t get me anything for my birthday.  Our attitudes go against common consumerism culture.  Once you are in a committed relationship with your significant other, your finances are linked.  You are now saving for financial freedom together.  Spending money from our same bank account doesn’t benefit our financial future in any way.  Our best gift to each other is sharing the common goal of reaching financial freedom together. 

Every year, I struggle with the gift giving traditions of our society.  My in-laws love to give us gifts, even though we tell them that we are happy just to be in their presence.  They know that I don’t need any material things, but it truly makes them happy to be able to give me a gift.  And if it makes them happy, all I can do is accept their gifts with a big smile.

Gift giving is not necessarily a bad thing.  We still participate in group Secret Santa or White Elephant gift exchanges.  Buying one gift instead of several doesn’t break the bank.  When thinking about gifts for others, we try to put thought into purchasing a gift that the recipient will find value in.  Consumables can be a great gift because it won’t end up in some landfill.  Experiences can also be a memorable gift that lasts.  We recently gifted my father business class flights on Japan Airlines and Singapore Airlines by redeeming some of our credit card points.  My dad has only flown in economy all of his life and these flights will be a real treat for him.  This year, the partners in my group all pitched in to treat all of the staff out to dinner.  We gave speeches of appreciation to our team, praising them for all of their hard work.  They all valued our kind words and the good food.  

Gift giving holidays can motivate people to be generous in donating to charities.  Others can be motivated to give the gift of their time in volunteering for those less fortunate.  There is a shortage of these kinds of gifts.

We will celebrate the season by spending time with our families, sharing joy.  Our health, and the meaningful relationships we have with each other, family, and friends are the most important things in our lives.  We are going to start a new tradition with our kids.  They will never have to worry about getting the perfect gifts for mommy and daddy.  They will grow up knowing that they don’t need to give gifts to show their love.  Their love will show through their attitudes and actions.

Yesterday, we took a family stroll through our neighborhood to enjoy all of the festive Christmas decorations.  Our son was mesmerized by all of the vibrant colors.  This cost us nothing and he had an amazing experience.  

Did you find yourself spending way too much money (and time) on the perfect gift this month?  Did it stress you out?  Remember that Christmas is not about plentiful gifts under a decorated tree.  The best present you can give someone is your presence and your time.  

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