How many times have you sat around the day after Christmas and vowed that next year — next year — you aren’t going to go so far overboard with gifts and STUFF… that you will scale back on gifts? Maybe it’s the environmental guilt you see at the trash bags full of wrapping and packaging out by the curb. Maybe it’s the melt-down the kids have from too much holidays. Maybe it’s the financial hangover that comes around January 2nd or 3rd. Whatever the catalyst…
True story: my family hasn’t given holiday gifts to each other for years. When we stopped, the holidays went from stressful and expensive to a time when we could relax and enjoy each other. Of course, when we decided this, there were no small children to consider in our immediate family, and kids may be where you decide to cut back instead of eliminating gifts completely. In addition, 50% of my family (my father and sister) were never that excited about shopping for, or giving gifts, in the first place, so we were already halfway there when we started discussing it.
Someone asked me how we got to that point—how did we have the conversation that initiated the change so we no longer gave gifts to each other?
The Holiday Review: Your Starting Point
My type-A family (I can admit it!) has an informal process that we go through before and after the holiday season to make sure we capture all of the best aspects of that season and make sure never to repeat the worst aspects. At the start of every holiday season — usually Thanksgiving — we pull out the prior year’s Holiday Review List and we all read through it together. We make a list together of must-haves and must-not-haves.
This is crucial because what we discovered when we started doing this was that there were “traditions” that nobody liked and were causing a lot of stress (like gift-giving in this case) that could be done away with. Here’s a typical Crary family list:
English Toffee (Jenn)
Cookie Brittle (Mindy)
Fun Things We Did
Drove around and saw Xmas lights
Sat in Starbucks and people watched
Rode Max (Portland’s light rail) downtown and saw the big tree
Decorated tree together
Made cookies together
Things Never to Do Again
Visit Jenn’s in-laws too early in morning on Xmas
Muffaletta – want hot snack
Ice Skating (unless someone besides Mindy will do it)
Things That Stressed Us Out
Cooking big Xmas breakfast (eggs benedict) – too much work!
Waiting too long to grocery shop (Dec 23rd)
You get the idea. Every year, we review the prior season, so we can make sure we NEVER repeat the bad stuff just because we forgot! Then we make a new plan every year to incorporate the good stuff. This meant that when I proposed that we eliminate holiday gifts, I had evidence that my mom was getting stressed out by the holiday crowds, and that my dad hated gathering and recycling all of the discarded gift-wrapping materials. I was able to elicit comments like, “It’s getting harder to shop for you, the older you get.” I could also remind them of how much fun we had just hanging out together and point out that the best memories were experiences, not specific holiday gifts we received.
What NOT to Focus On
Like anything in life, it’s better to propose change by accentuating the positive benefits that will come, instead of the negative — here are 3 attitudes that typically cause people to resist giving up the gifts:
- Focusing on the money. When I think about the reasons my family decided to stop giving holiday gifts, it really had nothing to do with money. But as a financial professional, I always hear everyone’s judgment on the over consumption and consumerism emphasis during the holiday season. Yes, people tend to overspend, but NOT overspending probably isn’t ultimately what will make you happy about no more gift giving, it’s simply a nice byproduct.
- Making someone “wrong” for the way they do things. People KNOW they spend too much money during the holidays, this isn’t a revelation… but if you TELL them this, they immediately jump to protecting their way of doing something. And, usually they feel guilty, which is never a good place for change. You can only change if you’re not defensive or judgmental of yourself.
- Trying for 100% conversion. With any change, people need to ease into it. We weren’t perfect the first few years—my mom agreed not to buy holiday gifts and then still got us a few things. Rather than get angry that she didn’t adhere to the “rules,” we checked in to see if getting us those little gifts actually made her happier. When she realized they didn’t, she was able to stop altogether without feeling like she was giving up something.
Remember that this has to work for your situation and your family. If someone in your family really does get a holiday buzz from playing Santa, you’re going to have to respect that and learn to live with it. If you find resistance to your no-gift holiday plan, or if there is someone who really loves giving gifts, here are some potential compromises or solutions:
- Scale back. If you’re not ready to give up holiday gifts, see if you can get agreement to scale back on the number of gifts or set a dollar limit on gifts. Some families do white elephant gift exchanges with a low dollar limit that end up being tons of fun. A friend of mine has asked her daughter’s grandparents to cut back on gifts — but gives them carte blanche to give as many books as they want. Find a way to scale back that everyone can agree on.
- Do a gift exchange. Instead of everyone in the family giving something to everyone else, draw names out of a hat so that each person gives and receives one thing. It’s a good idea to set a dollar amount on gifts so that no one ends up resentful because they spent a lot and got a cheap gift in return!
- Share experiences rather than things. If someone in your family really wants to give, see if they would be open to gifting experiences rather than things. Experiences are also things you can enjoy together.
- Get kids used to asking for, and receiving, less. I’ve seen it suggested several places that kids make a list of 1) Something they want, 2) Something they need, 3) Something to wear, and 4) Something to read. Did you notice that rhymes too? That sets them up with better expectations than just generating a list of dozens of demands. Maybe kids are the exception to your no-gift policy, or maybe you just scale back. Do what works for your family.
The very best thing you can do here is find a solution that fits with how you want to act and feel — individually and as a family! It might be worth doing a simplified version of my Chief Initiative exercise (which you can find in the library) during your family meeting to help identify what everyone really values. Then you can explore the best roads to get there.