Tuesday, November 3

The most dangerous time of the year

We're not even all that close to Thanksgiving yet, but I'm already worried about Christmas. This culture makes me sad sometimes.

That said, I have reasons to be thinking about this stuff.

My mom needs plenty of time, since she tends to cash in rewards points for gifts. Those can take 2-4 weeks on average, so the earlier the better. Tim, on the other hand, has decided to get all his shopping done early. As in, he's almost done. We just have to find something for his dad.

I suppose I should be grateful that he didn't wait until the last minute to do this stuff. But he "finished" shopping for me the day I finally sat down and made a list of things I would like. I even used Kaboodle so that I could email a copy to him and my mom, to give them some ideas.

I was aggravated, since I had repeatedly told him the past couple of days not to buy everything, because I was going to be making up a list soon. (In his defense, my "soon" is never something you want to rely on.)

I think the overall problem here is that, to make the list, I had to let the monster out of the box. The monster, in this case, being a nasty case of the Wants.

Most of the time, the Wants are completely happy in this box in the back of my mind. They stay out of my way, by and large, while I'm trying to be frugal. Every so often, though, the Wants break out. Instead of walking by, I stop and look at things I know I can't afford. I'll take a good, long look. I'll remind myself I can't afford it, but I'll still imagine how happy I'd be to have it.

It's about this time that I realize what's happening and shoo the Wants back to their domain. This is usually best accomplished by looking at the price tag. They seem particularly afraid of big numbers and will go scurrying back from whence they came.

Once the Wants are firmly hidden away, I can snap out of my trance and realize that the purchase isn't worth it. There's the inevitable guilt that you bought something rather than throwing your money at debt. And let's not forget how fleeting purchase-induced happiness can be. It's a rush, sure, but it leaves just as quickly as it came on.

Of course, I'm not claiming to be perfect. Sometimes the Wants overrun my good sense. Or they make an argument that sounds logical enough that I agree -- mainly because I want to be talked into it. But, for the most part, I'm pretty good at reining in those impulses.

All that is great, right up until my birthday and Christmas. Those times, I have trouble because I have to undo all my hard work. I am supposed to take time to dwell on what it is I would like, rather than trying to be happy with what I have. (Yes, I know some of you will take this opportunity to point out I could ask for charitable donations in my name rather than things. I'm afraid I'm not that selfless. I like getting presents. Shallow, but there it is.)

So, inevitably, when someone asks what I want, I come up blank. When you spend all year trying to avoid temptation, it's hard to change that in an instant. Frugality is mainly about making only necessary purchases. Whenever possible, you find it secondhand or you try to make do without it. And you definitely don't dwell on what you don't have. At least, not on a regular basis.

With all that on our plate, how do we answer the question of what we want? Really, the main way is to let the Wants out of the box. All those things you've been training yourself to not think about? Let it all come rushing out in one big tidal wave of materialism.

It's hard to do. You're, rather suddenly, switching your brain in reverse -- never advisable for any machine. But you will also then see just how many things you actually do want. It can be hard on the ego, if you were starting to think that you were above materialism. I know I was a little dismayed by how many things I wanted to put on my list.

Most importantly, though, you've had to let your Wants run wild. That's not something you can easily undo. And the more things they see, the stronger they get. So I end up with a good list for people to crib from; but I also end up more susceptible to spending impulses.

I made up the list yesterday and emailed it off. No big deal, other than way too long spent at the computer. Today, though... Today was not good.

I had to be at the mall for a mystery shop. Malls are not good destinations if you just switched your brain onto "consumerism" mode. I had to make a purchase and a return for the shop. But there was a few points where I almost convinced myself to buy a few items and only return one.

Then, Tim and I had to kill time before making the return. So, of course, we end up strolling around and poking our heads into shops. I'm proud to say that I left the mall without a single item, once I had made the required return, but it took just about everything I had in me.

I wanted to go on a shopping spree every time I saw a new store. I wanted to march in and start trying stuff on. Two things stopped me: A small amount of budgeting sanity that remained and, mostly, not having enough energy to bother wriggling in and out of clothes.

At one point, I even ended up looking around in a jewelry store. I've taught myself not to go in those anymore. I don't wear jewelry often enough and, most importantly, I get sad when I have to leave all the pretty sparkly stuff behind. But there I was, looking through the cases.

I even asked about the prices on a couple of items. I have no idea why. Even if they had been $30 -- and they weren't -- we're really not in a position to spend money unnecessarily. I guess I just wanted to entertain the fantasy that I might buy them. But that always just makes it worse.

The thing is, I know it's only going to get worse as the season progresses. All the sales and the ads for the sales... On the TV, on the radio, in the newspaper, in store windows, on banners or sandwich boards. It's relentless. No matter where you go in this society, you end up saturated with consumerism. And that stuff doesn't wash off easily.

And it's not just personal greed that will doom you. Trying to buy for others, it's easy to get swept away. You want to buy more gifts, nicer gifts. Nothing is ever enough.

So what do we do? I wish I had some sage advice for you here. I'm sure lots of frugal articles are out there with all sorts of peppy advice:

  1. Avoid malls. "If you don't see it, you can't want it."
  2. Focus. "If you have to go to a store, go only there and then only to the department you need. The more you look around, the more you'll leave with."
  3. Write it down. "Make a list of presents for each person. Do not deviate from that list. Do not buy extra gifts. Remind yourself that what you have listed is plenty."
  4. Tie up those purse strings. "Have your budget laid out, and know what things cost -- and what you want to pay for them. Do not allow yourself to go over budget for 'just one little thing' because that little trickle can easily become a roaring river."

That all sounds great, honestly. Unless, of course, you're human.

  1. Avoid malls? If you have to buy any presents at all, you'll probably need to go to a mall. You might be able to do it online; but there are plenty of ads there, too. And the stores' websites are only a click away.
  2. Focus? I don't care if you put blinders on, you will still see something that catches your eye. Stores set up displays specifically for that purpose. If your poor attention span, doesn't get you, smart marketing ploys probably will.
  3. Write it down? Has anyone ever created a perfect gift list from the comfort of home? I know I haven't. Some people are completely impossible to shop for in the abstract. You just have to wander around until you see something that calls to you. And what if the store is out of the items you wanted to buy? Now you're stuck at a mall with no agenda! How will you survive?!
  4. Purse strings? This one might be possible, assuming you pay only in cash. It's hard to go over your budget if there are no more bills to use. Even so, you have stores working against you. You'll probably find some little item on your way to the register that is just sooo great for Aunt Jane. And you already got her a gift, but this is just perfect and you have to get it. And it's only a couple of dollars, so it's no big deal. Unless you left your credit cards at home, you'll probably get it.

The thing about being a pessimist: You're always prepared for the worst, and you get to be pleasantly surprised if you turn out to be wrong.

That said, there are still no obvious solutions to help deal with the holiday excess. I guess you could watch A Christmas Carol and other lesson-laden movies every night to remind yourself about the true meaning of Christmas. Personally, I don't think I could handle it.

My mom is a big fan of adopting a kid or family for the holidays. You find out their needs and supply some presents. It's a good reminder that some people are just overjoyed to be getting a warm coat or a single toy.

That's probably a lot better for your karma than my method. This year, I'm choosing to look at our credit card balances every time I get the urge to get someone "just one more little thing." I can't say it'll work 100%, but, as I said, the Wants seem afraid of big numbers.

What do you do to calm down your consumerism during the holidays?

Labels: , ,


Blogger Meg said...

That's one reason why I'm so glad my husband and I are skipping presents for the third year in a row. I try to stay far away from the mall most of the year, but especially right now. It wasn't unusual for me to go to buy someone a gift and come home with one for me.

But now that I don't go to a lot of stores, the list of wants has shrunk dramatically. And most of the wants are rather big but not urgent: My husband wants a new laptop. We'd like to fix the AC in our car before it gets hot again. We'd like to move our kitchen to our back room (some day). We'd like to travel through Europe and maybe Japan. I'd like some more clothes, but I'm waiting to see if I lose weight since what I have will suffice for now.

Most of all, though, we want to be out of debt. But other than that, there isn't much we desire. Makes us hard to shop for come Christmas. No wonder everyone seemed so relieved when we told them we didn't want to exchange gifts!

November 4, 2009 at 7:59 AM

Anonymous cristine said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

November 4, 2009 at 9:35 AM

Blogger Shevy said...

I started to post a long comment, then realized it would work better as a blog post of my own, so I've written about Hanukkah tonight over on my own blog. It made a nice change from writing about the flu....

Bottom line, Hanukkah isn't Xmas (Thank G-d). Even when I go all out we don't spend the kind of money on it that folks do at Xmas. However, I don't have even that money hanging around right now.

And that's kind of where you come in. I don't do as much to earn money online etc. as you do but I do have a $5 Best Buy certificate and I do surveys for points towards various kinds of gift cards. I need to check my point balance and what cards are available. This is something I've really never done before and I probably wouldn't have even thought of it if not for reading your blog and a couple of others that also talk about collecting points for gift cards.

As for Wants, I'm pretty easy to satisfy. If you're thinking food, there's Starbucks and Godiva. Otherwise I'll probably be happiest with a gift card to either IKEA or Home Depot. The thing with presents is, a lot of times people give things they'd like to receive rather than what the recipient really likes or needs.

November 4, 2009 at 11:59 PM

Blogger Abby said...

Meg & Shevy,

Sounds like you two make it easy on people! I think Tim and I are too materialistic to forgo getting anything for Christmas, though I think it wouldn't hurt us to try and do a much smaller Christmas next year.

Shevy, Glad that I (and a couple other blogs) could help ease the holiday spending. I know it must be frustrating to read all about Christmas all the time.

I definitely agree that the presents can easily morph into what the other person wants. Yet another reason to have a list (in your head or elsewhere) to help people get an idea of what you want. Personally, I try my best to get the person what I think he/she would enjoy, which often has little to do with my own gift desires. Nevertheless, I'm sure I failed to hit the mark at times. Luckily, it's the thought that counts.

November 5, 2009 at 3:15 PM

Anonymous frugal zeitgeist said...

Another vote for skipping presents if you can. Christmas became SO PEACEFUL after my dad finally gave in and agreed that there's no point in doing it any longer.

I would never do this to my SO's kids, so over the last few years I've had to get back on the present treadmill to some extent. I hate every minute of it.

November 5, 2009 at 7:19 PM


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home