Why our refusal to pinch pennies is the nightmare before Christmas.
Exploring the Eaton Centre on a weekend in early December requires a level of bravery unlike any other time of the year, as I found out for myself last Saturday. Imagine, if you will, an Animal Planet–like mix of panicked middle-aged women checking items off their holiday hit-list in the Urban Eatery, packs of gum-snapping teens rifling through the racks at H&M, and grown men rushing through Sears, drenched in mall-sweat, all in the name of scoring a blinking wombat from the department store’s third-floor Furby pyramid. Not a good look, Toronto.
What possessed me to enter Yonge Street’s yuletide rat race? Nothing. Literally. With each passing year, my friends and family respond to my “what do you want for Christmas?” query with that very answer: “Nothing.” Why, then, as adults, do most of us insist on breaking the bank when everyone seems to have aged out of lengthy wish lists? Wouldn’t the smart financial decision be to give our loved ones the nothing they’re asking for?
Smart, sure. But for some, a “no-gifts” policy is anathema to centuries of tradition. Tina West, an associate marketing professor and interim chair of Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management, suggests that exchanging gifts takes on an especially symbolic meaning once the holidays roll around. “Gifts are almost a reflection of our success, financial well-being, and even love,” she says. “You don’t want to disappoint kids, but with parents and adults, many of us have material things, everything we could possibly need, but we still have this sense of obligation—like, you have to give something.”
With the influx of cheap American chains and shopping trends like Black Friday trickling north of the border, it’s not hard to see why we’re dead set on gifting in the absence of real wants or needs. “It’s the thrill of the hunt,” says West. “People are competitive by nature, and when key shopping seasons come up—Christmas being a big one—no one wants to miss out on a great deal.” The slew of manipulative seasonal product campaigns also seems to awaken that primal competitiveness within us—which probably explains why otherwise rational adults continue to engage in makeshift mall sleepovers, just to get their hands on a Tickle Me Elmo.
Holiday shopping doesn’t just bruise our dignity, either—our bank accounts also take a serious hit. According to a consumer survey released by the Bank of Montreal in early November, Canadian shoppers are poised to fork over an average of $674 this season on gifts alone. And that doesn’t even account for the cash we’ll need to cover other expenses, like turkeys and train tickets. All told, experts estimate that your Christmas tab could soar as high as $1,182.
I appreciate a full stocking as much as the next girl, so if a full-on gift moratorium sounds a bit draconian, there are other low-cost options that will satisfy your need to gift. Arranging a Secret Santa exchange among friends limits your gift expenditures to one purchase. It also allows you to set a price limit agreed upon by the group. If you have a larger extended family, it may be worth restricting gifts to children under a certain age. You might even consider pooling your funds to make a donation to a charity of your choice, or setting up a volunteering day at a local charity or food bank to spread the holiday spirit outside of your inner circle.
It sounds juvenile, but when all else fails, kick it kindergarten-style and make something. Dara Frydman owns Bathurst Street’s Designher Co., a DIY crafting outpost that runs workshops and corporate events for adults. She says that as people recognize their financial limitations and tire of the mall crush, more and more are realizing the value of do-it-yourself gifts. “There’s this misconception that your end project is going to be dowdy and disposable,” she says. “But DIY is a budget-friendly idea—not only is it personalized, but you can often make something you’d never be able to afford otherwise, like a reupholstered ottoman that would run you $1,000 if bought brand-new.”
As unappealing as it may be to break from the holiday ranks by suggesting an alternative to the annual gift exchange, most of us have very real financial constraints that become all the more noticeable after the Christmas season has passed. It’s a hard conversation to initiate—no one wants to seem like a Scrooge—but there are financial and intrinsic benefits to re-examining why we buy things, minimizing our costs, and getting a little creative—a cognitive shift that just might prevent us from acting out our animal instincts in the malls. Maybe a less-is-more attitude is the real gift that keeps on giving.