THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Going Gift-Free: More Joy, Less Stress

Last year, my family and I decided to ban presents at Christmas. Seriously, we'd all gotten so "done" on the whole gift-giving thing, we found it had lost all meaning. The Christmas morning unwrapping activity had become a predictable chore, with too much wrapping paper and ribbon and too many empty boxes to be flattened for the recycle bin.

And although nobody came right out and said so, the joy in getting all those gifts was extremely short-lived. Not really worth all the time and energy it took to shop for and wrap the presents, then pay the bills, come January.

Last holiday season, the economy was in the tank and frugality was the name of the game. So we decided to play the frugality game to the hilt and went cold turkey. No warm up, we just jumped in. I don't know if we thought at the time we'd love the experience so much we'd opt for it again this year, but that's what's happened.

We informed our friends of our decision and asked them to support our choice by not giving us any gifts, since we wouldn't be giving them any. Some of them grumbled and put up resistance. But they humored us and went along with the plan.

Our gift-free experience was liberating! No trips to the mall (does anyone really like malls, anyway?) to roam aimlessly around, looking for just the right thing for Aunt Eloise. No sitting in traffic or vying for parking spaces. No furious last minute wrapping sessions or running out of paper since there was nothing to wrap.

Christmas morning, we got up leisurely, made a nice, big, breakfast then took a family hike. Later in the day, friends joined us and we had a gingerbread house competition (we "cheated" and used pre-fab kits) and cooked a holiday dinner. Our day was easy, stress free and fun! (A note on the pre-fab kits- if we do this again, I'll opt to bake the gingerbread part from scratch. It was our inaugural attempt and we weren't quite sure what we were getting ourselves into. A homemade gingerbread house HAS to be better than the kits!)

Fast forward to this year. This year out comes Joel Waldfogel's new book, Scroogenomics, published by Princeton University Press and now I see that unknowingly, we have become part of a movement to curb consumer spending and recoup the original spirit of giving at this time of year.

Waldfogel, the Ehrenkranz Professor and Chair of Business and Public Policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is not completely anti-gifts. He thinks we should stop giving gifts however, to those people to whom we feel obligated to give but don't really know their likes, wants or needs.

Take for example, the reindeer sweater from Grandma or that crazy patterned tie from Aunt Lucy. There may be sentimental value here, but will you ever wear them? Are they worth to you what the giver paid? Chances are they're not. And it's that differential between the money paid and the value received that Waldfogel calls "dead weight loss". He argues that our consumer spending habits at the holidays generates a vast amount of economic waste- as much as 85 billion dollars each winter.

Think about it. When you buy something for yourself, every dollar spent produces at least a dollar in satisfaction because we tend to choose for ourselves those things that are worth more to us than what we paid. When we buy for others, we make less informed choices and end up spending more than what the gift is worth to the recipient, leaving them less than satisfied. Waldfogel calls this "an orgy of wealth destruction".

What's the solution? Well, this might sound crass, but if you must give a gift, Waldfogel says to give cash or a gift card. Neither of these solutions is very satisfying to most people, although he promotes the idea of giving charity gift cards. You can gift someone a donation to their favorite charity, something most people would consider a luxury.

There are exceptions to the Scroogenomics philosophy of no gifts, namely; it's good and proper to gift those people whose wants and likes you know, like family members, friends, significant others and children. The holidays are synonymous with gifts in the eyes of children so they shouldn't be left out in the cold, according to Waldfogel.

Here is where my personal philosophy about gifting begins to depart from his. Parents have a golden opportunity to begin teaching their children at an early age, the value of giving something that requires a bit of sacrifice. So while I'm not advocating empty stockings for kids, how about giving a child that one big thing they want most and let the rest of the "gifting" be about opportunities for family connection at the holidays?

Children will remember a family trip to the ice-skating rink and hot chocolate afterwards long after the thrill of a new toy has worn off. Begin by planning holiday activities that bring family members together in meaningful ways and might even make a difference to someone in the community.

Here are 10 ideas for how to celebrate a gift-free Christmas or Hanukah with your children:

1) Adopt a needy family. Prepare a holiday meal and deliver it. Involve your children in the grocery shopping and food preparation activities.
2) Build a ginger bread house together, then donate it to a charity or take it to a children's hospital.
3) Organize a coat drive or a canned-food drive and donate them to your local food bank.
4) Go caroling at a local senior center or convalescent home.
5) Bring cookies and milk to an elderly neighbor. Maybe even read them a Christmas or Hanukah story.
6) Teach your children to make hand-made gifts, like potholders. Both boys and girls enjoy this activity and feel a sense of accomplishment in the finished product.
7) Host a cookie exchange. Involve the kids in baking 3 dozen different kinds of cookies. Invite their friends to come, bringing their own cookies they've made. Everyone leaves with 3 dozen new cookies to share with their families and guests.
8) A variation on the baking theme: make banana or zucchini bread and homemade jam to wrap and give to neighbors. Let the children be the delivery people.
9) White Elephant Gifts- Every year, my daughter and her roommate give a holiday party for about 50 people and everyone brings a wrapped "white elephant" gift. This is an old tradition that becomes especially fun when people start "exchanging" the gift they picked for one they like better. You never know what you're going to end up with until the very last person has picked. Believe it or not, this gift exchange is the highlight of the holiday season for those who attend and the guest list keeps growing every year. Some white elephant gifts make encore appearances year after year.
10) Have a craft day and invite the neighborhood kids. Set up a work area and put out some fresh clay or large pieces of butcher paper and paints. Be sure to have kids bring a big shirt or an apron to protect their clothes. They create something from scratch, the best kind of gift!

This idea isn't necessarily for everyone, but it's an idea that merits some mindful attention. It's simply a choice about how you want to spend your resources; time, energy and money, and the experience you want to create at the end of the day. It's also a choice about how you see yourself contributing to the sustainability of the planet. It might seem like a big step to go gift free all at once, so perhaps you'd like to take this year to ease into it by preparing your family with some of the simple alternatives I've suggested. Have fun with this and let me know how it goes.

Have you already gone gift-free or are you contemplating it? Please stop by the comment section and share your ideas about gift-free alternatives for the holidays. We're all searching for how to bring more joy and less stress to this time of year. Please share the wealth!

Another way to share the wealth is by posting this article to your FB page, and Digging Buzzing and Tweeting! And if you're not already a Fan, become one. We're a friendly bunch. Please also feel free to stop by my personal blog and website: Rx For The Soul where you can leave personal messages for me.

Happy gift-free holidays!
Judith

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