12/11/2013 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

More Than Ever, We Need to Rethink How to Live Our Lives in Meaningful Ways Without Excessive Spending

Growing up, your holiday may have meant a special dinner with family or searching through gaily wrapped boxes for those bearing your name. Perhaps you cherish a familiar song you hear only when the weather turns crisp, music that reminds you of a simpler time surrounded by people you love.

For better or for worse in the United States, whether due to credit card debt, the foreclosure crisis, job loss or pay cuts, this holiday season many of us are forced by hard economic realities to reexamine our role as "consumers." More than ever, we must rethink how to live our lives in meaningful ways without excessive spending.

If this year finds you with strained finances or if you're simply growing concerned about your contribution to a sustainable planet, celebrating a Christmas and holiday focused on "gifts that give back" can help shift the focus from excess to caring for family and friends, our community and the world we share.

What do the holidays mean to you personally? What might you discover about yourself, your family or your friends if you planned your holiday differently? Would you get to know one another better or share your knowledge and skills with someone who needs your help or guidance?

Lessons of Generosity and Thoughtfulness

Making dramatic changes in your holiday routine may seem drastic, but small efforts do add up. Lynn Colwell, co-author of the book Celebrate Green says that much like recycling, once we get a feel for how easy it is to have a simpler holiday, it's hard to return to our old ways. She suggests starting one small step at a time.

"If you do it and I do it and everyone else does it, then it makes a big change, " she says.

Colwell insists most people ordinarily spend more extravagantly than they need to because we've come to believe it's the norm.

"We buy without thinking...we're all on autopilot," she says.

Long hours on the job leave us feeling overwhelmed. Standard marketing and advertising messages tell us we deserve a break. But there can be greater satisfaction from hard work than a life of luxury.

If you're a parent, you may wonder how to bestow lessons of generosity and thoughtfulness in your children's hearts. A simpler holiday is a wonderful way to provide your family with new and exciting traditions while providing an example for years to come. Kids love to help plan the family feast, bake and frost cookies, create decorations and wrap gifts. There seems to be no limit to their enthusiasm for the season.

Gift ideas long on play value include books, classics like wooden blocks, musical toys or instruments, building kits, art kits and art supplies, puzzles, dolls, board games, museum memberships, class/activity fees and science kits. Don't hesitate to peruse second- hand stores for kids' gifts, too. Many items there have been quickly outgrown before their usefulness has.

Clutter-free ideas include requesting baby-sitting, a special outing or a day trip for your kids with a family friend, aunt, uncle or grandparents.

Holiday Unshopping

Green America, a national nonprofit promoting social justice and a sustainable economy, suggests "unshopping" as a way to minimize impulse spending. They suggest holding potential purchases up to specific standards:

-Do I really need and want this? Can I get by without it?

-Is it made from renewable or nonrenewable resources? 

-Is it made of recycled materials and is it recyclable?

-How long will it last and how will I dispose of it?

-Can it be maintained and repaired?

-Could I borrow it, rent it, or buy it secondhand?

-Is it overpackaged?

-Is it worth the time I worked to pay for it and its cost to the environment?

Other unshopping ideas may include a book/magazine exchange or a cookie exchange: guests bring a dozen or two home- baked batches of cookies and their own tins, then each fills their tin with an assortment to bring home.

Organizing a toy exchange among families is great fun too, as many moms and dads prefer to pare down their child's toy collection before the holidays arrive. Consider giving your time and knowledge as gifts. If you're musical, offer friends music lessons for a month. Know how to knit? Help a friend on a new sweater pattern he/she always wanted to try.

Envying a garden of home-grown produce? Exchange your skills with a green-thumbed friend for help getting your veggie garden started. Have a way with words? How about resume help for a friend who's job hunting? Give a home-cooked meal in exchange for pet sitting. Great with numbers? You could offer tax-time help or accounting.

If you're time challenged but interested in giving an experience gift, consider theater or performance tickets, gift certificates for a much-needed spa service, fine dining or a bed-and-breakfast stay.

Buy Green, Buy Fair, Buy Local, Buy Used and Buy Less

To curtail spending, try the time-tested frugal tradition of a secret Santa exchange: a small group gets together, agrees on a price level and/or theme, they draw names, then each person gives a gift to another and gets a gift from another.

When purchasing new items, consider buying from local businesses, a community gift or craft fair, or social enterprises and nonprofit organizations that support green initiatives or benefit local residents.

Just a few of the many social enterprises and fair trade shops around Chicago include:

Beeline ( helps men and women re-entering the community from prison establish a work history, good work habits, and gain skills to further employment through sales of their natural, honey-based, personal care products and all natural honey.

Sweet Miss Giving's ( is a bakery and jobs program that offers rich, decadent baked goods with over 50 percent of all profits going to help formerly homeless and HIV/AIDS-affected men, women, and children.

Bright Endeavors ( assists homeless and at-risk young women achieve self-sufficiency and independence through the production of Dreambean Candles, a line of eco-friendly and socially responsible candle products.

The Greenheart Shop ( and 10,000 Villages ( are nonprofit fair-trade shops that offer housewares, gifts, clothing and more.

Green Genes Boutique ( stocks eco-friendly and sustainable products for children and parents. All of their packaging and gift wrap are made from recycled and biodegradable materials.

To find more local businesses offering green and fair-trade goods and services visit Local  or

Get Creative and Get Together

A décor swap is an easy way to refresh your home for the holiday. You can also make holiday décor out of items you already own. Create handmade cards and more using scraps of wrapping paper, old card fronts, buttons, felt, decorative paper, cardboard, construction paper, scrap yarn, fabric, flowers and fruit (real or faux) and decorative dishware. You may be surprised at how creative you can be with what you already own.

For gift wrapping, use recycled paper, comics, dish towels, receiving blankets, fashion scarves or make your own fabric gift bags. Children's gifts may be wrapped in colorful playsilks which can later be used for imaginative play and dress up. To wrap homemade treats, use recycled brown paper bags, decorated with stamping, paint or stickers.

Forget slaving over a hot stove and host a potluck. Make the gathering the focus over the getting. Include activities like music, caroling, games and crafts or ask each guest to bring an ornament to trim the tree.

Alternatives to hosting a bash include attending a worship service, a free concert or theater event or planning an outdoor activity like ice skating, sledding or visiting a winter festival. After the fun, gather indoors for hot cocoa and cider.

Spreading the Holiday Spirit and Cheer

When possible, extend your generosity to someone who needs extra help or support this season. helps individuals, youth, families and groups locate volunteer opportunities around the city. Christopher House, an organization benefiting low-income children and families, holds an "adopt a family" program each holiday. Participants can learn more here.

Alternatively, you can give needed items on a charity's wish list or organize a donation among friends and family to a cause you collectively support., the brainchild of Chicagoans Desiree Vargas and Ethan Austin, makes it easy for anyone to set up a fundraising account online for causes both large and small.

While it's true the holidays come but once a year, perhaps this time, instead of facing traffic jams, long checkout lines and maxed-out credit cards, we can look upon the season as a celebration of possibility, a time for opportunity and a fresh start to a new year.


This article originally appeared in Mindful Metropolis magazine.

photo credit: ali edwards, flickr