Op-ed column: Can’t buy as much with less

The fallout from the financial crisis is compounding holiday stress and threatens to become the Grin
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette

The fallout from the financial crisis is compounding holiday stress and threatens to become the Grinch that stole the holidays. People are depressed and anxious about their finances. Stress-related disorders appear to be on the rise and the fun of shopping is now eclipsed with frustration, fear and uncertainty.

For most of us, the stress of the holidays has come from snarled traffic, crushing crowds, long cashier lines, sold-out toys, tangled strings of broken lights, children screaming, houses not ready for guests, feuding families and other delights of modern life. But today we also face tremendous economic uncertainty, both personally and nationally.

In recent years, it took the average American family five months to pay off the holiday credit card bills. With unemployment on the rise, we now wonder if we will have a job and a paycheck to cover our regular bills.

Nationally, we face a bailout burden on top of five years of war debt.

What can we do?

To decrease financial and social stress, it may be a great year to rethink our gift-giving habits and rein in our expectations. Let’s focus on families with children first, then on singles.

Family meeting

Perhaps it’s time for a family meeting to discuss new approaches that can become new traditions. For example, family members might pick one name out of a hat and show love and caring by focusing on the person’s unique interests and by finding a gift with personal meaning for the recipient.

One Christian couple decided during the early and lean years of their growing family to adopt a three-gift rule. The rule reflected the three gifts the wise men brought to the Christ child. As the children grew older, each child would make a short list of gifts they really wanted.

This tradition kept the focus on the holiday they were celebrating.

Another couple who had a blended family wanted to emphasize sharing rather than fostering selfishness, so each year they buy a gift everyone can use together, such as a sleigh, and a few small gifts for each child.

A single parent decided to encourage giving rather than receiving and had each child decide on a charity where half of their Hanukkah gelt would go.

Research suggests that most children request only three or four of the 11 or 12 gifts they receive during the holidays. This excess raises their expectations and commercializes the holidays.

Disappointing the kids

What if the gift your child wants is beyond your budget? This can be an opportunity to help your child understand the difference between a need and a want. If your child has prayed for the gift, it may be your chance to talk about how an unanswered prayer is sometimes a delay, not a denial. It is also a good time to emphasize the virtues of patience and hope in the face of disappointment.

Making a list

Everyone can avoid last-minute panic and impulse purchases that they really can’t afford, by making a budget and a shopping list at home, away from the seductive displays and carefree carols of the stores.

Putting aside some money for the after-holiday sales can also stretch our dollars.

A spirited way of avoiding big bills is to plan inexpensive activities like caroling, reading holiday stories, or volunteering at shelters and hospitals. These can be a cost-containing way to find the joy in giving and to experience what has been called the helper’s high. Researchers have found this to be much like the runner’s high — a wonderfully relaxing sense of well being.

Home alone

What about those who cannot afford to travel home this year?

The loneliness of being away from family during the holidays can be depressing and can lead to overeating and overdrinking. So singles and lonely couples should take a risk, find one another and plan get-togethers.

For example, organize an “orphan” party for other people without family or friends in the area.

For those who felt deprived as children, the inner conflict between budgeting and spending can be emotionally wrenching. We all know logically that expensive gifts won’t make others love us or guarantee a happy holiday, but many seek vicarious pleasure from giving children gifts that they never got, and social status from giving friends and co-workers big ticket gifts.

Recapturing the past

On the other hand, for those with holiday memories of dreams come true, recapturing the magic of holidays past can be overwhelmingly expensive.

We may need to ask if our focus on buying and getting is a vain attempt to fill an abiding emptiness that only God and love can fill. If so, it is important to leave time and energy for spiritual needs.

Traditionally, holidays are a time for friends, family and faith. Getting to the root of dangerous financial temptations can free us from empty glitter and expensive gifts, so we can focus on giving love, teaching love and receiving love. Sounds a lot like the moral of Dr. Seuss’ story about the Grinch.

So, find ways of fulfilling your deepest needs, watch your heart grow three sizes larger and don’t let the financial crisis steal your holiday.

Ronald G. Nathan, Ph.D. is a local psychologist and author of “Relieving Your Holiday Stress and Achieving Your New Year’s Resolutions,” available as a CD or download from Amazon.com via www.holidayconfidence.com.

Categories: Opinion

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