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Conscientious Consumption

As we hover on the brink of the official
Christmas season (though I still can’t believe it’s now
considered “late” to start Christmas stuff the day
after Thanksgiving!) I’ve been working on my Christmas
shopping. Finances are tight everywhere this year, and for the past
several months I’ve been working the sales and buying a few
things at a time, spreading out the cost.

The problem with this approach is two-fold: first, you can end up
picking up several “little” gifts, and have spent your
budget without buying anything meaningful, since you don’t
see the overall picture as the gifts are smuggled into your house.
This can be at least partially solved by using a variation of my
famous gift spiral – see earlier blog on that. But second,
what you buy in September may not be what your kid is into come
December. And you may have amassed yourself a huge collection of
Barbie gear, only to find out your child is now in love with
Thomas. For example.

I’ve been purposefully trying to
hold back this year, and not pick something up simply because
it’s cute or reminds me of Maddie or my brother or whatever.
I try to really judge if this is something they’ll love, if
it will enhance their life. Letting go of self-imposed quotas on
the number of gifts you must give everyone can be quite freeing.

So I’ve been thinking about the conspicuous consumption that
seems to be irrevocably linked with Christmas, and tried to come up
with a few ways to beat that.

Let’s start with the stockings. I read a website recently
that was asking for cheap ideas for stocking fillers, and saw over
five dozen responses. I applaud the sentiment – wanting to
save money – but am uncomfortable with the idea of needing to
fill up some mandated amount of space with little junk toys that my
kid doesn’t even want. This year, we’re cutting back (I
guess I should tell Brian) and trying to get a few small,
inexpensive things the girls really want for their stockings.
I’m not heading to the dollar store just to make sure the
thing is full.

And if you’re trying to fill that stocking, by the way,
consider getting a target="_blank">Sigg water bottle; they’re
BPA-plastic-free bottles, and Maddie and Cora both beg to use mine
all the time. They’re the stainless steel bottles you see in
Whole Foods or health stores, and come in a lot of different
kids’ designs. Dishwasher-safe, great for preschool, and will
take up a whole lotta space in that ole stocking.

As you plan your shopping, think long-term, and think quality, not
quantity. Do a bit of research and find toys that will grow with
your child, last a long time, and if they’re earth-friendly
you get a gold star. target="_blank">Tumblon is a great site for parents, and
has amazing toy and book recommendations for every age. I’ve
never been disappointed with one of their suggestions.

Before Christmas, talk about your kids’ lists, and help them
get down to what they really want. Discuss why it’s important
not to buy everything you ever want, and how lucky we are to be
able to get things like toys. Kids learn their Christmas
expectations from you – if they get three gifts every year,
they’ll expect three. If they get ten, they’ll expect
ten. If you have to cut back this year, make sure you explain why
(in a non-scary way) so they don’t think they’re being

Maddie jumps for joy every time a catalog shows up for her, and
flips through the pages with an endless refrain of “I want I
want I want.” I let her look and simply listen at first,
trying to note a pattern: is she looking at all doll things? At
cars or trains? At crafting gifts? Then we go through the catalog
and talk about why she likes the things she does. This helps me
figure out if she really wants that particular doll, or just any
doll that comes with its own bottle, giving me the chance to shop
for a better-quality one. And finally, we talk about how Christmas
isn’t the season for “I want” – it’s
the season for giving. We talk about all the kids who don’t
get gifts on Christmas, and that Christmas is really celebrating
Christ’s birth, and these gifts to each other are a sort of
big birthday party; we celebrate Christ’s birth, and our own
rebirth in him. This helps her put things in perspective, and makes
it easier to move on to the next item on the list:

Getting rid of stuff.

Now, I’d like to say that we go through the house and give
away all our unused toys. But we don’t, because we’ve
got a toddler who’ll be using those things in a year and
extended family waiting to use those things in a few more years. So
our collection simply grows in our garage. But before every
birthday and Christmas, we clean out the toy bins and put away what
we don’t use – either in the Rainy Day box, or in
storage. Maddie and Cora know there’s a finite amount of room
for things, and if they want something it means getting rid of
something else. Maddie said she wanted a big toy – a racing
set, or something. I told her she’d have to get rid of
another big toy to make room for it, like her dollhouse or her
popup tent. She thought, and decided she’d rather ask for
some new furniture for her dollhouse and continue to play with what
she already has. The trade-off just wasn’t worth it.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, make
Craig’s List your friend. Every train table you buy from
someone (not that we’re looking) is one less train table in
the landfill. You’ll save money and the planet. And it works
both ways – clear out your gear there too. One Mommy I met
through Craig’s List recently told me that’s how she
keeps the clutter down in her house: when her two boys want a
“new” thing, say, graduating from Thomas stuff to
robots or whatever older boys play with, she tells them they need
to make space and save the money for it. So they willingly let her
sell their stuff on the list, and in return they can use the cash
to buy their new favorite toys. Genius idea.

I’m not trying to Scrooge all over Christmas; I just hate to
see the rampant commercialism pushing us to buy stuff we
don’t need with money we don’t have, just to make us
feel as if it’s “really” Christmas. Homemade
gifts may make you feel poor or cheap as you hand them out, but
your children will get in the spirit even more because they helped,
and it brings home how it feels to give someone a piece of
themselves. I’m so conscious that I’m shaping the way
Maddie and Cora will look at Christmas for the rest of their lives;
it’s a big responsibility and I don’t want to bring
them up to be all about the bling-bling.

Next week I’ll talk about how we can create meaningful family
traditions during the holiday season, building memories
you’ll look back on forever. I’ve also been gathering
together some great ideas for homemade or outside-the-box gift
ideas for the “peripherals” in your life: teachers,
coaches, playgroup parents, all the people you want to acknowledge
and thank, but whose gifts really add up financially. And because I
really am that much of a tree-hugger, I’ll look at a few ways
you can really have a green Christmas this year.

I’m getting’ my groove on, trying to get in the holiday
spirit. Without drowning in the consumer tidal wave.


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