This holiday season, Americans need to have a frank discussion about their finances and their feelings.
Nearly two-thirds of adults have told Bankrate.com that they have felt pressure to overspend during the holidays, with more than half feeling “pushed to splurge” on gifts.
That’s roughly the same percentage of American workers who recently told Bankrate that they are behind where they should be when it comes to retirement savings.
Another, more well-known Bankrate survey – the one that shows that only 40 percent of Americans could pay for an unexpected $1,000 expense from savings – should be balanced against the National Retail Foundation showing that the average consumer expects to pay nearly $1,050 this holiday season.
Something has to give, and it has to be the way most people are giving when they should be saving.
I know that the mere suggestion of changing holiday traditions makes me a humbug in the eyes of people whose family ritual involves piles of presents under the Christmas tree or bathed in the light of Hanukah candles.
The truth is, however, that they have the story backwards.
In fact, the over-spenders are acting like the true villains in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.”
Prior to his life-changing transformation, Ebenezer Scrooge believes that Christmas is “a time for buying things for which you have no need and no money.” That wastefulness is precisely why he dislikes it.
You can argue, therefore, that what actually brings out the humbug is the spirit of being too generous and spending beyond one’s means.
In making that argument – and yes, that’s what I am doing here – it’s important to note that the post-transformation Scrooge becomes a model of generosity and kindness who “knew how to keep Christmas well” without the slightest hint of overspending.
So maybe the right gift for this holiday season – at a time when 38 million people are willing to boycott gift-giving to save money, according to the same Bankrate poll that measured the pressure of the holidays – is restraint.
I spent the last four years publicly swearing off gift cards – and encouraging readers to do the same — largely because they’re expedient and often given with little forethought, making them a fave of overspenders. Each year since beginning my boycott, during my limited time doing holiday shopping, I have witnessed some parent or grandparent throwing extra gift cards into an overflowing cart at the store, in all cases talking about how it’s “one more thing.”
This year, I’m not swearing off gift cards; I’m hoping instead that people will instead change their focus from adding “one more thing” or just “getting something” to doing the right thing and sticking with gifts – tangible or otherwise – that have meaning.
That means finding ways to remove the pressure and the burden of spending, and potentially relieves the difficulty from saving.
“If you can imagine that you’re feeling anxiety and – as the survey indicates most of us are feeling this pressure so you’re definitely not alone – we just need someone in our family to say ‘Hey, this is getting kind of out of hand,’” said Adrian Garcia, data analyst at Bankrate.com, discussing holiday haplessness on my podcast “Money Life with Chuck Jaffe.” “It’s just having the courage to bring this up and I think everyone in your family will really appreciate it.”
There are plenty of solutions, from Yankee swaps to Secret Santas to white elephants to simply imposing an appropriate budget, but have the talk now, before anyone in your family faces financial pressures later.
Hone in on what’s meaningful to you, both during the holidays and long after.
This year, as the brokerage industry has gone through a revolution to where most stock trading is now commission-free, consumers have it easy if they want to give gifts of investments.
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up a gifts-to-minors account for the young children or to work with registration papers to make a securities gift to grown family members, you can try investment gift cards from sites/apps like Stockpile, allowing an investor to purchase fractional shares in popular stocks for their loved ones.
It may not look great under the tree, but helping a financial portfolio germinate, bloom and grow is a gift that truly keeps on giving.
Helping someone with saving – and establishing an emergency fund rather than encouraging more spending – can be a true gift.
When my children were young, part of their holiday/birthday bounty was a deposit into brokerage accounts I set up for them as babies. As adults, they now manage the small portfolios those deposits grew into.
Their thanks and appreciation has deepened over the years, as they recognize how those little gifts had a much bigger purpose. While they no longer need me involved in managing their accounts, they somehow manage to thank me every time they reach another savings/investing milestone, or whenever their dividend savings helps them cushion the blow of a sudden, unexpected hardship.
They tell me all the time how they are the envy of friends who wish their parents had done something similar.
Moreover, they never once felt somehow unappreciated or unloved when the gifts were being doled out.
Putting more thought into holiday spending isn’t hard. It’s necessary.
It also can be fun. Be creative, helpful and open to change.
It’s easy to think that more spending equates to more enjoyment and more love, but that’s the thought process that created the bad Scrooge. Find a way for the holiday to appeal to your inner humbug, and you may find a better holiday spirit in the process.
Reducing, changing, altering and improving the gift-giving process within a family and with friends ultimately is its own gift.
Apparently, it’s what millions of Americans actually want this holiday season; they just need to speak up to their friends and family to make it happen.