With the holiday season upon us (and retailers lathered up for it), I want to remind us all, as I remind myself: a good holiday doesn’t have to be a goods holiday. And this year, in spite of the massive sales machine that grinds 24/7 from now until Christmas, it’s a little easier to live that distinction. The lingering recession is tempering many people’s former extravagance, generating a healthy move toward moderation.
The Spending Frenzy’s Over
During the second quarter of this year, average credit card debt slipped below $5,000 for the first time in eight years—its fifth consecutive quarter of decline. According to credit bureau Transunion, the percentage of cardholders who were ninety or more days delinquent dropped to less than 1%, down by more than 21% from last year.
Americans are rebalancing savings and debt—changing both their thinking and their buying habits. Maybe what we’re seeing is the just-perceptible first wave of a genuine sea change. Maybe artist Barbara Kruger’s message, boldly spelled out on the ceiling of an upscale gallery in New York’s tony East Hampton recently: “You want it/You need it/You buy it/You forget it” is finally being taken to heart. I hope so. We’d be a lot happier, both as individuals and as a culture, if the economic pressure on our shopping habits helped us reshape the phenomenon from what it has been to what it could be.
What it has been is a self-defeating treadmill, an endless exercise in futility—because we’ve been manipulated into expecting that what we buy can fill our innermost voids, regulate our emotions, repair our moods, or provide us with a “perfect” image.
A Cathy cartoon puts it in a nutshell: “I wasn’t going to spend any money,” she begins, “but I just have to buy one new thing. If I buy one new thing, I’ll feel new. If I feel new, I’ll act new. If I act new, I’ll lose weight, excel in my job, organize my home, catch up on my correspondence, and have hordes of handsome men showering me with Casablanca lilies.” “Quite a lot to ask of a headband,” cautions the saleslady. “But well worth the $7.95 try,” responds Cathy.
That same mentality shaped this ad for retail therapy: “Come to Barney’s Psychotherapy Sale! Fill your emotional baggage with mood-enhancing bargains. Get in touch with your inner shopper.” Tongue-in-cheek, to be sure, but representative of the impossible promises that help drive our consumer economy.
Transformative magic, equal-opportunity, all-purpose mood changer, generalized panacea, shopping has been touted as the answer to so many questions that it was even invoked by then-President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 as the ultimate form of public service. We could do our part to help heal the country, he assured us, by simply going shopping.
Fast-forward nine years. Now, in no small part because of the utter recklessness of our shopping at all levels of society—in the housing market, on Wall Street, inside individual households, and by the government—America is still mired in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Doing Things vs. Having Them
But shopping can be better than this, very much better. Whether for a plant, a pair of pumps, or a political candidate, shopping is a way we search for ourselves and our place in the world. Though often conducted in the most public of spaces, it’s essentially an intimate and personal experience—as we taste, touch, sift, consider, and talk our way through myriad possibilities. Shopping involves searching not only externally, as in a store, but internally, through memory and desire. It’s a vehicle for self-expression, self-definition, creativity, even healing; an interactive process in which we dialogue with people, places, things, and parts of ourselves.
To have a good, rather than a goods holiday, remember first of all that the good life comes from doing things, not from having them. This is true in spades for the holiday season. Look back at your own experience and it’s almost sure to verify what research has demonstrated over and over: we get far more lasting pleasure and satisfaction from life experiences than we do from material possessions.
There are compelling reasons for this. Experiences (unlike most material goods) become more valuable over time, giving us pleasure in the memories we have—and the stories that we tell—about them. Then, too, experiences aren’t nearly as likely to disappoint or lead to regret as material goods. Because they’re unique to us, experiences aren’t usually subject to negative comparisons, but this can easily happen with material goods, when, for example, somebody else gets a bigger, nicer, newer, more expensive, or in some other way better mousetrap than yours. Finally, experiences tend to be shared, whereas acquiring things is more often a solo act. We’ll go on at length, if our listener is interested, about a movie we’ve seen or a trip we’ve taken. How often do we have as much to say—or as willing an ear—when we talk about our sunglasses or Kindles?
Aligning Outer and Inner
In my own family, a holiday experiment born of excess, has unequivocally verified that experiences trump things on the happiness scale. My husband’s a Methodist; I’m a Jew. The double whammy of Christmas and Chanukah, overlaid with one son’s birthday on December 18, got heavier and heavier each year, and finally became altogether too much.
A decade and a half ago, after a holiday season of particularly orgiastic gifting, I had a meltdown. Overcome by it all—the stressful preparation, the mountains of boxes, the excess of it all—I sat and sobbed for a whole helpless afternoon. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want: another holiday season like this one. That evening, my husband and I made a bold decision: to celebrate the holidays from now on with a family trip. We and our two boys. No individual gifts for any of us.
It’s been one of our best decisions. One Christmas day we danced with the Samburu in Kenya; another we camped out with the red rocks of Arizona in view. On a third, we helped renovate a home for a low-income family in Pennsylvania and slept in a school. Instead of amassing stuff, we’ve gathered memories. And our experiences have both broadened us and brought us closer.
Even when we’re shopping for things rather than experiences, we can shop consciously, thoughtfully, aligning outer and inner, squaring our material existence with who we are, what we need, what we want out of life. When we take this approach to the process of search, we untie the knot that binds shopping and buying so tightly together. Conscious shopping is an opportunity for growth. Stepping off the consumption escalator, you put both feet solidly on the ground; and balanced there, firmly under control, you can select rather than seize.
Collective Giving Nurtures All
Kerry, an overshopping client I’ve worked with from a large and close family, made this kind of change. With a husband and two children, three siblings and their spouses, and ten nieces and nephews, she’d exhaust herself (and destroy her budget) each year buying sackfuls of Christmas presents. Then, with sinking heart, she’d watch the brief and unsatisfying free-for-all of torn wrappings, the tidal flood of gifts, and the children, overwhelmed, flopping from one thing to the next. Five years ago, she took a leap. When all four families were together, at the vacation house they jointly own in New Hampshire, she raised the issue with her sister and brothers. Together, they agreed on a different approach. Each Christmas now, the adults pool their money and buy one thing for the house; they buy no individual presents for each other. Every child gets a single, carefully considered gift, from a family member who has drawn that child’s name from a hat.
The change has been a triumph from every angle. To begin with, Kerry and her siblings have beaten the Christmas blues; they now approach the season with excitement rather than apprehension. They’ve also nicely improved the vacation house that they share: a new fridge in the first year, a comfy sofa in the next, and a brick patio—a project they all worked on—in year three. In the process, they’ve made it easier and better for the family to be together. And the children? They’re thriving on the change, focusing on and sharing their special Christmas present, making holiday music together that fills, rather than deepens, any lurking interior voids.