Every Christmas, after the initial flurry of present-opening, we’d toss all the paper into the biggest box we could find. Sometimes the cat would make a bed of it, and she seemed pretty comfortable. So when I’d walk down my back lane to learn what toys other kids got, I’d imagine gathering every family’s paper in one giant pile and jumping into it like raked-up leaves.
If the homes on our little street would have made a pile the size of a minivan, then the entire city’s paper would surely make a pile the size of a small office building. You could jump from a plane into it and be fine. Each city in Canada would contribute another building-sized pile, every year, until you had an entire city of crumpled gift wrap. The paper from the US would make it ten or twelve times larger. A decade’s worth would be unimaginable.
It occurs to me only now that the gifts that came in that paper would make an astronomically larger heap — an entire Death Star of toys and kitch, having come at a cost of about 5 trillion dollars.
Gradually I began to realize that while having new toys is a wonderful feeling, nothing was quite as wonderful as unwrapping them. The high topped out in the morning hours and wore off faster each year. By January, our family’s joy level was always about back to normal, maybe a little lower, and the decorations and ads that were still around by that time only made me sad it was over. The new stuff was still around, but it was no longer so new, and Christmas didn’t leave me with the net gain it seemed to promise. What we were really buying was the swell of awesome feelings that crested at about 9am on the 25th and then gently drained back to sea level.
The items we end up giving or getting at Christmas are usually entirely ephemeral. A typical American or Canadian has received thousands of dollars in Christmas gifts throughout his or her lifetime, and would be hard pressed to remember getting the vast majority of them, let alone tell you what those gifts are doing for them now. Ultimately they’re bought to stir up the magic and promise of Christmas, and they do, but often that’s all they do.
The bulk of consumers’ Christmas trillions is spent trying to buy an intangible thing we can call The Magic of Christmas. Some of this Magic certainly comes from outside the shopping aspect — the closeness of family, the warmth of sweaters and boozy board game sessions — but that’s the free part. The vast majority of the spending arises from chasing the ecstatic feeling of Christmas morning one felt as a child, even if you’re grown up now and only want it for your children.
The rest of the year we would call this feeling abundance. It’s not a feeling particular to Christmas, but for a lot of kids Christmas morning represents the abundance feeling at its peak concentration. The first days of Summer break gives a similar high, but it’s spread over a much longer period and so it’s never quite as dazzling. There is also a minor spike in the fall, the evening of Halloween. In each case the abundance feeling is glorious, but fades quickly.
I don’t want to dismiss the lasting meaning of this Magic, or these gift-opening experiences. Some of my best memories are of those glowing days surrounding my childhood Christmases. But the gift-receiving part was absolutely central to making those days glow for me, and I think this is true for almost every child. Experiences of abundance are intoxicating and unforgettable, and we seek them everywhere in life, but for many of us we never find them so dependably as we do at Christmas.
There are ways to create abundance that are far less costly than through traditional Christmas shopping though, and which keep it going much better. Only later in life would I start learning to get that abundant feeling from simple luxuries like walls, socks, food and visits with loved ones, and would it appear more evenly throughout the year.
Gifts that give
Christmas gives most generously to those who are doing the selling. The vast majority of everyday people are on the losing side of the enormous exchange of value that takes place during the holidays. As nervous as the word “inflation” makes people, cash itself does a much greater job at retaining its value than most of the stuff we spend it on, and this is doubly true at Christmas.
The holiday mall-goer typically trades money for things whose value fades much more quickly, and never had as much to begin with. Imagine buying an investment that’s almost guaranteed to lose half its value in 24 hours. That is the range of investment quality we’re talking about for most of the shopping that goes on in December. That’s because we don’t think of Christmas purchases as any kind of investment, and even if we did we don’t know another way to go about it.
The pivotal understanding in moving from unhealthy finances to healthy finances is learning this: feelings are what you’re actually trying to buy with every purchase. Every thing we want amounts to a feeling we want, and so everything we buy amounts to an attempt to buy a source of emotional experience, even if we don’t realize it.
This is true throughout the year, but at Christmas in particular we open our wallets out of conditioning and momentum, rather than a clear-minded reflection on the real value gained (for either ourselves or the recipient.) When you feel like you’re buying abundance, it seems like you can never buy too much.
In terms of the joyful feelings and quality of life we’re actually seeking with our purchases, there’s a vast range in return on investment. Some people make terrible investments their whole lives by making purchases that are enormously expensive, give only a few moments of pleasure, and come with a bag of potential health and social issues — hard drugs and prostitutes, as an extreme example.
Every year a gazillion consumer dollars go towards buying similarly short-lived feelings, often junk that may make someone smile for ten seconds when they open it but never does anyone any other good. The joy-per-dollar rate for most Christmas gifts is probably pretty low in most families. When you think that people often go into high-interest debt to fund this losing exchange, it goes from silly to sad.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are purchases that generate returns for a long time. That is how the rich get rich: they are careful to buy only things that pay them in some way, like businesses, properties, educations and business leads. And they certainly are careful not to buy things that leak money or value.
But financial abundance is only one kind of abundance. Some purchases also pay its owner interest and dividends, in the form of personal growth, insight, skills or confidence. The principle of compound interest applies in virtually every area of personal gain, and the rates of return are far greater than even the best financial investments. Ten percent is nothing.
The best purchase I ever made for myself was an online blogging course, back in January of 2009. It was a few hundred dollars, and directly because of it I found my passion in life, I’ve become a much more happy and capable person, I’ve made thousands of dollars and I escaped the rat race, and the best of its returns are certainly yet to come. That gift kept on giving and will keep on giving probably past the end of my life — over the years as this blog grows and my writing skills improve, I’m helping increasingly more people, and I’m increasingly more free to make my best contributions to the world.
I didn’t quite know the astounding value of that purchase at the time, but I certainly would have been more likely to make that purchase if I had been in the habit of only spending on things I expected to create some form of lasting returns. Spending on education was out-of-character for me, and it was a major purchase. I feel very lucky that I had a good feeling about it, because it was an absolute steal — orders of magnitude better than successfully nabbing a $39 television or any other Black Friday loss leader.
Give growth for Christmas
All purchases are exchanges of value. Many, or maybe most Christmas gift exchanges disperse the value something like this: the giver comes away with some debt and the mildly relieving feeling of having fulfilling one of his social obligations; the recipient gets a bit high opening it and possibly enjoys using it, but will soon forget it; the retailer adds a bit of money to his money pile. Retailers want this kind of exchange to happen as often as possible.
Sometimes it works out better though, and the giver feels wonderful and the recipient gains something lasting, and the seller adds to his stack. But I think this is the exception — most of the consumer Death Star is built from waste and debt. But we can make that happen more often by thinking consciously about the real-life value of what we buy.
Imagine if after Christmas, millions of people were left with the means to become better and more capable people, rather than billions in debt.
Last year I announced to my family that I’m no longer going to participate in the normal exchange of gifts. I just don’t feel good about it. I’ve come to feel a tinge of guilt at buying any new, manufactured good, and I think this is a feeling usually worth trusting.
Yesterday my mother suggested a wonderful alternative for gift-giving between the adults of the family: we each find books that we think everyone will like, and give a random wrapped book to each other person, which we will pass along to each other throughout the year as we read them. In our case everyone would get a new book to read each month of the year. This I feel good about because the value of each purchase goes to multiple people, and that good books deliver lasting value, even lifelong value.
Everyone has a different emotional relationship to the gift-giving aspect of Christmas. Some can’t stand it and some love it. I acknowledge that opting-out of the tradition isn’t desirable (or possible) for all of you, so I suggest getting gifts that pay interest — skills, insight, recurring joy. This creates abundance of the lasting kind.
And if your gifts return compounding value, give this abundance to yourself too. It’s easier to know what gift will pay you the greatest dividends than it is to know the long-term value of a gift to someone else, so take advantage of how well you know your recipient. Make an annual tradition of giving yourself a gift that leaves you with a new skill or a recurring source of joy or income.
My post-Christmas gift to myself in 2009 paid for itself in the monetary sense a long time ago, but it also pays me every day in a dozen ways, particularly in the moment I wake up and remember that I don’t have a boss any more. (The course isn’t available anymore, because the man who taught me to blog is now focusing on teaching people to build membership sites.)
If you feel guilt about buying a present for yourself, then make it one you expect to pay off in dollars, because it’s easier to see that there’s no loss in value. A new skill — or better, starting a tiny business — could pay for all your holiday gifts by this time next year. If you want to start a one-person business, you live in an era where it’s as easy as it’s probably ever going to be. Chris Guillebeau runs a lifestyle business course that could make a chimpanzee back his money several times over in a year.
I’ll probably get something else too, but one thing I know I’m getting for myself this year is a book about making bread from scratch, along with the necessary kitchenware. I’m going to learn to make my own bread, which will make its money back quickly, be a lot of fun, and give me one of those gritty medieval skills that I’ll have forever. I wish I had done this for each of the last dozen Christmases.
Whatever you do, think of all your gift purchases in terms of what they are likely to deliver beyond the initial rush of receiving them. Imagine what the world would be like if that was a cultural norm. Imagine what just a decade of that mentality would for the population, even if the tradition were started only today.