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How my hoarder family saved Christmas

In the aftermath of one Christmas past, my extended family took a radical step in the direction of less stuff.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 28, 2012 12:35PM

This post comes from Max Wong at partner blog Wise Bread.


Wise Bread logoHoarding runs in my family. The only reason most of our homes don't reflect the OCD chaos of our brains is because we manage our belongings with the ferocity that most people reserve for calorie counting and fantasy football leagues.


Unorganized items in garage © image100 , SuperStock While none of my relatives live in squalor, as my cousin Carolyn puts it, "In our family, we file things horizontally." We are all wannabe minimalists with messy desktops.


Although we joke about becoming crazy dog ladies or building a maze made of old National Geographic magazines in the living room, we all worry that one day we will fall victim to our belongings. So, after looking with mortification at the packed garbage cans stuffed with the aftermath of Christmas 2001, my extended family took a radical step in the direction of less stuff: We agreed to stop giving Christmas gifts to each other. Even to the kids.


This decision had several unintended consequences, all of them good.


We regained other celebrations.

Last year, 38.9% of Americans started shopping for Christmas in October, a statistic that is entirely believable to anyone who has noticed Christmas decorations jostling for shelf space with Halloween costumes at stores across the country.


In addition to gaining more time and money for Halloween and Thanksgiving, we found that family birthdays in December and January suddenly got the attention they deserved. My grandmother, who was born on Dec. 28, told me she never had a real birthday. Sandwiched between Christmas and New Year's Eve, her birthday had always been an important holiday travel day for friends and family.


My youngest cousin's birthday is in the first week of January, so she was pleased that her birthday became a special day instead of just an afterthought to the December holidays. While Christmas presents were verboten, birthday presents were not. She quickly decided that the additional two weeks she had to wait to get "the toy of the year" were worth the extra attention.


On a side note, people who hear about our no-Christmas-gift policy seem to worry that the kids in my family are somehow suffering from Scrooge levels of deprivation, which was something we actually worried about the first year. However, there are several gigantic loopholes in the no-gift rule.


First, while the kids don't receive gifts from the family, they do get Christmas gifts from their friends. Secondly, everyone still gets a stocking full of candy on Christmas morning. Most importantly, during their winter break from school, the kids are allowed to ignore bedtime, sleep in as late as they want, eat dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and watch television with impunity.


We had anticipated that there would be a lot of griping from the under-14 camp, but to their credit, I can't remember one instance where any of my younger cousins complained about their lack of Christmas gifts. Perhaps they've been secretly pouting all these years, but I suspect that they prefer the additional freedom in lieu of opening a few more presents on Christmas morning.


It allowed us to be smarter shoppers.

Removed from the mass hysteria that is now part of Christmas shopping, we were able to shop after-Christmas sales without a deadline, but with all the post-holiday consumer reports.


Because the kids got to play with the "must-have toys" at their friends' homes in the weeks after Christmas, their birthday present lists got shorter, not longer. Some things, they realized, just didn't hold up to the hype.


We saved a ton of money.

Last year, the average American shopper spent more than $700 just on Christmas gifts. While my family is pretty frugal, our combined savings still amount to several thousand dollars every year. Not spending money on gifts that go under the tree allowed us to spend money on family experiences like tickets to the zoo to see the Christmas lights.


Two years ago, our huge extended family went to Las Vegas for a reunion at Christmas, a trip that a lot of us would not have been able to afford had we spent the money on traditional gifts.


Also, after Christmas, the price of just about everything drops dramatically. An expensive Christmas gift suddenly becomes an affordable birthday or graduation gift on Dec. 26. When I got married this year, I know all the wedding gift cards from my relatives were purchased at a steep discount in January from gift card exchange sites like Plastic Jungle.

We retained our sanity.

Christmas shopping is stressful. A Consumer Reports survey from last year uncovered that 6% of Americans were still carrying Christmas debt from 2010 on their credit cards when they started shopping for Christmas 2011. British financial analysts estimate that one in three Britons will go into debt to pay for Christmas this year. Every January, credit counselors report a 25% spike in business as consumers come to grips with their holiday overspending.


I don't know one responsible person with debt who isn't haunted by it. We discovered how easy Christmas is to enjoy when there are no bad financial repercussions lurking around the corner.


Additionally, while giving and receiving gifts should be pleasurable, a lot of giving has become a kind of social currency, with the givers hoping that the cost of their gifts are accurately appraised, for their full value, by the receivers.


A lot of the pleasure of giving a gift is imagining the pleasure that it will bring the recipient. But people are often so stressed out by end-of-the-year deadlines that choosing gifts becomes more about efficiency and budgeting than about figuring out what will bring their loved ones the most joy. By removing the obligation of Christmas gifts, we were all able to delete a giant task from our end-of-year to-do lists, which was, frankly, a relief.


We saved a lot of time.

I can't speak for everyone, but for me, shopping -- even online shopping -- takes up a lot of time. Not shopping freed up time to enjoy other holiday activities like trimming the tree, baking 80 dozen cookies to give out to friends and neighbors, attending and hosting parties, caroling and looking at Christmas lights.


It allowed us to be generous.

What is the Christmas spirit about if not kindness to others? We now spend Christmas Day serving dinner to people who really need a nice meal, not sitting around the tree. We have the extra time and the extra money to help out local charities.


My great-aunt was a lifelong patron of the Dumb Friends League, aka the city pound. Every dog she'd ever owned was a rescue. One of our favorite holiday activities is taking toys and treats to the pound at Christmastime and spending the day petting all the dogs.


It gave us new holiday traditions to enjoy.

Like ex-smokers huffing on secondhand smoke, my cousin Carolyn and I still love to window-shop the day before Christmas and experience the apex of American consumerism. Only, instead of buying, we enjoy the vulgar splendor of the mall at Christmastime from the comfort of the Cinnabon.


This year my family will celebrate our 10th gift-free Christmas. What started as a strategy to keep our closets tidy ended up bringing us closer together with each other and our community. It's our own little Christmas miracle.


More on Wise Bread and MSN Money:


Nov 28, 2012 5:24PM

Our family started this tradition about 15 yrs ago, we decided most adults had everything they needed and most of what they wanted, so we opted to only do for the little children. Once the little children were no longer little, we directed our holiday dollars to buying Christmas gifts for children on the Angel Trees and now with the economy hitting seniors so badly, we buy for a couple of seniors on the Senior Angel Trees.

It is far more enjoyable to buy a gift knowing it will be truly treasured or needed than to buy Grandma another housecoat, or Dad another tie. We have the most fun decorating our tree, spending time with one another and cooking up a storm. We don't "skip Christmas" but we celebrate it in the most wonderful way of all, giving without need or expectation of receiving. Merry Christmas it is.

Nov 28, 2012 2:34PM
Amen to that! My husband and I are also having our 10th (12th?, I lost count) Christmas without gift giving. What a relief when we finally told our families that enough is enough...we want out. We have everything we need and if we really want something, we buy it. I've had several people tell me that they wish they could stop. I say to let others know because they are probably thinking the same thing and here are both of you buying things for each other that neither one wants. What pushed us over the edge is when my late mother-in-law would easily spend a grand or two on presents for everybody (all made in China, of course) then complain in January when her taxes were due.
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