If You Shop ’til You Drop, Will America Prosper?

The headlines are abuzz with predictions of lower holiday spending this year, which the pundits say will mean the recession is a long way from being over. So if we shop ‘til we drop this December, will that improve our national economy? That makes no sense, and here’s why.

If you spend $100 on dinner out or a fancy new sweater or gadget for yourself or your sweetie, are you any richer? Have you done anything to create a better future for yourself? If two hundred million people spend $100 on dinner or stuff, they aren’t any better off either.

Spending money on unnecessary items only encourages the production of more unnecessary items; it does not improve your own standard of living, or help America to promote or maintain its superpower status.

Only in recent years has the economy of the United States been built on consumption and service instead of production and trade. For most of America’s history, frugality and investment were the cornerstones of our financial structure. Consumption for its own sake was considered foolish and crass.

Certain cultures in America still encourage these ethics. As an example, the Amish and Mennonite cultures value tradition, stability, and thrift. For them, Christmas is not an excuse to spend, but a reason to come together for celebration of the timeless values of family, home, and peace.

If your family is like most, though, this time of year you probably spend more time in Crazy Consumption City than in Amish Frugaltown. But don’t go overboard, using salvation of the national economy as an excuse. Review your holiday spending in light of your family’s goals and beliefs. Here are some practical suggestions for reducing your holiday spending without reducing the joy and peace in your household:

  • Make rather than buy. Almost any gift that is handmade has an extra cachet that cannot be bought. You do not have to be a crafts expert to make gift tags, holiday cards, or decorated bottles of vinegar. Many crafts magazines and books have quick and simple holiday gifts that are not only cheap but impressive gifts. Choose one you like, and mass-produce it.
  • Create sentimental gifts. Make gifts that are personal and meaningful to the recipient at very little cost to you. A “This is Your Life” video of important people and places in the recipient’s life, complete with interviews with important people and tours of important places from their past can make a wonderful gift. For someone new to the family, a pretty calendar marked with the dates of family birthdays and anniversaries can make him or her feel like part of the gang.
  • Give the gift of food. Food is an easy way to express your appreciation for a group, such as your co-workers or the teachers at your child’s school. Make or buy cookies or candy. Put them in a pretty box you have made or bought. For just a few dollars, you have an instant gift.
  • Avoid cash gifts. It’s hard to conceal the fact that you are dedicating yourself to frugality this year if you are giving cash. Give smaller presents with a greater degree of thoughtfulness, rather than gift certificates or cash.
  • Use big, shiny packages. Most of the fun of Christmas, as any child knows, is opening the presents. Instead of buying your kids a lot of toys, give them many little, thoughtful presents with lavish bows, wrapping paper, and big boxes—bought at a discount store.
  • Give a service. A gift certificate entitling the recipient to your services is a thoughtful gift. Offer to baby-sit, clean house, organize an outing, or help put together a computer. If you have a specific skill, offer that. Your time and attention can be as valuable to your loved ones as anything money can buy.

Spending time and spending love, while reserving your money for investment instead of consumption, is the best way to help your personal economy—and America’s.

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