“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning, but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.”—Hal Borland
Once again I find myself surprised that the end of another year is upon us. But what a year 2009 was, and if experience instills wisdom, then there was a lot of wisdom to be gained. The world has changed in so many ways; our complacency shaken, our sense of security disturbed. It seems that we have taken those things to heart and are getting back in touch with what’s truly important to us. I hope we have seen the end of conspicuous consumption. But I also hope as a society we don’t just go from placing too much faith and trust in money because of our abundance, to spending too much time obsessing about it because of its scarcity. Either way, it is faith poorly placed. Money can’t make us happy. Sure, it makes life easier; there is no denying that. But happy? No.
Still, while the holidays are supposed to be happy times, often the financial obligations that go along with them can bring stress, especially now. Often many of us fall into the trap year after year of spending more money than we really can afford, to buy presents that will soon be forgotten or broken, and exhaust ourselves in the process. As I write this in November, before the shopping season swings into full gear, I wonder if it will be different this year, and I sense that it will be. But I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to celebrate without that pressure—to focus on the meaning of the holiday and share that fully and without distraction with my family and friends. I think it would be neat to not give material gifts at Christmas, but instead focus one month out of the year on each family member, save the gift for then, and also take the month to celebrate that person’s life.
Since it’s probably not practical or even desirable to abandon holiday gift giving entirely, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to celebrate with a little more meaning. There are websites making the rounds that are worth checking out. First is the Advent Conspiracy (www.adventconspiracy.org), a site dedicated to making Christmas a world-changing event. The mission of the Advent Conspiracy is to inspire people to give more of their presence rather than presents, and spend less. They are asking us to consider buying one less present and using the money saved to help solve the problem of the lack of clean water worldwide. According to the site, “Solving this water problem once and for all will cost about $10 billion. Not bad considering Americans spent $450 billion on Christmas last year.”
Another website dedicated to alternatives to traditional holiday giving is www.buynothingchristmas.org. It offers suggestions on activities to do as a family, and also gift ideas. They welcome your suggestions and stories as well. One idea posted is to send a gift to a third world country; an animal, blanket, or radio for instance, through www.heifer.org or www.oxfamunwrapped.com. You can also buy a gift through an organization called Ten Thousand Villages (www.tenthousandvillages.com), which supports third world craftsmen, providing them with a fair income. You can help local disabled individuals earn a living by purchasing something from Emma’s Friends Soaps and Lotions (www.emmasfriends.com), a business started by Emma’s mom, Lynn Elko, “to create things of beauty and purpose with the help of individuals with special needs who are each beautifully and wonderfully made, uniquely themselves, each loved and appreciated for the joy they bring to our lives.”
One way to teach your children about giving is to give them a gift certificate to www.kiva.com, a micro-lending website where you can lend small amounts to help someone achieve economic independence. For instance, a woman named Beatriz in Peru is looking for $325 to stock the grocery store she owns with supplies. She has raised $125 so far, and lenders can lend as little as $25 to her. Her loan is to be paid back over the course of 6 months. It’s a small but significant way to make a difference in someone’s life, and your kids will enjoy deciding who they want to lend to.
Another website to check out is the Ultimate Gift site: www.theultimategift.com. The website promotes ways to celebrate the 12 gifts from the Ultimate Gift book and movie (by Jim Stovall) with your family. There are discussion guides and family projects to help you share how the gifts of family, laughter, education, gratitude, work, giving, and the other 6 gifts, have impacted your lives, and how you have impacted each other in these areas. If you have never seen the Ultimate Gift movie, I highly recommend it.
This column may not seem to have much to do with personal finance, but managing your money has as much to do with managing the hold it has on your life than where you actually invest it. Giving, and especially giving in a meaningful way, has a way of grounding us and providing perspective. Dollar bills in themselves are just pieces of paper, but what we do with them reveals the condition of our heart. Are we trusting those dollars to bring us happiness, or can we learn to be content whatever our current station, whether need or plenty?
After another challenging year, let’s approach 2010 with a grateful heart and generous spirit. There is still much to be thankful for, despite hard times and so much tragedy around us, and maybe right in our own families. In addition to the traditional New Year’s resolutions (save more, reduce debt, get your will in order—just a few suggestions), why not resolve to give thanks every day for at least one thing? I have much to be thankful for, but most of all my husband and children, my parents, family and friends, work that I love, and the faith that sustains me. I wish you much to be thankful for in the New Year also.