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Voluntary Stupidity
by Marc Eisenson

Christmas comes but once a year. And it's the happiest time of year ... for retailers. That's why new gift-giving holidays are being created all the time. Sure, there are the old standbys like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, baby showers, and ... that gem of holidays ... Valentine's Day.

We're expected to buy for Mother's Day, Father's Day, Grandmother's Day, Secretary's Day, and Boss's Day. I'll bet that during Pet's Week, many a "lucky" Fido gets a rhinestone studded chain, a ceramic bone with his name engraved on it, or some other stupid, unnecessary trinket to help fill up a closet in his colonial styled doghouse.

Kmart, Sears, and Wal-Mart aside, for many of us, the holiday spirit gets lost in a frantic search for gifts ... and by the need to borrow at high credit card interest to pay for them. At last count, Americans had almost $400 billion revolving on their plastic. The sad truth is that once we whip out our charge cards, many of us fall prey to impulse buying ... and spend substantially more than we had planned.

Haunted by Hallmark

There truly are "cards for every occasion." This year, we received our first Happy Thanksgiving card. Whatever happened to that old-fashioned hand-written note saying, "Hope you feel better soon," or "I'm thinking of you"?

Does true love (even moderate friendship) need an influx of corny sayings to survive? I don't believe so. Does going broke prove love, appreciation, deep religious belief, or friendship? Hardly! All it proves is poor judgment and a lack of self-control.

If you want to voluntarily simplify your life, over-commercialized, make-believe holidays are a great place to start. It seems to me that cutting down on the 7.4 billion greeting cards Americans send a year is the perfect place to begin getting back to basics.

We spent $6.3 billion in 1995 on greeting cards, alone. That's a lot of dimes for schmaltzy rhymes. So from now on, skip it on Snoopy, zap Ziggy, and get away from Garfield. Write a personal note instead. It's easy.

At the risk of being seen as the Scrooge of the 20th Century, here are more ideas for simplifying life's special events and avoiding "love token" poverty, all year long:

  1. Admit your sanity. Now is the time to talk to every-one you exchange gifts with, and change the rules. Stop it altogether, or agree to set a lower limit, or to only exchange homemade goodies. At a minimum, agree not to trade meaningless junk.

  2. Start some inexpensive traditions: A group-cooked meal, a trip to your favorite museum or park ... perhaps something that really celebrates what the holiday is supposed to commemorate (like a birthday visit to the town where you were born).

    With families getting so complicated these days, more and more of us are conflicted about where to have holiday meals. Do we join this side of the family, or that ... or that? Years ago, Nancy, my children, and I began to celebrate Thanksgiving on virtually any day but the fourth Thursday of November. It's become so much fun, that we try to have numerous Thanksgiving dinners throughout the year.

    Think of all the benefits to celebrating the holidays a month earlier or a month later: While you prove your independence and sanity, you'll also avoid the hype, the crowds, the costs, the hassles.

  3. Give up garbage collecting. Avoid adding to closet clutter. Stop buying gifts that never have and never will make anyone happy, just to "give something." Suggest that your family and friends pool resources. Buy the bride, birthday boy, or long married couple a really significant present. And remember, "significant" doesn't have to be expensive.

  4. Give gifts that actually mean something. It's really wonderful to receive a practical or truly personal gift. Six years ago, Harry Lazare, who used to work here, got tired of us all struggling with an old, persnickety, hand-crank can opener. He gave Nancy and me a sturdier, reliable (also non-electric) model. Hardly expensive, it was so thoughtful and so needed ... that we were delighted. We chuckle and think of Harry every time we take it out of the drawer.

  5. Make it yourself. The possibilities are endless: But you can't go wrong thinking food ... fruitcake aside. Give those new parents or someone recuperating from surgery or chemo a home-cooked meal. They won't forget it.

    If they aren't already in your repertoire, how about learning to make soups, breads, cookies, jams, or herb vinegars? Then put together a gift basket of goodies. Like everything else, if you do-it-yourself, you can save money and really personalize the assortment. If you want to practice, feel free to send those yummy samples to me.

    Nancy's always giving away flowers that she grows, indoors or out, depending on the season. And believe it or not, I just sent my daughter, Sharon, some home grown brussels sprouts (which she and we love). Can you knit, do needlepoint, make wooden toys, or compile some of your favorite recipes? Did I mention that the possibilities are endless?

    When you care enough to give the very best

  6. Give yourself. Donate some of your time to a homeless kitchen or other worthwhile organization. And don't limit your generosity to Christmas or Thanksgiving ... the homeless are cold and hungry on other days as well.

    Or offer to babysit for a niece, nephew, the neighbor's child, or your grandkid. Let their frazzled parents take a kid-free mini-vacation, even if it's only a peaceful night's sleep!

    Or you could share a skill. If you're a master gardener, help a friend develop a green thumb. Can you strum a guitar, make a bench, reupholster a couch, or do magic? I'd rather learn a skill than get a hideous tie. Wouldn't you?

  7. Play it again, Sam. All year long, keep your eyes out at church rummage sales, garage sales, auctions, and consignment shops for gift ideas. Recycled toys that you've cleaned up are great for kids.

    Sarah, the bundle-of-energy daughter of our researcher, Marcy Ross, received an instant family heirloom from a doting aunt and uncle, who stripped and repainted an old children's rocking chair they found at a tag sale.

    Nancy keeps her eyes out for cashmere sweaters to give to our favorite sweater hounds ... as well as hounds, in the shape of hokey bulb planters, for our two favorite dog lovers, Janet and Rachel. (She fills those planters every year with tulips, crocuses, and daffodils, for a touch of spring in the dead of winter.)

  8. Have a very, merry unbirthday! When you see something that you know will be useful, affordable, and appreciated, why not declare your own holiday? There were some very wide smiles on my children's faces the day I unexpectedly drove up with a very much used bicycle built for two strapped to my car's trunk.

  9. Resolve to give gifts that help earn or save money. For example, a gift certificate for a continuing education course, or toward a tune-up for the family car. How about a cash gift earmarked as a pre-payment on a mortgage, car loan, or credit card bill ... along with a copy of The Banker's Secret?

    Entering college students can use rolls of quarters (for laundry), as well as stamps and phone cards. Our nephew Ben went off to Brown with an old bowling bag that Nancy and I had outfitted with everything from an assortment of screws and a "hot pot" to a pair of electrician's pliers that I had used ... and loved ... for years.

  10. The notion that we deserve instant gratification is responsible for our various governments, and 70% of Americans having no money left after paying the most basic of expenses. If you must buy ... plan! Look for sales ... and ask retailers when they'll happen. Certain things do traditionally go on sale at specific times, every year. For example, January is "white sale month," when great buys can be had on sheets and towels. Remember, it's always sale time at garage sales.

    Preparing for battle

  11. Are you out of control? If you routinely end up paying off Christmas well into the New Year, ditch your credit cards and begin paying with a debit card. Or better still, use cash and traveler's checks.

    If you do use a debit card or check, make sure you're not about to borrow from your overdraft "protection." Learn from Uncle Sam. Even when you have the money, or the credit, if you don't control your spending ... your debt will continue to climb and climb ... until you need to curtail "all non-essential" purchases.

  12. When retailers loudly trumpet, "No payments for 6 months," or "Buy now ... pay later," be careful! They're not going to give it to you for nothing. They've already built a healthy cushion into the purchase price. And more often than not, you'll get hit with hefty interest charges, anyway. Those ads should say, "Buy now ... go broke later."

  13. Don't fall for it! When Visa or MasterCard invites you to skip paying a bill one month, "because you always pay your bill on time," just say "No!" Otherwise, you're just going to end up paying extra big bucks in interest.

  14. Don't blindly believe "guaranteed lowest prices." Merchants count on the fact that once you buy, you're not likely to price shop. And if you price shop, you're not likely to haul yourself back to the store for a small refund. If you do haul yourself back, you won't have proper "proof." Even if you have proof, you'll be one in a million, and the shopkeepers will happily return your over-payment ... because they'll be keeping everyone else's.

  15. Replace voluntary stupidity with voluntary simplicity. Whether it's a gift for someone else ... or a reward for yourself, be smart.

    If you haven't done so already, I hope that this will be the year you'll start to cultivate a simple attitude. Getting back to basics may help to keep you solvent ... and living better on less is really a lot of fun. Try it. You'll like it!

    The Pocket Change Investor
    The Secrets to Getting Ahead -- Even If You Have a Pile of Credit Card Bills, Hefty Mortgage Payments,
    Loans Out on a Clunker or Two, & a Bad Case of the "I'm Tired of Living Payday to Payday" Blues.

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    Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor© 1996, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman

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