Giving gifts in ancient history began as a show of worship and over centuries has morphed into a show of appreciation. In the age of consumerism it’s become an expensive habit too, especially in Holiday season.
That said gifts are costs we bear without much complaint; giving feels good and it’s accepted as a cultural obligation. Besides, we have special labels for people who don’t play along: ever fear being labelled a Scrooge or Grinch?
Never mind that in the affluent West that many of us take months to repay debts incurred around Christmas time. So who’s not at least relieved that the annual festival of overspending is out of the way, right?
Wrong. The retail calendar is about to double face‐smack time‐poor, overworked consumers with Easter then Mother’s Day – not to mention birthdays and anniversaries for the rest of the year. So how can we possibly avoid the financial stress that comes from piling debt on top of debt?
Most of us are savvy enough to try and budget (even if they can’t always stick to it) and humble enough to get financial advice to try and do better. We are not clueless.
But without a complete overhaul in our thinking, choosing gifts will always be stressful – at the overwhelming array of options and the nagging temptation to over‐spend.
If you have tried every trick to rein in spending on gifts perhaps it’s time to try something new – mindfulness, which is loosely described as moment‐by‐moment awareness.
Take the example of a teenager who apparently aches for a sleek iPhone 7 for their birthday, if not the newest flagship Apple phone, an iPhone 8. These will set you back between $1000 and $1500. “Cravings tell some people they will be happy if they have the latest iPhone,” says Tomas Jajesnica, Chief Mindfulness Officer with Financial Mindfulness.
“And they might feel happy when they get one, but as an approach to life that is false. Having an iPhone has nothing to do with happiness.”
The reason that statement feels uncomfortable is because it’s true. Researchers from Washington University and Seoul National University, Joseph Goodman and Sarah Lim, found that giving ‘experiences’ increases the happiness of recipients more than material gifts – even if people are not socially close.
Hence the boom for online companies selling “experiential” gifts: in Australia, RedBalloon; in the UK, Red Letter Days and in the United States, retailers like Cloud 9 Living and Great American Days.
But focusing on experiential as opposed to material gifts is unarguably only half of the answer. While the research shows a hot‐air balloon ride or chocolate‐making course should satisfy the recipient more than boxed gift wrapped in a bow, if you try to please someone with the dollar value of your gift your debt problems could get worse and that is undeniably a problem for your whole life. Ever looked at the cost of sky‐diving, rodeo‐riding or maybe cage diving with sharks? You will spend hundreds of dollars on these.
Financial stress is irrefutably linked to health problems like depression, anxiety and sleep disorders so it’s not a big leap to see that the expensive gifts you buy – whether material or experiential ‐ could paradoxically lead you to feel less likely to connect with other people.
Most of us know overspending will put pressure on us, but since when did knowing right from wrong stop human beings from making mistakes? A parent, relative or partner with poor self‐control around money will often buckle to badgering from a child, or give into a yearning to people‐please, and buy that new smart phone, tablet, a holiday or even a car.
A daily mindfulness practice will lead to a more mindful approach to gift‐giving, so we do not drift into autopilot when buying. It’s inevitable this will lead us to confront some fundamental uncomfortable truths about money.
“Mindfulness will help you accept reality as it is,” Jajesnica says. “That if you purchase this [phone] it may put pressure on all other elements of your life.”
It’s important to note mindfulness won’t automatically change your financial circumstances – although it could help you begin to change in that area. From there we can make some deep, meaningful changes: when we are forced to face old assumptions about money. “The idea that the amount of money we spend on someone is a measure of your love for someone is completely false,” says Jajesnica. “It’s a product of consumerism that we need to spend in order to be loving.”
“In first world countries we have third‐world happiness, but countries in Africa have first world happiness.”
Which brings us back to gifts. You can create lasting memories with creativity and knowledge of a person.
How about home‐made cookies baked with personal messages – each describing why you love the recipient ‐ hidden in the dough? Or a hand‐made recipe book containing meal suggestions from the recipient’s family members? Maybe get a t‐shirt printed with the recipient’s favourite funny saying or if you have time, plan a surprise outing and put thought into favourite stops and a destination, or even fill a tall jar with inspirational quotes written and printed in different colours.
If you have lots of time, learn the guitar then write someone a song and play it for them. If you don’t have much time, spend a couple of hours hand‐writing a letter telling the recipient what they mean to you. Could any gift feel better and teach about the real meaning of value?
Time is key idea here, you need to know someone or learn about them to know what might make them happy. And time is valuable. Benjamin Franklin was widely credited with the unforgettable line “time is money” in 1748 (although it’s been shown to have much earlier origins, perhaps even ancient Greece). We can spend money and time, but where spending too much money will cause you a lot of trouble, spending a lot of time only enhances relationships – especially on children – by creating last memories.
Tomas Jajesnica: “Time is so much more precious than anything you can buy someone.”