Yuletide Thrift: Tips for a Sustainable and Frugal Christmas

An orgy of gift buying takes place each Christmas. Not only will most of this generosity eventually end up in landfill, but much of it is misplaced. In 2009, British shoppers spent an estimated £1.7 billion on Christmas presents that weren't appreciated by their receivers, while in October 2010, Australians were already planning to sell their unwanted Christmas presents online. 

A greener, more frugal Christmas can reduce waste, increase your savings and even bring you closer to your loved ones. Below are some tips for a less commercial Christmas.

Changing what you buy and the way you buy it

* Don’t leave Christmas plans till the last minute.
You’ll end up spending more. Planning is the key to a more frugal festive season. Make a list of all those you plan to buy for, and look out for suitable presents whenever you’re shopping, including online shopping.

* Buy within your means. Create a Christmas budget. Decide what you can afford, including separate amounts for gift giving, going out, and Christmas meals. Start with the assumption that you will only spend the amount you can afford, and then plan who you will give presents to, the amount you will spend on each person, and how you will entertain.

* Consult family members if you want to change present-giving traditions. If you want to make changes to the way you give presents in your family, eg by giving fewer presents or giving to charity, it’s important to discuss this with family members. Gift-giving traditions in families have very deep roots, and changes to those traditions can seem threatening. 

One change might be to stop giving presents to every family member and have a Kris Kringle instead. You can have more than one Kris Kringle in the family, eg one for the adults and one for the children.

If you want to make changes to your gift giving that help others, such as giving gift cards that buy a resource for a struggling family in the developing world, you may need to run a campaign to get the family on side. This can take time; provide the family with literature and information, and be willing to discuss the benefits, such as teaching children the importance of giving. Oxfam Unwrapped sells gift cards that provide resources to poor communities; there are 44 gifts to choose from.  

When you’re Christmas shopping, be aware of the emotions that Christmas can stir up. Christmas is a very emotional time of year, and the mixture of nostalgia and sense of anticipation may affect your buying choices. Practising mindfulness while shopping is a great way to stay in touch with those feelings so that they don’t hijack your wallet! 

As well as buying for others, there’s a strong temptation around Christmas to buy what researchers call ‘self-gifts’ – gifts we buy to reward and pamper ourselves. When buying self-gifts, awareness of what your motivations are can help you decide if the choices you make are right for you.

* Take the time to ask your loved ones what they want.
This means you’re more likely to buy things that they want, which in turn means less waste. To retain the element of surprise, ask them to make lots of suggestions (where teenagers are concerned you may have to probe!). In my experience it’s fine to tell them you’re on a budget so they can tailor their suggestions to your budget.

* If you’re successful in streamlining your Christmas shopping, be prepared to feel guilty!
Anthropologist James Carrier believes that we deliberately make Christmas shopping hard work because we want to demonstrate just how good we are at turning impersonal objects into tokens that express our bonds with our families and loved ones.  If you successfully negotiate simplified Christmas giving with your family, reduce the amount you spend on Christmas and finish your shopping early, you may find yourself feeling guilty. Simply note and accept these feelings – there’s no need to rush out and buy up half the stock of a major department store.

*  If you’re trying to teach your children to be less materialistic, be patient.
 Being too dogmatic and imposing your own values on the child could backfire. Perhaps you could compromise, combining presents that are blatantly commercial (if that’s what your child craves) with some less commercial alternatives.

*  Choose sustainable toys and children’s gifts.  
There are loads of eco-friendly toys and gifts for children, many on the internet, but even mainstream toy chains are starting to stock them. This guide from Treehugger provides information on the properties to look for in eco-friendly toys. 

Buy certified Fairtrade items as gifts. Certified Fairtrade items, which guarantee a fair price and conditions for  producers, is a burgeoning area and the choice of goods is growing all the time. A good place to find out where to buy products in your country is this list of contact details for Fairtrade organisations. 

Oxfam Shop and New Internationalist  are two Australian websites selling Faitrade items. Don’t forget that these types of online sites also have sales.

* Buy secondhand gifts.
I don’t believe in the taboo that you can’t buy secondhand goods as Christmas gifts! But if you want to buy from thrift stores, yard sales and vintage stores, planning and consultation are important. Your local thrift shop will probably close way before Christmas, and it will take longer to find suitable secondhand gifts, so get your skates on if you haven’t already started your Christmas shopping.

* Buy gift cards.
While gift cards give the receiver more control over what they buy, there are pitfalls. An estimated 15-30% of gift card vouchers aren’t redeemed. Check with the recipient first as to the retail store you will buy the card from, or if you don’t want to do that, choose a card that gives the receiver a great deal of choice – eg don’t buy them a $100 card for Barbecues Galore if they have no intention of buying a barbecue! You can now buy gift cards at a discount from sites on the internet. Cardlimbo is a website that buys unwanted gift cards from consumers and resells them at a discount.

Cheap gift ideas

* Give something you already have. A great way of cutting down on the cost of gifts and avoiding goods ending up in landfill is to give something you already have as a present (or part of a present). Don’t give any old junk, but heirloom and vintage items that are valuable to you and that you may not use any more, such as jewellery, clothes, knickknacks and furniture. Carefully tailor your choices to the receiver.

Practise regifting. It’s okay to regift something that’s not right for you, but only if you use your intuition to decide who would appreciate the gift.

* Give a small amount of money as a present. Kids love receiving money as it gives them control over what they buy. The beauty of giving money to children is that you don’t necessarily have to give a huge amount, as what’s a small amount to you may not be to them.

* Make your presents.
You don’t have to be a craft whizz to do this. Scarfs and sarongs, for exaxmple, are easy to run up on the sewing machine. This website gives you instructions for making 13 different types of scarves. Another option is to use spare buttons to make a button necklace.

* Give experiences rather than material objects.
Studies suggest that people derive more enduring pleasure from life experiences than from material objects. Experience-based gifts don’t have to be expensive; a couple of free movie tickets are a great low-cost way to give a fun experience.

* Don’t forget the old standbys.
If you’re looking for cheap standbys, you can’t go past books and DVDs or Blu-rays, but do consult with the person first.

Plants are another great gift – they’re great value for money and (assuming they’re looked after!) they last. Choose hardy, low-maintenance plants that suit the person’s garden and their lifestyle. You can ‘upcycle’ a plant cheaply by buying the plant and a fancy pot separately, and repotting the plant.

* Give your time instead of a material object.
If you’re really skint or trying to avoid the materialism of Christmas, create certificates where you pledge particular tasks, eg washing the car, or two hours gardening, babysitting or housecleaning.

* Make up a hamper of deli goodies.
  Low-cost goods include jam, cashew nuts, shortbread and cold-pressed olive oil. If you’re in the US, you can get significant discounts on these items using coupons. You need to ensure that you don't buy goods containing ingredients to which the receiver may be allergic.

* Bake or cook small gifts.
 Slices of home made coconut ice or shortbread wrapped in cellophane and finished with colourful ribbon make great gifts for neighbours and work colleagues.

Frugalising other aspects of Christmas

* Make your own Christmas cards. A friend of my mum’s creates her own cards using simple watercolour floral designs that she paints on white card using watercolour paints. Using stencils to cut out designs is another great idea. Another option is to use rubber stamps, but you do need to take the cost of the ink into account.

* Cut down on food waste. Wastage of food is a huge issue at Christmas. The festive season is a time of giving and it’s very natural to want to be generous with food at this time. However, there’s no need to over-cater. It’s important to plan ahead and write a list before you shop for food for Christmas meals, but don’t rely entirely on your rational mind. Stay mindful and listen to your gut feeling, as it will tell you if you’re going overboard with the number of potatoes you’re buying for the roast, or if you really  need that extra packet of dipping crackers.

* Make your own Christmas decorations.
 Use odd pieces of wrapping paper, and cut them up into strips of equal size. create a loop with the first strip using sticky tape or glue, then link each strip in the ‘chain’. Hang the decoration from a mantelpiece or wall.

Until next time!

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