It’s that time of year when many people think about giving presents. As people of all income levels can attest, the gift thing can get a little over-the-top. How far have we come from the days when our grandparents would be excited to get an orange, a couple pieces of hard candy, or maybe a pair of shoes for Christmas? In this age of cheap mass-produced goods, material things quickly lose their appeal. More and more things pile up and we end up feeling overwhelmed with Stuff. The overproduction of goods today has converged with the ease of the World Wide Web, where basically anything anywhere can be bought with a few clicks. While it’s thrilling to have the world at our fingertips, it’s hard to find an object that seems exotic anymore. And of course, who wants to deal with the holiday hangover, when we realize after the party is over that we’ve spent too much?
I think the most priceless gifts these days are the ones that require our time, our energy, our expertise. A gift that comes from the heart — a poem, a love song, a letter that requires sharing one’s feelings — is rarer than jewelry. A gift that requires one’s effort — babysitting, taking over a monthly chore, or compiling an album of baby pictures — is more valuable than cashmere. And whatever skill you have, whether it’s graphic design, photography, or baking, I’m sure it’s appreciated by someone who has different talents. But with people being so busy these days, and the holiday crunch making schedules even tighter, how do we avoid converting worry about money into stress about time? As usual, the answer is planning ahead. Whether you are making a scrapbook, a sweater, or a mega-batch of Dutch hot chocolate, now is the time to start. Most people work better with deadlines, so find one for yourself (look up cut-off dates for the post office, your favorite photo processor, or the holiday party) and start working backwards. What can you do now that will lighten your load later?
For example, I have a daunting amount of photos to go through to make my annual Christmas photo book gift. That to-do list item never gets crossed off but just moves from one list to another. It’s just too big. I should have known to divide the task into smaller, very specific ones to help myself get it done. For example, I could say, “Delete blurry, useless, and extraneous photos from January, 2013.” Like purging before packing for a move, this pre-work makes the real job go much faster and easier. Also it helps to give myself time limits. Who has a three-hour block of free time? Instead almost everyone has 15 minutes a day to spare. So I set a kitchen timer, and do as much as I can in that window. The concentrated time forces me to stay focused and get something done (especially if I turn off email). See more ideas on keeping the holidays sane in this recent interview with the Sacramento Bee: Personal Finance: A cure for the holiday hangover is keeping your spending under control.
And here are some more ideas that I’ve written about over the years:
I know you’re busy with Thanksgiving and the general merriment of the season, but when you get a chance, I’d love to hear about unconventional gifts that you’ve loved.