You’re Not Alone If You Can’t Afford Presents This Year

Every Christmas, Jeannie, a 63-year-old woman in Virginia in the USA, gives her four grown sons, three daughters-in-law, 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild the same present: cash. She typically spreads out a budget of $600 to $700 (£450-£520) across her many relatives, amounting to a little less than $40 (£30) per person. Jeannie, a former paralegal, and her 66-year-old husband are now retired, but it was she who taught me the oxymoronic term “retirement career” — work that is done when new income is needed to make ends meet. Before the pandemic, they supported themselves with a combination of social security income and part-time work for a small hospitality business; he did maintenance for a 15-room hotel, she served as the operations manager. This spring, they were both laid off, joining the 22 million Americans and 1.62 million British people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. 
“We are fortunate that we have our pensions to keep a roof over our head and food on the table, but there's no room for anything extra without that extra income,” Jeannie says. Instead of that small cash gift, spread out across the extended family, she’s planning to spend $35 (£26.41) total on secondhand clothes for her husband and youngest son.
The unique desperation that comes from being broke on Christmas is far from new, and after a year with millions of recorded job losses, more and more people are facing a modest holiday season. But 2020, among many other things, has been a year of difficult conversations — over social distancing comfort levels, over face masks, over election outcomes, over whether, when it comes down to it, you’d rather roast a chicken than a turkey. One silver lining of this exhausting, lean year, though, is that it may have opened the door for a much-needed conversation about the financial pressure we put on holiday gifting. “Because things are in a greater state of flux this year, there’s a lot more permission to have conversations” about holiday traditions, including gifting, says Amanda Clayman, a psychotherapist who specialises in financial counselling. 
Even before global devastation shrank millions of budgets, people were less interested in holiday giving than Christmas movies and online gift guides would suggest. A 2017 poll revealed that 43 percent of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they can afford on presents. In 2020, that number has almost certainly gone up.
“Zippo zero zilch,” says 51-year-old Nikki, when I ask for her holiday gifting plan this year. She went from making a “comfortable living” pre-pandemic to having a temporary job as a supermarket checker for $9/hour (£6.79). “My cat might get a singing toy fish but that's about it,” she says. “I have no idea how long it may take for everything to reopen in the spring and for vaccines to be administered. Gotta stay lean.”
Holiday-related stress is a notion that’s baked into our culture, from Ebenezer Scrooge dealing with what amounts to anxiety dreams on Christmas Eve to Mila Kunis having a booze-fuelled meltdown and grinding on a mall Santa in Bad Moms Christmas. Pop culture tells us that the sparkle and joy of the season is tamped down by family pressure, financial pressure, and pressure to perform picture-perfect holiday cheer, which can only be relieved when we embrace the “real meaning” of the holidays. Unfortunately, the fake meaning — with its long lists to Santa, big piles of boxes, and colourful wrapping paper — often feels a whole lot more important. And it costs a lot more to maintain. 
If you’re struggling to pay for the basic necessities, Clayman has six words of holiday gifting advice: “Don’t worry about it. At all.” Shelter, health, and safety are far more important than anything under the tree. Those things can feel hard to come by many years, but particularly in 2020. Between working multiple jobs and taking care of family, some people will have zero bandwidth to even think about presents this year; others may have a tiny budget for gifts, while some may have plenty of time, but no money to share. If you’re feeling the stress of this season, a helpful first step may be determining where you fall on this spectrum, and what you feel comfortable contributing — financially and emotionally — to the holidays this year.
Even if, intellectually, you know that you don’t have the budget for gifts this year, it may not feel so simple to just drop the idea of holiday giving altogether, so Clayman suggests we first attempt to acknowledge and reframe all that external and internal pressure. “Whenever there’s a change, human beings experience that as a form of stress,” she says. But instead of treating the feeling of stress as a problem to be solved, she advises we think of stress as a neon sign telling us to slow down and treat ourselves gently. “Stress is a feeling, and a feeling doesn’t need a solution. It just needs to exist,” she says.
An emotional reframe can add a bit of breathing room to all that holiday pressure, but your own zen attitude won’t necessarily get a tradition-obsessed mother-in-law or partner who’s begging for a Playstation 5 off your back, and that’s where The Conversation comes in. 
In a 2018 article for The Billfold, writer Marisa Bell-Metereau detailed her incremental approach to discussing an end to holiday gifts, which involved dropping hints about her preference for non-gifting until she finally spelled it right out to her family, friends, and coworkers. “You may be surprised at how many people are also feeling overwhelmed by stuff and how expensive the holidays can be, and they might welcome this kind of suggestion,” she writes. “Second, you don’t have to completely stop giving and receiving gifts; you can simply aim for less.”
Clayman suggests being open about your financial situation and the effect it will have on your holiday season with a few intimate confidantes who you know are willing to pick up the communication on the other side. That might look like setting a price limit on gifting, doing away with the practice completely, or other holiday reframes like where and when you gather to celebrate.
Amenda, a 26-year-old nurse in New York City, was pleasantly surprised by the reactions to her plans to swap store-bought gifts for homemade food items. “I’ve actually directly told a few of my friends that this holiday will be tight for me and to expect a nice dinner as opposed to actual gifts. They were all super understanding,” she says. 
The discussion approach won’t necessarily work for every person you celebrate with, however. “In some ways, it may be easier to take the harm-reduction approach and get some people a fancy-looking [but cheap] candle and be done with it,” says Clayman. Chances are, you already have a gut instinct for which people in your life fall into the categories of “open, honest conversation” or “something from the dollar store.” 
The consummate holiday advice, as we all know, is to focus on what’s meaningful about the season. It’s the theme of countless cheesy Hallmark movies for a reason: This time of year takes us deep into our emotions. Financial expert Ilyce Glink counsels that the gift of time, although it may look different this year, is a cost-free way to show someone you care. In 2020, that might look like offering to pick up groceries for a friend in quarantine, or setting up a socially distanced porch visit with an immunocompromised relative. For parents worried about disappointing children, meaningful might mean asking your kids to band together and decide on one “family gift” that everyone can enjoy. (For people with slightly more to give this year, she helpfully advises offering a contribution to someone’s student loan debt or rent payment, or buying a gas gift card for loved ones.)
There’s one more pressure that would also be nice for us to collectively drop: letting the onus fall on the people who have the least, to think of “creative” gift-giving solutions on top of their day-to-day struggle. Some of us have time to think of clever, cute gifts, and, chances are, the person who’s working multiple jobs isn’t one of them. To take a bit of that pressure off, here’s a few of my tried-and-true suggestions: homemade jams or vinegars; a long, hand-written letter; a drawing from your child; a print-out of a beloved photo; one fancy spice for a home cook; a pair of colourful socks. 
After one hell of a year, the “creative solution” to holiday pressure will be whatever works best for you. As Clayman puts it, “I wish we as a society could all go stand in the street and yell ‘I release all of you from obligation.’ Let’s release one another from everything that feels burdensome about the holidays” — this year, for sure, but also every year to come.

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