While our family has gradually been leaning toward simplicity over consumerism, this was our first attempt at a true Buy Nothing Christmas. Every year we watch films and read stories about families embracing a more simple approach to Christmas – like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s about time we did the same. I collaborated with the BBC in doing this challenge, and they did a fantastic job of documenting some of my ideas.
But now I guess you’re wondering how we actually did. How did we manage to celebrate without the stress and spending typical of the holiday season? (I’ll be honest, it wasn’t completely stress-free!) Here’s some things I learned from the process.
Maintain Frugal Traditions
There’s more expenses to the holiday season than just gifts. One friend mentioned that their family goes to a Christmas tree farm every year and picks out a tree – a tree that they know is overpriced. Why not (gasp!) change some of your traditions if they are unnecessarily expensive? For instance, purchase an artificial tree at an after Christmas sale now and never worry about the Christmas tree farm again? Or buy a small house-plant sized pine tree instead? (That’s what I did when Josh and I lived in a small apartment on our first Christmas together.)
One of my favorite frugal traditions is a free event on St. Charles Main Street with carolers and decorations and costumed characters. My kids loved the parade this year, and it was fun to see the looks on their faces. We spent nothing and we still had a great time. Driving around and looking at Christmas lights after dark is another great free (except for the cost of gas) tradition some families I know like to do.
The bottom line is that it helps to consider cost when deciding which traditions to do every single year. This year we cut out a few activities that were just “busy stuff” and enjoyed a little more downtime. Other things, like driving out to see certain light displays, we might do every other year rather than annually.
Plan Christmas Morning
I think it’s important to have a game plan for what would normally be “gift time” if you choose to not do gifts. Maybe a special breakfast, a Christmas movie, having family over, doing a caroling sing-a-long, visiting the elderly, going to a church service, or volunteering somewhere. There’s a lot more to do on Christmas morning than just opening presents!
Since this Christmas was on a Sunday, our family did our Sunday routine of walking to church and worshiping together – Josh and I volunteered in the nursery and got to play with a bunch of cute kids. What a great way to start the day! We had a brunch and saw family afterward. I know every year will be different, but it worked out well to have somewhere to go this year, where the focus wasn’t on presents.
Be Frugal, Not Stingy
Don’t ask for gifts when you aren’t giving anything. The idea is for simplicity all around, not just coming out “ahead.”
We actually did have some gifts under our tree this year. Many of them were silly gifts we found around the house for White Elephant gift exchange parties. We didn’t spend anything on these, as part of the idea (among our group of friends anyway) is to have fun and do something unconventional. We gave some old VHS tapes and CDs we no longer listen to, a pair of adult-sized foot pajamas someone brought to one of my clothing swaps, and an unused gift card to a coffee shop.
Ahem, this may be taboo, but I also re-gifted a couple of things once gift exchanges and parties started happening. While we had several White Elephant parties to attend, we didn’t have to come up with new gifts for every party if we re-gifted what we won from the last party. As a minimalist, there’s very few things I win at White Elephant parties that I actually feel inclined to keep (except alcohol, I won a couple nice drinkable gifts and kept them! Minimalists generally dig consumable gifts.)
For our families, we did a variety of homemade things. I made lip balm (this recipe) and some potted plants that I grew from offshoots of my houseplants in recycled jars. It cost nothing but there was a lot of love and thought that went into that.
I crocheted hats for my nephews, and I think they turned out pretty cute!
I printed a family photo for Josh’s mother – it was something she had asked for. I had a coupon so all I paid was shipping, and I already had a frame to put it in.
We did spend a little money on our Secret Santa exchange with Josh’s siblings. Josh and I each had one sibling to get a gift for. They both asked for books. Fortunately, one of the ones that was asked for we already had! We bought the other books used, which cost about $25 including shipping – (and we had some Amazon credit to use, so the cost to us was less!)
Josh and I bought nothing for each other. We gave our sons a couple of hand-me-down toys from Josh’s childhood, which they are really enjoying playing with.
The Stress of Not Buying
I’ll admit that there were a few times I felt stressed about how to come up with decent gifts without buying anything. Yes, it’s not the same stress as dealing with crowds and lines at stores, but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone in spite of our commitment this year.
Thinking outside of the box and coming up with a game plan was helpful in reducing my anxiety. At the beginning of the challenge I made a list of everyone I wanted to give a gift to, and ideas that could be made with things we already had.
The week before Christmas we were stuck at the house due to an ice storm so we had the chance to create art and notes to give to our family members. It was fun and the kids loved it!
The Savings of Not Buying
I don’t know exactly how much we saved by foregoing gifts, because I don’t know what we would have bought. If the average American spends over $700 on Christmas gifts, it’s nice to think that we saved that much. Truth is, we probably only spent about $200 at the most on gifts in the past. That’s still significant savings!
I do know that we were able to donate our money and our time to several families and causes this season, and that we wouldn’t have had as much time or money to spare if we had been buying gifts. It made it all worthwhile…in fact I wished I had more to give away. Why buy myself or my spouse an unnessesary trinket when that same amount can go toward someone’s actual needs? I simply can’t justify it.
All in all, I’m proud of how relatively easy this challenge was, and how gracious our families were in supporting our efforts. While I did have to plan ahead to pull together a few gifts without making purchases, it was nice not to step foot in a store. (We still went to the grocery store, and that was hectic enough.) It’s liberating to know that Christmas is what you make of it. You have a say in how much you spend on yourself and your family. Resist the pressure of consumer culture – especially as we celebrate the birth of a savior who laid down his heavenly riches for a humble stable. Take charge of this season and don’t be afraid to make it your own.