Update September 2020: It’s been over ten years since I first braved this subject, expecting a snowstorm of protest. Instead, year after year more join in, like Julia who tweeted me, “@MartinSLewis, finally took your advice and told my family I can’t afford Christmas presents. What a weight off my mind. Thank you.”
One year even the Archbishop of Canterbury supported this stance on my TV show. So why not speak to family and friends, or send them a link to this blog and say you agree? Then stop sending gifts, and do a pre-Nupp or Secret Santa. If you feel an urge to splurge on tat, buy a charity gift instead.
It’s time for warm feelings, cotton socks and boundless joy – the festive season is approaching. Great swathes of shoppers will hit the nation’s high streets and e-tailers, gathering knick-knacks to gift to loved ones, friends and colleagues.
The Martin Lewis Money Show, filmed 5 September 2018, video courtesy of ITV.
Yet I think it’s time to launch a manifesto to ban many Christmas presents. While it may seem curmudgeonly to prick this surface-level joy, this year, in the midst of the financial crisis, too many perceive the season of goodwill’s main purpose is a retail festival.
While I suspect the church isn’t boogying in the vestries about Christmas commerciality either, my argument isn’t a religious one: it’s about the money moral dilemma Christmas, or Hannukah and Eid for that matter, raise.
My targets aren’t the parcels from parents or grandparents that sit under the spruces, it’s more the ever-widening circle of present buying people feel a need to fulfil. Let me set out my stall …
- We’ve disconnected from why we give gifts. The expectation of presents isn’t culturally exclusive to the West, anthropologists refer to it as ‘ceremonial gift exchange’. Most common are gifts upon marriage or coming-of-age ceremonies and indeed, to my logic, this makes social and financial sense, as in effect it’s a form of prudent banking. For example, when someone is young and starting out in married life, others give cash or gifts to them as a start-up fund, which is a net inflow of goods. As people age and tend to get more financially stable, they then give gifts to newlyweds, effectively paying the system back. Yet Christmas gift-giving outside the immediate family doesn’t work that way; rather than focusing cash where it’s used, we simply swap presents, so there’s no net movement of funds or goods.
- It creates an unfair obligation on others. At this point, many fervent gift givers will be spluttering over their wrapping paper. Their counter-argument, of course, is the pure joy of giving gifts; many thrive on this, and it can be hugely pleasurable. Yet it’s important to think about the people getting the goodies. Generosity could actually be hurting the recipients, not helping. By giving a gift to someone, or their children, you create an obligation on them to do the same, whether they can afford to do so or not. If that obligation is something they will struggle to fulfil, then you’re actually letting them down.
- It mis-prioritises our finances. Christmas gifts are often a ‘zero-sum’ game, where often people just give gifts of similar values to each other. It’s worth examining what this means in a dispassionate practical sense:
Sharon gives a £20 necklace to Violet.
Violet gives £20 earrings to Sharon.
If we examine the net result then, in fact….
Sharon has spent £20 to get earrings.
Violet has spent £20 to get a necklace.
Yet the problem here is Sharon’s loaded and Violet’s skint. Without the gift-giving obligation, would Violet have really chosen to spend her hard-earned £20 for a necklace?
Instead, perhaps she’d have bought food for her children, paid some bills, or put the money towards replacing worn out shoes.
In other words, Violet’s financial priorities have been skewed because of gift-swapping. She would’ve been better off if they had agreed not to give in the first place.
- We give gifts that aren’t ever used. Whether it’s a naff pair of socks from Aunty Joan or novelty mechanical breasts from your workmates, unused gifts are sent all the time to fulfil seasonal obligations. We’re spending money on unneeded, unwanted and unused goods; that’s not good for our finances, and doesn’t help the environment, as it just clogs up landfills.Yet there’s a stigma to suggesting not giving, and it’s not an easy subject to broach. To try to help, we built the ‘No Unnecessary Present Pact’ tool, which generates a nice email saying “I won’t buy a gift if you won’t”, or alternatively suggests a spending limit. Using an automated tool is deliberate, the recipient feels this is part of a wide spread philosophy, and not just you being tight.
- Children aren’t born retail snobs. While my concern isn’t really about parents giving their kids gifts, it’s still worth examining the message that can send out. Aren’t we teaching them to overly assign happiness to material acquisition, and adding weight to advertisers’ campaigns that it’s all about getting the latest toys. Children aren’t born with the retail snobbery gene. While filming for GMTV recently about Christmas MoneySaving, we had two super cute wee children help by pretending to be overjoyed about getting gifts. They knew the boxes were empty, but were still desperate to open them once the camera stopped. Surprisingly, when they did, their bright eyes were undimmed as they spent ages playing trains in the cardboard boxes… they don’t judge the quality of the gifts by the price paid, so why do we judge our generosity to them by it?
- ‘Inflationary giving’ – a bad message for our children. Unfortunately, school-age children do quickly become competitive, comparing who got what. By buying big gifts, you create pressure on other parents who, especially in these times, mightn’t be able to afford to compete. This has created an explosion of gift-inflation, especially for older kids’ birthday or Bar Mitzvah parties, with parents competing to throw the best bash, leaving children of even well-off families struggling. Sitting at a coffee shop recently, I overheard a 16-year-old trying to persuade her aunt to intercede with her parents so she could have a birthday limo trip around London, then out for dinner and an expensive nightclub with all of her friends. When asked why, she named the other girls who’d done it, and that she’d look “stupid” if she didn’t do the same.
Add it all together – and I know there’s one word for this logic – Scrooge. Yet my aim isn’t to stop festive fun, but to challenge the blithe and habitual nature of gift giving. Many see it as a chore, a thing on the list to tick off. Is that really the point, does that help our pockets or our souls?
Spending time, physically making things others appreciate, or even just being more considerate is perhaps more in keeping with the real spirit of the winter festivals.
Done right, gifts can create real warmth, but it’s time to realise that, done wrong, it can hurt more than it helps. Perhaps the real gift is to release someone from the obligation of buying you a present?