It’s the season of gleeful excess. We eat too much, grazing from work party to family function, stuffing our faces even as we bemoan our gluttony of the night before. We spend too much: The average consumer will drop $1,048 on holiday gifts and decorations in 2019, the National Retail Federation says. Nearly a quarter of Americans are still paying off last year’s yuletide debts, according to a Credit Karma survey. Perhaps worst of all, we waste too much. Americans produce about 25 percent more garbage than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day — an additional 6 million tons of festive detritus.
The frenetic pace of modern merriment risks pushing our budgets and the planet to the brink — not to mention our nerves. A Marist/PBS NewsHour poll found that 38 percent of adults find the holidays more stressful than fun. Far from making spirits bright, that’s a lot of burned-out bulbs on the proverbial Christmas tree.
Maybe it’s time we rein in the reindeer games and focus on the simpler joys of the season. Here are some tips to spend less, stress less, and waste less so you can make merry — and not worry — this holiday season.
1. Make a list.
There’s a reason Santa makes a list and checks it twice — it’s the single best way to ensure you don’t buy more than you need or spin your wheels doing it. “Make a list including who you are shopping for, what you’re getting, and what your budget is for each person to avoid ‘shopping creep,’” says Christine Koh, editor of BostonMamas.com and coauthor of Minimalist Parenting.
Keep that list with you, whether on paper or on your phone, and check off names as you go, says personal finance writer Donna Freedman. That ounce of organization will prevent the stress and added cost of a desperate run to CVS en route to a holiday party. “You won’t end up with extra gifts that way, or have to run out at the last minute because you forgot Uncle Fred,” she says.
2. Brainstorm go-to gifts.
Come up with one simple gift idea you can replicate but easily personalize. “People spend way too much time shopping for the perfect gift, often to come up short in the end,” says Holly Johnson, who blogs at clubthrifty.com. For example, Koh gives a trio of gourmet chocolate bars to her husband and two daughters. “I’ll choose one company so the packaging looks the same, but choose a flavor I know each of them will specifically love,” she says.
3. Go for goodies.
Speaking of food, most people won’t turn up their noses at a box of cannolis or sufganiyot fresh from the bakery. Permission to indulge is something of a gift in itself. Gourmet pastries, local craft beers, cannabis flower (hey, it’s legal now), or high-end coffee are all quick and easy wins that will delight recipients and mostly stay out of the landfill.
4. Make or bake presents.
If you’re at all crafty, pick one handmade project and bang out a bunch, making a different version or flavor for everyone on your list. For example, it’s relatively easy to make a batch of olive oil infused with rosemary, basil, or other herbs in glass jars. It’s a low-cost, easily customized, waste-free gift (that ties into the history of Hanukkah to boot). Giving homemade goods won’t just save you money; even if they’re imperfect, they inherently hold some added allure in our fast-paced, mass-produced society. “Anything you make yourself can come off as incredibly thoughtful,” Johnson says. “I recently dried the leftover basil in my garden and put it in decorative jars for holiday gifts this year.”
5. Give memories, not things.
A core tenet to remember in the age of abundance is that giving people stuff often equates to foisting more clutter into their lives. “Most of the adults in your life probably have things they want already, so unless you’re shopping for something they need, you may just be burdening them with more junk,” Johnson says.
Study after study has shown that extra possessions don’t bring us joy, adds Brett Chamberlin, director of community engagement at The Story of Stuff Project. “Happiness comes from being grateful for the things we have, from developing meaningful relationships, from having positive life experiences, and from a sense of purpose,” he says. Plus, every pound of stuff we buy is accompanied by nearly a hundred pounds of upstream waste we never see, Chamberlin says.
Whether it’s tickets to a concert or a trip to the massage therapist, experiences can leave a mark on our memory without leaving a trail of plastic debris. My mother-in-law in New York is a generous sort, and as such we usually find ourselves unwrapping half the Kohl’s checkout aisle at Christmas. But when we suggested cutting down on stuff this year, she embraced the idea, buying the whole family tickets to see the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes instead. (Local options include the Holiday Pops, various versions of The Nutcracker, and Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, not to mention community theater productions of A Christmas Carol and other classics.)
In a heavily service-based economy, experiential gifts keep money close to home, creating jobs in and around the venue instead of in a far-off factory. And in our hectic lives, time spent in the company of people we love is often the rarest commodity of all. Someone in your life would probably consider an hour of your full attention the most valuable gift you could give them.
6. Give knowledge.
Adult education centers in Boston, Cambridge, and other communities offer classes that range from baking to blogging, while specialty retailers offer workshops in everything from knitting to rock climbing. Put your loved one on the path to learning a foreign language, a musical instrument, or new culinary skills.
A digital subscription to a newspaper or premium music streaming service can feed one’s mind or spirit all year long, as can an annual membership to the New England Aquarium, Museum of Science, National Public Radio, The Trustees of Reservations, or another local nonprofit. As a bonus, these are all gifts you can purchase online minutes before company arrives.
7. Resurrect a relic.
Whether it’s a broken bracelet or a rusty electric guitar, many of us have once-prized possessions wasting away in attics or basements in some state of storage limbo. Does your partner have a favorite sweatshirt that’s too beat up to wear but too beloved to toss? Heirloom jewelry that needs a little shine? Smuggle it out of the house and take it to a professional to be restored to useful condition.
8. Give time off.
Offer to baby-sit — which costs nothing but your time — or purchase a house cleaning session. Depending on your partner’s job situation, you could even try to arrange a surprise day off. Remember the pure elation you felt as a kid when school was canceled for snow? It won’t always work, but you can try reaching out to their direct manager, suggests Joyce Maroney, executive director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos in Lowell. “It’s the manager who knows how to arrange and approve time off and certainly should be in a position to clear the person’s calendar,” she says.
9. Give sustainably.
The presents you give can take on a life of their own, and either save or squander natural resources and your loved one’s money. If a gift requires batteries, for example, include a set of rechargeable ones, and you’ll save them money and hassle for years to come. Give someone a single-serve coffee maker, for instance, and you’ve condemned that person to paying at least twice as much for coffee grounds in thousands of single-use plastic pods — the bulk of which are still not recyclable. (A reusable K-Cup filter can alleviate this, but only if he or she uses it.) A SodaStream or similar device, meanwhile, lets its user save money making seltzer or flavored soda at home, reusing the same bottles over and over again.
10. Get creative with cash.
Cash can feel like a cop-out, but it’s an easy, can’t-miss gift — and an online search for “money origami” can make it more interesting, too. “Rather than give a niece or nephew $10 or $20, give 10 or 20 individual works of art,” Freedman says, by folding bills into swans, dogs, butterflies, hats, dresses, elephants, hearts, roses, and other creations.
11. Rethink your wrapping.
Wrapping paper isn’t just expensive, most of it isn’t recyclable, either — though that doesn’t stop aspirational attempts to toss it in the blue bin. “Wrapping paper is endemic of a larger problem with our recycling,” says Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “Yeah, it’s paper, but it has a coating on it that makes it non-recyclable.”
For a cheap, easy, and 100 percent recyclable alternative, use the Sunday funnies instead of wrapping paper, Freedman says. Last year, we did just that, wrapping all of our gifts in newsprint. (It also served as a not-so-subtle attempt to advocate for the Fourth Estate and this writer’s livelihood.) If brown paper packages tied up with string are among your favorite things, repurpose some clean grocery bags or pick up a roll of recycled packing paper.
Gift bags are a convenient timesaving hack, but they can also save considerable money and waste if you reuse them. “We have some holiday gift bags that have been in rotation, no joke, since my oldest was a baby — which was 15 years ago!” Koh says. Or try the simple, elegant Japanese technique called furoshiki to wrap a gift in fabric, such as a tea towel or scarf, which can become part of the gift.
Finally, as any parent knows, younger children really enjoy containers. One year, Pecci packed the clothes and perfume she bought for her niece in a cheap vintage suitcase from an antiques store. “It was cool, an old beat-up bag . . . and that’s how I wrapped it, I put it all in the suitcase,” Pecci says. Her niece was able to keep special items in it, stashed under the bed. “I think it was the part of the present she enjoyed the most.”
12. Recruit co-hosts.
Preparing a holiday feast isn’t just time-consuming, it can cost upward of $250. The surest way to relieve some of that burden is to delegate a few side dishes to guests. “Instead of paying for the entire extended family get-together yourself, let it be known that you’ll provide a turkey or ham or whatever, but that you expect others to bring the sides,” Freedman says. Ask folks who struggle in the kitchen to chip in with a bottle of wine or a bakery dessert.
13. Leverage leftovers.
Save and freeze some portioned leftovers for easy meals in the weeks ahead. My favorite way to save holiday leftovers is a Thanksgiving version of shepherd’s pie: Layer a pie plate or casserole dish with turkey, stuffing, veggies, and gravy, and top it all with mashed potatoes.
Pecci doesn’t let holiday guests leave empty-handed. “I aggressively hand out leftovers. I ask them to bring their own containers so I can make sure we’re only left with the food here we’re going to actually eat. Because after all that work . . . I don’t want it to get wasted.” Since food scraps constitute 20 to 25 percent of municipal waste, she says, anything left should go in the compost bin.
14. Decorate from nature.
Put down that cheap plastic garland and either invest in good-quality, timeless decorations you’ll use year after year, or gather some free and elegant natural items, such as pine cones and evergreen clippings. “Depending on where you live, there’s nothing wrong with going into the backyard to look for broken branches or trimming a tree back there,” Pecci says. “I think some of the most beautiful decorations are natural things like berries and popcorn chains, but there are lots of decorations we’ve had for decades. If you avoid the plastic and purchase something you’re going to keep and care about, that’s good, too.”
Rescuing an artificial Christmas tree from a family member’s scrap heap or a secondhand store will save you money in the coming seasons and keep it out of the landfill for a few more years. But you can feel good about buying a real tree, too. Christmas trees are basically crops, and by supporting a local tree farm — there are dozens throughout Massachusetts — you’ll help keep it in business, so it can plant more carbon-eating trees that provide a habitat for wildlife. Just make sure your real tree doesn’t unnecessarily end up in a landfill. Many communities — including Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Quincy, and Somerville — pick up bare trees curbside in early January to be mulched.
15. Set expectations.
There’s a reason “reduce” comes first in the reduce-reuse-recycle hierarchy: Whether it’s money, time, or the environment, the most effective way to conserve a resource is not using it in the first place. So if you’d like to dial things down a notch this holiday season, make it known early that you’re trying to scale back, and why. You might face some pushback from family members, but remember that you’re allowed to set limits. “Be honest and firm,” Johnson says. “Family members and friends shouldn’t be pressuring you into spending money you don’t have or can’t afford to spend each year.”
Freedman says she likes the “four-gift rule” for kids: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read,” she says. “But this also works for adults if you’re married or in a partnership — especially if spending intentionally will help the two of you reach a goal, such as paying down student loans or saving up for a home of your own.” You can also suggest sticking to a fun theme (like “yard sale treasures” or “regifting gala”) or donating to toy drives or other charities in each other’s names.
When trying to persuade family members to tweak tradition, Chamberlin suggests people “call in, not call out.” So rather than focusing on how you want to stop overspending or swapping plastic, make the conversation about the behavior you’d like to encourage, he says — like the value of simple family gatherings or experience gifts that can be enjoyed together. “This positive framing celebrates the underlying relationship and expression of love, rather than critiquing someone for participating in widely held cultural traditions of gifting.”
All that said, it’s hard not to get carried away during the holidays. Our consumer culture doesn’t make it easy to spend or use less, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you cave in to the chaos. “Try to limit wasteful spending if you can, but don’t feel bad if you splurge some for experiences or traditions your kids actually love,” Johnson says. After all, sustainability goes both ways — and it’s the joy of treasured traditions that will sustain us through the long winter ahead.