Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Reverse Competition of Christmas Spending?

I came across a blog post today that tickled me in so many ways that I decided, rather than comment, to continue the discussion here. MrsW over at Clinically Fed Up elaborated on the middle class malaise of a competition of minimalism when it comes to Christmas spend on the kids, and a competition for the handmade which may or may not link in with this minimalism. Of course, I'm summarising here and I do encourage you to read her post before you continue to read mine.

Well, as you can imagine, as someone who has blogged about the senseless consumerism which seems to gnaw at our very existence (though it wasn't meant as a criticism of purely Christmas spending), as someone who tries to include as many handmade items as I can, and as someone who's been rather struggling financially this year, you can imagine that MrsW's post whirled up a bit of sand in my slightly scattered head. It really got me thinking. Am I contributing to the pressure on parents to be picture perfect and have a handmade home? Is my attempt to cut down on spending decidedly middle class (a question I ask myself almost daily)? Can I afford to spend but decide not to because I'm stingy?

To be clear: I find the £50 limit on spend per child artificial. This year, we spent more. In spite of being broke. Last year and the year before it was less, but that was because Cubling was too young and had more toys than she could play with anyway and I truly didn't see the point. The £20 limit is just daft. I spend more than that on other people's kids. The inverse competition isn't something that I've come across, in fact, I've never discussed with even my best friends how much they spend on their child. However, I can relate to so many examples linked to the minimalism of spending.

This year in particular, I've been found to complain about the abundance of presents. Not just for the kids, but for us big kids too. We (Mr and Mrs Cartside) are in our late 30s, yet we are given presents by relatives and friends, who now also give an additional present to our daughter. I know that for some, this is a significant expense, and I'm not comfortable with this. On the other hand, being given presents undoubtably creates a pressure to give presents in return and it does get rather difficult finding a present for people who actually have all they need (or don't disclose what they do need and have not). It's no secret that I hate waste, and the thought of any present, regardless of value, not being used, makes me question what all this present giving is about.

I only need to take my father as a glowing example. Every single present I've given him since time immemorial has been unused. He's my dad and I can't seem to be able to come up with a single thing that he may appreciate. I've tried. Rarely, I've been successful. His own approach is that of monetary gifts, one that I don't particularly like but at least he's (brutally) honest and tells me he can't be bothered imagining what people may want and he really doesn't want any more tat even from other people.

On the other hand, there's the financial pressure that I am under at the moment. It's temporary, so it doesn't worry me the way it worries others. But I know plenty of people who've recently lost their jobs and who still may give presents. It isn't right. I don't want them to give presents, I do appreciate the gesture very much, but really, it's not necessary. We have all we've got and a visit, a phone call, some time together is the best gift there can be. There is also the sad fact that those who struggle the most will still spend to make Christmas special, and end up in debt. Serious debt I may add.

Add to that my very real concern about the temptation of quick buys in cheap shops, the consumer society we live in which produces stuff that is not needed on the expense of natural resources that are limited, I have come to the conclusion that I can only try and address this in some way. So, yes, my way has been to try and increase the proportion of handmade items. Handmade in the broadest sense. Of course MrsW is very right in saying that a) handmade is actually not necessarily cheaper, especially if you look at my favourite sport, knitting; that b) it takes a lot of time and it's not realistic to make a handmade only Christmas; and that c) most of us aren't talented enough to make it anything that someone may appreciate. I struggle with c), really, I love making things, but the only thing I'm reasonably good at is knitting. Which takes ages. I could never ever knit enough to make even the smallest of presents for those closest to me.

As to b) the time involved in making things - that is a very important point. As much as I do like to increase the proportion of handmade items, it doesn't work because I work. Simple as that. I work 4 days a week, sometimes evenings and weekends, I'm the cook in our family, I keep the house tidy (barely let me tell you) and I also help out at another household. There is only so much time in the day and more often than not, my energy just about suffices for a quickly scribbled blog post.

So why do I try? Well, it is about trying to somehow break the endless consumerism I'm surrounded by. If I knit a baby hat, I know that I gave it 2 full evenings of mine. But evenings where I was able to relax. It does make me appreciate the real value of things. Because, even though you can buy a knitted hat/cardigan etc in the shop for a fraction of the cost of yarn, nevermind the time, I also know that the shop hat is cheap because of exploitation, cheap labour, pollution, consumption of natural resources (yes it takes oil to make a baby hat). And I try to opt, where I can, not to buy, not to consume, not to create more stuff. And yes, I'm acutely aware that this attitude is decidedly middle class which makes me very uneasy a lot of the time.

I also want to make sure as of the year to come that anyone who wants to give us a present knows that we are happy if they chose not to. That we appreciate a very small token and are open to agree not to give presents. And as to the kids, well, it's a hard one. I love giving to kids, and so do others. But truth be told, my daughter plays little at home - she's either at the childminder or at her cousin's house, or we are out and about. She already has more toys than time to play with them, and when she plays she actually prefers to help me cook, to play with empty kitchen rolls and other random items. She is great at imagination - e. g. she'll play hairdresser without any toys, she just imagines soap, hair dryer and scissors. I really feel, as much as I hate to say it, that the £30 (I'm guessing) play house that she played with a few times and doesn't now touch, was money wasted.

Therefore, for birthdays and Christmasses to come, I hope our friends and relatives do not feel obliged to buy the latest pink toy for our daughter, or anything at all for us, the parents. And, radical as it may be, second hand is just fine when it comes to presents. The bottom line is that it's hard to tell what will be played with. I'm very happy to spend a lot of money on one item if this is something that will be cherished (which is why we bought a large item for this Christmas) but would rather do without the stuff that won't get played with. And for us - well, do we really need anything? Have we not got more than enough? This year, I've made some handmade presents, some knits, lots of biscuits. They will come in lieu of gifts to relatives who we feel have been burdened with our badly selected gifts in the past.

Surely, food is always appreciated. And if it's homemade, it doesn't have the "I didn't know what to get you so I bought you a box of biscuits" feel to it. I do pledge to do more of this next year. Not as a reverse competition (we will always be happy to spend a lot if it's an item that is appreciated and will be used lots), but as a way of getting the balance right. And not making people thank us for another useless item that we randomly selected for them.


Sally, Who's the Mummy said...

Fantastic post.

With toys, I think it gets easier as they get older - I now have a very good idea what Flea will play with. She's so imaginative that play figures, Playmobil sets, small cars, dinosaurs etc will always get lots of play. But in the early years we bought a lot that wasn't really played with - and I have tried to pass on as much as possible to friends and local charities.

I also only tend to buy Flea perhaps 2 or 3 presents each year. She doesn't need more than that and if they're chosen with care, she's happy, particularly as she gets gifts from her Dad, friends, relatives etc. But I know my parents think I'm 'mean" and insist on giving her a HUGE sack of toys, 95% of which won't ever really be played with. It depresses me - Christmas can be so wasteful in that respect.

I don't have the time or talent for handmade, but I do try and buy gifts that are either consumable (food) or which are experiences (a visit to a zoo, swimming classes, cookery school) where I can.

MrsW said...

This is so much better thought out than my typical splatter-rant :)

Most of my Christmas retail mistakes were made when my older 2 were young and I spent without thinking (or counting). Now they are older I tend towards useful, and they use technology, they use the whacky clothing and they use the gig tickets. None of which are cheap. Their gifts are far more useful and used than they ever were when they were at primary school, with a few exceptions (dare I mention the lovingly hand-made Barbie house I made? Pre-digital days so sadly no photos - not even one to scan).

I don't plan on making the same retail mistakes with No3 and I do find I spend less on my 4yo than I did on my 14yo 10 years ago. But even with all that "experience" behind me I can't do it on £50 - well I could if I had to but I don't have to and that's the bit I think we try to hide... that we don't have to.

I knitted for them when they were little, now I lose interest before I've finished - no matter how big and fat the wool and the needles :)

Slugs said...

Great post and thanks for the original link to mrs w's great post.

In many ways I see handmaking stuff as a way of gifting both me and the recipient. Cooking, knitting/crochetting & sewing are my passions. When I make something I am feeding my own creative desires in the process. Win win.

And I am def with you on spending money on good things rather than buying cheap. Much more worth it in the long run on so many levels

make do mum said...

Very interesting. I love getting handmade gifts, especially things for K, but I have a confidence crisis when making things for others.
Most of my family say exactly what they want - this makes shopping easier and less wasteful, but not much fun!

Metropolitan Mum said...

Great post. This is such a complex issue. I had a conversation with my husband this morning about how to teach our daughter the concept of delayed gratification rather than wanting and having everything right now.
Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas, I love making and also receiving presents. But everything within certain limits.

Frohe Weihnachten! xx D

TheMadHouse said...

Love this post.

I just think that over consumerism is rampant nowadays and we are trying to reduce that in ourselves and the boys.

I made make things for family and friends as we dont have the cash. We have made things with what we have, ie personalised stockings, jams, cakes etc

I try hard to give things that we would like to receive, but we dont set a limit on the boys pressies, but saying that all they have wanted this year has been a marble run and malteesers!!

cartside said...

Sally, I find it gets easier as they get older already. I'm sure this year we didn't buy anything that she won't play with. I also don't feel I'm particularly talented for handmade stuff, except for knitting. And maybe my baking will become decent soon. Still hoping for sewing inspiration ;)

MrsW - glad you liked my post, I really think your post touched so many important points and made me think a good few things through. No splatter rant at all! I really struggle with the middle class-ness of a greener lifestyle, crafting and back to nature attitude. As long as it remains a class issue, it's problematic, because it divides rather than unites people.

Slugs, oh yes, I find that it's a win win situation too. As long as I don't feel pressurised into crafting.

Make do Mum - I'm so with you. When I'm told what to get I feel it takes the whole point of the surprise away. If I go for the surprise, I often get a very honest answer (from my German family anyway, my Scottish family is far too polite to ever even hint that a present wouldn't be anything other than fabulous). A real conundrum.

MM - Frohe Weihnachten auch and Dich und Deine Familie! Baby's first Christmas, nichts ist besser!

TheMadHouse - there's so much great stuff you're making, really inspiring. My daughter also currently wants chocolates and presents from Santa. Easily pleased, long may it last!



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