Intended to be a time of celebration and connection, the holidays instead all too often turn into a battle against consumerism. While national surveys confirm we feel more put out than ever by the commercialization of the season, avoiding the more-is-better trap is not easy. It takes thought, determination and courage, say the experts, but for many of us it is well worth the effort.
The key is taking control of your holiday experience, says Scott W. Ventrella, president of Positive Dynamics in Ridgefield. "There's so much pressure on us. `I've got to buy so-and-so a gift' or `I've got to send hundreds of holiday cards or newsletters.' But we don't really have to. We have choices that we don't always see.
"No matter what holiday we celebrate this time of the year," he adds, "it's a time for appreciating our relationships and connecting with them beyond Facebook and Twitter."
Psychologist Nancy Millian of Danbury admits this less-is-more approach can be especially tricky when children, who equate gifts with the reason for the season, are involved. "Kids want everything," Millian says, "and they often have no sense of how much things cost and how other children may not have the things they take for granted."
Setting boundaries for children and teaching them what you value as a family, suggests Millian, is a good way to manage expectations. "Sponsoring a needy family in your area, while making it an activity for your whole family, can help children better understand the true meaning of the season."
In his own large, Italian-American family, Ventrella stopped the madness several years ago, telling his extended family that his gifts would be more reflective of his desire to really connect with them, the most important people in his life.
"I started thinking that everybody's got more stuff than they ever need, and I don't want to spend the holidays shopping and going crazy ticking things off a list," Ventrella says. "So we choose to have a different kind of holiday experience. We now adopt a family in need, or an endangered animal, in our family's name -- which is far more reflective of what we want from our holiday."
Ventrella invites people to think of their personal relationships as "falling into three categories -- platinum, gold and silver -- like the credit cards." It's a business analogy he uses in his book, Me, Inc., How to Master the Business of Being You.
"Like any business, including the business of you, you can't treat everybody like a platinum customer," Ventrella says. "You just don't have the capacity or resources to do that. You must focus on those customers, that is those friends and family members who are most important to you -- especially during the holidays.
"We get so caught up in the consumerism, buying the gifts -- and even the food -- neither of which should be the centerpiece of our celebrations," he adds. "The centerpiece really should be connecting with your loved ones."
In addition to taking a more conservative approach to gift-buying, Ventrella advises looking at family time the same way. "Don't overbook. Don't over-schedule. Free up your time for them and for yourself," he says. "Spend more time doing those things that really do nourish the soul, and feed your the spirit. It doesn't cost a thing."
Tips on Holiday Gifting
Trying to spend less in favor of a more meaningful holiday season inevitably leads us to this question: What do we give -- or not give -- to those who are a part of our everyday lives such as our co-workers, bosses, mail carriers, babysitters or cleaning persons?
For most of these personal service providers, says Gary Stein of The Concierge Group in Norwalk, a monetary gift (the amount of which is a personal choice determined by one's financial state and comfort level) is acceptable but not expected. Of course, a tray of homemade goodies or a handwritten note letting folks know you appreciate their service can mean just as much as cash, says Stein.
Stein favors organizing a class gift for teachers, gift cards for young people, and for the adult who has everything, a donation is his preferred way to go. Handling the inevitable unexpected gift requires only a gracious thank you. "No reciprocating required," he says, adding a thank-you note is always a nice touch.
Generally, Stein suggests avoiding workplace gift-giving, unless it's a small token "for your best work bud. Gifts can cause stress in that environment. You don't want anyone to ever feel obligated."
The exception is when it's the boss doing the giving. Handing employees a holiday bonus is never a bad idea. If a monetary gift isn't an option, Stein suggests finding another way to show employee appreciation. "Take everyone to a dinner at a nice restaurant, or bring in lunch for the team, taking an hour or so break away from desks or whatever is their regular working environment to socialize."
Crystal Engram, human resources director for Greater Bridgeport Transit, has found a great way to avoid holiday gift-giving anxiety in her workplace. As the company's Wellness Coordinator, Engram organizes an annual event called, "In the Spirit of Emotional Wellness" where employees offer personal notes of appreciation and acknowledgement to each other.
"It's free, healthy, voluntary, and our employees really enjoy it," Engram says. "Gifts come and go, but words stay with you forever."
Kathy Bertone, author of the new book, The Art of the Visit: Being the Perfect Host: Becoming the Perfect Guest, couldn't agree more. "If you remember this one thing, you will never go wrong in your gift selection: People want to believe that you put time, effort and thought into their gift," Bertone says. "Quoting Maya Angelou: `I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.'"
Start Saving Early
If having a budget and sticking to it is part one of smart holiday spending, saving ahead of time is a critical part two. And that means starting your savings strategy for next year right after the last eggnog is downed this year.
Budgets and spending goals are essential tools to avoid the lure of consumerism that surround us in the months preceding November and December, says Patricia Kane, director of Connecticut Wealth Management, which serves clients throughout Fairfield County.
"No need to be a Grinch," Kane says. "By budgeting your holiday expenses, you can diminish those emotional choices that not only wreck your holidays but your long-term spending goals as well."
Kane suggests writing down your family's goals for the season and referring to them often. Make sure they are SMART goals -- Specific, Measureable, Attainable Realistic, and within a designated Timeframe. "Then put money aside each month in a holiday savings account at the bank or credit union," Kane says. "By the time the holidays roll around, you'll have more money set aside for these expenses."