Nov. 28, 2008—In a recent Kmart commercial, a man asks, "Didn't we just carve pumpkins?" as his wife happily rushes off to get a jump on her holiday shopping. The spot, which started airing before Halloween, makes light of the fact that enticements to holiday spending seem to start earlier each year. Retailers are scrambling to make the best of a sour economy, wooing consumers with glossy gift guides and promotions like layaway.
But if throwing away money on baubles, bags and gifts your loved ones don't need or already have is not giving you that same old jolt of joy this year, here are some alternatives to your typical holiday-induced shopping binge.
Do your part to help those who are hungry and needy. A 2007 Census survey reported 13 percent of Americans living in poverty, with blacks nearly double that at 24.7 percent. And that was before the current economic meltdown. While the change you drop in the Salvation Army bucket is appreciated, there are a number of other ways you can help those in need. There are several organizations that work to clothe, feed and house people who could use your help this year.
Through its network of 63,000 local charities, hunger-relief organization Feeding America assists 25 million people each year. The organization provides a food bank locator on its Web site to help donors and volunteers find food banks close to their homes. Toys for Tots, now in its 61st year, distributes toys to millions of needy children across the country each year.
In lieu of a monetary donation, you can volunteer at a youth center or retirement home, or with any organization that caters to an issue you're passionate about. And why not make it a family affair? Organize a volunteer outing with relatives to provide meals or winter essentials to those in need, or find a way for your children to deliver gifts to kids their age who are less fortunate than they are. It's a meaningful twist on the family gift swap.
Pay it forward. People dig into their pockets to help others at the tail end of the year, but the need does not disappear when the Christmas tree is thrown out and the ornaments are packed away. Many charitable groups see a sharp decline in donations after the holidays, and warm months can be lean times.
Groups like United Way raise much of their program funding during the holidays, then stretch those dollars throughout the year. Food pantry stocks dwindle in the summer months, and already-struggling families who turn to them have a bigger burden when kids are no longer in school receiving free or reduced-price meals.
So set aside some money, goods or time for spring or summer giving. You can even set a personal pledge—a small amount you'll set aside each month between now and, say, May, for a mid-year donation. Local charities and branches of national ones hold fundraising events near you throughout the year, and of course, donations are accepted year-round. If you want to donate time, Volunteer Match can find places for you to volunteer based on your skills and interests.
Pay down debt
America's holiday season is notoriously consumer-driven. The ads may change, but the theme is universal: "Buy this." The problem with the buy-now-pay-later culture is that we often don't have it later. The glut of spending on Black Friday and beyond merely adds to the credit-card debt many consumers carry. And with job market unstable, big credit card debt is even more dangerous. Because of the current economic crisis, many consumers have already opted for cash purchases rather than relying on credit.
But, if you're still willing to take the plastic route, don't just pay the minimum balance this month; give yourself a gift by paying down on the total amount of purchases made. You'll feel thankful come January. The Federal Reserve Board offers tips on choosing credit cards, and the FDIC has information on saving money when using them and finding help when you're overwhelmed by credit card debt.
The adage says it's the thought that counts, but getting someone exactly what they asked for can feel like more of an obligation than a meaningful gesture. This doesn't mean you should break out the glue sticks and glitter to make presents for your loved ones. It means finding cheaper and (ideally) more heartfelt alternatives.
Take the box of loose photos sitting in your grandmother's closet and arrange them in an album. Pay a visit to the irksome uncle everyone tries to avoid at family gatherings. Make sure the season is about more than wish lists.
You're probably tempted to pick up a little something for yourself after spending hours trudging through the mall for other people's gifts. But give it some time, and you may find that those black leather Nine West boots you've just gotta have aren't actually a necessity.
If you absolutely can't resist, wait until after the holidays when they'll likely be on sale. Knowing you paid less is always a good feeling, and January brings Black Friday-like deals without the 5 a.m. start time or frantic people shoving each other in the ribs to get at the last $8 blender.
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