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Now you may think I don’t have a dog in this hunt. Jewish gift giving is a fairly recent phenomenon. Then again, there are plenty of Jews who have put up Chanukah trees, too, and talk about Santa Claus coming to town. But I digress.
In my childhood family, gift-giving at Chanukah was very modest. The two years I remember most—one, I received a beautiful knit blouse with large pearl-like buttons. I wore it for years until it fell apart (or maybe I grew out of it). The other nights of Chanukah I received candy, a hairbrush, and other inexpensive treats. Another year my parents bought my brother and me a gift to share: a second-hand bicycle with training wheels. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. It never occurred to my parents to go into debt for gifts.
In these days, however, the rising credit card debt is worse than ever. Even with the recovering economy, people treat credit cards as cash. A Nerd Wallet study not only reported alarming credit card usage but compared this year’s results to last year’s, reporting that shoppers plan to:
Spend more. Holiday shoppers plan to spend $776 this holiday season, on average — $116 more than they planned to spend last year.
Charge more. Nearly three-fourths (73%) of shoppers plan to use a credit card this holiday season to pay for gifts, compared with 58% last year. And this year, those using a card estimate that they’ll charge $650, on average.
Take longer to pay it off. Holiday credit card users anticipate it will take them 3.2 months to pay off their holiday charges this year, on average. Those who used a credit card for their 2017 holiday shopping say it took 2.3 months, on average, to pay off those balances.
Some 2017 shoppers are still working on last year’s debt. About 39.4 million Americans are still paying off credit card balances amassed over the 2017 holiday season, according to NerdWallet’s analysis.
These results are concerning for a number of reasons. The obvious one is the crippling effect of debt on individuals and on the economy. If people are trying to pay off credit card debt, they are probably paying interest and fees to do so, so that charging that money has a high penalty for them to pay. But the reasons I find this debt especially disturbing is because of the cultural messages we see:
Our children expect to get gifts at Christmas. I understand that some families catch up with needed clothing and equipment, but parents could plan throughout the year to simply save up for what their kids need. If their budgets are very restricted, then make modest gift-buying plans.
We are reinforcing the sense of entitlement: It’s Christmas (or Chanukah) and you owe me gifts.
We overspend. Parents might complain that their kids want what the other kids are getting. So what? Are parents afraid they will be hated, be seen as “mean parents” because they can’t afford the gifts? Are parents embarrassed because they can’t keep up with the Joneses? Are they concerned with what other children will say to their kids or what their own adult friends will think of them?
We teach our kids that debt is normal. This factor is a big one because it discounts the importance of delayed gratification, saving, moderation, and coping with disappointment.
I could add more reasons for the problems with overspending, but I’d rather focus on alternatives.
Teach your kids about donating and volunteerism. Don’t just do these activities at holiday time, but all year round.
Show them a simple version of budgeting money. Make a game of their being an entrepreneur, selling products and services, and what the net result would be.
Create gifts with each other. If you like to knit, make slippers. If one family member is craftsy, ask him to make potholders. If one is an artist, use crayons or colored pens. If someone likes to write, suggest they write a story. Sometimes people think kids grow out of these activities. This kid made coupon books for cooking special meals, washing cars, shoulder rubs, and extra hugs–as an adult.
Talk about the story of your tradition. Relate that story to everyday life values: generosity, miracles, relationships, and simple gift giving.
If you are already doing these things, talk to your friends and neighbors. Let’s spread this cultural change, one person at a time when our hearts tend to be more open and our minds are receptive to new ideas.