Gift-giving season is here again, and once more I sit down at the computer to compose a holiday message about staying ahead of clutter when giving gifts. This time last year, I offered my first gift-giving guide focused on how not to contribute to the clutter of your loved ones. I stand by those suggestions, and I invite you to read the article online if you missed it in 2007.
This year’s recession news is a surprising silent partner in my campaign against clutter. It’s a lot easier to sell the idea of clutter-conscious gift giving when so many of us are feeling the pinch of an economy in turmoil. But although I’m grateful for any help I can get in raising clutter consciousness, I don’t want to push people to change just because they feel panicky about money. Conscientious giving shouldn’t have to be a painful discipline to regain control—an unreasonable fiscal “diet.” (Some of us know too well that diets fail unless they’re sensible and sustainable.) Clutter-conscious giving needs to become a mindset, a philosophy, a way of looking at life that reprioritizes what’s most important, in the flush times and the lean years.
Every good organizer will tell you that life is not about stuff. The real substance of life is whatever you’re passionate about—your family, your career, your hobby, your sport, your recreation, your spirituality, your friends—in whatever form those passions take for you. Sure, some stuff is required to function and live, but it’s not the stuff that generates the joy in your life.
Yet much of our gift-giving tradition is focused on giving material, physical symbols of the emotional attachment you feel to people in your life. The purpose of the gift is to express a sentiment, to say “You’re an important part of my life,” or “You helped me during the year, and I’m grateful,” or “You’re a valuable customer, and we appreciate your business.”
In this year, when spending a lot of money seems imprudent, why not break with the stuff tradition and express your emotions in a different way? Toward that end, I want to take a look at some more creative non-stuff-generating ways of giving gifts this year.
Let’s start with effort. Consider giving away the fruits of your labor. As a perfect example, I’ll start by confessing that I’m a horrible cook—the kitchen is not my area of expertise. When I’m offered the opportunity to eat someone else’s home-cooked meals, I jump on it! I have many friends who take delight in cooking, and I’m often a happy beneficiary of their talents. For me, it would be a real treat to receive a homemade meal as a gift. How about some soup to put in the freezer, some homemade muffins, gazpacho, or meat sauce for pasta?
While my mother was here for a visit last year, I was sick for a few days, and she cooked up a great big pot roast with potatoes and carrots. I ate it for days after she went home, and every bite reminded me of the love and concern that went into its preparation.
Think about a talent you happily indulge, and give the results of your art or craft or other enjoyable work as a gift this year. Almost anything you enjoy doing can be turned into a wonderful gift to those who don’t enjoy doing it.
Next on our alternative gift idea list: time. You probably have at least a little to spare, especially if you’re cutting back on holiday shopping, right? One idea is to offer your time in support of someone else’s charitable project, or in their honor. You’ve probably given money to a charity in someone’s name, but this year, what about volunteering your time at someone’s favorite charity instead? Spend two hours furthering the charitable purpose, and send a card to tell the recipient about having given this gift of yourself. You don’t necessarily have to do the work during the holiday season—commit to helping out in January when charities face a tougher time recruiting volunteers.
For friends closer to home, offer your time directly as a gift. Promise to spend a day in the spring helping to clean out your friend’s garage, plant a garden, or clear clutter from the closet. Maybe you can babysit a few nights, or give away rides to and from the airport. For any way you can imagine providing help and support to a friend, offer them that for the holidays! A holiday gift for future delivery will be a great treat for any busy adult with a crazy schedule. And a prearranged promise of time makes it easier to ask for help when your loved one needs it. You can make your gift of time tangible by simply writing a personal note inside a holiday greeting card, or get creative and design your own “gift certificate” with your computer and printer.
You can also give the gift of your attention. We all have busy schedules these days, and we don’t always make as much time for our friends as we could. Call someone on your gift list, and if she’s not free to talk right then, make a firm “appointment” to call back at a time that’s good for both of you—and then listen with everything you’ve got! Make plans to see someone during the holidays and give him the gift of your attention. Think about people you’ve missed lately, and meet for dinner or drinks. The venue and the price tag aren’t nearly as important as the precious gift of your companionship. If you have the means, pick up the tab with a cheerful “happy holidays” (or another appropriate wish, of course) at the end of an evening of reminiscing and catching up, and your friend will feel gifted indeed!
The bonus of these gift-giving alternatives: the guarantee that you’re creating no future clutter for anyone! The recipients will think of you fondly instead of staring at the gift wondering, “Where am I going to keep this?” And you’ll enjoy the impact these ideas have on your holiday budget. Try them, and see if you can’t start a new holiday tradition this year that supports your pocketbook, aligns with a clutter-conquering philosophy, and keep you mindful of what’s most important in your life—the love you give and receive.
This article was featured in our December 2008 e-mail newsletter. To subscribe to our newsletter, please use the “Subscribe” form, above right.