In his bestselling new book Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance paints a vivid picture of the Appalachian culture he grew up in, including its attitudes toward earning and spending. While recounting an unpredictable childhood marked by broken marriages, violence, and addictions among the adults who were supposed to be caring for him, he singles out the custom of free-spending, debt-incurring Christmas shopping as one of his community’s least-defensible traditions. Sporadic employment and reliance on anticipated income-tax refunds that didn’t always come through tinged the year-end shopping spree with a distinct sense of anxiety.
Unfortunately, the desire for a “nice Christmas” defined by the price, size, and status of gifts piled beneath the tree is not limited to those in Appalachia who can least afford it. It is part of the American psyche from coast to coast.
Gallup’s annual survey on gift-giving in the U.S., released on October 17, says that American adults each plan to spend an average of $785 on gifts this Christmas season. Gallup says, “This is consistent with the range in October spending estimates since 2013,” though “still not as high as the $900 averages recorded just prior to the recession.”
And that’s just the average. Fully 31 percent of survey takers said they’d be spending $1,000 or more per person, while 23 percent plan to shell out $500-$999.
Can we afford this? A May 2016 story reporting on a poll conducted by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicates that “Two-thirds of Americans would have difficulty coming up with the money to cover a $1,000 emergency.”
Surprisingly, this lack of savings covers all income levels! Even among “the country’s wealthiest 20 percent — households making more than $100,000 a year — 38 percent say they would have at least some difficulty coming up with $1,000.”
Perhaps Christmas should be renamed “Creditmas.” After all, a survey by Magnify Money found that Christmas in 2015 added an average of $986 (most of it on credit cards) to the debt of American households with holiday debt.
Our Christmas-celebrating family has always found the annual surveys on Christmas spending surprising and puzzling. While we look like middle-class suburbanites with a house, cars, lawnmower, white-collar jobs, and two kids, we’ve come to realize that we apparently don’t financially observe the holidays like most Americans.
Christmas for us has never been a flurry of credit-driven gift-buying, elaborate preparations, or guilt-laden obligations. And yet it has always been a season of magic, anticipation, togetherness, and enough toys to make Christmas eve and morning a typical scene of surprise, delight, and amusement for our kids.
The first principle of Christmas spending in our home is that it’s about making the holiday a source of anticipation and enjoyment for the little people in the house—not a chance for the adults to splurge on things they wouldn’t normally buy. The conversation that includes “My husband asked me to buy him a …” or “She said this year I had to get her a …” in reference to big-ticket spouse-directed purchases has never been spoken with our friends, because we don’t view Christmas-time spending as a chance to fast-track the purchase of overpriced baubles that our normal spending standards wouldn’t permit at other times of the year. While we work together to determine and agree on large purchases as our respective needs and wants arise throughout the year, we view Christmas a time for extra restraint—not the moment to throw off our usual financial inhibitions.
The second idea that permeates our Christmas spending is not following toy fads! From what we’ve seen, it’s the adults more than the kids who get worked up over the “hot” gift of the year, whether it’s a new gadget for themselves or some TV or movie character-of-the-moment licensed product for the kids. In fact, J.D. Vance references just this tendency in Hillbilly Elegy, recalling how his mother ran all over town trying to find the then-hot “Teddy Ruxpin” talking bear that was sold out in stores, ultimately prompting her to buy one from a toy scalper at a substantial markup. Finding the worn-out bear in his childhood home years later, Vance laments the effort and expense his mother went to since he was just a toddler, too young to even realize or care what kind of toy he got.
Third, our family buys Christmas gifts all year long for a fraction of what they cost new! For my wife, that meant regular trips to thrift stores in our affluent county, where the cast-offs of those who buy everything new ends up, often barely worn and sometimes with the tags still on. For example, our daughter liked miniatures more than Disney princesses or fashion dolls, and Sheri spent years methodically gathering and re-gifting like-new “Polly Pockets” sets that were a recurring highlight of our girl’s lower-grades Christmases. Occasionally, there would be missing pieces, but pooled together the sets gave her plenty of “play value,” and as a working professional she now jokes that the one Polly Pocket figure missing its legs gave her an early acceptance of those with physical handicaps.
Does such a Christmas sound sparse, sad, or “poor?” It was not. Our tree was piled with a combination of thoughtful pre-owned gifts and typically less than $100 in new items from local or online stores (an amount putting us, by Gallup’s estimate, in a group representing 3 percent of the population). For several years my corporate employer gave each employee a hundred-dollar Amazon credit, and it was a joy for each family member to pick around $25 worth of brand-new books or toys to be wrapped in vintage wrapping paper (also obtained from thrift stores and estate sales at a fraction of the new, seasonal price).
Our kids never looked, or felt, or played, deprived. In fact, at the end of Christmas day, when the boxes and wrapping paper got thrown away, our kids’ annual “haul” looked pretty much like every other kid’s in middle-class America. And they were no less delighted with their little treasures than children whose parents each spent $785.
Of course, striving to live below such “normal” averages is a year-round endeavor, one that paid long-term dividends as we saved for college and worked to pay off the mortgage early.
No, we never measured Christmas by the number or size or momentary hotness of our gifts. Instead, we made the Christmas season a time for putting up treasured holiday decor, raising sparkling lights in the darkness, playing music, baking cookies, reading Christmas stories, watching Christmas movies, and going sledding and skating together. For as every child knows, the anticipation of Christmas is a sweet and enduring gift of its own.
To many modern Americans, anything less than a full-fledged holiday spending spree sounds like the pioneers in wagons, the Waltons, or “Little House on the Prairie.” Yet this was, and still is, our sort of suburban-Amish “normal” for Christmas, one whose traditions and memories remain full of delight and family pride.
In fact, the greatest tribute and reward for our “bottom three-percenter” way of spending at Christmas is seeing our college-educated, professionally employed daughter, and her husband, adopting such spending habits and Christmas traditions for their own new home. No gift is better than seeing how “below-average” they really are—giving thoughtfully and wisely without waking up with a financial hangover in January.
Tom Seibold is author of The 12 Joys of Christmas, a book for children illustrated by his wife, artist Sheri McCulley Seibold.