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Being Selfish For Christmas

Nov. 21, 2013
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By Jeff Stoffer, CFA, CFP ®

Learn more about Jeff on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

In this traditional season of holiday giving, how can “being selfish for Christmas” possibly be worth considering?

We make so many unconscious choices with money throughout the year, but during the holidays, no sooner does the mania of Black Friday strike, than we race out to shop. We spend because others bought us something last year. We buy for people at the periphery of our social or business network. We buy because we can’t disappoint the kids, or our friends’ or relatives’ kids. Pretty soon we have a buy list a mile long and are thinking about how we can get it done in the least amount of time for the least amount of money. Where is the joy in that?

Now, I’m all for giving. I’d just like to emphasize a more conscious approach. If we could re-imagine giving in a way that takes care of our own values and financial priorities, I think everyone would be better off.

How might we re-envision giving? When giving comes from a place of wanting to give, that is, not from a feeling of obligation, then suddenly the act becomes as much a gift to one’s self as it is a gift to another person. I like to think of giving, and determining the amount that is appropriate to spend, in terms of the Buddhist concept of dana – the cultivation of generosity, giving from the heart. This is not giving in the expectation of repayment in any sense, but getting in touch with the feeling of generosity and the meaning of a gift.

When we buy into the prevalent mode of rushed consumerism and obligatory spending, the gift and the act of giving tend to lose their meaningfulness. Step one in our reinvention of holiday giving is to take the time to think of our list of recipients as people, not just as names on a list. The list mentality contributes to a “get it done” mode where the whole point of giving can get lost in the problem-solving search for easy solutions.

Review the list of people you “need” to buy for. Is it the best list? How might it look if you were more selective and chose only those whom you felt most strongly about? Take some time making your list – and checking it twice.

Once you have created your shorter list, think about the amounts you would like to spend. No one wants to experience the aftermath of overspending when the statements arrive in January. And conversely, if you can afford to spend a bit more lavishly, ask yourself whether that spending delivers the kind of satisfaction that makes generosity worthwhile. (If not, redo step one above, create a more meaningful list – and don’t leave out your favorite charities!) Generosity is a feeling and what you give should not be so little that it has no meaning, and yet not so generous that it hurts.

While the economy has improved over that last few years you may still be feeling pressure to make ends meet. In this situation getting in touch with why you give and how much you spend becomes even more critical. Ask yourself how much you spent last year. Think about your other obligations – the mortgage, food, kids’ education, etc. These factors should help you determine how much is appropriate to spend now. Caveat: going into debt to feel generous is a not a good idea!

A few last thoughts to enhance the satisfaction of holiday giving. Consider supporting local vendors who have been steadfast contributors to the local economy. Making things is also a wonderful option. Creating gift baskets or homemade cookies can be a family activity, giving you precious time together in a way that a trip to the mall just can’t match.

Establishing priorities and setting limits on holiday spending are also powerful examples for our kids. Being selfish for Christmas really just means rediscovering the feeling of generosity and giving in such a way that you are taking care of yourself financially. It is not necessary to “give until it hurts!” We can feel good about giving, while honoring our financial integrity and taking care of ourselves at the same time.

Perhaps being selfish this year might not be such a bad thing after all!