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You’re not alone, but there are ways to spend money on gifts without adding to the mountain of clutter in your home.
The Seattle Times | File 2003
Monday, September 9, 2013
Several years ago, I took my daughter to a kids’ birthday party where it looked like a youth version of “The Price is Right” showcases had exploded in the front yard.
Barbies, playhouses and other swag were strewn across the grass. The impressive mountain of birthday presents prompted the child’s grandfather to note how things had changed since he was a kid. The only present he got on his sixth birthday was a box of vanilla wafers.
That wouldn’t even count as a decent birthday party snack today.
Presents — whether giving them, getting them or taking them to Goodwill after an appropriate amount of time has passed — are the bane of parents. And by “parents” I mean “mothers,” who are usually the ones forced to drive to the store, scour the toy aisles for hours in search of just the right gift while dodging other dead-eyed women on the same thankless mission.
Nothing strikes fear and loathing into the heart of mothers like the arrival of a kids’ birthday party invitation. What to buy? How much do you spend? You don’t want to get something too big, but you also don’t want to be known as the neighborhood cheapskate who gives squirt guns (still in the Dollar Tree bag) at every party.
Our spending culture
Kids love presents, and nobody wants to spoil a kid’s special day by telling him “you’re not going to get any presents for your birthday this year, Junior.” After my daughter’s recent birthday party, I asked her what her favorite parts had been, thinking she might mention the indoor “treasure hunt,” outdoor trail hike or splashing in a creek.
“Cake,” she said, followed immediately by “presents.”
That’s OK. Presents are fun. Kids love to open them and they even love watching their friends open the presents they got for them.
As a result, we are a nation awash in toys. A 2012 UCLA study reported that the United States has 3.1 percent of the world’s children, yet American families buy more than 40 percent of the world’s toys.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who has entered any house in America where a child has lived in the last 20 years. Many homes are like American toy museums, where G.I. Joes mingle with Tickle Me Elmos, Furbies and Lalaloopsy Sisters dolls.
The pressure to spend on presents is acute. In fact, almost every aspect of American culture demands that we spend as much money as possible on anything, because if we don’t, the economy will collapse, and with it the whole of Western civilization. If consumer spending goes down, factories will make less stuff and Daddy will lose his job — and nobody will get nuttin’ for Christmas!
There are ways to spend money on gifts without adding to the mountain of stuff. A present doesn’t have to be a thing, it can be an activity. I have heard this phenomenon called “giving experiences.”
A gift card to a skating rink, the ice cream shop or the movies certainly counts as a present, and they don’t take up space on a closet shelf.
Our hoarding culture
Listen, I know what the biggest obstacle to de-cluttering my own home is. It’s me. I have saved magazines, books, newspaper clippings and any scrap of paper — even napkins from restaurants I liked — for years. Because, who knows, someday I might actually want to re-read that 1986 Spin magazine article about R.E.M.
I don’t like getting rid of my daughter’s old toys or games, either. Each one reminds me of a certain stage of her life, even if it’s a rubber ball she might have drooled on as an infant. I just can’t let go. My wife had to pry Hi Ho! Cherry-O from my trembling fingers before she took it to Goodwill.
Clutter is stressing out American families, according to that UCLA study I mentioned earlier. By the way, the study is called “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” and can be purchased from Amazon.com, which will help add to the clutter of your coffee table.
The study detailed the lives of 32 California families who are overwhelmed by their possessions, which they really don’t have time to enjoy anyway. The findings should not shock anyone who lives within an American ZIP code. Kids have too many toys. Parents stockpile too much frozen food . Garages don’t have room for cars.
I know all this, and yet I want kids — my daughter, too — to still get presents, as long as they are smart gifts, appropriate for a child’s specific likes and talents.
My daughter’s gift-buyers did just that. Some of the presents were arts-and-crafts-themed or things she can use. She got games to play on trips to grandma’s and stuff to draw and paint with. She can learn to make jewelry and other fun trinkets by herself.
Maybe someday she will make presents for her friends. Or better still, maybe she can sell all the stuff she makes.
After all, we’ve got to raise the next generation of consumers and keep the economy humming right along.
Ralph Berrier Jr.’s column runs every other Monday in Extra.