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The gift of giving

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” It’s a message to remember in the season of goodwill, says Esther Goh. 

They don’t call it the rat race for nothing. It’s easy to get caught up in the relentless quest to get ahead, so perhaps it’s no surprise that fewer and fewer of us are donating money or volunteering time these days. Which is a shame. Studies show giving boosts happiness – the very act of giving gives us personal satisfaction. In other words, altruism is not necessarily one-sided.

“What does kindness have to do with money?” asks Amanda Morrall in Money Matters. The answer, she says, is both nothing and everything. “Nothing if you look at money as a raw tool for buying, consuming and acquiring material goods. Everything if you take the view that money is meant to serve the needs and wants of human beings – not the other way around.”

If you’re mired in debt and struggling to pay the bills, then giving to charity is probably not at the top of your priority list. But for those beyond the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, odds are you can afford to give to those less fortunate – if not financially, then perhaps with your time. For those of us feeling stretched, the decision to set aside even the tiniest amount of our income for others less fortunate might possibly be the first step towards prioritising or better managing the rest of our money.

A deserving cause

There are a whopping 27,409 registered charities in New Zealand. Some get a bad rap, particularly in regard to high administrative costs or dubious fundraising tactics. 

If you’re wary about who to give your hard-earned dollars or precious spare time to, mouse on over to the Charities Commission site (www.charities.gov.nz) where you can learn more about individual organisations. Whatever your passions – animal, environmental, or social issues – there’s bound to be a charitable organisation working toward a similar mission.

Charitable giving is also a great way to combine a meaningful gift with a sense of purpose. Lots of charities offer Christmas gift programmes (such as Oxfam Unwrapped) where, for example, you might donate money on behalf of a friend or relative to buy a much-needed item for someone in a developing country. Untraditional? Perhaps. Meaningful? Absolutely. 

If you prefer your charitable giving to be a little closer to home, Christmas is a prime time to give back to those in need in your own community. Whether it’s volunteering to help a local charity or inviting a neighbour without family of their own over to share Christmas with you, it doesn’t take an exuberant present to make people smile – the gift of your time is often more meaningful than those bought from the shop.

Why do we give?

While the roots of giving at Christmas are biblical, the reason we continue to do so today is more about social norms and our shopping culture.

Have you ever paused in the midst of a shopping mall during the holiday season to wonder just what is the point of this annual gift-giving frenzy? (The short answer: obligation. In his 1923 essay ‘The Gift’, French sociologist Marcel Mauss outlines the unspoken social contract around exchanging gifts. Essentially, a gift giver assumes a degree of power over the recipient, who must then reciprocate in turn.)

The giving of gifts is ingrained in our culture; we give physical presents to other people to show that we care. There’s an expectation that we swap gifts at certain times – Christmas being the most obvious one – and this can be hard to live up to. 

The Simple Dollar blogger Trent Hamm writes, “Each Christmas, a lot of people find themselves in gift exchanges that they don’t really want to participate in. They end up buying gifts for people that they don’t have a close relationship with. They’re obligated to spend more money than they’d like on certain gifts. Sometimes, they’re guilted into it by the expectations of others at their Christmas parties.”

Last year the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out against the “absurd and ridiculous” pressure to have a perfect Christmas, telling the Telegraph that rampant consumerism strains relationships and that families should show love rather than try to
buy it.

The cost of Christmas can lead to a financial hangover that lingers for months. According to credit reporters Dun and Bradstreet, the annual Christmas credit splurge traditionally results in a number of Kiwis struggling to repay bills racked up over the silly season. Not to mention the waste – think of all the excessive packaging, bags, boxes and gift-wrapping that piles up, most of which is tossed on Christmas Day.

Smarter giving 

But let’s not get too Scroogey about it all. Most of us are unlikely to totally eschew the tradition of gift giving for the simple fact that many of us actually enjoy picking out the perfect present for those closest to us. Our children spend weeks anticipating the Christmas morning bonanza – and it’s a time
-honoured way to reinforce and affirm friendly relations with our wider family. Had a frosty exchange with your brother a few months back? Christmas morning offers a chance to warm things up a bit.

Here are some tips for giving well, while avoiding getting totally caught up in the madness. 

• Have a plan

There’s a movement called Buy Nothing Christmas (www.buynothingchristmas.org), a campaign that acknowledges we’re all going to buy a few things but encourages us to stick to some key principles. If you care about buying local, Fairtrade, recycled or quality items that last for years rather than cheap mass-produced goods, then there’s no reason to give that up at
this time of year! 

Nor does giving always have to mean buying something. A truly personalised gift wins out over another pair of socks any day! Put together a 

photo album, bake delicious treats, or make up ‘coupons’ for services such as a night of babysitting or a spring-clean of the entire house. The time and effort that goes into a handmade present speaks volumes – the more creative and thoughtful, the better. 

• Involve others

Financial planner Liz Koh says a ‘no unnecessary presents’ agreement with friends and family often leads to sighs of relief all round and a shorter Christmas shopping list. If you have children, it makes sense to talk to them about their expectations around Christmas presents and establish with them what you consider reasonable. The same applies to adult siblings.

“In large families, buying presents can get out of hand, both in terms of the value of presents bought and the number of people you buy for. Make a pact with loved ones on whether you will buy each other gifts and how much you will spend,” she says. “Christmas is a time for giving and sharing, but don’t give more than you have.” 

• Mix it up 

Instead of the traditional free-for-all of gift giving, you might like to introduce a Secret Santa-style exchange. Rather than having every single person buy a present for everyone else, draw names randomly and match each individual with one other person. 

Alternatively – though traditionalists may blanch at these suggestions – make a game of buying presents on Boxing Day (you’ll get bargain prices and limit the frenzy to a single day),
or ditch the gifts outright and throw
a large potluck meal for all. 

• Keep track of your spending

Start by making a list, and stick to it. Who are you buying gifts for, and what’s your budget for each? Offset bigger-ticket items with handmade gifts. Koh suggests working out how much you have to spend, and then putting that money aside in a separate bank account. If you need to drum up more cash, look into overtime opportunities, sell unwanted goods on TradeMe or have a garage sale. 

• Prepare in advance 

Get organised early for next Christmas. Purchase gifts throughout the year so you can take advantage of sales or, alternatively, set aside money each month in a savings account. “If you are still paying off last year’s Christmas spending, let alone starting to save for this year’s, have a year off Christmas to let your savings catch up. One year off is all it takes to get ahead,” says Koh.

• Embrace online shopping 

Do your research to find the best price for items on your shopping list and keep an eye out for daily deals. But whatever you do, don’t leave your Christmas shopping until the last minute – you’ll not only be forced to battle the crowds, but being left with slim pickings and extra time pressure makes it likely you’ll spend more than you intended to.

Ultimately, the holiday season is about spending time with the people we care most about, especially if we don’t see them as often as we’d like during the year. Keep that in mind and you can’t go far wrong.  

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