/ Money, Shopping

Is it time to ban Christmas presents?

Lump of coal wrapped with ribbon

Call me Scrooge but things have gone a little too far when it comes to Christmas gifts. We’re giving presents that won’t be used and obligating others to do the same. It’s time to sign a ‘No Unnecessary Presents Pact’.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to rant about banning gifts from parents or grandparents. My target is the ever-growing range of people we feel obligated to buy for – teachers, colleagues and more.

Christmas has become a retail festival and while my argument isn’t religious, I suspect the church too gets hot under the dog collar about the over-commerciality. Still, my focus is the financial impact of Christmas (or Chanukah or Eid) at a time when many are struggling.

I’ve campaigned on this for a while, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to share my thoughts here on Which? Conversation.

Stop creating unfair obligations on others

I get the ‘joy of giving’ but we need to think about the impact on recipients too. Generosity could hurt, not help. By giving to someone (or their children), you create an obligation on them to do the same, whether they can afford it or not.

During a recent TV talk on this subject, a crew member confided: ‘I’m so glad you’re talking about this; I’m skint and dreading anyone giving me gifts as I can’t afford to buy back, but feel terrible if I don’t.’

In these financial climes, sometimes the best gift is to release somebody from this obligation.

Our finances are mis-prioritised

Anthropologists tell us gift giving was originally a form of ‘social banking’. In other words, when you’re young and marrying, older people would give to you to help you get started. When older, you’d do the same for younger generations.

But Christmas gift giving is a zero-sum game: people exchange gifts of similar value at the same time. Imagine David gives a £20 scarf to Nick; in return, Nick gives £20 cufflinks. The net result is that Nick has spent £20 to get the scarf.

Yet if Nick is skint, would he really have chosen to spend his hard-earned £20 on a scarf? Perhaps he’d have bought food for his children, paid bills or replaced worn-out shoes.

We give never-used gifts

From naff socks from Aunty Joan to talking novelty breasts from workmates, unwanted and unused gifts are sent all the time. Many sit panicking with a ‘to-buy-for’ list muttering ‘must get something, must get anything’ yet why spend just for the sake of it? It’s not helpful for our finances or landfills.

There’s a stigma to the suggestion of not giving, and it’s a difficult topic to broach.

That’s just the start of this Moneyfesto. Think about how Christmas educates children to be retail snobs. At five they often care more about the wrapping and joy than the actual gift. By 15 they’re competing on brands and gift-giving inflation sets in.

This isn’t militancy; it’s pragmatism. By taking a puritan approach, I hope to soften the entrenched habit of obligated gift-giving. People could spend time not cash, donate to charity, agree ‘No Unnecessary Present Pacts’ with colleagues or friends, cap spending or do a Secret Santa – all steps in the right direction.

Martin Lewis, journalist, broadcaster and consumer campaigner is the creator of MoneySavingExpert.com, the UK’s biggest money website, with almost 10 million monthly unique users and Citizens Advice Consumer Champion.

Sybilmari says:
8 December 2010

I stopped sending xmas cards when my children were small and it has taken 35 years for people to stop sending them to me and a few still do! It was such a relief when I stopped. I wish other people would be braver. Since then I have gone on to stop presents too. Nowadays I tell people “I don’t do christmas; I just do presents anytime” – when I feel like it any time of year and I think someone would enjoy something I come across – always a bargain and only when I can afford it!
We don’t need xmas presents. We have far more than past generations had, even when we feel hard up. When I was young a xmas present was greatly appreciated and it was the only time we had oranges and nuts etc. Now we have become saturated with ‘things’ and obsessed with money. They don’t make us happy; they make the rich people who con us into thinking and feeling they matter, happy. People matter – not things. Do things together for christmas/winter festival (whatever); laugh together; eat together; be happy. Otherwise, what is the point? Happy winter festival everyone :O)

All very true Sybilmari! Good for you!

Heymishmctavish says:
9 December 2010

Sybilmari. WOW, someone who thinks like me, I’ve been like this for years and everyone just thinks I’m a humbug. No I’m not, if I see something through the year that screams at me that I know someone would love that item I get it for them. Not at Christmas though, the children have always had whatever we can afford to give them and I’d prefer to make savings through the year than worry about stressing out for the sake of a day.

Wish everyone could start being like this, makes so much more sense

Neil says:
9 December 2010

So good to hear that other people are seeing sense and seeing commercial christmas for what it truly is – I thought I was the only one! I stopped doing christmas years ago – everyone gets an unexpected present at a time when a) they need something useful b) they need cheering up or c) they need reminding that they’re special and this seems to mean a great deal more to them. The peer pressure to carry on with it was, initially very high but you just have to be politely assertive and suggest that people give their money to a good cause. Cards go straight to the recycling bin. Anyone attempting to moan at me about how stressful and problematic christmas is is again politely told they are wasting their time and breath.

LynnHull says:
10 December 2010

Its high time everyone realized that xmas is a festival of Pagan origins thats been highjacked by the relentless machines of commerce to line their pockets by preying on the soft hearts of parents and others. The majority are being manipulated relentlessly, start making your own descisions about what and when you want to buy pressies for your loved ones. Wake up and take your own life back. Would you have the majority dictate to you what you should do in other areas of your life??? Never kept xmas as an adult and never want to, I see the misery of debt and worry it creates. I hear people say “I hate xmas”. A friend is out of work, has no money but still feels she has to ‘perform’.She says to me”You don’t know how lucky you are not keeping xmas” my reply”I know! You’re all crazy!” It appals me all the waste and xmas tat that gets churned out each year. Honest, I’m not Scrooge, I’m always helping my unemployed friend out-I paid for her wedding. Isn’t that a better pressy for someone than waiting til xmas to buy because I’m forced into it by market forces?

Several years ago, I felt just that the present buying/exchanging thing was getting out of proportion amongst family and friends. Several members of our family agreed that it would be better to limit it to £5 per person for presents. The problem was, that no one really stuck to it and so it didn’t happen.

Eventually, I took the initiative (for better or worse) and just said I was going to send cards only, and then give what I wanted to a charity/charities of my choice at Christmas. I have done this for about 10 years now and people have accepted it (some think I’m going against the family Christmas giving spirit. But I stick to my principles and feel better for it: I don’t have to chase around finding suitable (or more likely unsuitable presents) for everyone – they don’t have to bother with any for us. And if anyone says anything, then I just tell them which charities I have given to that year.

It does make Christmas a lot easier and you can still have a good time.

Richard Newman says:
8 December 2010

Restrict present buying to family members.
Agree a policy up-front.
Give flexible gifts.
Give to charity instead.

I send my annual greetings via email and hardly any snail-mail cards. The money saved goes to a cat charity! If you have email, use it.

Despite all the disagrees on your comment, I tend to agree. People might see e-cards, phone calls or texts as a cop-out but I say bring them on! It’s time to move forward from cards being put on mantel pieces.

In our family we operate a sort of “Secret Santa”.Each adult spends £30 on one other member of the family (Names drawn out of a hat ).We each submit a list of the sort of present -or presents – we would like to receive.Result- an element of surprise with no embarrassment when the gift is opened.Everybody happy.

Maggi says:
8 December 2010

Cards – we do send them, but always buy them direct from a charity, so we know who gets the revenue!
A few years ago, we decided that our children could buy us charity presents, which come in a range of prices so they could choose what to afford, so we received presents like Water, an Allotment plus vegetable seeds, a goat as well, I think. Great fun to think that someone would actually benefit from these presents! We did buy ‘real’ presents for our children, but things that they needed/ would use.
Last year we tried the less than £10 present list, and that worked quite well. This year it will be a combination of under a tenner or home/hand made.
Better get my knitting out again!

Absolutely agree with everything Martin, and others say. Even with our married children we give a token gift as we have no idea what they really want/need and anyway they have the money to buy it themselves. Elderley mother-in law gets a carefully selected food parcel of her favourites which is welcomed and means she can avoid shopping when the weather is bad. Everyone else just gets a card and the knowledge that we are thinking of them.

Helen says:
8 December 2010

A group of us agreed not to buy each other presents and instead donated to a charity that supports disabled families in a small town in Peru. As a result we know a little girl will see a specialist to get the medication she needs for her epilepsy and the whole family can enjoy their Christmas knowing she is cared for. What a joy for them and us

ukranianjim says:
8 December 2010

I have not celebrated Xmas for years, in fact I have spent many xmas/new year periods in a Bhuddhist monastery. Now I am unable to continue that practice but ignore Xmas altogether, do not send cards, do not give presents, Scrooge maybe, but am very much in favour of regarding the whole business as humbug.

Meeny Mo says:
8 December 2010

Couldn’t agree more! Never mind work colleagues, family can be a pain. Although my family agreed to forgo birthday and Christmas pressies when attaining the age of 21 except for immediate parents, children and siblings (no nieces, nephews, in laws and offspring), but my husband’s family (plenty cash) didn’t agree. With children, grandchildren and in laws we now have a massive Christmas list to get back scarves, socks and M & S ‘gifts and tins of biscuits when we’re trying to diet, all go to charity shops in the New Year!

Can’t Martin get a big movement going and get it banned!
Yours hopeful.

Duncan Millar says:
8 December 2010

My family (14 grown-ups ie.) started 2 years ago with a ‘Christmas Club’ – each person pulls out another’s name out of the hat – and we buy that person only a gift up to £50.00. It has worked really well and ensures a ‘wanted’ present.

We decided a very long time ago that we could not in all honesty stuff our faces on Christmas Day when there were those in other lands who did not even have food, let alone clothing, a roof and who would never receive presents. So we informed are adult children that we would no longer be buying them presents but would, instead, be sending the money to charity which we have done now for about 20 years, I feel so much better eating my Christmas dinner which is no longer so profligate either. However I am not sure my son is too impressed in that we don’t buy our handicapped grandsons presents either but our principles are still the same. Anyway Jesus came to give of Himself not distribute largesse. I do admit to sending cards as I like to bless my friends that way at least especially those abroad and not everybody we know has a computer.

I agree with Martin and have been trying to convince our children not to buy presents for birthdays as well as Christmas for years but with limited success. Our daughter bought me items for my birthday last August that I can’t even remember and certainly have never used, which are just a waste of money that she can’t really afford. Where is the sense in that?

If they insist on buying a gift I would prefer it to be my choice, even though it might be considered boring, but is something which will at least be useful.

So please can we extend “Christmas gifts” to include “Birthdays” as well.

Gifts should be spontaneous, not tied to specific calender dates and ideally something that the recipient really wants or would like. If it can be a surprise as well that would be a real bonus!

Laura says:
9 December 2010

I am 22 and am married, have 2 kids and a mortgage. The thought of Xmas is awful as we have so many prezzies to buy for as everyone always goes overboard with the kids! Last year i brought most of my Xmas and bday prezzies in January, most of the girls got a wash bag and each month i would buy a lip gloss or something to put in. Where i got alot of our prezzies in the sale it meant i saved alot of money and where i brought them with my xmas money i didnt miss the money. When we get older etc we wont buy for so many people, its just having the 1st grandchildren and niece and nephews on both side people go mad. Also friends see things and pick them up, what they dont realise is we have mortgage and bills to pay and they dont. I will be doing the same this year as with my husband being self employeed we need to make sure the extra cash goes towards savings as if he doesnt work he doesnt get paid and the bills dont stop if that happened. I also have picked up bargins for the kids from carboots and ebay!!

anne says:
9 December 2010

I think its mad you buy your children’s teachers a present, after all they get paid for the job they do, and parents is put under pressure in case it has a bad effect on their children if they don’t bring their teacher a present. I grew up in Denmark, and we were on first name basis with our teacher, but I have never bought them a present, they bought us sweets on the last of day of school before xmas!!!!!

Nikki says:
9 December 2010

I love Christmas and all that it holds dear :0) it is as expensive or cheap as you want it to be ! My family have gotten used to the fact that their pressie will either be hand made, home grown or very tacky (possibly all 3 in one hit if I’m doing really well !) presses are wrapped in old magazines or newspaper and this year it’s brown paper with my own Santa ( well that’s what it was supposed to be lol) Christmas is about having fun and knowing that the kids will play with the 99p store sticking and drawing bits more …and I get to join in !! Have a wonderful and beautiful Christmas x

jenni s. says:
9 December 2010

i got bored of the “socialite Christmas” one up man ship dogmatic Christmas ages ago, i do give presents but my presents are my time and effort, not money and stupid gifts.

last year i was at a soup kitchen for Christmas feeding the poor, thus year im on the streets with NORSACA raising funds for the autistic children . is that not the best gift you can give? your time and your company to those who really need it?

Claire says:
9 December 2010

I don’t think it has to be one or the other, I think the important thing to remember is that it really is the thought that counts and to only give when something is needed.

If I send a Christmas card I always write a message to the person I am sending it to rather than just putting their name and my own.

With gifts I tend to choose gifts according to the needs of the recipient. For younger people with a new home/baby Christmas and birthdays can be a real treat as they can get things they might need but can’t afford. For other people who have enough then I give charity gifts like Oxfam Unwrapped or vouchers for help e.g. painting and decorating, babysitting etc..

So far everyone has always been delighted with what they got as it has allowed them to have a night out without the kids, indulge their reading habit (with loads of second hand books), enjoy a newly painted kitchen and the chance to feed a family who othewise would go without.

Richard KIng says:
9 December 2010

The only worthwhile present we can give, these days, is our time.

I get cards from people who only ever get in touch at Christmas, but say nothing more than ‘Merry Xmas’ or whatever. I’d much rather receive a ‘newsy’ email telling me about them and their family…

This year, I hope to gie some time anfd attention to older relations, who may not be around much longer.

Rose says:
9 December 2010

I think many people are forgetting what xmas is about. Its not about presents or things like that. Its about spending time with the people you love.
I have not purchased a single present for anyone this year, not for my mum, dad, boyfriend, anyone. However, I am looking forward to spending the day at my mum and dads enjoying having the family around me and having a nice time and a good laugh together, and of course a drink or two.