Everyone in the blogosphere (especially the personal finance blogosphere) seems to have a post by now dedicated to Christmas shopping and how to harness fabulous deals. I usually love money-saving tips -- bring them on!
Lately, though, I'm tired of scanning these gift-giving pointers -- perhaps because most are inanely obvious and repetitive in nature. Yes, I know that if I make the presents myself I can save more money, or if I shop deals online versus in-store or wait to give gifts a day after Christmas, I can save big. Sigh. I think there's a bigger picture issue that's apparent this year aside from finding the cheapest Wii or flat-screen TV. Maybe it's that so many of us are unemployed this year, or maybe it's that those of us who still have jobs are struggling financially, but to paraphrase Love from the other day, "It just doesn't really feel like Christmas this year."
This sentiment truly hit me when I stood en masse on a crowded escalator yesterday, nothing but a small pin prick on a nameless mall map, peering over the revolving handrail at the mall Santa below (spitting image of the real thing, by the way). I felt ... numb ... and had an epiphany. Had I become a modern-day Ebeneezer Scrooge?
Yes, it's 2008 and times are tough, maybe not as tough as a Dickens novel, but the joie de vivre that usually encircles mall Santas and excessive amounts of eggnog thus far is completely lost on me. This holiday season, I've felt an encroaching sense of acerbity about the whole affair, and if you can believe it, it's not the "gift giving" aspect that bothers me. After all, it's usually what conjures up a bitter tang on most people's palettes.
I'm not exactly sure why this year feels so different, but my guess is that for many there isn't that much to be cheerful about. It's one thing to read daily statistics about those who have been laid off across the country or have lost homes, but it's quite another to be able to count those close to you who barely have enough money to pay their cell phone bills.
The fear and uncertainty in the air is palpable. Many are hanging on by a frayed thread, thankful just to get by these days, much less to replicate a Normal Rockwell painting set around a cozy Christmas tree buttressed by piles of beautifully wrapped presents.
In recent years past, those that struggled were in the minority. Since the early '90s, the United States has seen enormous gains based on mortgage-backed securities -- our finances expanded by people packaging and selling them to other countries. Now, there's a fear that all those gains we've built in that last 20 years will simply vanish. The giant strides in growth we've seen are crumbling as I lament about the very problem, and just when we think we've hit a bottom, that things have to bounce back, they in fact get worse.
And forget it only affecting the finance sector. Sure, hedge fund managers, investment bankers and the Gordon Gekkos of the world may have had their 15 minutes of fame nancing down Wall Street in private towncars and Armani suits, but they're just the first domino to topple the rest in this scheme. Now thousands, in all sectors, are feeling the heat. Tourism, hotels, automobiles, manufacturing, education, anything related to real estate (including construction), leisure, restaurants, marketing/PR firms, publishing. There isn't one entity that hasn't been touched on one level or another by the crash of dominoes as they continue to fall across the country.
Sure, we'll eventually pick up the pieces as a nation and begin back where we started, before we enjoyed and expected lives based on unrealistic illusions. But the reality is oppressive and heavy, and it's unsettling that we're on the precipice of a possible deflationary cycle -- that all the money many have put into homes as equity will disappear, and that just when we think things will turn around, they don't.
I guess it's the Scrooge in me that's unable to accept this holiday season. Surprisingly,
this motivates me more to buy gifts for all the people I care about. In the past I always bought more for myself than others. I know, it's selfish, and while I did buy people things, it was always a one-for-them,-three-for-me scenario. "Christmas isn't about giving gifts, that's so materialistic," I would pontificate between episodes of Sex and the City. Riiiiiiight. . .
Now that I've found myself in a better financial position than most, it makes me happy to be able to brighten someone's day with a present that they wouldn't (or couldn't) otherwise buy. In fact, I get ten times more happiness doing this than buying anything for myself. I guess that's what it takes to find the true spirit of the holiday season. Yes, it's about giving -- within your means, of course -- and making others happy, even if you can't give a lot. Cheesy? Maybe. But it's interesting that it takes a collapse of fantastic extremes to be able to truly evaluate the state of things and cut away all the muck and static that usually blinds so many of us at the end of every year.
This week in books 4/30/17
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