Overspending, Underenjoying?

    Above a certain baseline the correlation between money and happiness grows weak. Yet we easily fall into the habit of spending too much and getting too little return on our investment. I was once laid off from a failing startup and went through considerable stress over how I could possibly enjoy life while I got by on unemployment insurance and hunted for a new job. It took a wise friend walking me out to a beautiful park in the middle of a warm weekday to point out to me that I had now had access to all kinds of free or cheap pleasures that were exactly what I’d been substituting for while putting in my long days at the startup. Don’t tie your perception of relaxation or satisfaction to the act of spending money; they aren’t the same thing at all.


    What do you shell out money for every month? Sure, rent or mortgage, utilities, food, but what about non-essentials? Take a look at your routine expenses and the time you spend enjoying the results of them. How many hours do you watch those extra cable channels? What's does that mean you pay per hour? Do you still plan to be spending that much time that way or are there other things you'd do if the temptation wasn't there? Do you read the paper every day? Is it worth the subscription? What about the magazines you get? And that gym membership? Are there free exercise methods you'd use just as often? Food spoiling in the fridge before you eat it? It doesn't matter if it's a small expense; if it's not giving you enough benefit, then stop spending that money. Save it or spend it on something that matters to you more.

    As you focus on what you want and don't want in your life, there are probably some things you'd like to save up some money for. It can be hard to do that, though, if you find that you never seem to have extra at the end of the week. Keep your eyes on the prize. Take a look at what you have to spend each month (rent, bills, payments to reduce debt, groceries) and what that leaves you for flexible expenses. Assign yourself an amount that you get to spend each week (or fortnight or month) on optional things.

    Take two index cards. Tape the cards together on the long edge. On the inside left, write the list of things you want to be saving up for and the amount that will take. On the right, put the amount you have assigned yourself as available for optional things. Every non-essential purchase should be entered and deducted on the right. Before making a non-essential purchase you'll see your wishlist and think about whether it's really worth it. You'll also get a clearer picture of where your money goes. For example, here’s what the right side might look like:

- latte & croissant $5           $ 95.00
- mocha $3                       $ 92.00

- new TMBG album $17.50          $ 74.50

- latte & croissant $5           $ 69.50

- mocha $3                       $ 66.50
- pizza & beer with pals $20     $ 46.50

- latte & croissant $5           $ 41.50

    If one of the things on the wishlist side was “espresso machine $200,” it’s pretty obvious that it won’t take that long to save up for it by not going out for coffee drinks (or recoup the cost by buying it now). If the other thing on the wishlist is an exercise bike, knocking off the croissants will not only help save up, but will also make it less necessary.

    When you need to conquer debt as well as save up for new expenses, try taking your charge cards out of your wallet and securing them at home. Wait 24 or more hours before making non-essential purchases. Start paying more than the minimum due on the bill and get yourself out of living in a credit crunch. Mediocre mochas may be a bad way to spend your money, but they are guaranteed to bring you more enjoyment than bank finance charges. Knock out those really needless expenses first, then improve your imperfect ones.


    Beware of false savings. In my time I've had memberships to huge warehouse stores. Costco is the archetype for this, but there are other similar places where one gets ‘great deals’ by buying in larger quantities. I always find, after the initial glut of buying lots of things for relatively less money, that I'm overall spending more than I would shopping at neighborhood stores – even non-chain ones – and ending up with more than I can use or things I don't really need. What's even sillier about it is that I wind up buying not quite what I wanted – different brands, other flavors, higher calories – because the selection is more limited. Take a good hard look at your shopping habits and the kind of eating habits they're leading to. Try taking a month off from the big box stores. Shop locally, get more fresh fruit and vegetables, pick out ingredients to cook with or make a sandwich for tomorrow's lunch instead of a frozen entree. Visit the farmers' market and find the nearest good bakery to your house. At the end of the month see how you feel, what you're eating and what you've spent.  Chances are pretty good that the delicious organic produce that's giving you loads more energy has been easily paid for by not having unexpectedly bought a boxed set of DVDs for a show you liked when you were twelve, a five-attachment cordless drill you still haven’t used, and a pair of ill-fitting orange sneakers with totally cool treads.


    It’s not just about wasting money; you can also overspend your health. Go read the can or bottle of the beverages you're drinking today. Here's a good example of the kind of thing some of you might find:

Carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, natural flavors, citric acid, caffeine.

What do those ingredients do to your body? Are you draining yourself or fueling yourself? Drink more water and start cutting out the sugary (or fake sugary) caffeine bombs. If you're relying on the bump from your drinks to get you through the day, you're masking a bigger problem and making your body pay the price.


    Enjoy what you've got. Maybe tonight's a good night to stay home, make some dinner from ingredients you already have or eat up some leftovers, watch that movie that's been sitting around, read a book off that stack you keep intending to get to, or play a favorite old game that's been gathering dust. Without spending, you can both have a really nice time and remind yourself of what is good about your life.

    When you do spend, target it towards what brings you the greatest returns. Hate cleaning, but love to cook? Hire a maid service, enjoy the freedom from some chores you hate, and offset the cost by eating out less and making more great meals in your nice clean kitchen. Love city life, especially the dining out, but hate your long commutes from the suburbs? Move to a little apartment or condo in a great neighborhood nearer to work and ditch the car. You can make much more enjoyable use of the hundreds of dollars you’ve been spending on gas, car payments, insurance, maintenance, parking, tickets, etc. With a magic wand, what would you eliminate – housework, driving in traffic – from your life and what would you add – culinary adventures, convenient nightlife? Don’t assume it’s impossible. Start brainstorming about all the ways you can trade the bad for the good.

Don’t Try to Build Happiness Balancing on the Edge of a Cliff

    You've probably figured out some things you really want, changes that will increase your everyday happiness. If you saved money, these would become easier options for you. So, how to save?

    To increase your savings, set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings account to take place the day after you get paid – and if you haven't done it already, set up direct deposit of your paycheck. Streamline the process of your money going to work for you. If your company has a 401k retirement program, look into whether they match funds; it's the most simple way to give yourself a raise.

    Already automatically transferring money to savings or retirement funds every paycheck? Good. It's time to take a look and see how you can do more. Those tips I’ve mentioned about cancelling a service you don't really use (hello, gym membership or cable TV you never enjoy or magazine you don't read) can free up some cash here. Apply it first to high interest debt or if you've conquered that – go you! – then increase the amount heading into retirement savings and into an emergency fund to get you through rough surprises.

    Even if you're living paycheck to paycheck find a way to pull out $10 every check and automatically put it into savings. Figure out the things that would save you the most money – moving to a new apartment closer to work, perhaps – or which would help increase your cash flow – a good outfit for interviews and some nicely printed resumes, maybe – and do that as soon as these special savings allow.

    Take a look at where your money is going. Are you going deeper into debt or paying it off? How's your tax withholding? If you had to pay out a huge amount at tax time and your income hasn't changed much, then maybe you should increase the withholding to spare yourself the scramble for the money. Got a huge return? How about lowering that withholding and setting up an automatic transfer of that cash difference in each check into a retirement account – you won't feel the difference throughout the year and your money will be earning you interest instead of the government.

    Balance your checkbook and credit card statements every month. Not only will it keep you aware of any trends in the flow of your money, it will also mean that you can catch bank errors or identity theft while there's time to do something about it. My financial security rule of thumb: if you are carrying debt with over 6% interest, you should stop using your charge cards and cut optional expenses to the point where you can make significant payments on it every month. Try paying 10% of the current balance owed this month if you can and then keep paying at least that dollar amount each following month. That will rid you of that debt within a year.


    As with so many things, the key to improvement is to change the inflows and outflows. Bring in more money and spend less.

    Work toward getting a raise. Make sure you’re getting the most matching funds from your employer towards retirement. Cut expenses for things you aren’t rewarded by. Sell the three most valuable things that you own that you don't want to own anymore – eBay, Craig's List, going to an appraiser, yard sale, whatever works best. Turn them into money, then take 10-20% of it to use for something fun, like dinner out, and use the rest to discard some debt.

    Enjoy more free stuff. Visit the library. Take advantage of the great resources entertainment resources online, from the ebooks in the Internet Archive’s Open Library to free songs offered by bands on their websites.

    Pay less for what you do spend money on. About to go shopping? Think about whether all of it really needs to be brand new. Sure, you don't want hand-me-down underwear or food, but a winter coat? A dining table? A breadmaker? Get familiar with your local resources. What kind of things do the different thrift stores have? Are you in a Craig’s List area? Does your community have something like a ‘pay-and-take’ where unwanted goods can be exchanged? Don't forget to ask your friends and family! Maybe someone has exactly what you need languishing in a closet and will give it to you, sell it cheap, or swap. Comparison shop between new furniture and antiques. My Ikea office cabinet and my beautiful 1920's armoire weren't very different in price, but the latter gets much more active use in its place of honor in the living room. Whatever you settle on, remember that you have a lot of options beyond what gets advertised.

    Scratch the going out itch cheaper. Want to visit that pricy restaurant but it's outside your budget? Don't go for a full meal. Have a serving of something decent and cheap and then go out for just appetizers at the posh spot. What's even better about this is you can enjoy them at the bar in many places and avoid the wait for a table.

    Vacations often come with lots of hassles, especially if there's an airport involved.  Why not save that money, stay at home or close to it, and spend it on fun stuff? Get a massage, go to a movie, buy 20 new-to-you albums at the used record store. Plan a getaway soon that involves as little driving as possible. Let go of your normal routine and obligations and putter around your favorite neighborhood. I find the restorative effect is magnified tremendously by doing this on a day you'd normally be at work – just be sure to leave your mobile phone at home so none of those silly people working can distract you from your vacation.

    Anytime you’re at home you can also take advantage of the opportunity to hunt for buried treasure in your own place. Pull out those old boardgames you haven’t played forever and have a Battle of the Games to decide which ones stay and which ones go to charity. Re-read old books. Watch old movies again. Extract some of the remaining pleasure from what you already have invested in. When something runs dry, send it on to a new home, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover how much you have that still can give you a free evening of fun.


    One thing to note about saving up for a better life is that this does not need to be an ever upward climb; simply figure out what really makes you most happy and relaxed and continually reposition your world a little closer to getting more of that without falling into debt. For most people it turns out not to be yachts and diamonds, just a job they like, while living in a place they love, and getting to spend time with people they enjoy. That's not as expensive as you might think, so take another little step closer to it today. Do what you actually enjoy and strive for your own dreams, not what someone else – especially not some advertiser – tells you you should want.

Keeping and Not Using Does Not Generate Value

“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists agree, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

– Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World


    Why is spending for a transient experience okay on food and movies but we get ourselves in such a twist over objects? Wrestling that insidious feeling that if we get rid of this object it will mean that we wasted our money causes us to behave as if somehow by keeping it around we are improving our chances of compensation for the expense. We aren’t.

    So how to avoid the guilt of bad buying decisions? Think about purchases longer before making them. Also, recognize that you will make some bad decisions. As one Discardian put it, “Did you get your money's worth? If you are ditching a $5 paperback book, did you enjoy it $5 worth? If you did, then, like a loaf of bread you ate, you got your money's worth.” For that reason, sometimes the cheap (or used) version of something is the better way to go; give yourself room to feel free to part with it.

    Once you’ve gained what you needed to get or learn from something – including an emotion – it’s perfectly acceptable and often helpful to let it go and move on.


    The flipside to this coin is the stuff you fail to enjoy because you spent so much on it, but which you know you would still enjoy. My friend, writer and mom Meg Hourihan, wrote poignantly of this dilemma:

“I'd keep bottles of wine and treasure jars of jam for so long they'd be no good once I got around to using them. I decided life was too short and that it was important to use the good stuff. And now I do, mostly. I saved a beautiful birthday gift of 1989 Laurent-Perrier Champagne too long (no situation ever seemed good enough to justify its drinking) and when I opened it, it was passed and I was so sad. It was just the kick in the pants I needed to remember to use the good stuff.”

    Journalists and wine critics Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher of the Wall Street Journal recommend you quit waiting for some occasion special enough for that most special bottle you've been holding onto for years. They said:

“We invented Open That Bottle Night for a simple reason: All of us, no matter how big or small our wine collections, have that single bottle of wine we simply can never bear to open. Maybe it's from Grandpa's cellar or a trip to Italy or a wedding. We're always going to open it on a special occasion, but no occasion is ever special enough. So it sits. And sits. Then, at some point, we decide we should have opened it years ago and now it's bad anyway, so there's no reason to open it, which gives us an excuse to hang onto it for a few more decades. So OTBN – which is now always the last Saturday in February – offers a great opportunity to prepare a special meal, open the bottle and savor the memories.”

You can wait until the last Saturday in February if you like, but wouldn't tonight be a good enough for a special meal with those closest to you and a toast to the past and the future over a glass of something fine?

A Room Of One’s Own

“A house is a machine to live in and from which all superfluous and irritating ornaments should be banished"
– professor of oriental studies A. L. Sadler


As you focus in on only the best parts of the holidays, take some time to mull over what you love to do now and in general. Does your home support you in doing those things?

Want to dedicate a little more time to reading for pleasure? Do you have a comfortable place to do it? Can you arrange for a big chair with good reading light and a small bookcase right at hand?

Are you planning to get out and do some backpacking this year? How's your equipment? Buried in the basement or the back of a closet? Or scattered around the place? What about pulling it together and storing it in a more organized way so you don't have a roadblock to getting out of town?

Love to cook, but your kitchen is a disaster area? Well, maybe it's time for another sprint of ridding your kitchen of non-essentials. Would some reorganization give you a better workspace? Or do you need to start the project of getting into a place with a better kitchen?

Figure out what you can do to set the stage for the life you want to be living. Make a place for pleasures.


What would qualities would you like your home to have? Think back over the places you lived. What was great about each of them? What didn't you like and want to avoid in the future? Steadily write these down until you're pretty sure you have captured the most important stuff to you. Now look it over. What do you have in your current place? What could you add here? Or do you need to start thinking about a move to bring you more in line with your dreams? What's the most important thing to you of the changes you want to make? What's the first step towards that? Write that down. What's the easiest thing? Do it right now if you can or make the arrangements to do it as soon as possible. Keep your list where you'll keep coming back to it regularly. Note: the list can change, just like you. That's fine; just keep moving towards what matters to you now.


Go into your bedroom and see what pleases you and what doesn't. Are there things in there that don't belong? Figure out where they can move instead. If they can go nowhere else (hello, studio apartment dwellers!) could they be contained or disguised in a way to make them bother you less? Are there things missing, for example, enough dresser space or a rug by the bed to shield your morning toes from a cold floor? Make a list and, if you have something on it which matters more to you in the bedroom then where it currently is, move it in right now. Would a different layout make you more comfortable and work better? Thinking about the morning light can be helpful here. For those with larger places to live, are you even using the right room for your bedroom? If another room might be better, play with the idea on paper and make some measurements before you start moving furniture. Trust me on this one.

Take a look at what you've set up for yourself as the last thing you see before you go to sleep and the first thing you see when you wake up. Has your bedside table become a cluttered mess?  Unattractive surroundings in general? Are there nagging unfinished projects in view from your pillow? Cut the clutter and tune your bedroom to reduce stress. Is your bedside light too bright or too dim? Or are you lacking one altogether and relying on an overhead light that doesn't soothe your senses? Give yourself good diffused lighting that it's easy to turn off when you're ready to drift to sleep. Do you have all your potential and in-progress reading piled right beside the bed? Tidy it up into a better holding location – perhaps a very small bookcase? – and just keep the active titles at arms' length. Got a jumble of remotes? Could they go in a little basket or in a nightstand drawer instead? Better yet, have the TV leave the bedroom entirely and make this space more restful. Think about what you really need to have right beside the bed and contain it appropriately in something pleasing to your senses. Give your room a feeling of rightness and comfort that will soothe you to sleep and refresh you when you wake. When you're dusting, sweeping, and vacuuming start with your bedroom so that it stays the cleanest place in the house. Allergies most definitely aren't relaxing.

At the least, find one thing you can do today which will make you happier in your bedroom from now on.


Think about what you want to use your living room for. Now go in there and look at it with new eyes; is it serving those purposes? What doesn't belong? Where else could it go? (Not the bedroom; you already decluttered that!). Move the things that hinder you from using this space out of your way. What's missing? When I did this exercise some time ago, I realized that what I like is having friends over for meals and games. What I sorely needed was a table and enough chairs for them to sit on – the standing dinner party has never caught on for good reason. Fortunately, when I then told one of my friends that I was thinking of going shopping for a good table, he said "Oh, we have a great one in the basement and three chairs; they're yours!" Sometimes all it takes is expressing a need for an opportunity to present itself. What would give this room what it needs to function well?

Could you rearrange things to suit your favorite activities better? If you like to sit and talk with people, do you have comfortable seating arranged so that you are facing each other? My living room suffered from ‘theater seating’ which cramped conversation as everyone would have to twist sideways to see each others’ faces. What about the things you use for these activities you want to do here? Are they somewhere else in the house? Bring them in here where they belong. Once I got my table, I pulled all my board games out of a dresser drawer in my bedroom and put them out in view on a shelf in the living room. Much more inviting and, I assure you, much more frequently used since the change.

Fine tune your living room a little today and do some of those things you enjoy!


Be yourself, no matter where you are. It doesn't matter how small a space you live in, be true to your essentials.

December Discardia: Curing Dissatisfaction Through Perpetual Upgrade

When Discardia comes around in December on that shortest day, the winter solstice, celebrate by releasing yourself from a self-imposed deadline and giving thanks for what is good in the world. In addition, let this also be the season of giving yourself what you need to be truly joyful and just plain happy. Look back on your year and see how things compare to last December. Recognize and enjoy the improvements you’ve made in your world. What has provided you the most satisfaction? Is there more to do in that area that will provide a similar payoff? Over the year you can build a supportive framework of good habits, learn to see the rewards of your decisions and what you did about them, and replace some of your less exciting quantity with quality that energizes you. By the end of the year and the beginning of the next it’s time to turn up the volume on the awesomeness and build the habit of upgrading your experiences. First step: do better than just survive December.

Freedom from Obligation is the Best Gift

“I've reached that peculiar but serene stage in life when all I want for Christmas is less.”

 – writer and critic Roger Ebert


Even the luckiest of us feel a bit of extra pressure around the end of the year. In a 2006 survey by the American Psychological Association over half of respondents reported they often or sometimes experience stress, irritability, and/or fatigue during the holidays, with the leading stressors being lack of time, lack of money, and commercialism or hype (in contrast to work and money which lead at other times of year). It’s not just Christmas. The whole season is enough to make anyone rebel against all that pressure, and I’m not the only one to invent holidays out of that stress: Buy Nothing Day and Festivus owe their origins to some of the same forces that launched Discardia. From the moment we lock the front door on Halloween night and start poking through the leftover trick-or-treat candy, we jump into a wild, obligation-filled bobsled run whisking us through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve until we’re dumped headfirst into the cold, slushy snow of the first bleak week of January.

We feel the whirlwind beginning as ads start to suggest “the perfect gift for the such and such on your list.” The list is assumed. Of course everyone has a List. Everyone must be buying. Then that post-turkey Friday comes and the frenzy in the stores begins. The crowds. The sensory overload of enforced commercial festivity. “Bring on the cheer, dammit!” seems to be the underlying message of the barrage of Christmas music, holiday movie promotions, and red and green advertising plastered on every surface. Sometimes it seems like you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a Santa – and as December barrels on, the temptation to do so grows.

Oh, and let's not forget the family pressures. Whether or not anyone in our own families applies it, pop culture is more than ready to step in with the traditional holiday guilt. “Welcome to December; here's your script; you know your parts; it's magic time! And as our sponsor would like to remind you, magic means presents! So shop 'til you drop! Charge it! After all, doesn't your family deserve a joyous holiday season?”

Friends and families gather together for whatever holidays they celebrate, events are planned with all their special rituals running the gamut from two separate kinds of cranberry sauce for differing tastes right on up to Midnight Mass and Auld Lang Syne in Times Square. People are pulled from their normal surroundings – or worse yet have to tidy them up for an onslaught of visitors – and are forced to do particular things at particular times, always a potential source of stress.

There is no time of year more likely to run people ragged than the holidays. It's not as though family tensions disappear; if anything, all the pressure to set the perfect holly jolly scene makes things worse. And I don't know about your financial state of affairs, but I don't come to the end of the year thinking “Wow! Look at all this extra money! I think I'll buy a bunch of stuff.” Like me, you've probably felt pressured to overspend at this time of year before and had a lean winter paying it back.

Well, I tell you, holiday gift buying is optional. It is possible to have a happy family gathering without breaking the bank. You can have a blessed season without shattering your peace of mind. You can make it the season of giving without it being the season of shopping.

You don't have to buy presents. Really. You just don't have to. Most people don't need more stuff and no one needs more debt. Indeed, in that same 2006 APA survey 47% of respondents cited the pressure of giving or getting gifts as something that causes them stress. Why put ourselves through this? Most of us in the first world have so much stuff that a pile of presents is no longer exciting, no longer novel. There are lots of alternatives to the holiday shopping madness, many other ways to remind people you care about them. Maybe something for the kids, but, again, you don't have to break the bank to spread that holiday cheer.

First and foremost, tell them you care. Write them a note, call them on the phone, bump into them in line in the grocery store, whatever, but just say “You know, I am so glad to have you in my life.” Maybe suggest you get together sometime, perhaps after the holidays when things aren't so busy, but even if you only let them know that you appreciate them, you can be giving something much greater than a hastily selected present.

When you do want to give a gift, there are many kinds that won't strain your credit or leave you frazzled:

-       Cooked or crafted things which you actually enjoy making
My friend, librarian Kristin Garrity, makes the most wonderful holiday cookies, but the best part is the conversation we have while I'm nibbling on those tasty treats from her kitchen.

-       Homemade gift certificates for future fun together
I have had tremendous fun making up little books of these certificates for someone special. Each one becomes a shared dream of a good time I want us to have together. The words, “A walk in the woods with the smell of damp earth and redwoods and the sound of the wind in the treetops” are already something special, made even better when you both make the time to make the dream real.

-       Mix CDs (of music or photos)
I've been introduced to lots of great music this way, by both family and friends. Okay, maybe I wind up spending some of that money I save on gifts buying the albums with a song I particularly liked, but now every time I hear that music I think of the person who first shared their fondness for it with me.

-       Donations to charities (monetary or, if you have more hours than cash, your time in honor of someone else)
My grandmother’s tradition was to make donations to Heifer Project, the sustainable agriculture charity, in our names. This meant we got all the amusement of receiving a goat, without the actual goat in the house part.

-       Memories
One year my family ‘unwrapped’ memories for each other. Everyone took turns at telling a favorite memory of each other person. Those stories reminded us of what we treasure about each other and it was a lovely way to spend time together.


I’m one of the lucky ones. My family is not by any stretch of the imagination a high pressure one. Phrases such as “Well, I need a little me-time, so I’m going to go read for a bit” or “I think I’ll take a nap” are often heard and accepted without causing tension. As family holidays go, mine are awfully relaxing. Still, when I was a kid Christmas was always a big deal for us. I grew up in a big house with high ceilings and we took every advantage of that to make the holidays something special. A towering tree, covered in exotic ornaments. Festive draperies in the house. Room for all the family to visit. And, of utmost interest to a little kid, lots of packages under that big tree. Plus stockings to open on Christmas morning for everyone, including the grownups. Not stingy ones either: great big stockings that could come up to your knee bulging with fascinating things. The days leading up to Christmas proper were very exciting. Christmas Eve one package each might be opened. Christmas morning everyone would gather – after digging into stockings upon waking – for the main opening of the presents, which was done one package at a time rather than en masse. There were, as I said, a great many presents. So many in fact, that in generous years (or ones where many small gifts were making up for few large ones), we would take a break in the process of opening them in order to have brunch and fortify ourselves. All this makes us sound fabulously wealthy; we’re not. We just liked Christmas. For all the pleasures, though, it left us exhausted and broke.

Add up all the stuff: all the decorations, stockings, tree stands, draperies, strings of lights, special plates for special meals, and we haven’t even come to the presents themselves yet. At some point my family began to see the forest instead of the Christmas trees and realize that despite all our rituals around the presents, our pleasure had almost nothing to do with the money that was spent, or even with the number of them. We began to lower the pressure on ourselves and shift our focus to the less stress-inducing parts of the holiday. We started by saying that everyone deserves one big present, but that we shouldn’t all be buying extras just to make sure everyone gets one. We decided to draw names so that we each knew for whom we were shopping for their big present. Drawing names worked very well and we transitioned from definitely buying something small for every person to only getting other gifts if particularly inspired.

As the number of presents declined, so did our stress levels in December. That turned out to be the nicest gift we could give each other. We began to have more energy and time for just being together on the holiday, cooking, talking, singing, reading aloud, taking walks. Before many more years passed we were down to just a few presents each. The habit of opening a present on Christmas Eve faded and was replaced with experiential gifts to be shared – like a new jigsaw puzzle or a bunch of fancy cheeses to try. Now the presents are entirely optional.

Our holiday memories are now more, not less, rich for having fewer things involved in the season. Our homes are less cluttered, causing the chosen items we do keep to stand out and enrich our lives more easily. We remember and celebrate family and friends through digital pictures and stories, rather than objects, and our days are happier for it.

Each year now as I enter my holiday vacation time, it’s clear that the biggest gift my family has given each other is freedom from obligation. The real gift and the real focus is being together. We have traded presents for presence.