Sunday, November 30, 2008

Let's Talk About Consumerism

I'm sure that by now, most of us have heard about the Wal Mart employee that was trampled to death by shoppers, and how those same shoppers also broke down the doors to the store.

Really? Is this the society we live in? That just to save that bit of money (OK, yes, I understand they had some good deals) acting so aggressively is OK? Are you serious? How do you completely ignore someone who has been knocked to the ground? It's just boggling that people would let someone lay on the ground, while other people rushed around and over them. I would also imagine that at some point this person made some sound of pain or groaning...and they were ignored. This is utterly shameful.

Yesterday, I was in Target. In line in front of me was a man, probably around 60ish. He was moaning about prices while holding his cash, and not giving it to the cashier so she could finish ringing him up. I suspect he was trying to angle for some kind of "oh, let me give you a discount" treatment from the cashier. I'm not kidding when I say this man was complaining about "how many people I have to buy gifts for...I just don't have that much money...My money doesn't go as far as it once did." It's a good thing I wasn't the cashier, because I wouldn't have handled him with the grace and patience she did.

Both the Wal Mart and Target stories are examples of just how appalling I think the Christmas shopping season has become. (Note: yes, I know there are other religions with gift-giving holidays/traditions in December, but let's face it, most people buying gifts are buying for Christmas celebrations.)

When we look at shopping for the holidays, consider:

1. You don't "need" to buy gifts for all those people. I don't know a whole lot about Christianity, but I'm pretty sure the bible doesn't say "buy gifts for everyone you know, to celebrate the birth of Christ." People are so far gone from what Christmas is really supposed to be about, and use it as an excuse to buy an over-abundance of gifts (many of which people don't want or don't care about). Even as a non-Christian, I know Christmas isn't about how many gifts you give or receive, and I wish more people would remember this.

2. Most of the people reading this live in the US, which means that you're living in a first world economy, and you have some level of affluence (or at least you have a computer and an internet connection). Remember your affluence. I'm still 98% unemployed, but I'm still better off than people in third world countries in that I have money in the bank and could get a job if I really pursued it. There is a recession going on, and it has spread throughout most of the world now. Think about that. Really. A lady I know can't afford the gifts her teenage kids want, so she's going to have them volunteer for some charities this holiday season, to show them how good they have it already and that the newest electronics/whatever they want, isn't that important in the grand scheme of things because there are people and teens in their community who have nothing.

3. If you are going to buy gifts for people, do it with care and thought. Personally, I am a big fan of consumable gifts. Every year or so, I buy my mother some perfume. I used to give some older relatives a variety of food stuffs, and they loved that. I take friends out to dinner or for drinks for their birthdays. The latter creates great memories, instead of giving them a CD that gets lost in the depths of their CD collections. Consider making donations in people's names, and then presenting them with a card notifying them of the donation. Or just talk to people and say "Hey, do you mind if we not give gifts this year?" You'll probably be surprised at how many people will breathe a sigh of relief as they say "Yes, that would be fine." Send cards to let people know you are thinking of them over the holidays. Or, just pick up the phone and give someone your time and talk to them for 20 or 30 minutes. If you are going to buy a gift, find out what the person wants or can use. My father always used to say that the perfect gift was one that he wouldn't buy for himself. Gifts should be treats, not obligations. If a gift is an obligation, I recommend rethinking why you are giving that gift in the first place.

I know that we're in a recession right now, and that spending money helps the economy. My point is to not get so crazy that people are killed, or that what should be a happy time becomes a "I don't have enough money" burden. If you're of the Christian faith, think about what Christmas means from a religious perspective, and remember that buying carloads of gifts isn't the best way to commemorate the holiday.

Gift giving should not be a competitive sport.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Economy and Spreading the Wealth

So, I was having dinner last night, and the man I was with and I were discussing the economy and its effects on both of us, and US in general.

As I've mentioned, I lost my primary client about a month ago. I haven't been really working since then (I've been working on some website stuff, but I've spent very little time with that), and that's by choice -- I haven't been seriously seeking new work.

He has his own business, and last month and this month to date have been grim. Things can go either way for him, because of the nature of his business.

One thing we both agree on, is that people are over-reacting to the recession. He pointed out that so many people hear "recession" and they think "depression" or "dust bowl." We both agree that people should live and spend like they normally do. When people stop spending money, it just exacerbates a slowing economy. To wit, we went to dinner at about 10pm, and the restaurant was completely empty. Granted, it was not in the downtown core of Seattle, but that's not what you expect on a Friday night.

I've been thinking for a while that what people need to do is just spend some frivolous money every week. Go out to dinner. Go to the movies. Buy groceries at local markets, instead of the grocery stores -- even if it costs a little more. Just pump some money into local businesses. Let's look at it this way, with the restaurant last night as an example: people continue to hoard money and not eat out and half the waitstaff is laid off, and maybe the restaurant eventually closes. Because people are hoarding their money, other people are directly and negatively affected (less money, no job), and local business suffers. Anytime people hoard money without spending on anything non-essential, they are impacting their local economy. Economies thrive because money is put in to them.

I'm not saying everyone should go on major shopping sprees or get into debt. Far from it. I think the first priority is to build an emergency fund, even if it's just $1000. Second, work on paying down debt, but don't let this dominate your personal budget -- allow you or your family a "splurge" for each week even if you don't normally. If you have income, share it.

We can't expect the government to bail out every organization hurt by this recession. That said, I strongly believe that individuals can have a much greater impact on their local economy than they probably think they can. I'm not advocating using credit cards, by the way.

So, help your local economy by going forth and spending some cash.