Friday, November 30, 2018

A Handmade Christmas

There's still time to hand make gifts for Christmas!

Several of the following projects can be finished in a couple of hours while you're watching a holiday movie.  Some can be done by your kids or with their help.  All are useful or will be used up, so they won't contribute to anyone's clutter.

For the family
  • Using large needles and chunky yarn, knit or crochet a cozy throw.  If you're not sure of an appropriate color, choose ivory.
  • Gather quart-size glass jars and grocery store ingredients for homemade bean soup mix or cookie mix.
  • Roll up some beeswax candles.
  • Tie a fleece blanket.
  • Create a wall calendar using Shutterfly

For Her
  • Knit or crochet a soft and cozy scarf or shawl with variegated Red Heart Unforgettable yarn.
  • Mix up some sugar body scrub.
  • Sew some therapeutic hot/cold rice packs.
  • Embellish a sweatshirt (there are hundreds more ideas online).
  • Make a laminated bookmark with your own art, a poem, dried flowers, or even embroidery.  Give it along with a favorite book. 

For Him

For Kids
  • Knit or crochet a warm hat in chunky Premier Sweet Roll yarn.
  • Collect tree branches to make a set of blocks.  Add a few Schleich animals who can live in the structures created with the blocks.
  • Use scrapbook supplies to embellish a plain notebook for a personalized journal.  Include a pack of gel pens with your gift.
  • Paint a rock, or a family of rocks.  Put together a kit so they can paint their own.
  • Pack a dress-up kit in an old suitcase.  Visit a thrift store (or your own closet) for items such as costume jewelry, scarves or bandanas, a tutu, a plastic tiara, an old white dress shirt, an old leather vest, an eye patch, hats, a plastic sword, a black cape, a wand, old sunglasses, a belt, a feather boa, an apron, purses and play money, an old lace tablecloth, whatever you can find that seems fun!

We give gifts to show our love, right?  Making a gift with time and care adds even more value for your recipient.  So get creative today! 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

7 Ways to Be a Minimalist Parent During the Holidays

By late November, toys have been relentlessly advertised for months.  Long lines of children wait to meet the mall Santa, encouraged to ask for whatever they want.  Letters to Santa, some asking for dozens of toys, are mailed.  At school, the dominant conversation is about who wants what and whether their Christmas wish will come true.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles, even kindly strangers on the street greet kids with the question, "What do you want for Christmas?"

In this atmosphere, the minimalist parent can feel like a Grinch and his kids can feel cheated if the holiday haul seems inadequate.

You've read the latest studies confirming that children are happier with fewer toys.  They're less distracted, more creative, and more engaged in their play.  They imagine and make do more effectively.  With fewer toys, they're more likely to take care of what they have, and the whole family benefits from less clutter and frustration.

So your values are clear.  How do you implement these values without sacrificing fun and festivity?  Here are seven ideas for turning your child's focus away from "I want this" and "I want that" this holiday season.

1.  When it comes to making your children happy, time together is the most important gift of all.

Gather the kids and have a family conversation about what the holidays would be like without any presents.  Would you still have fun?

Of course you would.  Ask the kids to come up with specific things you could do together that everyone would enjoy.
  • You could visit Grandma.
  • You could make fudge.
  • You could go caroling with your friends.
  • You could drive into the mountains to that tree farm you like, and spend the afternoon hunting for your favorite fir.
  • You could make tree ornaments and play Christmas music while you decorate.
  • You could drink a lot of hot chocolate.
  • You could go see the "Nutcracker" ballet.
  • You could read holiday stories aloud.
  • You could make care packages for the homeless.
  • You could take a drive and look at all the twinkling lights around town.
  • You could build a family of snowmen.
  • You could watch "Elf."
  • You could invite all the cousins for a sleepover in front of the Christmas tree.
There are so many enjoyable things that can be part of the holiday season even without presents.  As you can see, once the ideas start rolling, the list can grow and grow.  You could post the list on the refrigerator, or write the ideas on separate strips of paper and put them in a decorative jar.  Whenever there's some free time, choose an idea and make it happen.  You'll find yourselves walking in the park to collect pine cones, or making a gingerbread house, or ice skating.

This process simply makes it clear that the best, most memorable parts of the holiday season have nothing to do with receiving gifts.  They don't need to cost a lost of money.  It's the time and togetherness that make them so valuable.

2.  Establish minimalist gift-giving traditions.

This could mean one large gift plus smaller "stocking" items, or one gift for the whole family plus one gift for each child, or the semi-traditional "one thing they want, one thing they need, one thing to wear, and one thing to read."

3.  Buy fewer gifts, but ones that are strongly desired.

Get ideas by paying attention to what your kids are saying and doing on a day-to-day basis.  What do they choose for their free time?  What activities would they like to try, or become more involved with?  What skills are they interested in acquiring?  What do they ask you about?  If you're noticing these things, you can pick up lots of gift ideas without ever engaging them in the "I want..." mindset.

4.  Don't browse for wants.

Whether online, at the mall, or in an old-fashioned catalog, don't go looking for things to want.

5.  Ask relatives to bring requests for gift ideas to you, not the kids.

I always appreciated such requests, because it was clear the grandpa or auntie in question really wanted to choose a gift that would be appreciated by my child.  But when they ask the child directly, it encourages more and more thoughts about stuff they want.  Plenty of wants come up in ordinary, advertisement-filled life.  Why encourage it?

6.  Involve your children in choosing, making or purchasing, and wrapping gifts for others.

Kids love to be generous, so foster that.  Encourage them to focus on what others (such as teachers, grandparents, or cousins) might want, need, or like to have or experience.

7.  Make charity an important part of your holidays.

Make sure your kids know there are other kids who don't have toys, or enough clothing or food, or even a family or a place to live.  This isn't meant to inspire guilt, but to emphasize the abundance your family has and may sometimes take for granted.  Participate in a local toy drive, volunteer at a soup kitchen or food bank, or donate an animal through Heifer International or World Vision. 

"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.   
Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"  
 Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas 

Monday, November 26, 2018

A Gift List For People Who Actually Need Gifts

'Tis the season for "Best Gift Ideas" lists in every magazine.  These tend to be trendy, expensive, and full of soon-to-be clutter.  They also seem to be for people who have everything they need and most of what they want.

Here in northern California, devastating fires have destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.  While insurance will eventually help most people recover, many are currently homeless, jobless, and needing to move elsewhere to start over.  I haven't seen any "Best Gift Ideas" that would have value for them.

You may have friends or family who are seeking work, others who are in "starter" or other low-wage jobs, some who are paying off student loans or consumer debt, who are living on a fixed income, or who are living frugally in order to save toward a goal (a car, a house, their kids' college, etc.).  You don't want to insult someone or come across like a financial know-it-all, but you don't want to ignore the situation either.

A recent poll shows that young adults with student debt overwhelmingly prefer money to pay the debt, rather than a typical holiday gift.  That's probably true for anyone under the burden of debt, unemployment, or dependence on Social Security.  Haven't we all been in situations where just a little help would go a long way toward making life simpler and less stressful?

Why not give a gift that can make a difference?

Let's spread a little comfort and joy.  Suggestions are listed by category, but there's plenty of overlap.  Gifts in one category might be perfect for someone in a different situation.

For the currently or recently unemployed
  • Make a utility payment.  Your brother mentioned he's fallen behind on the electric bill.  Why not offer to pay the next one, or help him catch up on back payments?
  • Make an insurance payment.  Whether it's auto, homeowner's, or health insurance, having a policy canceled for lack of payment is a potential disaster.  Offer some peace of mind.
  • Give groceries.  You never want anyone to choose whether to pay a bill or buy food.  Give a grocery card in the largest amount you can afford.
  • Give gas.  Not the kind from your homemade chili (though they might appreciate a batch of that for their freezer), but the kind to get them where they need to go.  A gas card is a boon to anyone short on cash.

For those just getting started
  • Pay the deposit on their new apartment.  It's a wonderful housewarming gift.
  • Buy transportation.  A 30-day (or longer) transit pass for their city will give them lots of mobility.
  • Give a treat.  Your niece barely has money for rent, let alone fun.  Give her a movie theater gift card, a restaurant gift card, or some other splurge she'll enjoy.

For those paying off debt
  • Make a student loan payment.  Almost 70% of students polled would receive this gift with thanks.  The rest might too, if it were offered.
  • Teach a skill.  Share your frugal-living knowledge.  Offer to teach and/or buy basic equipment for gardening, cooking, sewing, home DIY, auto maintenance, etc.).
  • Bring in experts.  If a book (such as Your Money or Your Life, The Complete Tightwad Gazette, or The Total Money Makeover) has helped you toward financial freedom, give a copy to your friend. 

For those on a fixed income
  • Pay a medical bill.  Medicare doesn't pay everything, and unpaid medical bills are some of the most depressing.  Lift some of that burden.
  • Provide a jump or a tow.  Especially if their car is older, a one-year AAA membership will help them feel more secure.
  • Offer free labor.  When money is tight, things are left undone.  Offer to do yard work, home repairs, carpet cleaning, or whatever is needed.
  • Share an outing.  When money is tight, luxuries are cut.  Take your aunt for a manicure and then to lunch.  Take your mom and dad to a play.  Don't just give the tickets; give your time.

For those using frugality to reach a goal
  • Give family fun.  A one-year membership at the zoo, aquarium, or a favorite museum is worth far more than the cost.
  • Pay for extras.  Your sister and brother-in-law want the best for their kids (that's why they're saving for college).  Offer to pay for sports or music lessons that aren't in their budget.
  • Support their efforts.  Give a gift that enables frugality, such as a programmable slow cooker for easy homemade meals, an electric clipper and some shears to banish $30 haircuts, a cold brew coffee maker and a pound of coarsely-ground organic coffee to replace expensive take-out brews. 

Think of gifts in terms of the value they'll have for the recipient.

You may feel sorry for a friend who's had a tough year, but you're not giving out of pity.  You care about his self respect.  Communicate your thoughts with a brief note:

Dear Aunt Faye, a gas card doesn't seem very exciting, but I wanted to give a gift I was sure would be used.  At least you won't have to find a place for it or keep it dusted!
Dear Brian, student loans are no fun, especially when you're just starting out.  I had some myself, which is why I'd like to help with a payment.  If that makes you feel weird, you can just pay it forward to someone else someday.
Dear Jean, you've done a great job keeping things together for the kids since the divorce.  I'm glad you felt you could confide in us about some of your financial challenges, and I hope you'll let us help out a bit as our holiday gift to you.
Give gifts that make a positive difference, and they'll bring comfort and joy now and in the future. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Receiving Gifts

How does a minimalist deal with receiving gifts?  

Perhaps you think minimalism requires an offensive "reverse Scrooge" attitude that shouts, "Don't you dare give me anything that will clutter up my life!"

Here's what I do.

If you're new to minimalism, or even just starting to feel that you want to live with more lightness and freedom, by all means share your resolutions and desires with your loved ones.  

Prepare to be patient with them, because the idea of wanting less rather than more is startling to some people, and can be a difficult concept to take on board.  As time goes on, and they see that your lifestyle becomes permanent, they'll make adjustments.  That's what happened for me.  Now my family and close friends know I'm not interested in acquiring a lot of things I don't really need, so they try to choose gifts they think I'll use and enjoy.

Minimalism makes room.  

As your home becomes less cluttered and your schedule less harried, you can accommodate a few new gifts or experiences.  It may seem contradictory to add new things, but one benefit of minimalism is that instead of being weighed down by your stuff and your past, you can be open to what the future offers. 

Provide a gift list well in advance of the holiday.  

There are usually things I need, and I do occasionally have wants!  For example, this Christmas I'm in need of a new warm nightgown, I'd like a couple of pure beeswax pillar candles, and there's a new book I'm interested in (Joshua Becker's The Minimalist Home).  Experiences and consumables make wonderful minimalist gifts, so I let it be known that I enjoy going to the movies and I'm a fan of Temple Coffee in Sacramento.  People who give gifts usually want to please the receiver, so my loved ones are happy to know about items I would appreciate having. 

Don't feel guilty about purging.  

If a holiday gift only adds clutter to your home or to your kid's toy box, don't feel guilty about donating or selling it.  It was given to you, presumably without strings attached.  If it will be valuable to someone else, let it go.  Your loved one would surely not want you to feel burdened by a gift.

If it's really the thought that counts, make it clear that you thought carefully.  

Just as you hope that others will give you gifts that meet your desires, so you should do the same for them.  You may prefer experiences over things, but that doesn't mean your loved one feels the same.  If she would love another item for her large collection of frog-themed décor, buy it for her, even if you consider it to be clutter.  If you know he'd really like an iTunes gift card, get him the gift card.  Share your thoughts about minimalism another time.

Be gracious.  

Maya Angelou once wrote, "When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed."  I'm thankful there are people who care enough about me to give me gifts, and I do my best to let them know I appreciate all that they add to my life.  A tangible gift is just a symbol for a relationship, and that's what I really cherish.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

This Holiday, Just Say No

Every year I have to remind myself again that the most memorable events of the holiday season are the simplest.

Why do I need to complicate it, or get so busy that I don't have time or energy to savor the things that make me happy?

For a more satisfying holiday season, don't forget to say NO.

Just say no to Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and other forced shopping situations.

I feel more pressure to purchase when something is on sale, even if it's not exactly what I want.  Really, if the best thing about something is the price, is it worth it?

Just say no to new holiday décor.

I know the Christmas Village dinnerware is festive, and so is that cute Nutcracker doormat.  New holiday gear is always tempting, since retailers need us to buy every year to preserve their profits.  But take a look at what you already have.  Is it enough?  If there's plenty, but you still want more, think about what's making you so dissatisfied.  I have enough, and I'd rather feel contented with what I have than focused on something I think I'm missing.

Just say no to the mall and the big box stores.

Why risk road rage in the parking lot and tired, frustrated shoppers and workers?  Visit the small locally owned shops.  I live in a bountiful agricultural area, so it's easy to buy locally grown nuts, dried fruits, honey, olives and olive oil, wine, and organic wild rice.  I love to give books, and a local independent book store sells quality used books along with brand new bestsellers.  In the museum gift shop, I might buy a pack of handmade greeting cards or a pair of earrings created by a local artist.  In the yarn shop I find soft washable wool to crochet a scarf or hat.

I can choose experience gifts too:

  • tickets to a play at the community theater
  • a gift certificate for a massage or facial at the day spa
  • a movie theater gift card
  • tickets for the local escape room
  • a gift card from a favorite restaurant

Just say no to spoiling the kids.

Your child will benefit from fewer toys in so many ways.  In fact, when I see the toys most kids are drowning in, it almost feels like child abuse to me.  Don't believe it?  Check out this article by Joshua Becker and see if you're not convinced.  We give gifts in order to show love, so let's not give in a way that might actually be detrimental.

Give a few items that encourage learning, cooperation, and creativity, such as:

  • books
  • toys for pretending, like dishes and cookware, a doctor kit, dolls and stuffed animals, or dress-up clothes
  • building sets, like wooden trains, Duplos, Legos, or K'Nex
  • tools for exploration, like field guides, binoculars, or seeds and child-size gardening tools
  • sports or camping equipment
  • art supplies
  • sewing or knitting/crochet supplies
  • a musical instrument
  • a board or card game

Just say no to holiday competition.

Does your house need to sport the most lights on the block?  Does the pile of gifts under your tree need to be larger than last year?  Are you a contestant for Most Homemade Cookies or Most Lavish Holiday Outfit?  Who are you competing with?  You are enough.  I am enough.  There's no prize for holiday overspending and overwhelm.

Just say no to overcommitting.

Holiday parties and concerts and outings are fun, but they quickly become less than special when you're going every night or every weekend.  When you have a constant string of errands to perform and pageant costumes to sew and a canned food drive to organize, something will have to give.  Losing sleep and skimping on self care will sap your energy very quickly.  Please don't put yourself in a position where you're just trying to survive the holiday season.  Limit your commitments so you can be joyfully present at each one.  You do enough.  I do enough.  Let's focus on activities that have the most meaning for us, and leave out the rest.

Just say no to overeating and overdrinking.

I'm not hungrier on a holiday than on any other day, so why should I pile my plate full of food and take seconds and even thirds?  Scale down the holiday meals and parties.  You'll save money, waste less food, and be more inclined to savor and enjoy your favorite foods when you're not gorging on them.  More importantly, you'll be more available to the people you love and you won't feel regret at the end of the day.

Just say no to negative talk.

You don't have to moan about how much you have to do or how high January's credit card bill is going to be.  You can choose to lower the pace and the cost of the season.

Just say no to drama.

We have so many expectations for this season of the year, so much nostalgia, so much riding on feeling "the holiday spirit."  Sometimes we push too hard.  And then when something doesn't go just right, or when someone doesn't flow with our plans, we're extra disappointed.  I think this contributes to unpleasantness that sometimes occurs, especially at family parties.  So take a deep breath.  You can choose peace, patience, and compassion.  You can accept imperfection.  Following the other suggestions in this post can help make it possible.

Just say no to living on autopilot.

Pay attention to what your senses are telling you.  Notice and enjoy the scents of wood smoke and fir trees, the sounds of laughter and carolers, the sights of fresh snow and twinkling lights, the feel of a warm scarf or your loved one's arms, and the tastes of spiced cider and Grandma's walnut pie.  Perhaps you'll realize that you already have more than enough reasons to celebrate.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Ready for Black Friday

"Are you ready for Black Friday?"

It was just friendly chitchat from a grocery store clerk, but it caught me by surprise.  The aisles were packed with people shopping for Thanksgiving dinner, just as I was.  But in our consumerist culture, Thanksgiving Day has become Black Friday Eve.  In fact, if you count Cyber Monday, Thanksgiving is just the prelude to a very long weekend of shopping.

Does that bother you?  Thanksgiving, which is supposed to be a day about being grateful for all you have, has become a time to make your shopping list and check it twice, because everyone you know (yourself included) needs even more.

Apparently, the true meaning of the holidays in America isn't family, or peace on earth, or the light of goodness and joy shining in spite of the darkness of human woes.

It's about a bunch of new stuff.

Even children are encouraged to expect that Santa will bring them all the stuff they want.

I'm not immune to this.  It's not just "those people" who commercialize Christmas, it's me too.  When I start planning for Christmas, this is what I think about, generally in this order:

  • Gifts (making a list, shopping, wrapping, shipping)
  • Food (for gift-giving, for get-togethers, and how to keep myself from eating too much of it)
  • Décor (a list of what I "need" to buy for the house, for the tree, for the table)
  • Music (usually lots of choir practices and performances)

Eventually, I also think about
  • Giving to people who actually have needs, instead of to those who already have plenty
  • OH YEAH, DON'T FORGET:  Jesus, whose birth we're celebrating

Finally, and continually, I think about
  • Money (how we'll afford all of it, and how long it will take to pay off the Visa bill)

I do love spending time with my family, so I also think about special activities and outings we can share together, such as movie nights with favorite holiday films, Christmas stories to read aloud, an evening of board games, attendance at a special concert or play, driving around looking at light displays, and the carol service at church on Christmas Eve.

Interestingly, more than almost any physical gift, it is these shared activities that my now-grown kids remember most through the years.

They still like to do those things with us.  It's those fun times together, along with a few other non-material things, that create Christmas joy for all of us.

  • It's Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas," and Mannheim Steamroller, and Handel's Messiah, and sets of keys shaken while caroling "Jingle Bells" that sound like Christmas.
  • It's the scents of fir and pine, wood smoke and rain-fresh air, and cinnamon, cloves, and pumpkin pie that smell like Christmas.
  • It's the twinkling lights on houses and trees, glowing candles, and the pair of choirboy angels my mom bought the year I was born that look like Christmas to us.

My kids fondly remember the year we didn't spend money on gifts but took a trip to Mendocino, on California's north coast, instead.  They never forget the ice cream shop on Main Street that opened on Christmas morning and gave free scoops to all who stopped by.

They remember aunts and uncles and cousins we may not often see but with whom we've had happy times.  They remember (with laughter) the extremely bad jokes my father always told, and we all miss him now that he has passed away.  They remember Christmas Eves when we slept in piles of blankets on the living room floor with the tree lights on all night.  We look at photo albums, those relics of the 20th century, and remember the way we were.

Gifts?  Do we remember any gifts?  Very few.  I remember a fancy doll I got one year when I was about nine.  Another time I got my very own sewing basket, just like Mama's.  My kids remember getting their bikes and their own CD players.  Otherwise we remember nothing specific, though much money and time and energy was expended.

What would happen if we focused less on what comes from a store and more on all the sights, sounds, scents, and shared activities that we actually remember so fondly and in such detail?

Giving gifts is only one of the love languages.  Why don't we consciously, deliberately focus on the other possibilities:
  • Physical touch (hugs, kisses, hand holding, pats, fist bumps, neck rubs, etc.)
  • Acts of service (kindness, thoughtfulness, doing chores for another, dropping grudges, forgiving, compromising, etc.)
  • Words of affirmation (sincere compliments, saying "I love you" and "thank you," giving encouragement, speaking positively instead of complaining, etc.)
  • Quality time (focused and uninterrupted attention, listening, trying to understand the other's point of view, shared activities, etc.)

Am I ready for Black Friday?  You bet.

I'm going to listen to Christmas music all day, cook breakfast with my husband, and write a letter to my elderly uncle who doesn't do email.  I'll put out my choir boy angels and hang a Christmas wreath.  I'll entertain my grandson while my pregnant daughter has a rest, and call a friend who recently had back surgery.  In the evening, grateful for Thanksgiving leftovers, my husband and I will pop in a video, perhaps The Muppet Christmas Carol.  It has lots of humor, some great songs, and Michael Caine is Scrooge.  Bless us, every one!