How to enjoy Christmas without spending – advice from the minimalists

Dreaming of a frugal Christmas? Meet the people who’ve stopped shopping

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 6:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 4:11pm

Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz told his family he didn’t want anything for Christmas. But when he opened his stocking to find a roll of duct tape, some cling film and tin foil, he relented. “I was ecstatic. I could use everything,” he says.

The 33-year-old dancer from Canada was in the middle of a “buy nothing” year when he opened his present, and had managed to cut out spending on anything except a predefined list of basic groceries and necessities for 12 months.

Szuszkiewicz is part of an anti-consumerist movement, known as minimalism or mindful consumerism, popularise around the world via blogs, self-help books and social media. This move towards buying less often attracts new converts during the festive season when people balk at the scale of Christmas spending.

According to Britain’s Nationwide Building Society, people in the UK on average spend roughly half of one month’s pay on Christmas. One in three, meanwhile, pay for Christmas using a credit card or overdraft.

Mark Boyle bought a smallholding in the west of Ireland with the proceeds of his book, The Moneyless Man, after spending three years living entirely without money. “I generally don’t spend anything at all at Christmas now – and I’m much, much happier,” he says.

“I didn’t buy or spend anything for those years – I’d grow or forage my food. Now I let people come and stay for free in my home, and run a moneyless pub. At Christmas, everyone from round here brings a bottle and we get together and have a shindig. For me, that’s what Christmas is about – meeting up and sharing food and drink. I avoid shopping at this time of the year in any way I can.”

Also among those who have embraced the more frugal lifestyle is financial journalist Michelle McGagh, who has been blogging about her “no-spend” year, and detailing the challenges and benefits of her new lifestyle. The savings she made helped her to pay off a substantial chunk of her mortgage. Last Christmas she spent just £14.53 (HK$113) on a meal for six people, did a “presents amnesty” with the adults in her family and made toy cars to give as gifts to her nephews.

Similarly, this Christmas will see Boyle make a few useful gifts for close friends and family out of wood, but he has stopped buying gifts completely and never receives any shop-bought presents. “There isn’t anything I need, even though I am supposedly living below the poverty line,” he says.

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Like many minimalists he now values time over money. “I think the best gift you can give someone is time, when you are genuinely fully present. Step off the treadmill of rushing around earning money to pay for stuff and you find life goes much slower. I have so much more time now to do the things I love doing – and not just at Christmas, but all year round. I feel liberated,” Boyle says.

Szuszkiewicz feels the same way. “You experience this huge release and liberation from cultural norms when you stop spending, especially at Christmas. I used to feel obligated to spend money I didn’t have on gifts I didn’t know whether my family needed or wanted. Now, everyone knows my policy is to not buy any gifts, so I no longer feel that obligation and I enjoy Christmas much more,” he said.

He is generous with his time instead, and during his “buy nothing” year made batches of chocolate, dried fruit and pickled vegetables which he gave to friends and family. “Consumables are great because they get eaten – and then they’re gone.”

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Szuszkiewicz is currently using the £24,000 he saved over his no-spend year to travel around the world, and owns no possessions other than those he carries in his backpack. But he doesn’t want anything for Christmas.

“Physical things are literally a burden for me – and that’s not what Christmas means to me any more. It’s about being with the people I love.”

He acknowledges that he makes a choice not to spend, rather than being forced into that position by circumstance. “But I think there’s nothing wrong with living this way, if you do have a choice. Why should you buy stuff that you don’t need to buy, just because you have more money to spend than other people?”

For people with children, the idea of an abstemious festive season might prove difficult. However, Sarah Koontz, a Christian writer from South Dakota in the US who has two young children, says it teaches willpower. “Completing two no-spend Christmases taught me that it is OK to accept a gift from someone knowing that I cannot reciprocate, or that I’ve spent far less on them. Everyone is entitled to their own gift-giving strategy, and comparison is a trap I prefer to avoid,” she says.

She says that she has been called stingy – or even Scrooge – from time to time, but her convictions carried her through. “Our family is able to enjoy the traditions of Christmas more now that we have eliminated consumerism from the holiday. We still exchange small gifts, many of them home-made, but we have learned that true generosity requires more than a credit card. Spending less money on Christmas forced us to be generous with our time, energy and talents. Those are the best gifts of all – because they are priceless.”

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She is not alone in feeling this way. Sal Crosland, a 33-year-old holistic therapist from Huddersfield, England, writes the minimalist blog She has got rid of everything in her home she doesn’t need, and now focuses on giving experiences and making memories with her loved ones at Christmas.

“When I was doing my no-spend year and I thought back to past Christmases, I realised I couldn’t remember what I got, but I could remember where I was and who I was with,” she says. “Now, instead of stressing about buying presents, I place more importance on relaxation and family time and I look forward to Christmas much more.”

She always asks her family not to buy her anything for Christmas, and even when other people are given gifts in front of her she says she doesn’t feel like she is missing out. “I know it is my choice and my decision to opt out – and that makes all the difference.”

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The act of cutting back on giving gifts at Christmas can be catching. Canadian blogger Cait Flanders went on a two-year-long shopping ban to try to pay off a C$30,000 (HK$174,564) debt, and in solidarity her family stopped exchanging gifts on Christmas Day. This year, even though the ban is over and the debt repaid, they have decided not to exchange gifts again. “It took so much pressure off everyone, and resulted in a much more meaningful holiday.”

Now she says that she would prefer to give someone a random gift on any other day of the year. “I hate feeling like I need to give gifts out of obligation.”

Regina Wong, founder of the Live Well With Less website, has similar motivations for reducing her spending at Christmas this year. “I have become uncomfortable with the highly commercial nature of Christmas and the general pressure and expectations of the season. I’m not against consumption – I’m just against mindless consumption, and consumption one can’t afford. I’ve realised I already have all I want or need.”

How to make the change

Tell people in advance that you won’t be buying gifts. “When I explained why I wasn’t spending at Christmas, the general reaction was relief,” Szuszkiewicz says. “People respected and understood my decision. If anyone doesn’t understand your reasons for cutting back, and still wants you to buy them something, I would recommend re-evaluating that relationship.”

Don’t underestimate your skills or the value of a home-made gift, says Boyle, especially one that celebrates what you think is wonderful about the person you are giving it to. “Every single person alive has got some sort of skill or hobby they can use to give someone a gift or an experience. And I think there’s a lot more heart and soul in something you make yourself for another person, especially if it is something unique and distinctive that you think that particular person will like and need.”

Remember that your presence can be a present, too. “A kid might want a computer at Christmas – but is that going to be the deepest longing of that kid’s heart?” Boyle says. “At another level, perhaps without even knowing how to articulate it, what that kid may really want is a deeper connection to his or her parents through quality time. Try to understand the person you are giving to, and what they long for, instead of feeding an addiction to consumerism.”