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By Voice In The Wilderness
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Folly of Christmas Spending

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[Nyerges is the author of several books, such as “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. Information about his classes, and Blog, can be found at]
“Look at all the money I saved,” my friend excitedly told me with an enthusiastic grin, pointing to various boxes with Christmas wrappings on his table.  I was visiting an old friend who I’d not seen in years, who I’d heard was experiencing financial hard times.

“What did you get?” I asked.

He proceeded to show me some electronic items, objects that I mostly did not recognize, plus many gifts that he described as “obligatory.”

“So, how much did you save?” I ventured.

“Forty percent,” was his quick answer.

“Forty percent of what?”  I asked.  I could tell that my friend wanted to share his excitement with me, but he chose the wrong person to revel in his shopping savvy.

“The retail of this new phone is $300,” he told me.

“Really?” I said, picking it up and turning it over in my hands.  “And why do you need this? Was the one you already have malfunctioning?”

“Are you serious?” he challenged.  “It’s working, but it’s obsolete.  This one,” he said, holding it a few inches in front of my face, “is the coolest latest model.”

“I see,” I said, rather detachedly. “And you paid for it with your credit card?” 

“Of course,” he said, shocked that I would even ask such a ridiculous question. 

“And do you pay off your credit card bill when it arrives each month?” I ventured.

“Of course, I mean, I pay off what’s required.”

“So you pay the minimum?” I said. “So you don’t pay off the card. You pay interest month after month.” I paused.  I knew I was not there to make him feel good about his shopping. I knew that his shopping was the reason he was having financial difficulty. 
“Look,” I said, “I hope I’m not the first one telling you this, but your electronic gadget is usually sold for less than $300. That’s an inflated retail price and so you didn’t really save 40%. And since you’re paying interest on it, that supposed savings is even less.  Are you willing to have a chat about some basics of personal economics?  I mean, I saved much more than you simply by not buying something that I don’t need, and can’t afford.” My friend seemed forlorn, and went quiet.

Though my friend was constantly having “money problems” such as running out of money that he needed before the end of the month, I knew that his problem wasn’t “money,” per se. In this case, my friend’s sense of self-importance was boosted each time he purchased something new, even if he didn’t need it, even if he really couldn’t afford it.

And if spending money provides one with a sense of self-importance, I knew that my friend would continue to make bad monetary decisions until he found a more substantial concept upon which to base his self-image.

“Look,” I told him, “do you really want to get out of debt?  Do you really want your life to be different?”  He nodded enthusiastically.

“OK,” I continued.  “To begin with, you need to keep track of your income, and never spend more than you make each month.  For example, if you can’t pay off your total credit card each month when the bill comes then you can’t afford those purchases.  Unless you experienced an emergency, you should not have purchased those items, Period.”  I emphasized that he really needed to scrutinize each purchase and buy only those things he really needed, and not just stuff that he desired.

In our short time together, I doubt that I changed my friend’s mental wiring that causes him to justify the excessive shopping. But perhaps it was a step in the right direction. To use the alcohol analogy, he wasn’t quite an alcoholic yet who needed rehab; rather, he was the guy whose drinking was starting to cause more and more problems and disruptions in his life.  He was not yet beyond redemption.

As an environmentalist, I have long believed that one of our biggest ecological problems is that we all want more and more, and that demand pulls excessively hard on the supply chain, meaning, more and more raw materials, and energy, and water, are required to produce the mountains of “stuff” that we all seem to revel in. Especially at Christmas. And if material things were the source of true happiness, I wouldn’t mind, but just the reverse seems to be true.

I tried to instill in my friend the sense that each item, each resource that he handles, came from somewhere. Someone mined the materials, processed the materials and turned them into some object, and then packaged and shipped the materials, all using up way more resources than just the object in question.  My friend nodded, but I’m not sure he cared so much about the environment. 

“Try making something yourself,” I suggested.  “You know, carving something out of scrap wood, growing some food items and canning jam or pickles, even fixing up old furniture and chairs and selling them or giving them as gifts,” I said.  I even suggested that he learn to sew and develop the appreciation that comes with making something with your own hands.  “Then, the objects of your life – and the gifts you give – have a story, and they don’t add to the burden of trash in the world.”  He nodded.

I don’t know if he will change, but as I left, I shared with him the old adage from the Depression:  Fix it up, wear it out, use it over, or do without.   Not only would this help him to economize and save money, but I believe it will give him an improved self-image.

What do you think?

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