Friday, December 14, 2007

Flogging A Dead Horse

buy nothing christmasIn days of yore, sailors were paid in advance for their first month at sea. Most of them had usually spent all of it (or rather, drunk all of it) before they came aboard. So for their first month they were working to earn money they had already spent, and thus were not terribly motivated. Trying to get them to do anything was like flogging a dead horse, i.e. pointless. At the end of the month the sailors would make an effigy of a dead horse, beat it, then dump it overboard. This is (one version of) the origin of the phrase "flogging a dead horse".

Earlier this month I challenged you to calculate your hourly take-home pay. If you know this number, you can convert any purchase into "work-hours". So you can see that the beautiful wool coat you really want costs 30 work-hours, or the lunch at Starbucks that takes twenty minutes to eat will cost you a whole hour at work.

But what if your money is spent before you even earn it? Do your mortgage repayments, loans and credit card repayments eat up your entire paycheck? Maybe this isn't a year-round situation, but you over-extend yourself every Christmas, planning to pay it back in January. Then like the seamen, you spend the first month of every year flogging a dead horse.

It's none of my business. Maybe you like it that way. If you have thought about it and decided that a few days of mid-winter revelry are worth a January of belt-tightening, then that's your informed decision, and that's fine. But perhaps a few people reading this are thinking "No, I don't really enjoy it that much. It's just stressful and expensive. But I feel obliged."

I've sat staring at this post for a long time. I've deleted big parts of it, and then retyped some of it over again. I'm worried it sounds preachy. But honestly, I don't want to tell people how to spend their money. My main point is that no-one should tell you how to spend your money. But that's exactly what adverts do - and lots of people fall into the trap. It's not because they're stupid, it's because the ads are clever. They use sophisticated psychological techniques to make you feel that you won't be happy unless you buy their products. You won't be popular. You won't be attractive. You won't be a good parent. That's strong stuff. And they've bombarded you since your earliest years. They bombard you from all directions. And they bombard your family and friends so that if you try to break free, the people you love will accuse you of those same things they've seen in the ads. It's no joke. It's social engineering on a scale Chairman Mao could only dream of. And it works.

The point I'm trying to make is that you should decide for yourself what Christmas means to you, and you should decide for yourself how you spend your money. You can have a happy and stressless Christmas without spending lots of money. I swear it's true. Wake up. Think on. Opt out.


Jamie said...

thought provoking post mel. i decided to opt out again this year. i have made most of the gifts i am sending, and only ending them to those people who are important to me. the thought of joining the hustle and bustle of christmas shoppers as they run around trying to get something for everyone to the detriment of their own financial wellbeing does not appeal to me.

makes you think doesnt it...


Tracy said...

I have been thinking this way for some years now and gradually am getting all relatives used to either home made or home grown presents.
We also try to provide as much food and drink as poss from home grown or home made produce.
Thats easy. My problem is the children. How do you convince a 10 yr old boy he doesn't really need a nintendo wii? I don't think you can so I buy it or I feel guilty for spoiling his conviction that Santa will bring him what he wants. umm. I know - I'm in the consumer trap and I can't help it!!

Tracy said...

I forgot to add that having brought up two children, with hindsight I am wondering if this Father Christmas lie should be stopped. Or is that spoiling some magic? A quandry.

Melanie Rimmer said...

Tracy, I don't see a problem with getting him a Nintendo Wii for Christmas. But I wouldn't also buy him a PS3, an XBox 360, a Nintendo DS Lite, hundreds of pounds worth of games for all these consoles, a RoboRaptor, a light-up scooter and a pair of £99 trainers that only differ from £20 trainers because they have a "swoosh". That would be OTT in my opinion. We're getting a Wii this year - in fact it's "From Santa to the Rimmer family", it's not just for one person but for all of us. The kids like video games and I'm hoping this will make them more of a family activity rather than solely an individual activity.

I personally have no problem with telling kids about Santa. I see it as a lovely part of the magic of childhood, and part of our cultural tradition, rather than lying to children. But I totally respect anyone who has come to the opposite conclusion (as long as they don't spoil it for the rest of us!)

Tracy said...

Hi Mel
There's the rub you see. How can you say to a 5 yr old "Santa doesn't exist instead Christmas is magic because of x, y and z" and then not expect them to go to school and spread the word - irate parents to follow! I hope I don't sound too ba humbug but this is something I have struggled with and not found an answer to.
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

This really got me thinking a lot, and I agree, magic isn't bought, it's created by love and care and thought for others. We never had a real xmas tree when I was a boy, we had the same plastic one for 15 years. Each year, though, my xmas began by sitting on the carpet next to the fire with my dad, with all the pieces of the tree a gigantic green jigsaw puzzle spread around us, whilst we tried to remember what order it screwed together in from last year. It might not sound a true Dickensian xmas, but as a child there was no moment so exciting.

Your thoughts also got me thinking about that other money pit, the wedding. According to the Guardian the average wedding costs over £16000, for white dresses and tuxes that only get used once, flowers that are dead 3 days later, photographers who have no idea who you are (and who take everyone's identikit wedding photographs next to the same bush in the same park) and huge receptions for people from your work whom you barely know and like even less, all for the 'look' of the thing. Does expense equal magic?

My wedding to Lindsey was, without any hesitation, the single best and most magical day of my life, although each day I've spent with her since runs it a very close second. She didn't wear a huge white extravaganza, but there was no woman more beautiful than her as she walked down the aisle to be next to me. I think there were other people in the room, but I sincerely only remember it being her and me. Bill kindly let us invite a few of our most loved friends and relations to celebrate the wedding at his house, and each room you passed through had a wonderous difference:- a room for singing, a room for telling stories, a room for being merry, a room for celebrating family. And one of our dearest friends took photographs, and missed almost the entire wedding, sitting alone with a computer to mix them all down and present to us before we left for our honeymoon. And as payment wouldn't even accept a cup cake.

It only cost us a couple of hundred pounds. But it was the most magical day, the day I will remember when all other memories have faded.

So I agree Mel, magic isn't measured by pound signs, it's measured in the hearts of those you care about.

Merry xmas to you, and to all the fellow Beansprout readers.



Chile said...

Thank you, Mel, for posting this. My response started to get so long I decided I need to turn it into a blog post. Like you, though, it will probably take a lot of editing. Or I'll just slap it up there like I often do. ;-)

Happy Holidays....hold the gifts, please.

Chile said...

Sheesh, NOW the email option shows up. Blogger's tweakin' with the process again. Had to comment again to sign up...

Mam said...

Argh! I'm stuck in the situation of my very very materialistic (no idea where she gets it from) 5 year old thinking the elves can put anyting in Santa's Sleigh ... I have managed to temper her a bit but when you consider I have to try to keep my older 2 kids the same as her its gone way out of control compared to previous years when my kids got less than £50 spent each (and were very very happy)
Folk like the MIL and FIL are getting a nice book and the privilege of us going to see them over the season.
Next year I'll think of a Grand Plan to cut it back a bit!
Hazel xx

scarlet said...

We buy our kids some gifts, put up a small tree and have ourselves a tasty dinner that hasn't cost the earth. One or two friends may pop over for a drink during the holidays, but that's it. I don't buy gifts for anyone else, maybe if someone's been generous and bought our children a treat I'll give them some of my home-made chutney.
Anything more than this would seem over the top to me: selfish, unwarranted indulgence.

Shropshire Girl said...

"And they bombard your family and friends so that if you try to break free, the people you love will accuse you of those same things they've seen in the ads"

Mel this really hit a nerve. I love my inlaws but they are so materialistic. Last year I bought Oxfam presents for them, school books, meals, farm tools etc. It went down like a lead balloon, no comments or thanks. This year I am trying hampers of small things, it is something I am just going to have to battle with.
Seasons Greetings!

Sandra said...

Excellent post Mel. I am having great difficulty extricating myself from those bombardment messages, but I am determined to do it.

My children are so spoilt by relatives (their birthdays are close to Christmas also) that I prefer to get them a gift on its own at some other time of year when they actrually notice it and I can enjoy the giving more.

Frankie @ Veg Plot said...

Our most treasured Christmas gifts were given to us my my father who had bought them all from a charity shop (they all had the price stickers left on). I got a horrific ornament, my sister a knitted toy and my Mother was given a wooden elephant with a missing tusk.

I love my horrific ornament because it reminds me of my Dad and one of the funniest gift openings I have ever had.

Elfie said...

Our family never went for the whole "Santa brings all the presents magically created from thin air" thing. It just causes trouble.

Stocking presents - a handful of small cheap items - would be anonymous "from Santa", but there were also wrapped "tree" presents and they were always explicitly from a real person.

As for expensive weddings, my sisters and I were all taken aside at some point for the talk in which we were told we could live with whomever we wanted, but if we wanted to get married we'd have to pay for it all ourselves because expensive weddings were a waste of money they'd rather give us to put towards something useful like buying a house.

steph in Roker said...

I have made some, bought some, but overall I've given too much. Now what I'm doing is making a note of what I've bought and what I've made, as a guide for me next year. My main error is lack of planning which makes me overbuy. Lessone learned, I hope, and here's to next year too.

Bill of Ballaugh said...

Mel, do you remember the year Santa brought me three nightdresses? The looks on your sisters and your face was a joy to behold ? Puzzlement, amusement, followed by howls of laughter as I tried to put them on and none fitted. What a silly fellow Santa was we decided. But, as they seemed to fit you three, nothing was wasted. They were, indubitably, the best presents I ever received. And what a clever woman your Mum was. To turn lack of money into an opportunity for fun and laughter. I'll never forget it.

Muppet said...

When I was a kid, the 'magic' bit of Christmas was the time we spent as a family preparing for it. We used to make petit fours (dad still does) - making fruit shapes out of different colours of marzipan, fudge and chocolate coated peppermint creams. And eating all the fudge batches which didn't turn out quite right....

heather t said...

I wish I could print this out and pass it out at the Major Department Store where I work (although that might be "biting the hand" a bit). Two weeks before Xmas is when the people go shopping who really can't afford it. They have returned everything they bought in the last year that they didn't use and scraped together what little else they can to buy things for snotty, ungrateful teenagers. Ugh, I want to smack those kids.

donna said...

i'm with you on this mel. i've made quite a few of my presents this year, as well as most of the cards. I've also cut back on the number of cards and presents we're sending. i'm looking forward to a simple family christmas.

Irish Sallygardens said...

Bravo, love this post. My daughter had a birthday this week. Some people brought barbie and bratz in gyms and castles. I had written on the invite 'home made and token gifts more than adequate'. Its not that we don't value and thank the generosity of those people. But the thing my 6 year old loved the most, and the thing that I felt MOST grateful to the giver was ... a finger puppet, snipped from the glove of her own daughter with a few stitches and bead and a silk flower stitched on for a hat. Thats what its all about.

This year I'm trying to give gifts with thought. I'm making aprons for kids, using old dresses, they are coming out really delightful!

Skipweasel said...

Before we had kids - and for a few years after our first - we used to opt out of Christmas by helping run a Christmas party. Sounds silly, but we rounded up 200 old dears who would have been on their own that day and had a big party in the Dary and Joan Club in Hounslow. Driving minibuses around the borough when there's no traffic was actually rather fun and the old girls (at that age they are mostly women) had a great time. Best of all, none of our relatives dared tell us it wasn't fair that we ignored them 'cos we were doing something "worthy". Silly, innit?

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