In hard times, Americans innovate on holiday gifts and giving

Americans say they'll spend less this holiday season because of hard times. But they're finding innovative ways to give, everything from regifting to donating their time to good causes.

By , Staff writer

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    Careful: Kendra and Glenn Keefer-McGee shop with son Eli (age 9) in Cambridge, Mass. They are paying cash this year to keep their spending down.
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Ron Artesia of Toluca Lake, Calif., says his family has a “no gift” rule this Christmas.

“I know that formally spelling it out sounds kinda fascist, but we have to really toe the line or someone will bend the rule and all heck will break loose,” says the auto mechanic and father of four.

Mr. Artesia’s weekly hours at the shop were cut this year from 55 to 38, and his wife was let go from her position as a teacher at an elementary school. The family income is roughly half what it was last year.

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The Artesias’ new rule is a sign that Christmas 2009 may well be one of the more creative holiday celebrations in recent memory, as Americans consider new observances in the face of 10 percent unemployment, furloughs, and trimmed work schedules. From forgone gifts to strict spending limits to the oft-maligned practice of regifting, people are adapting the holidays to hard times.

“Consumers are facing financial difficulties in unprecedented numbers due to the rising tide of unemployment ... across all socioeconomic categories,” says Ron Hill, a professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who studies consumer spending habits. “Under these circumstances, popular wisdom is that people will cut back on purchases in order to use money more wisely on needed goods and services.”

Indeed, 93 percent of Americans say they’ll spend less or about the same as last year for holiday gifts, an Associated Press poll this month showed. Eighty percent say they’ll mostly use cash to pay – a way of putting a straitjacket on spending because counting out bills helps people track how much they’re spending.

“Letting the clerk quietly process your credit card, it’s so easy to go home with bags of stuff you can’t afford,” says Lucy Barton, a yoga instructor in Van Nuys, Calif. She cites studies that show that paying with cash does in fact stifle impulse buying. “That’s why I made this rule for myself: Count out the cash on the counter, or no deal,” she says.

Mary Jane Gore of Durham, N.C., says some of her teens’ gifts are still in plastic from last Christmas, so she’s informing them that they’ll be helping to feed farming families through Heifer International and helping women through microfinancing charity Kiva during 2010.

“Frankly, this Christmas I’d like to get away from giving useless gifts to my teens,” says the Duke University communications specialist.

Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist and author near Boston, says he is seeing parents give their kids the gift of time together – such as ice fishing on a local pond or watching favorite movies while passing around the junk food. Spouses are donating their time to each other’s favorite community charity – Boys and Girls Clubs, the food pantry – in lieu of exchanging “big bucks” gifts, he says.

Retailers and credit-card firms, who stand to lose if consumers embrace nonconsumption too heartily, are developing tantalizing ways to keep people spending. JCPenney has helped bring the Salvation Army Angel Giving Tree online through jcp.com/angel, where customers can buy a gift for a needy child or senior citizen in their communities. American Express has launched a promotion in which cardmembers can earn “rewards points” by shopping at certain retail outlets.

But others say tough times require nothing less than a serious rethinking of the entire notion of gift-giving.

Hiram Foster, a grandfather of 17, is leafing through “Regifting Revival! A Guide to Reusing Gifts Graciously” at a Borders bookstore in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “This is just the book I need,” he says, running his finger down a table of contents that includes chapters on embellishing and repackaging regifts and creating a custom regift closet.

“If I’d started using this years ago,” he says, “I’d be far richer today.”

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