You Can Buy Happiness This Christmas


Somewhere around December 29th last year you said, I’m not doing this again. Do you remember?

It was after exchanging a lot of gift cards with relatives, a lot of last minute fluffy throw blankets with the gift receipt stapled to the tag because you knew they would be returned for store credit. Or maybe you said it in the week leading up to Christmas when you scoured the mall for a $40 gift for someone that has all that they need and very little that they want. Perhaps it was the first week of January when the spending hangover really kicked in as you looked at bank accounts and credit card statements or you stuffed your own collection of unneeded and unwanted gifts into a box destined for re-gifting or eventually donation.

“The Christmas we now celebrate grew up at a time when Americans were mostly poor … mostly working with their hands and backs.. if we now feel burdened and unsatisfied by the piles of gifts and overconsuming, it is not because Christmas has changed all that much, it’s because we have.”

– Bill McKibben Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For A More Joyful Christmas

Fifteen years ago my family decided we were done with traditional gift giving at Christmas. As my five siblings and I entered adulthood we spent a few years buying each other gifts for Christmas. It became stressful and not very enjoyable. So we decided to do something different. We’d been fortunate to receive help years earlier as a single parent low-income family so it felt natural to now return that help. We sponsored a family in need through a local organization and put the money we would have spent on each other towards that. New winter jackets and warm clothes for kids, some toys and  several things for the mom and lots and lots of groceries to fill the fridge and pantry. The first year we did this kind of giving we all remarked how much more enjoyable the holidays were. No frantic mall shopping the week before Christmas. No stress over if someone liked their gift. And, of course, giving to people in our community that needed help felt great.

Yes you can buy happiness: use your money to help those in need.

Almost every year since we have found an organization that connects us to a family in our community and we find out what they need, what they want and shop for them. A few years because of logistics and distance (many of us live or have lived in far flung places) some of us just donated money to a good cause but we have made it a tradition that we give to those in need at this time of year instead of traditional gift giving.

If you felt overwhelmed last year, if you felt that the focus on gifts and buying and shopping took away from your enjoyment of the holiday season, if the ritual of exchanging gifts has become a burden rather than a joy, I urge you to start a new tradition. You likely already have a group in mind, a circle of family or friends that would appreciate a break from gift giving and a chance to instead pool your resources to help those in your community. And if you have some folks that love to shop well, they will love shopping even more when they know it’s for someone that really needs new shoes, or a family that will sleep better at night knowing the cupboards are full. And if you have people that don’t enjoy shopping – I’m one of those – let me tell you, shopping for a family that truly needs things is quite enjoyable.

Some ideas for how to broach this change in gift giving:

  • be open to no the first time you bring it up. Sometimes you need to plant the seed a year ahead of time.
  • be ready to assume the organizer role. Someone will need to quarterback the project with who will buy what, who will deliver gifts to the organization, etc.
  • start small. Perhaps for year one you move to a Secret Santa style gift exchange with one person you buy a gift for and one person you make a donation in their name.
  • if your gift exchange is your chance to meet up make sure the meet up part still happens.

If you have the means to buy frivolous gifts or gifts for people that already have everything they need and most of the stuff they want, maybe it’s time to do something different. Maybe it’s time to celebrate your friendship, your good fortunes of health and happiness, by giving together.

Anyone have a unique way that you have changed your gift giving traditions to be less focused on stuff? I would love to volunteer together as a family someday once we’re out of the baby/young toddler stage.

Simple Holidays: What Worked Last Year?

I know we’re still a few weeks away from US Thanksgiving so some of you may be irked that I’m already writing about the big winter holidays. But if you’re preparing for turkey-fest 2012 you can still put a bit of thought on what will happen in the weeks after.

I’ll be writing about the holidays, celebrating simply and gifting with intention, on Mondays from now into December.

Last year we had the simplest of Christmas and winter holiday celebrations. We attended a few small parties and my husband’s big winter work gala, met up with friends to take our children to meet Santa (Father Christmas as they say here) in a medieval castle and then we went to Edinburgh for five days.

On Christmas day our son opened one present and we went to the zoo.

I can’t recall what dinner was but it was homemade and it wasn’t turkey.

It was a wonderful and stress free holiday season.

I’m thinking back to last year as I make plans for this holiday season. Even though they will be quite different experiences.

We’ll be on island, I’ll be very pregnant and we have a three year old that understands gift giving and receiving. There are lots of Manx events we want to see and go to. We should, fingers and visa permits crossed, have a visitor here for the holidays. We’ll have our first real Christmas tree to decorate.

What worked for us last year:

  • Planning meals: I preordered a grocery delivery for our stay in Edinburgh and meal planned for our five day holiday. It was nice to just enjoy our surroundings instead of hunting down a grocery store that was open Christmas Eve. I’ll do the same this year making note of the evenings we’ll be out at events and parties.
  • Spacing out gift opening: Henry opened one gift on Christmas Day and when we returned home he opened one gift, or set of of gifts, once a day (he ended up with three days of gift opening).
  • Connecting with our families: I love you, Skype. It was so nice to see and hear our families back in Canada over the holidays. It’s when we feel the distance, and the downside, of our ex-pat life most.

What could have gone better last year:

  • Decorating: we had a few decorations left from the previous tenants in our old place but the festive look to our little flat came from sound more than sight (I was playing the Micheal Buble Christmas album on repeat). Because we were going away I didn’t feel a huge need to decorate and while I made good use of our mistletoe spring, I missed having a tree. We’ll have a real! live! Christmas tree this year and Henry and I will make some homemade decorations.
  • Researching Holiday Events: I found out about the mini Santa Train after the tickets had sold out. Not this year. I’ve looked through the local calendar and made a list of the things we’d like to see and do. We won’t get around to all of them obviously but I’m excited to fit in what our schedule and stamina allows.

With this in mind I’m crafting out our holiday plan and calendar.

Nothing is set in stone but I hope to watch Operation Petticoat with my sister whilst nibbling on homemade Poppycock.

We’re researching where we can give locally to help other families have a great holiday season.

I’m ambitiously taking on making a cardboard playhouse as a big gift for Henry and working on a Christmas Day meal plan that doesn’t leave me chained to the kitchen for eight hours on the day of.

This week I am posting off a package of holiday treats to family in Canada.

Small tasks and goals that should leave us with lots of relaxing time as the winter holiday season ramps up.

Did you simplify gift giving and events last year? What worked for you? What will you change this year?

Is It Rude To Ask For No Gifts?

Third birthday parties can be overwhelming for all involved. We’re all still recovering here from the fun and frenzy of Henry’s birthday weekend.

Unlike the last two years we celebrated this milestone with what is for us a large party. Almost 40 of our friends and their children helped us mark the day with a class of singing and games, including all of us joining in on the hokie pokie, and finished it off with lunch and cupcakes. I chopped a lot of vegetables and fruit the day before and Henry helped me make train cookies as treats for his friends to take home. Yep, I didn’t succumb to loot bag pressure.

While it required more time, energy and dollars than our previous birthday celebrations, I’m very happy that we did a big birthday party.

Why? It was fun! Our son really enjoyed it. So did we. So did our friends (I think).

Simple and small and slow is great but there is also a time and place to go big. All things in moderation – even minimalism.

Many of you had great comments and suggestions when I confessed that I had requested on the invitations that people not bring gifts. Some of you even warned me that people would bring gifts anyways. You were right. A handful of our friends brought sweet and thoughtful gifts for our boy. A few people said they felt weird not bringing a gift. I reassured everyone that whatever their response was it was appreciated.

Is it rude to ask people not to give you gifts?

I’ve had a few emails recently from people already feeling anxious over holiday gift giving and how to manage both their children’s expectations and the generosity of friends and relatives.

First, Kristen had a great post up last week about ways to lower children’s Christmas present expectations. Lots of practical suggestions and tips in her post and the comments section. I’ll have more posts next months on how we are managing holiday giving this year.

Second, I don’t think it’s rude to ask people not to give you gifts. As long as you word it gently I think it is reasonable to ask people not bring gifts on an occasion where it is normal to do so.

It is, however, rude to make people feel awkward or bad about a gift they do or do not give you.

There should be only one response upon receiving a gift: thank you. It’s the same for commenting on a pregnant woman’s appearance. The only appropriate thing to say to a pregnant woman is you look fantastic. Not huge or too small or way bigger than last time.

At the end of the day friends and family are far more important to me than our efforts to have fewer things in the home. Gifts that we don’t need can be easily re-gifted or donated or returned. Hurt feelings aren’t nearly as simple or easy to deal with.

Do you think it is rude to ask for no gifts on an occasion where gifts are usually given? 

Leaving Minimalism

The title Minimalist Mom isn’t that accurate for me. If you’ve read a few posts here you’ll know that I aim for less and what we can live comfortably with rather than a rigid goal of a handful of possessions.

I chose the name while in a burst of zeal for the idea of what Minimalism could give me. I was excited, hopeful and had grand dreams of sparsely furnished rooms and a wardrobe that could fit in a small carry-on suitcase. After many rounds of decluttering I’ve found that the things my family want in our home, the things we use, is often in flux. I’ve found that I’m not interested in counting our possessions or living a nomadic lifestyle. I am interested in the space, time and money having less can give me and my family.

I’m not really a minimalist. We have a television, my son has a push bike he has yet to master and I recently bought a blender and a crock pot.

While I’m not a true minimalist I’m still fascinated by the idea of fewer possessions and the many returns from living with less. That’s why I keep writing here. That’s why I deliberate a lot longer on purchases than I used to. That’s why I have just two pairs of jeans, why we don’t have a car and why I keep a pretty sparse pantry. I like what having less gives me.

Friends Saying Goodbye to Minimalism.

Recently two of my blogging friends have discussed why minimalism is no longer right for them.

Rayna, a contributing writer to Frugal Mama, wrote about shutting down her blog The Suburban Minimalist almost a year ago. Embracing the movement had been positive at first and then lead her to a place she wasn’t comfortable or happy with.

 I’d learned the hard way that although there’s much to be said for living with (much) less than the average American, there are also quite a few things to be said for creature comforts and man-made beauty. Fluffy towels and familiar mugs sweeten our daily rituals. A closet with enough flattering choices makes me feel feminine and confident on the days I’m just not. – Rayna St. Pierre

Her new blog, Bright Copper Kettles, explores simplicity, design and the small things that make her life wonderful. It’s a nice read and I recommend popping in particularly for her links round up. Rayna has a great eye for articles and design that will inspire you to find more beauty in your life without making you feel bad about your living room that is covered in children’s toys or that you have yet to replace the glass on a picture frame that broke three months ago (guilty).

Faith started writing at MinimalistMoms around the same time I started this blog. Later she moved to MinimalistatHome and has written several e-books on minimalism and families. Recently she decided to move her writing away from minimalism.

… it became harder and harder to write a “minimalist” blog after two years. I’ve grown tired of wondering if what I have to say is minimalist enough or even if I am minimalist enough.. – Faith Janes

Faith’s new home online for living with less is a digital magazine called Simplify that launches October 1st. You can sign up to receive the first edition here.

Still Sticking With The M Word

I’ll still be here writing about my own brand of minimalism, the challenges of living counter-culturally and if I really needed that crock pot or blender.

While the term minimalism sounds extreme I think there is a lot to glean from the movement for even non-radical folk like myself. I like the discussion here about how to live with less, the benefits of it and how to go about it happily in a world that doesn’t support slow and simple living.

Real Simple magazine always told me that it was ‘life made easier, every day’ but I found that when I read it, I hated my home and felt the pressure to buy a lot of baskets and label makers and organize instead of truly simplify. I used to flip through those glossy pages and tell myself that I’d have a show worthy home if I just tried harder and made bread from scratch and a jar of lemon curd for an Amalfi Coast inspired luncheon replete with Limoncello ordered direct from Sorrento, Italy.

Life wasn’t made easier. Life was harder and the expectations bigger in ways that just made me tired. I had zero of the 20 must-have classic wardrobe staples for a woman in her 30’s. My vintage mason jar collection was nonexistent.

I wasn’t inspired by the supposed ease of this everyday beautiful simplicity. I was overwhelmed.

There is room in my life for beauty and minimalism. I keep fresh flowers on our kitchen window sill, not the dining room table, because that is where I enjoy them most. When I’m washing dishes I see my vase, sometimes it’s just a water glass, filled with the cheap and cheerful white carnations I buy myself or roses, a gift from a friend, and it’s enough for me.

Because I have less I appreciate what I do have more.

I’ll still be here writing about minimalism and how we’re making it work for us. With our roses on the window sill, our blender and even my expensive ballet flats that fell apart.

Your Clutter Coach


Sometimes you need more help than a book or a blog can give you.

Sometimes you need a friend to remind you to donate those bags of unworn clothing that are sitting in your basement.

Sometimes you need someone to make a plan for you, motivate you and keep you accountable.

Sometimes you need a Clutter Coach.

I get a lot of emails asking for help. I always respond (even it takes me a while) with advice, suggestion and encouragement.

And I always wonder, did they carve out a weekend to clean out that attic? Are they in the throes of home purging and feeling beaten by the process? Did they pull out some boxes from under their bed, lose a few hours looking through old junk, and then decide it was all too much work?

For some time I’ve wanted to help beyond the posts on this blog. Something very personal for paring down and living smaller.

A book wasn’t the answer. There are already some great books out there like Family-Sized Minimalism and Clutter Bootcamp for inspiration and how-to. A book can’t hold your hand, give you a kick in the butt or suggest another method for dealing with all that mail.

I want to do those things.

I want to see closets go from jam packed to roomy.

I want to help people get more sleep.

I want to find solutions for the mud room clutter that can be so hard to reign in.

So I’ve started something new.

Your Clutter Coach

This is for people that:

  • can’t make the time to declutter even after reading a lot of books and blogs on the subject
  • get sidetracked by old photos and trinkets every time they attempt to clean out the guest room
  • have pared down their stuff but it crept back quickly
  • need motivation and accountability to clear clutter for good

Your Clutter Coach is a personalized decluttering program. It’s tailored to your lifestyle, your needs and your schedule. It’s me kicking your butt and you kicking ass.

You can read more about the services here.

If you’re interested in the program I am currently giving away one free Four Week Clutter Coaching Program at Parenting with Crappy Pictures (if you haven’t visited this site before it is hilarious). The giveaway is open until Tuesday May 8th at 8pm PST. Head on over to read the details and enter.

PS. This will be the only time I mention Your Clutter Coach in a big post like this.

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