Even if you're a whiz at finding discounts, consumer spending patterns indicate that you'll spend hundreds of dollars during the winter holidays on gifts and seasonal items. Then there's the cost of travel to family and friends, buying holiday clothes, hosting and attending parties, and so on. Add it all up and near panic is likely to ensue.
But consider this: The savings you could accumulate by tapping into your curmudgeonly self and ignoring the holidays entirely. Gallup reported that the average American spent $83 a day last December on purchases (including gasoline for the car) and restaurant meals compared with $71 during the other 11 months. Assuming we're on track to shell out these same amounts this year, each adult in the household could save more than $400 during the 34-day period from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve. And that doesn't include air and rail travel forgone or normal household expenses.
Scandalous it may seem, but there are people who don't bother with the holidays, some explaining that avoidance saves them from forced family togetherness. But budget constraints and distaste for crass commercialism are equally valid reasons, as are any other justifications non-celebrants care to conjure up. The question is, can you get away with it?
We fanned out to a host of informants seeking their view of a holiday-free stance: no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no Hanukkah, no Kwanzaa. What we heard was that unless you're parenting infants who won't know the difference or teenagers put off by consumer excess, don't even think about it. With near certainty you will regret having done so -- friends and extended family will make sure of that.
Thanksgiving proved to be the favorite holiday among the people we spoke with. "It's secular, there are no presents, and it's all about getting together," one explained. Immigrants and first-generation Americans said they consider it particularly important because it's so American. All our informants celebrate Thanksgiving in some fashion, although a few mark it by donating time to neighborhood soup kitchens and local charities and others reported that the "getting together" part often means friends instead of family.
Compared with the gift-giving holidays, the cost of Thanksgiving is downright cheap. The American Farm Bureau, which has long tracked costs associated with the holiday, reports that a typical Thanksgiving dinner for 10 runs about $50. (Research by Cheapism.com found that a meal for eight costs slightly more than $100 when all components are prepared at home and all ingredients purchased for the occasion.) The AFB statistic is an average, of course, and as several respondents pointed out, you can ramp it up by buying a fresh-killed turkey from a small farm ("tastes awful," asserted one) and serving wine. Organizing a potluck keeps meal expenses to a minimum.
This year marks a unique confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, giving rise to the marketing of the awkward Thanksgivukkah, with the requisite T-shirts, posters, and turkey-shaped menorahs. Eating turkey and lighting candles might be on the menu at many homes, but none of our informants plan to spend more money than otherwise.
Our informal survey found that people are torn about the whole presents thing. Many have cut back to providing for immediate family only and the few mandatory gifts, like the office Secret Santa. The limp economy has prompted even the most profligate to trim their holiday spending, and according to the National Retail Federation, that often means less self-gifting.
On the other hand, many people continue their spendthrift ways when it comes to the kids. MSN reported average holiday spending per child hit $271 in 2011. "That's insane!"shrieked people without children and those who spurn the holidays. Interviewees with children deemed the figure about right, although a few said it seemed low. The handful of respondents who celebrate Kwanzaa regard it as an adjunct to Christmas, not a separate torrent of gift-giving. And Jewish parents in our sample said they dole out small presents on each of the eight Hanukkah nights.
We also stumbled across people who have ditched the traditional Christmas celebration for a tactic adopted by people of all faiths -- going to the movies and eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Figure this outing will cost $15-$25 a person. Depending where you live, you may need to buy tickets in advance, although the crush can be so overwhelming that one New York City resident said the family has ditched this un-holiday activity as well. Another opined that attending the many holiday parties means you've earned the right to a festivity-free Christmas Day. A few people said that a short, relaxing trip to the Caribbean is the perfect way to spend the holidays.
Can you save money by not celebrating the holidays? Absolutely. Can you actually spend nothing even if you pretend the holidays don't exist? Probably not. Small presents -- for the babysitter, the guy who mows the lawn, the people who care for aging parents, and so on -- are markers of civility and thanks, not to mention a form of insurance for the future. "You have to give something," one woman said, "and if you cut back by maybe 20 percent, you'll still get the same service next year. More than that, forget it."