I’ve raised five kids; I’ve learned how to stretch a dollar.
But for nearly all of the past 30 years, frugality goes out the window when the jingle bells start to ring. At Christmas, all bets are off. The credit cards come out and I expend extraordinary amounts of energy—and money—seeking The Perfect Gift.
Multiple gifts, to be honest—because who could be satisfied with just one? For many years, we had a helpful mantra for wish lists:
Something you want, something you need,
Something to wear, something to read.
The sing-song rhyme helped me focus, but my halls still ended up decked with stress and tension, culminating in debt and disappointment. Combine insufficient funds with an impossible quest for perfection, and you have a recipe for the most frustrating time of the year.
2020 turned everything upside down: Pandemic, lockdown, COVID, masks…everything changed, including our scheduled family celebration. We wouldn’t be together to exchange gifts—an entirely new emotional hurdle.
But adjusting our routine allowed me to think about gift-giving differently. And so, the plan for a Goodwill Christmas began to take shape.
To be honest, it wasn’t a novel idea. I recalled, many years prior, a Christmas with my ex-husband’s family that included second-hand gifts all around. The trauma of receiving an obviously used Thigh-Master still resides somewhere in my psyche; this is NOT a good memory. But I was fairly certain I could improve upon that experience. So I set out to change the gift-giving element of the yuletide and seek some real—and affordable—cheer.
Mariah Carey’s voice reverberated in my head:
I don’t want a lot for Christmas…I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree…
I took Mariah at her word, set aside a Friday afternoon, and hit the town.
I skipped Macy’s. No TJ Maxx, no Barnes & Noble, no Old Navy. Instead, I followed a trail of local Goodwill stores. I went to The Book Exchange in Midlothian; Diversity Thrift; Ashbys, Buffalo Exchange, and Fantastic Thrift. I took a list of ideas, but mostly I had an open heart and low expectations. I essentially went into each store and just looked around, getting a feel for what was there, and then started thinking about my kids and what they might gravitate toward if they were with me.
Daniel is a fan of thick, chunky sweaters; I found a perfect, name-brand multi-colored one that looked custom made for him. For his girlfriend Caroline, some like-new kitchen tools. I found copies of books that I’d happily recommend for Sydni and Aaron, along with a succulent, a coin purse, and a mug. Handmade scarves and hats for Travis and Shannon; a spring-form pan for Sarah; books for granddaughter Juniper. Themed t-shirts and a hoodie for David.
With every discovery, I experienced a sense of delight and joy that had escaped me in previous shopping expeditions. Not only was I spending significantly less money, there was an underlying thread of significance: Each item I found had history; someone else had chosen, loved, used it—and then released it. Now, it would find a new purpose in our family—as a gift, and hopefully as something useful for the recipient.
Now, I realize that for some, this has a distinctly different impact. You might be thinking, Yuck! Who wants to give or receive a used gift?
Honestly, I probably shared that sentiment for many years (no doubt triggered by the Thigh Master). But desperate times call for desperate measures. Something told me that I had to try a drastically different process to bring some holiday cheer to a horribly difficult year.
And it worked. My experience last year was so dramatically different—and deeply meaningful—that I plan to do it again this year. I’m not sure even a bigger budget would alter my shopping plans. Quite simply, it made the season jolly in a way I didn’t expect—but desperately needed.
Prepping for this article, I texted my kids to ask if they remembered their gifts from last year; I got detailed replies. For the record, they knew in advance that it was a Goodwill Christmas—and it seemed to increase their anticipation! Those gifts mattered—less because of the amount of money I spent, and more because of the love and care with which they were chosen. And, perhaps, even because I spent less money, they were more appreciated!
My very favorite memory of the holiday season begins with a moment in the crowded backroom of the Carytown Goodwill. My gaze drifted over plates and vases, glassware and knick-knacks, when an intense conversation caught my attention. Two VCU students were laughing as they examined an orange-tinged object.
“This is amazing!”
“It is! I love this! But look—” I saw them turn it upside to see the price on the bottom. “Too much.”
They walked away, and my eyes focused on what would become the eminent example of our 2020 Goodwill Christmas.
I paid $6.25—”too much!”—for a ceramic cat that holds salt and pepper shakers; a cat that has provided a million laughs, some weird conversation, and a lesson in physics for my granddaughter (who threw the cat off the table – subsequently glued back together by my handy husband).
The cat has welcomed important people to our table and held various objects of interest. It’s ridiculous, and certainly of questionable monetary value—even at six bucks! But if it’s really the thought that counts, the fact that this gift provokes laughter and joy and a sort of odd family talisman—well, that adds up far beyond the investment. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it might be The Perfect Gift!
No debt, lots of laughs, better for the environment, and incredibly creative—our Goodwill Christmas really WAS the most wonderful time of the year.