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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

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In Holiday Guide Commentary

Are gifts of time and good intention really gifts to you? (PHOTO: shutterstock.com )

Do people really appreciate free or homemade gifts?


During this time of year, a lot of people express their thoughts against consumerism and how displeased they are that the holidays have become so gift-oriented. Many people, through conversation and social media, say they don't want material items; instead, they'd prefer spending time with loved ones or, at the most, receiving homemade items.

In general, most agree with this sentiment that the holidays are about spending time with family – sharing with them stories and food. So what if you really didn't buy store-bought gifts for your family members and friends? How would they react?

It really depends on the person. Some truly want the gift of your time and attention; others want a iPad Mini. Some want both.

"We made all of our gifts last year and it was interesting to see who appreciated them and who was less than enthused," says Becky Weiss.

Weiss and her daughters, ages 7 and 9, gave away ornaments they made from Scrabble pieces, homemade jam made from strawberries they grew in their yard and handwritten letters, some of which contained personalized poems.

"I think my dad didn't get it. We usually get him something sports related, but I just wasn't going to do it last year," says Weiss. "He has enough Packers shirts."

If making gifts or giving gifts that are free is an important personal belief, then by all means, a person should give them. Giving a gift is just as much about the giver as the recipient. However, some people choose to offer a mix of store-bought and homemade gifts depending on the person. If you know someone isn't going to appreciate something that didn't cost any or very much money, why share it with them except, perhaps, to teach them a lesson.

"I'll probably buy my dad something this year. Part of the fun of giving a gift is seeing the person open it and the happy look on their face," says Weiss.

There are other avenues than simply buying or making something. Giving away something of value that belongs to you is an option, as well. I give away things that I no longer have use for all the time. It's not about passing off my junk to improve the feng shui of my personal space. The key is, I only give something to someone I know will appreciate it.

I jot down or make a mental note when someone says they like something – maybe it's a light fixture or a frame or a book – in my house. There's a good chance I will part with that item around holiday time, unless it has deep meaning or a lot of monetary value.

Gregory Downing wrote a book earlier this year called "Entrepreneur Unleashed: Wealth to Stand the Test of Time," and he says current gift-giving trends must change.

"Everything about the way we build wealth and think about money has changed. Yet we're still living – and yes, giving – like people who are able to work 40 years for the same company and retire comfortably with the gold watch," says Downing.

According to Downing, we need to break what he believes to be an unsustainable paradigm of parents overspending and kids expecting to receive.

"It breeds not only an entitlement mentality, but also an employee mindset that will not serve kids well in the future," says Downing.

When I was a kid, before I had any money, I would make my mom and dad "coupons" to do the dishes or clean up my room. I have returned to this system but in reverse: I give my kids coupons now as gifts.

The coupons take a lot of thought to have value and sometimes result in spending, but not always. I made coupons allowing them to put one item, any item, on my grocery list. I also made a coupon allowing my kid to pick the movie from our DVD collection the next time we had a movie night. And another coupon offering to be their personal DJ for 15 minutes and play whatever songs they want while they jump on their indoor trampoline (something they enjoy doing immensely).

In return, my kids want to give me coupons, like the ones I gave to my parents long ago. And it's funny, because as much as I appreciate the sentiment, they are not at the age yet where I trust them to wash the dishes to my cleanliness standards. But they love the idea of giving me something of value and I get that.

I am currently thinking through "coupon" gifts for a few people in my life, offering my time and attention. What would really be of value to them? Babysitting services for a night out? A home-cooked meal? Walk their dog? Minor landscaping? Help clean out a space in their house that they've wanted to spruce up for a while?

It's really again about paying attention to what people say and making a note to help them, specifically, in a way they need help but would, most likely, never ask.

Another affordable way to give a meaningful gift is to find an inexpensive item that represents a past activity, stage of life or some aspect of time spent. Find a small toy that you and your siblings loved and present that for the holidays. Or find an old, good photo from a vacation with your best friend 10 years ago, make a frame and give that as a gift. Think of inside jokes you've had with friends and find an item, or make one, that visually represents the humor. The possibilities are limitless.

And never underestimate the power of love for "free" gifts. Planning a special, premeditated intimate encounter is another good idea for a simple holiday "gift." Present it in the form of a coupon or just carve out the time and surprise him or her with a romantic evening. A Santa hat is not required.

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