Thursday, November 5, 2009

Aluminum Foil is the New Plastic Wrap

We won't be buying very many Christmas gifts this year.

My husband and I have agreed not to buy a present for each other so we can spend a little more on the kids. We'll send a few small gifts to our parents and the youngest nieces and nephews. Otherwise, we're keeping a tight lid on spending this season.

I'll also clamp down on any impulse to "do up" the holidays.

Will I buy a few new Christmas ornaments this year? No.

Splurge on a Christmas light covered, head-bobbing reindeer for the front yard? Nope.

Purchase a skirt for the Christmas tree? Um, no.

Invest in some new holiday cookie cutters? I don't think so.

Snap up a snow globe that swirls snow and plays music when I press a button? Maybe next year.

I might cruise a local upscale thrift shop (oxymoron?) to see if I can find these items for pennies on the dollar, but I may walk away empty-handed depending on what's in stock. That's life when there's still month at the end of the money.

We're talking about buying a $6 ready-to-eat Costco rotisserie chicken for Thanksgiving, since we'll be celebrating at home without company this year. In some ways, it'll be like an ordinary dinner, only with mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Downgrading from turkey to chicken strikes me as a good metaphor for these times. Function over form. Going small. Doing without. Playing chicken.

We're not alone in our minimalist version of the holidays. According to a recent MSNBC article, Americans are no longer shopaholics. The recession has changed our shopping habits, perhaps forever. With the cost of living on the increase but salaries stagnant for Americans lucky enough to be employed, more purchases are being made on a must-have basis. We want quality, value and products that stretch our dollar.

Non-food items sitting on the shelf have to rock my world before I'll consider buying them. "Do we really need this?" I'll say. The answer is "no" 98% of the time. I push my cart past the clearance racks, because most of the stuff is junk we don't need. A great sale on milk, bread and eggs is what I'm looking for right now, not 75% off Dora the Explorer birthday napkins.

Shopping has become a zero-sum game for me. "If I buy this item, I'll have to put this one back and buy it next month," I'll think to myself. Then I do it. My kids don't like this zero-sum shopping game, but they're getting used to it.

I feel like I'm turning in to my elderly parents, who survived the Great Depression. My dad used to tell me stories of how his mom - a sturdy Finn from the old country and a fantastic cook by all accounts - would send him down to the local docks to find discarded fish heads for her stews. "It was what we had," he would tell me as I grimaced. When I was a teenager complaining that I had to have the latest fashions, he would say: "During the Great Depression, I had two pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes that had to last me five years..." When he started anything with during the Great Depression, this Gen Xer knew she had already lost the argument.

My mother would always reuse Saran Wrap. "Don't throw that wrapper away!" she would yell as I started to throw a food-stained strip of wrap into the garbage can. "It's still good. I'll clean it off with soap." I used to roll my eyes - who on earth reuses plastic wrap!? - but I'm starting to understand her thinking. I reuse aluminum foil now.

I'm not the only consumer practicing a new frugality, but are retailers clued in to it? The MSNBC article concludes that retailers are pushing ahead with business-as-usual strategies this holiday season. Apparently, that means a lot of clearance markdowns on junk no one really wants. As an expert in the article points out: "A bargain on something you don't need isn't a bargain."

Well said.

Wal-Mart and Target have announced they will be offering price cuts on food, toys and other items. Will other retailers alter their strategies, and will it be enough to lure wary consumers? Retailers still have a few weeks to change course. We'll see what happens.

I sit here wondering if I'll tell my grandchildren how we had a small chicken for Thanksgiving one year. "It was what we had," I envision myself saying. I can't wait to see if they grimace.

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