Bah Humbug? A Quick Lesson on Holiday Consumption

Some facts and questions about how much many Americans buy and waste over the holidays - and how we feel about it.   



Around this time of year many Americans are enveloped in a world of giving and receiving presents. Here are some facts about the (mostly Christmas) present-giving and other festivities to brighten your holidays:

1.  Holiday spending

According to the Gallup Poll, the average American will spend $830 on gifts this holiday season. Retail companies depend on this holiday gift-buying to boost their bottom line. All this consumption also brings jobs, though many are temporary: According to the National Retail Federation, stores will hire over 700,000 seasonal workers to handle the holiday crush this year.

But a survey by SunTrust Banks showed that 46% of Americans felt pressure to buy more presents than they can afford. A separate poll by T. Rowe Price asked parents if they agree with the statement, "I spend more for my kids over the holidays than I should have." 62% agreed with that statement. 16% said that they dipped into retirement or emergency funds to buy presents.

Discussion questions:

  • If your family tradition is to buy gifts this time of year, do you feel pressured to buy more than you should?
  • How do you balance the joy of children receiving gifts against the financial (and psychological) stress that this gift-giving brings?
  • Are there ways to bring joy without the stresses?

Bonus statistics question: How useful is a national average?  

Take a closer look at the Gallup poll which found that the average American will spend $830 on gifts this year. What questions would you like answered about this statistic? Possible responses:

  • Were people who buy no presents included in the average?
  • Are two parents of children counted separately?
  • Since an average is given, not a median, is there a significant difference between the spending of wealthy people and those who are poor?
  • Were children included in the poll?


2.  Waste

Americans are no slouches in the garbage department.  According to the EPA, we each generate an average of 4.38 pounds of it per day - nearly 1600 pounds per year. That makes us world leaders in waste.

Americans generate more than 25 million extra tons of waste during the holiday season.

Discussion questions:

  • What accounts for the extra waste?
  • What are some ways we could reduce the waste? Possible responses:
  • Reuse wrapping paper, ribbons, etc.
  • Give a gift that involves your time rather than a bought item.
  • Reduce food waste over the holidays.
  • Avoid disposable dishware, shopping bags, etc.
  • Use energy-efficient lighting and reduce number of hours of lighting.
  • Buy more durable presents--those that will still be useful one, two or ten years from now


3.  Lights

Celebrating light (from yule logs to candles to Christmas lights) is an ancient tradition during the winter solstice season, the darkest point in the year.

Modern holiday lights consume a lot of energy. A survey in Britain asking about Christmas lights usage, concluded that having lights on for six hours a day for the holiday season consumes as much electricity as 23 days of total electricity usage for the household. 

Discussion question:

  • What are some ways we could reduce that number, while still celebrating light over the holiday, if we want to?


4.  The Need for Stuff

Ultimately, stopping global climate change depends on our producing less and consuming less.

Read the following passage from a column by Rosemary Randall in the Guardian:

Business people tell me they only produce what the public demand. Parents tell me they only buy what their children need to fit in. In-depth interviews reveal the extent to which people's sense of identity, their desire to belong, and their need for comfort, security, self-esteem, and the respect of others, are caught up in the marketplace and in patterns of consumption. There is nothing innate or unchanging in the desires for stuff however.

Discussion questions: 

  • Do you agree that people‚Äôs needs for comfort, security, self-esteem and belonging are caught up in consuming?  
  • Do you feel that this is true about yourself?
  • What do you think Rosemary Randall means by that last sentence?
  • Do you agree with her?  How possible is it for us to do without "stuff"? What will it take for that to happen?


Some organizations focus specifically on reducing holiday spending. They include: