Ask An Ex-Banker: It’s Spiritual Christmas Time!

Don’t feel broke at Christmas – Change the game.

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the personal finance website Make Change, where I irregularly contribute to their It’s Complicated advice column and podcasts! Also, I had previously mentioned my family’s spiritual christmas tradition on an earlier B$A blog post.


Dear Ex-Banker:

The holidays are coming up and I’m already stressing out! My extended family has a variety of income levels and situations—from a wealthy single aunt to my cousin’s family of four trying to make ends meet on one modest salary. I’m a freelancer, so some years my partner and I have more money to spare than others. All this makes gift-giving a minefield of difficult decisions. Should I spend more to match my aunt’s taste? Give my cousin practical gift cards instead of toys for the kids? During flush years, is it OK to spend more lavishly to make up for times when I’ve given smaller trinkets?

Opening gifts together is a part of our holiday tradition that I used to cherish, but now dread as our big family grows. I know it’s the thought that counts, but now I’m overthinking this! Are there any strategies that will help release this present-pressure?


I love your question because it gives me an opportunity to humblebrag – or maybe just outright brag – about the proudest family moment of my own life.[1] In this nearly-exact situation myself in my twenties, I came up with a solution that was both self-serving and holiday-tastic. I was doing well AND doing good. (It’s almost like that’s a theme I’ve heard here before. Anyway.)

Implementing your own version of this vision would require some effort and organizing on your part, as well as emotional bravery. But the rewards are worth it.

So, my story: In my third year in college[2] I too dreaded the approaching holidays, because I had no money. My older brother and sister were already married,[3] employed, and well-established enough to be able to afford pretty nice presents for family members. I couldn’t afford anything without going into debt. With great in-laws comes great responsibility, so I felt the added pressure not just to provide gifts for my nuclear family but for the expanding crew with whom I’d be spending Christmas. My brother would readily admit that he has better taste and brand discernment than the rest of us, adding an extra competitive element to annual gift-giving. Like you, I dreaded the Holidays.

My proposal, which I typed up and distributed to everyone in the family in the weeks before Thanksgiving, was to change the game. I had two big ideas.

“Forthwith!” (I didn’t actually write that specific word, but it was implied in my tone) “The Taylors will be each assigned a single family member, for whom they are permitted to purchase a gift from a store.”

“In addition!” I probably wrote, “each family member will be assigned a single other member, to whom they are expected to present a “non-material gift.”

My wording there, “non-material gift,” was meant to say that the essence of the second gift could not be paid for, or bought, at a store. In later years (because we ended up adopting my plan for about a decade) the “non-material” gift got renamed the “spiritual” gift, and my whole idea was dubbed “Spiritual Christmas.”

But I didn’t want to freak anyone out, getting all “OM – Shanti Shanti Shanti” on my family with my original proposal, so I distinctly just wanted to point out that the second gift assignment meant you couldn’t buy the family member a gift at a store. You had to make it by hand.

Also, I figured allowing for one “material” or store-bought gift was a nice compromise nod to the traditional American values of massive consumption for the Holidays. I wanted us to be enlightened, but not to force us to be, like, too enlightened.

Finally, I asked family members to all stay strict and not make additional gifts beyond the ones to the two specific material and non-material assigned recipients. This was the key to not undermining the whole Spiritual Christmas plan. I even suggested no gifts between spouses if they weren’t assigned – although I didn’t have an enforcement mechanism there.

So what happened next? We had the best Christmases ever. My sister wrote a poem for my mom. My brother-in-law built a wooden CD holder[4] for my Dad. A handmade crossword puzzle. Fresh-baked bread accompanied by recipes. A mix-tape of bluesy music with a note exploring personal experience with bouts of depression.[5] A three-dimensional Scrabble Board art piece. A needlepoint rug that my Mom had worked on for years to complete. An incredibly moving passage written by my brother for my Dad – comparing him to a high-end bottle of scotch – that beats anything anyone will ever say at his funeral some day. Tears.

So. Many. Tears.

The inevitable crying portion of spiritual gift-giving became the highlight for me. I loved Christmas because for the first time it became the opportunity to say the feelings my WASP-y family would never dream of saying out loud, in any other context.

The post-script to my own family’s spiritual Christmas celebrations is that once the next generation came along – first my nieces and nephews and then my own kids – we reverted back to the materialism of every other red-blooded American family. At this point we all can more or less afford the wasteful spending, and maybe partly we didn’t want to freak out the younger generation with our tear-streaked faces on Christmas morning. I will say, however, that I’ve gone back to dreading Christmas each year, so you can see where my own preferences lie.

Anyway, I’m a finance guy, and you asked a pretty straightforward financial advice question, and I answered by basically saying you have to change the game of Christmas away from money in order to begin enjoying it again. I believe that deeply.

Do you wish I had answered in a more traditional manner, weighing in on the pros and cons of gift-cards and of spending variable amounts, depending on the years’ earnings? I mean, I could do that but my heart wouldn’t be in it. You’d remain incredibly stressed, as was I. I once solved your problem in my own life, and no other solution even comes close.

[1] At least until I got married and had kids myself.

[2] This was back in the year when the most shocking thing a President had ever said in public was that he wore boxer shorts. I’m old enough to remember when…

[3] Important clarifying note: Not to each other, silly.

[4] Nobody remembers these anymore, but CDs used to be a popular way of storing music. I know, weird.

[5] That one actually bridged the time gap away from music CDs, because the mixtape was uploaded to an early-version iPod.



Please see related posts:

Feeling Broke, Feeling Whole

It’s A Wonderful Life – The Bankers Anonymous Origin Story



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Malls Are Dead. Long Live Online Shopping

At Christmas 2016, the twenty-year battle is over. One side won, one side lost. I mean the twenty-year war between bricks-and-mortar stores and online venders.

JC Penney, 1996

This one-sided thrashing has been worse than that suffered by those perennial losers, the Washington Generals. (Note: I’m referring to basketball team that lost more than 16,000 games to the Harlem Globetrotters, not casting aspersions on all of those Trump cabinet nominees.)

I remember the exact moment I realized this war between online stores and bricks-and-mortar stores was on like Donkey Kong.

In December 1996, a pioneering technology journalist from The Economist announced that he had attempted to purchase all of his Christmas gifts online.

Whoa! That seemed crazy and cool. Reading that article in my little cramped studio apartment in Manhattan, I was fascinated by the idea that with a few clicks, Christmas shopping could come to me. No paper catalogues, no phone calls, just clicks. I hate shopping, and this experiment in 1996 seemed awesome, and very science fiction-y.

Of course, the joke is that the journalist at The Economist couldn’t do it. He was able to buy one Christmas gift only. Although many big companies had built websites by 1996, they were essentially non-interactive company brochures, with undeveloped and insecure methods of payment.

Much changed in 20 years. A consumer survey by a subsidiary of accounting firm Deloitte found that shoppers will spend equal amounts online as in-store in the 2016 holiday season, a new milestone for web sales.

That continues the upward trend begun two decades ago. And nobody thinks 50 percent will be the stopping point. The next retail frontier is how much shopping will be done on mobile devices, which the same Deloitte survey already pegs at 10 percent of all holiday sales in 2016, and growing.

I wish there was a way to efficiently invest in the idea that retail stores in malls will continue to get crushed by online stores. I mean, I’m sure there’s some ETF for this, but you shouldn’t take investment advice from a blogger, so I’m not going to look it up for you.

Just as I remember the launch of the 20 year war during Christmas 1996, I also remember the exact moment I decided brick-and-mortar stores were officially dead to me. In fact, it happened this past Summer.

The Sears Catalog, 1996

I needed to shop in a real-live physical store for a couple of solid reasons. First, I had procrastinated buying a 15-year wedding anniversary gift until the actual day. My same-day need left no time even for a Fedex delivery.

Second, I figured that my intended gift – a pair of crystal champagne flutes – should be bought in person to avoid breakage.

For this exceptional anniversary gift, I drove to a fancy store in a fancy mall. I allotted a full hour ahead of a noontime appointment. Let’s call the store Festeration Hardware as I wouldn’t want to embarrass any retailer in particular.

In advance of my visit to Festeration, I looked up crystal stemware on my phone to make sure they carried some. [Incidentally, I’ve learned this is called “webrooming,” in which the customer checks online before showing up to the showroom.] And, yes, they carry crystal champagne glasses at Festeration. Perfect.

Just inside, a man with a headset in the role of maitre d’, greeted me and asked me to wait a moment by the door to be served by Janet. Super.

A full ten minutes later, and about three minutes after I started waving my hands plaintively at the maître d., Janet appeared. Would I like some bottled water?

Crystal champagne flutes. I must have them.

Nope. I’m just here to pick out some crystal champagne glasses for a 15-year anniversary gift.

Ok, well. I’m not sure what we have in inventory here at Festeration, let me look. She disappears. Ten more minutes pass. I’m clearly not invited to walk around the store.

Janet: Yeah, you see, Festeration here is more of a showroom-experience type concept store. Most of our inventory is ordered online.

Me: OK. Do you have anything? Today is my wedding anniversary. And “crystal” is the 15-year anniversary thing you’re supposed to get.

Janet pointed out one ‘display model’ of four glasses, and then found in a backroom inventory some “smoky” champagne glasses. I nixed the “smoky” style – doesn’t that kind of miss the point of crystal? – and decided to buy the display model.

At checkout I had one more question for Janet.

Me: I need to make sure these are actually crystal, since that’s the point of the gift. Can you tell me if they are crystal?

Janet: I don’t know much about crystal glassware. Here, why don’t you look it up on this screen? She turned the screen towards me.

I squinting at the tiny print and found the the word crystal in the description, no thanks to Janet.

Me: Great, I’ll buy them.

Janet: Would you like this wrapped?

Me: Well, yes. I don’t want them to break in the car-ride home.

Janet then disappeared for another fifteen minutes.

Now I was in crunch mode to not miss my noontime appointment.

She eventually returned from the back with a surplus box she had scrounged somewhere. As I shifted from right foot to left foot back to right foot, now worried about the time, it must have taken her another ten minutes to punch in my credit card information and pack some tissue paper into the cardboard box around the glasses.

My Festeration experience was laughably bad from start to finish.

Anyway, I will go to great lengths to avoid this kind of nonsense in the future. I don’t want to sound overly whiny about my Festeration visit, as it was only an hour lost in a completely #FirstWorldProblems context. It’s just, why would anyone want that kind of terrible shopping experience, when compared to the web?[1]

It took twenty years to change holiday shopping habits. The mall is dead. The web rules. What will the next twenty years bring? For Christmas 2036, I’ll just lay a finger to the side of my nose, wiggle my Snapchat spectacles and order that self-driving all-electric hovercraft I’ve always wanted.



A version of this post appeared in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

[1] I am not a neutral observer in this war between online shopping and in-person shopping, at least when in-person means going to a mall for shopping. I loathe malls. If you share my loathing or schadenfreude, you’ll probably enjoy, a website which has tracked the stories and pictures of declining and closed malls since 2000.



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