The Season to be Careful

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    Okay, I’ll admit it. I am truly the Grinch who wanted to steal Christmas. It takes me until about December 23 to get in the spirit, and I only feel obligated to find gifts for children and close family. I like to give, which is why I share with a few charities that are close to me. I like to connect, which is why I have a greeting card ritual. But all this crazy frenzy after Thanksgiving, before Christmas sale stuff truly repels me. And while I don’t want to put a damper on anybody’s sprit, I want to say that this is the season to be careful.

    After all, we live in a consumer-oriented society. When we spend, other people get paid. When we spend other people are blessed. But if you spend what you don’t have then you are sliding down your own fiscal cliff, and you won’t have a pillow to protect you. The average American will spend about $900 this year on Christmas gifts and toys, but that means that half will spend more. ‘Tis the season to be careful.

    Some of the biggest scams come from charities. They will reach you through email, snail mail, and even text mail. They may ask for a little or a lot. You’ve got to ask where your money is going. Some organizations take as much as 80 percent of your gift, which means that the people you want to help get just 20 percent of your money. Before you send a penny, ask the right questions. Too many charities lean on this time of year to make their money, but if the whole truth is told, they are really leaning on this time of year to make a living. Check these folks out online, and look for their annual reports. If their overhead is more than 15 percent, walk on by.

    Another scam is the garbled name scam. You may think you are giving to a worthy program, such as the Police Athletic League, only to find that you are giving to the non-registered Police Athletic Program. You may think you are giving to an African American cause, only to find that a garbled name takes you someplace else. Americans want to give, and African Americans are among the most generous, based on the percent of income we give. But give with your head and not with your heart, and ask solicitors important questions.

    One of the other scams is the sale scam. If you buy it now, you will get a sale that will never, ever, in your lifetime be replicated. So standing line all night for the 52-foot TV for $239, while the store has only 10. Find some furniture you like only to be told it is 50 percent off today, but not tomorrow. Retailers are playing on your greed and your panic. If you take your time, you might find an even better deal. And if seems too good to be true, it is.

    Scruffy little children will come to your door this time of year, asking for money for their church, for magazine subscriptions, for all form of causes. You may want to slip the child a few pennies, but please know they aren’t going to make more than that with the magazine subscription scam, or with the church solicitation. In fact, most churches run their own solicitations, so maybe ask for the name of the church and call them before you make a donation.

    I suppose I am the Grinch because I am dismayed that our holiday season that supposedly celebrates the birth of the Christ child has turned into a commercial orgy with people shopping for a full five weeks. It has also turned into a solicitation orgy with almost every organization you have ever known asking for end of year contribution. In the middle of all this drama, the purpose of the holiday is swallowed.

    I am weary of seeing frenzied faces anxious for the next sale, or children (and grown folks) defining their worth by what goodies they pick up. I am weary of the folks who go into crazy debt to prove a point, to buy affection, to shower folks with gifts when they should shower them with love. Can we be careful with our wallets and open with our hearts?

    I hope that we will all remember and embrace the meaning of Christmas and not the crassness of consumerism.

    Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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