I completed my small version of the pre-Christmas rush on Saturday, as I popped in from store to store here in Spain to pick up the ingredients for the chickpea-cauliflower-curry loaf with homemade mango barbecue sauce I was baking for a holiday feast with my new roommate and friends.
I was in the depth of one of those catch-all, cheap import shops, searching for a cheesecloth for a new kombucha brew, when into my earphones did play the Fresh Air podcast’s David Byrne Christmas Special. Byrne’s Christmas playlist of kooky songs included an unknown and unironic tune by Joseph Washington Jr.
“I’m going shopping, shopping, shopping downtown/ I’ve got my Christmas list together, going to buy presents … for everyone who’s been so good to me!”
It was a catchy tune, and it made me laugh. Why? Because I do not enjoy shopping at all. Ever since I sold all my possessions and moved on to a 32-foot sailboat in 2015, I have had no interest in accumulating things around me. And I’m not particularly interested in encouraging anyone else to do the same.
Christmas can be a strange time for a minimalist.
Everyone around me is wearing seasonal sweaters they only get out of the closet once a year. I passed a woman wearing plastic reindeer antlers on the street. In every store, there were opportunities to buy buy buy. You’d think as an American, I would be used to this. But I’ve been out of the Christmas game.
For the past many years, my life has been so nomadic that I really haven’t celebrated the holiday season. There wasn’t really any need for shopping. Last year, I had just injured my Achilles tendon and it was unseasonably cold in Lake Worth, Florida, where I was cat-sitting. I simply laid around in bed and read my book on Christmas. The year before that, I was in Daytona Beach, again caring for cats and staying quiet.
The year before that, I was visiting friends outside Fresno, California. One friend had a quintessential holiday meltdown when we exchanged gifts. I don’t talk to that guy anymore. I guess you could say that Christmas really isn’t much of a holiday for me.
But it certainly is in Spain! There are plenty of parties, dinners, outdoor concerts, and even larger-than-life sculptures in the sand of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the rest of the characters in the Christmas story. There is no avoiding going shopping, shopping, shopping downtown.
I was torn. I love to get perfect gifts for friends and loved ones, just like Joseph Washington Jr. sang about. But I barely know the people who are coming to dinner on Sunday, and I’m not in a place to spend a bunch of money on stupid stuff that no one really wants. Besides, we all know that Christmas isn’t about getting stuff — although, of course, that’s exactly what it’s about for at least the first decade or two of life. This holiday is about sharing love. It’s the thought that counts, right?
Now, I know what a lot of readers are thinking right now: Give experiences, not things. But that doesn’t really happen after you turn 7 and it’s no longer appropriate to give coupons for things like shoulder rubs, dog walks, and car washes. Maybe if you’re in a serious relationship you can buy concert tickets or one-way tickets to exotic destinations. It is possible — but I came up short when I thought about the people on my Christmas list. Not that it’s very long.
I used to do a lot for Christmas. It is all in the name of God, after all. Now I honestly do as little as possible during the holiday season. About a year ago, I discovered a fantastic gift for my parents: a subscription to a local coffee roaster’s coffee of the month club. It’s easier to keep it rolling throughout the year to cover birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas for them both. And they love it. And it’s not more stuff.
I’m persona non grata for the other members of my family, so the only other people on my list are my new roommate and the people I barely know coming to holiday dinner. I am cooking a main dish, a vegan chickpea-cauliflower-curry loaf. I bought a package of construction paper for one euro and made colorful origami cranes, strung a hemp cord through it, and created ornaments. I wrapped them with a star that reads, “Feliz Navidad!” We’re in Spain, after all. My roommate gets a pair of earrings I bought in Turkïye that are cool but a little too heavy for my ears.
It's taken some maturing as a minimalist to understand that there is value in the act of giving gifts, even though it underscores the cultural construct that relationships can be translated into money. I know when I sold and gave away everything I owned to move on to the sailboat, one friend in particular was very upset to see that I sold a candleholder she gave me. Did she think I was going to take it on the sailboat? Was it more ethical to give it back? She also gave me a beautiful Native American bamboo flute, and I asked her if she wanted that back. She accepted it, then never talked to me again.
So, when it’s a holiday season, I try to balance between letting people know that I love them through the love language of gifts while also not getting caught up in the idea that things equal love. This goes for what I buy myself, too. Since I know, eventually, I’ll be back down to a 65-liter, 20-kilogram backpack (which is already too big, please don’t get me started), I only buy things I need or are willing to leave behind whenever I go to my next country. That means the dress I’ll wearing tomorrow is the same dress I bought a year ago at a consignment shop, and I’ll put on a little eyeliner to be extra fancy.
I know that the people who appreciate me don’t care what I look like, just so I respect
the holiday. They aren’t going to care if I spent no money, spent five euro on each of them, or bought them all big, elaborate gifts. It’s not going to make them like me anymore. If it did, well, I might like them less.
The average household debt in America is more than $100,000. This includes student loads, mortgages, medical debt, and, of course, credit card debt. People pay about 10% of their income toward trying to pay down their debt. The average credit card debt is $6,365 per person. How do you compare?
I’m lucky because I was raised by parents who paid for everything only with cash. They paid cash for their house 36 years ago! Now, when I was a kid, this also meant that I had to work for my money. I was the home maintenance girl: trimming bushes, pulling weeds, water-sealing the deck and painting the garage door just to earn some money to go to the movies. I was babysitting at age 14 and had a part-time job at the local produce stand when I was 16. They taught me to work hard and never have any debt. I still work hard, and I still don’t have debt.
But a big reason why I don’t have debt is because I’m a minimalist. I don’t get joy from buying things. I once dated a hoarder, and it was an interesting peek into another world. He found joy in buying all the small appliances a kitchen could ever want, every piece of sporting equipment that could make an armchair athlete sweat, and endless shirts, shoes, and pants. In truth, though, he didn’t find joy. That’s the thing.
Shopping can only bring so much dopamine. It’s addictive just like alcohol, drugs, and social media. Shopping gets you excited in the same way that picking out the sweet in the bakery gets you excited. Or me, I should use the correct pronoun. My acupuncturist told me to stay off the baked goods, and I’ve been bread-free for the last couple of months. Hello, I’m Suzanne and I’m a chocolate croissant addict! I miss them most of all.
It also helps to live in a place with a low cost of living. I pay about a third of what I would pay for a third of the space if I were to be renting in the United States. I also live five blocks from the beach and have a large, private, and quiet space. I cook my own vegetarian food, don’t drink alcohol, and bought mostly secondhand furnishings for the apartment. Low overhead and low desires are keys to a debt-free, minimalist lifestyle.
I’ll warn you, though: It’s not easy to have few desires. You need to train your mind to understand that you can’t buy happiness, and then you have to find the joy in true financial freedom. After all, the fewer bills you have, the less you have to work. The less you work, the more time you have to pursue your dreams. You thought I was going to say play, but life is play when you get the balance right.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Singer’s lectures lately, and in one he talks about how we all have that thing we’re crazy about. Maybe you’re crazy about yoga or craft beers or … maybe it’s the holidays. Maybe you’re crazy about giving a lovely gift to bring a smile to people’s faces. Some things it’s okay to be crazy about. I like making people smile, too. That’s why I made the origami for everyone.
We’ll also have a karaoke machine for performances after we eat. I plan to belt out the hits. I’m also practicing Happy Xmas (War Is Over) on the ukulele. After all, I wish most of all for you and the rest of the world a peaceful time now and always. Maybe if there weren’t so much stuff to fight about, we could also agree to stop fighting.