FUNNY MONEY, HOMELESSNESS, AND THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
“Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.” Dave Barry, humor writer.
“Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer…” Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes
We have a credit card that accumulates “Reward Points.” We are “rewarded” for buying more than we want or need. For me this is more annoying than motivating. It is a just one more example of our mindless, greedy commercial culture. But this Christmas, rather than being a scrooge, I decided to turn the lemons of excessive consumption into eggnog.
Rewards points are a gimmick to encourage people to spend more. The more you buy with your “rewards” credit card the more you accumulate points which can be redeemed for “free” stuff. Of course, nothing is “free” and the consumer ultimately pays the price. But people are easily deceived and these programs are very popular with consumers.
We did not ask to join the rewards points scheme. It just happened when our credit card was renewed. At first, we just ignored it. We don’t buy much and mostly only what we actually need. We use credit cards for the convenience and pay it off at the end of the month. So, the “rewards” are insignificant for us. When we did check into the “rewards,” the crap we could get with the points was disappointing. Most of it was cheap junk we didn’t want or need. The few items we might have used turned out to cost more – when you calculated the dollar value of the points – than buying the item at a local store. In short, all this funny money really wasn’t worth the bother.
Given the level of consumer debt in this country the last thing people need is an incentive to spend more with their credit cards. The average American has about $6000 in credit card debt. This added up to $893 billion in debt for the first quarter of 2020. People pay an average of about 15% on this debt (plus various other fees and penalties). Only 39% of credit card users pay off the card each month and avoid paying interest (this is surprisingly high given the lack of financial literacy of most consumers). It is simply irresponsible for banks to encourage more credit card debt.
We bank at a credit union. I am annoyed that my credit union promotes this scheme. Credit unions are non-profit cooperatives, owned by their members, and supposedly operated for the benefit of the members. Credit unions exist to provide service to their members not to generate profit for credit card companies. I would think encouraging people to save with higher interest rates would be a better service for members.
Unfortunately spending more is the foundation of “growth” capitalism and our economy. Consumer spending drives 70% of our economy. My spending becomes your income. We are seeing this simple reality with the economic woes of the pandemic. Staying home to control the spread of the disease has reeked havoc on businesses that depend on people traveling, shopping, or going out to dinner, bars, concerts, ball games and school.
Much of this spending depends on artificial, manufactured needs. The primary purpose of advertising is to get people to want more. Rewards points are just another advertising gimmick to promote endless “growth.” If we don’t do our patriotic duty by spending more, then the economy suffers.
Comedian George Carlin, in one of his monologues, laments the impact of this over-consumption on our personal lives. He says, “We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living but not a life. We’ve added years to life, not life to years.” He says our over-consumption is, “The only true lasting American value that’s left. Buying things. Buying things. People spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need.”
Which brings us to the real purpose of the holiday season – shop-til-you-drop, mindless consumerism. The spiritual, religious, or social aspects of Christmas have been largely forgotten. The Normal Rockwell mythology of love, family, giving, and peace on earth has been replaced with Black Friday sales, Santa Claus, and packed shopping malls.
This has happened because making money is paramount in our commercial society. Christmas sales volume became the make-or-break benchmark of success for the retail sector of our economy. Katharine Whitehorn, a British journalist and writer, sums up this nicely, “From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.”
Christmas is supposed to be a time for giving. The Salvation Army bell ringers are as traditional as Christmas trees, manger scenes, and maudlin TV specials. With the economic impact of the corona virus pandemic, the need for giving is greater than ever. The food shelves, homeless shelters and soup kitchens are being overwhelmed by the needy.
Housing advocates are expecting a huge increase in homelessness. The pandemic job losses, and people running out of unemployment compensation, are expected to result in evictions and mortgage foreclosures (despite government moratoriums). While the politicians play games with pandemic “stimulus” packages, many people are being thrown out in the cold.
Those of us fortunate to still have jobs and income need to revive the true meaning of Christmas. It is better to give than to receive. It occurred to me that an easy way to give would be to use my unneeded “rewards” points to help the homeless. The rewards program with my credit card allows me to redeem points for gift cards or for cash back. Gift cards can be given to homeless shelters to buy winter clothes and other needed stuff. Cash back can be donated to charities. Using this funny money is painless and easy.
This action will not save the world. We all need to dig deeper with our generosity. But it is one way to turn the lemons of consumption into eggnog for the holiday season.