Money, money, money…

I had two things on my mind this morning, but ironically they ended up being about the same thing.

The first was this post by Leo Babauta on Zen Habits: The No-Gift Holiday Challenge which is about spending Christmas in other ways, other than the money spree. Coupled with Cyber Monday two days ago, it couldn’t have been better timed. It’s all about the joys of spending Christmas in other ways, other than the Big Spend. He’s right. The most precious gift we can give of each other at Christmas is time and each other. I wish I could have an hour in the company of all the people I’m giving presents to, and all the people I’ll get presents off. That would be enough for me.

Leo says this: “Do we really want to teach our children that giving is really all about buying? Do we want to teach them that to show love, you must buy something? Do we want to set an example of consumerism instead of creativity? Are we saying that the only way a family or friends can get together is if we spend a crapload of needless money?” – and he’s right.

Sometimes a gift is so well chosen, so perfect that it’s a real addition to someone’s life. My best two have been cameras, both bought by my family for me. They give me the ability to record all those things I’d forget and to keep them as a little burst of happiness when I need it. My film camera opened up a whole new world, and though I got it back in 2002, as my 30th birthday present, it’s been the gift that brought me the most pleasure of anything. Whether it was Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Morocco, Cuba, family events, the countryside near me, Manchester… that camera has been everywhere and recorded everything I’ve ever treasured in the last 10 years. The second is the digital camera I use every day – yesterday I got a picture of Tilly being cute, of Steve with a blue tit in his hands (it had flown into the lean-to) and our barn lit up (it looks like a nativity scene without Jesus!).

The nicest gifts are the ones you see people using or wearing all the time. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the pictures I bought my mum from Brazil on her wall, the photos I took of Manchester on my sister’s wall, the photo of Paris my brother took on my dad’s wall, the t-shirt I hand-painted for Steve, the graffiti t-shirt I made for Jake. None of these cost a lot of money, but I know they are all treasured. That’s what gifts should be – symbols of love. Something that, when you look at them, reminds you of other people’s love for you. I’ve got the two house-warming gifts from Joanne on my mantelpiece – the photo of my cat, Basil – more lovely now he’s no longer with me – the fruit bowl is filled with pine-cones and baubles. Every time I get in the hammock (not very often!) or look at it, I’m reminded of Deb. Those are great gifts. The cardigan I’m wearing now that my sister bought me… the fluffy socks I wear in bed. They remind me that other people care about me.

But Leo Babauta received a couple of comments about being a Grinch because he didn’t spend much money on his children – as if, without money, Christmas is crap and you aren’t showing any love at all. He makes the point more eloquently than me about why this is so wrong, and these comments are a symbol of consumerism at its ugliest, where children are taught that unless you spend a lot on them, they are worthless and you don’t love them. His response is here.

He’s right. I’ve had more pleasure making presents for my mum and step-dad, my dad, Steve, Jake, my sister (I LOVE what I’ve made for my sister!) and I know that they’ll love them too. It’s sad that some children are endlessly disappointed if you haven’t spent a huge amount of money on them, and what’s saddest is that we have done this to our children ourselves.

It reminded me that those without money are the only ones to have to think about it. When I had money, I didn’t have to think about it. Now I don’t have much, I think about the value of every single penny. “Is it worth it?” I ask myself. “How much pleasure per penny will this give me? How much use will I get out of it?”

I know my best moments on Christmas Day will be when I talk to my family, or when I see them – and those moments I have every day – petting Tilly before getting up, her excitement on seeing Mr Fox, reading people’s glorious blogs, seeing into other people’s lives and sharing a bit of their loveliness.

But all this ties into a conversation I had with Steve yesterday about the potential downgrading of France’s coveted AAA status. He was asking what it all means. Essentially, it’s no different from credit ratings for people. If you borrow a lot and pay it back promptly, if you have the means to pay a lot back, they like you. AAA. You’re a good customer because you borrow and give back all your interest and you have the means to do so. Next down the chain are those who haven’t got the means to pay back a lot. And, at the bottom are those who have no means to pay back what they borrow and what they’ve borrowed in the past doesn’t get paid back. I guess Greece is our big example, but then I think there are at least fifty countries who must have a worse credit rating.

So what actually happens?

You can’t borrow as much. Or you have to borrow unscrupulously. Just because you don’t have means doesn’t mean you can’t get it from somewhere. Look at those companies who remortgage your house for you and ‘tie up all your debt’ for 1475% APR. And if not them, in a barely legal way, then some street loan shark.

Even a jobless, penniless guy can borrow a tenner from his friends. And if he doesn’t have friends, there’s always some dodgy geezer able to lend him the cash at a ridiculous rate. I think that’s what happens in countries like Zimbabwe if they need cash. They go to another dodgy geezer and borrow from them. Remember Barclays? They of the 30% monthly APR ‘Barclaycard’? Just because certain African countries in the 70s didn’t have the means to pay back what they were being offered didn’t stop Barclays lending it to them, did it?

So it’s meaningless to me to lose your credit rating – a vague threat that you won’t be able to borrow ludicrous amounts of money you couldn’t pay back anyway.

This is where I get a bit religious. It’s no flipping wonder Jesus’s first major act as a prophet was to turn over all the tables in the money lending bit of the temple. He realised money IS the source of A LOT of bad stuff. Mohammed did a sensible thing too – which is why Islam does not allow usury – or interest. In fact, it was a sin in the Catholic church too – and one pope made it a heresy to even believe that usury – lending money with an interest rate attached – was unacceptable. Islamic banks work on the principle that interest is wrong, but have get-out clauses to get around it. Oh well.

So it all kind of comes together, this consumerist Christmas and the AAA status. The only people who profit – as they always have – are the money lenders. And I forgot about that for a long time. Money dazzles, especially when it is non-existent. Cards, credit cards – they all take away that sense of the value of money. I could get a withdrawal card and get my money out of La Poste without a trauma, but I like the process of having to go in to get cheques cashed or get my money out. I can’t remember the last time I paid for anything with my card. All bills, including my 500€ taxe fonciere bill, are paid in cash. It definitely helps to keep an eye on what I’m spending.

That said, it IS nice to give at Christmas, to see your children’s faces light up. Nobody said that stuff had to be new, first-hand, expensive or shop-bought, though. Jake’s best present this year was a second hand motorbike. He loves that bike. It still cost a bit, but as a combined effort, it was definitely worth it.

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