I read a shocking article this week about the hundreds of millions of rural, small-acreage farmers in China who can’t get ahead financially because of the extravagant gifts they feel obligated to give at weddings, funerals and milestone birthday celebrations. The article highlights a 41-year-old woman who farms corn and rice on three quarters of an acre and lives without a water heater or refrigerator. This year, she and her husband will have to borrow money to feed their teenage sons because they will give more in gifts than they bring in with their combined total income.
The cultural norms for these rural farmers are simple: attendance and gift giving is mandatory, the value of gifts are transparently shared and even logged in record books, and no one can ever give less than the prevailing amount. It’s not hard to imagine historic circumstances where these rules made sense. Up until two decades ago, the standard gift was just a share of rice or corn. And the pooling of simple resources within small communities no doubt saved several families from the risks of starvation and ruin that isolated farmers have faced through all history.
But in the last 20 years, community networks have broadened and incomes have stratified. The introduction of a relatively few well-off tobacco farmers or government windfall beneficiaries has inflated the whole system. They are able give more valuable gifts, which then raises the cultural definition of what a “normal” gift value is—a value that can go ever up but never down since no one can give less than has been given before them.
Now a cultural system that once saved the poorest from ruin preys upon its own intended beneficiaries. And since the gift-giving rules are part of the subconscious cultural DNA, they are not easily disregarded. A refusal to give a gift or match the prevailing gift value wouldn’t just be embarrassing; it would be seen within the community as immoral and unethical.
As I’ve reflected all week on this situation, I’ve been drawn to Richard Scott’s address in the April 1998 LDS General Conference:
I know you to be a person of faith and conviction. I also know that you intensely value your unique cultural heritage. There are threads of that heritage woven in to the very fiber of your being. You have obtained great benefit from it and you desire to be a root sunk deeply into the soil of that heritage so that your children and grandchildren will benefit as well. Yet I see how some elements of that pattern of life can conflict with the teachings of Jesus Christ and could bring disappointment or difficulty. As a friend, I want to help you see this potential without offending you or in any way lessening those precious portions of your heritage that should be preserved and built upon.
When I read that heartfelt plea from one friend to another, I can’t help but see how it also applies to me and my own destructive cultural assumptions. With Christmas on the horizon, I think of my illogical drive to overspend and even go into debt just to make sure that my kids get toys at least as cool as their friends’. I think of the many gift-giving rotations with friends or family where someone always ends up far exceeding the dollar limit that the group agrees to, so that the actual “normal” gift value ends up inflating year-over-year. (Thankfully, we did already withdraw from our many gift rotation obligations and replace them with something more enjoyable.)
The Church of Jesus Christ operates under just two basic and inspired principles that it recommends to all its members. Two quote David Bednar’s recent talk at LDS General Conference: “First, the Church lives within its means and does not spend more than it receives. Second, a portion of the annual income is set aside as a reserve for contingencies and unanticipated needs.” To the extent that my own cultural norms diverge from those basics precepts—and they so often do—I am as much in need of course correction as the rural farmer who spends a month’s income on wedding presents instead of buying a refrigerator.
This holiday season, I’m dividing these two principles into an end-of-year and a beginning-of-year activity. We’ve fortunately not done any Christmas shopping yet (saved by procrastination yet again!!). So I still have time to apply the first principle to our shopping this year. I’ve already deleted the coolest items from my own Christmas wish list and I’m looking at ways to combine and reduce the kids’ lists.
The second principle, putting some additional money aside, will be the foundation of my beginning-of-2014 activity. There’s been a great article all over the web this week on a progressive deposit schedule to gradually build up a savings of $1378.00 over the course of one calendar year. It’s a fun idea and a perfect way to start saving or to supplement an existing savings program (we especially liked the “Do Your Best Challenge” option).
I wanted to tweak the system a bit so that I could start with a goal amount instead of building to one that’s predetermined by the deposit increments. That makes for less tidy numbers on the weekly deposits, but is still overall a better system for me. I modeled this on a spreadsheet so that anyone else can use it. Feel free to keep, modify, or share the spreadsheet. The password to unlock the cells is “save”.