Let your spending reflect your values

11/25/2015, 10:51 p.m.
The buildup began right after Halloween, when the newspapers got thicker, the advertising inserts longer and emails touting shopping bargains ...
Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

The buildup began right after Halloween, when the newspapers got thicker, the advertising inserts longer and emails touting shopping bargains coming more frequently.

Buy! Buy! Buy! The exhortations are almost hypnotic.

Buy, buy more and buy even more. Sellers have become far more aggressive in trying to separate consumers from their dollars because they depend on fourth quarter sales to make a profit.

The term “Black Friday” does not refer to black people, but to the Friday after Thanksgiving when retailers can forecast whether they will end the year “in the black.” Consumer confidence is higher than it has been in the past several years and unemployment is lower. Spending is up. Have consumers shed the cautionary approach they had to holiday spending last year?

Whether you plan to spend or not, don’t fall for the holiday hype. The big box stores will advertise unbelievable bargains — a 58” widescreen TV for $129, for example. What they won’t tell you is that they have five of them. Exactly five. They are hoping that you will get to the store early, stand in line and, when you learn there are no more cheap TV bargains, you’ll buy something else. Meanwhile, you and the other fools — yes, fools — who stood in line all day or night will perform for the cameras that record you stampeding through the store, trampling each other, in search of “deals.”

Why not, instead, consider the meaning of holidays, holy days? Why not use these last few weeks of the year to do some of the good we neglected to do earlier in the year? Why not show love, regard, respect through words and deeds, and not through stuff? Why feed the great consumer machine that exploits consumers?

Walmart, the largest of the mass retailers, pays its workers little to nothing, adjusts their hours to avoid offering health care, and fires employees when they protest. They are the easiest to call out, but they aren’t the only retailer that touts great prices but offers workers low pay and benefits.

If there is shopping that should be done, why not spend your dollars with black-owned businesses, and also on Small Business Saturday, the Saturday after Thanksgiving? Why not gift your friends, especially children and young adults, with great books? As you contemplate holiday giving, consider Maggie Anderson’s “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.”

Ms. Anderson’s book is both sobering and empowering. Sobering because it was a chore to buy black because black folks don’t own things like gas stations. Empowering because it was important to see how black businesses could be strengthened with more patronage.

Unfortunately, African-Americans spend less than 10 percent of our income with black businesses. While there are “reasons,” there are also reasons we should go out of our way to support black businesses. Supporting black businesses generates jobs in our communities, which means providing opportunities for some of the young people who desperately need employment.

According to a Gallup consumer survey, Americans plan to spend $830 on gifts this year, 15 percent more than we spent in 2014, and more than any year since 2007. My snarly tone about holiday hype isn’t likely to change hearts, minds or spending habits. Without snarling, then, my suggestion is to think before you spend, and to let your spending reflect your values.

You appreciate small businesses? Shop with them. You care about black entrepreneurship? Look for black businesses. If you can’t find a bricks and mortar store, shop online.

And whatever you do, don’t go galloping down the aisles of a big box store and get featured on the news chasing that elusive bargain. Holidays, our holy days, ought to be our season to be grateful, not our season to spend mindlessly.

The writer is an author and economist based in Washington.