Don’t Lose the Meaning of the Season

Recently, the internet was astir with controversy over a holiday-themed ad from Peloton, a manufacturer of a popular series of stationary bicycles. I won’t go into the details of the ad, but you can read the details here if you’re interested.

The reason I’m mentioning this ad isn’t to dig into the details and criticize it — many others have done that quite effectively — but because the entire controversy serves as a powerful and timely window into some financial and personal realities about the holiday season, some that we tend to overlook during the hustle and bustle.

If you’re feeling like many Americans are right now, stressed out and struggling to deal with an abundance of work projects, personal challenges and big expenses in the final days before your holiday celebrations begin, here are some thoughts for you.

The lives of people you see in advertisements are not real.

Whenever we see a person or family on television or on an internet ad, there’s always a temptation to compare ourselves to that person and their situation. We naturally want to put ourselves in that place, at least to an extent. How does that life compare to ours?

The problem, of course, is that the lives depicted in advertisements aren’t real ones. They’re constructed to convince you to buy a product. Nothing more, nothing less.

Some ads aim to create a fear of missing out. Other ads are designed to convince you that your life needs some kind of improvement, and they have just the product to improve you. They’re all about pushing your emotional buttons.

None of that is real. All of that is about selling you a product.

This can be really tricky to keep in mind at times. Ads can provide glimpses into the lives we dream about. They can touch our emotions by tugging on the things we care deeply about.

That’s okay. That’s what ads are supposed to do: they display a product in the best possible light and they are trying to make you want that product on some level.

The challenge is to always remember that it isn’t real, that it’s just tugging on your emotions in a way that the ad maker hopes will result in you spending money.

For example, is that tasty burger ad making you hungry? An ad maker is doing their job because somewhere in the back of your mind is a little cue that the burger you get from this restaurant will be yummy.

Does that car in that commercial look cool, with a powerful-seeming person behind the wheel?

The Peloton ad is definitely playing that game (probably ineffectively, depending on your perspective). It’s playing on the emotions of lots of people watching it. For me, for example, it hits the “I’d love to make my wife that happy” button when I watch it (though I consciously recognize that buying my wife a Peloton for the holidays would not be a good choice for us). Other people see other things in the ad, of course, but it’s aiming to hit those emotional buttons.

The point is this: the world you see in ads isn’t real. They’ll emotionally tug you, but that emotional tug doesn’t have to and shouldn’t result in spending money.

What can you do? Reduce your exposure to ads, for one. Spend less time watching videos and television in particular. When you do see ads, be aware of what kind of emotional strings that they’re trying to pull. Most of all, recognize that what you feel doesn’t need to result in buying or consuming something. Instead, reflect on your buying decisions away from ads, both before and after purchases.

The lives of people you see on social media are a highlight reel.

Many people — myself included — have a deep desire to have the “perfect” holidays, and we all have our own visions of what that might be. Many people — myself included — often have a feeling that whatever it is that we do to put together that “perfect” holiday season isn’t going to be good enough.

Much like ads, social media really plays on that fear. When we look at social media, what we see is the highlight reel of other people’s lives. We see that perfect moment where family is getting along and everyone is happy, and we want that for ourselves. What we don’t see are any of the imperfect moments or the struggles that everyone else goes through, too. We just see their highlights, and when we struggle ourselves, it quickly feels like we’re falling short.

You’re not falling short. Not every moment in life can be or will be a postcard. It will be imperfect and messy. You will burn the chestnuts (I did this two years ago). You will knock over the Christmas tree (I, again, did this three years ago). You will feel like the gifts you’re giving are inadequate (I feel like this many years) or the meal you have planned won’t be good enough (yup). Social media, when you see those great highlights of other people’s lives, can often encourage those negative feelings.

Here’s the problem: not only do you feel bad, but the holiday season is in many ways designed to make you feel like you can solve the problem by throwing money at it. You can just spend more to get that perfect present. You can just spend more to have that perfect meal.


The gifts that you are worrying about right now will barely be remembered in a month or two.

The people you’re buying gifts for and putting so much worry and thought into right now are going to open up their gifts this holiday season and enjoy most of them, but the truth is that the vast majority of them will be forgotten in a month or two.

I tried, just now, to make a list of everything I received as a gift last holiday season. I could only name a few things, and that was after some serious thinking. I remember more gifts I gave than I received.

Try it yourself. How many gifts can you remember from past holiday seasons? I’m talking about the item itself, not some special moment associated with opening it. I bet the number isn’t too high.

Here’s the truth: the “perfect gift” won’t create the perfect holiday season. Neither will the “perfect meal.” Don’t worry about them. Rather, worry about what will be remembered.

What will be remembered are the moments of togetherness, of kindness, of attention, and of love.

If you ask me what I remember about last Christmas, almost everything positive I come up with centers around spending time with people I care about. I remember shared jokes. I remember seeing a child enjoy a toy. I remember playing cards with my wife’s family. I remember being crammed into a way-too-small room with about 20 of my relatives for a gift exchange. I remember seeing a depressed friend smile for the first time in a long time.

None of those memories have anything to do with stuff. None of them require the perfect decoration or the perfect tree or the perfect gift. None of them require a huge outlay of cash to try to make everything picturesque.

They just required a bit of time, somewhere in the holiday season, with people I care about.

Here’s a recipe for holiday success.

Don’t worry about the “perfect meal.” Just make a good meal that people will like and don’t sweat perfection.

Don’t worry about the “perfect gift.” Just get them something they’ll like, then spend some time with them catching up and really listening to them.

Don’t worry about the “perfect decor.” Just make it pleasant and fill it with people.

Don’t worry about the “perfect photo.” The one you’ll treasure is one that was captured on the fly anyway.

Instead, give a little attention. Give a little time. Give a little focus. Give a little thought. That stuff is the stuff that lasts, not a gift that won’t be remembered in a month or an over-the-top meal that will be forgotten in a week.

Never forget that you can’t buy love, you can only make it. You can’t buy special moments, you can only make them. They come from you, not from your wallet.

Dump your stress at the door. Make a simple meal so you can spend time with people. Don’t spend a ton or stress a lot about a gift, just get something simple that they’ll like.

Don’t lose the meaning of all of this.

And don’t give your partner a surprise gift that implies that they need self-improvement unless you’re absolutely positively sure they want it, and it shouldn’t be a surprise in that case.

Have a wonderful, meaningful holiday season.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.