To Buy or Not To Buy


March/April 2009


It's Monday before Christmas, and the lure of spectacular discounts has turned the usual elegance of the first floor of Saks Fifth Avenue into something resembling Filene's basement at the height of a clearance sale. Gloves, hats, sweaters, and scarves are tossed about as though Katrina has just been here. But this crowd is the exception. Elsewhere in Manhattan, discounts notwithstanding, the stores are largely empty. I stop in front of one and peer through the only part of the window not plastered with an enormous "50% off on selected styles" banner. Inside, sales associates are trying to look busy, folding and refolding.

In a large Midwest city, Michele, normally a big shopper, says she's cut back. "It doesn't seem right to buy so much now," she says. "My mood's changed." Using leftover yarn, she's crocheting colorful scarves for her nieces and nephew. And to model the generosity she hopes they'll adopt, she's donated a goat and two chickens in their names to a Senegalese family they're going to write to. "I got an excited call from my brother-in-law. When the kids found out, they were absolutely thrilled," she says. "The only shopping I did was for my husband, and I spent less than I'd planned! Always before, I'd get something for myself, but this year I didn't. It felt so good and so strange at the same time."

In a Californian suburb, the sun beats down through an atrium on a huge mall Christmas tree. Passing it, $35,000 in debt and facing the…

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