Buying back the holiday

A simple look at holiday shopping

By Tara Pettit

Photo: Josh Milburn (left) and Ryan Nicodemus on tour in New York City; photo: Adam Dressler and Spyr Media

It’s a familiar feeling that returns year after year at about this time. You feel the pressure building. The to-do lists are getting longer. The sales ads are strewn across the living room floor. Yep, the holiday shopping season has arrived. ’Tis the season of merry family get-togethers ($500), obligatory company parties ($150), Christmas morning with the kids beside the tree ($1,000), a month of festive and warm Starbucks beverages while on the go ($50), and the wonderful, cherished memories of another family and friend-filled holiday season … (priceless). Or is it?

It’s well understood and widely accepted that the holiday season in America is just plain busy … and expensive. It’s a season that touts shopping and comes with a pretty hefty price tag when all is said and done – an expense that includes not just money, but also time and energy. But when all is actually said and done (when all the gifts have been beautifully wrapped and then ripped open, when all the food has been prepared and eaten and we start strategizing how we can work longer hours to pay off those credit card bills) have we actually experienced the pricelessness of celebrating life with those we love?

The gift of freedom

For Dayton native Josh Milburn, who makes up one half of The Minimalists, a dynamic duo that writes and speaks about life from a minimalistic perspective, the holidays have become an ugly reminder of our insatiable desire to consume. He acknowledges our compulsive consumption as a symptom of an unquenchable thirst that is revealed each year in the long lines and the people trampling each other at doorbuster sales.

As a “minimalist,” or someone who chooses to live a materialistically and ideologically simple life, Milburn has observed traditional holiday shopping within the context of his practice and has many ideas to contribute toward helping Americans revamp their purchasing habits and gain relief from the stress and pressure that enshroud the season’s expectations. Furthermore, he believes approaching the holidays from a minimalist perspective helps contribute to a renewed understanding that the season is not simply about material abundance, but exists as a time for us to celebrate friends, family and the more meaningful aspects of our lives.

Much of Milburn’s approach to holiday shopping is influenced by how he views and manages his entire life, which, in the past five or so years, he has experienced within the framework of minimalism.

“What is it? It’s this amazing relief,” he said. “As I started shedding things, possessions, distractions, I started feeling freer and lighter and happier. It was the initial bite of the apple that allowed me to figure out what was important and then focus on [those things].”

Milburn and his minimalist counterpart, Ryan Nicodemus, ventured into lives of minimalism about five years ago after both climbing corporate ladders only to find, even amid their comfy lives, their large houses and their luxury goods, what they really were missing was a sense of meaning. At the time, they both lived in Dayton. They were faced with the realization that an authentic life was something that could never be bought when they experienced the great void that many feel after compulsively trying to fill their lives with “stuff.”

In a 21-day experiment to radically reroute the direction of their lives, Milburn and Nicodemus embarked on a journey into minimalism by redefining and creating goals to prioritize what was most important to them and weeding out anything unnecessary (possessions, habits, commitments and compulsions) that served as a distraction to their pursuit of meaningful lives.

“From the outside, I did look successful, but I wasn’t fulfilled by it one bit,” Milburn said. “I looked at what had become my priorities, my life, and realized I had been so focused on the so-called achievements and accumulation of stuff, and it did not bring a sense of purpose or enjoyment. It was weird because I had gotten to a point in my life where it wasn’t that I didn’t want to focus on what was really important, but that I didn’t even know what was important anymore.”

The result from the experiment to get rid of stuff was two lives dedicated to minimalism or the pursuit of fruitful, meaningful and simplified lives. After continually whittling down their material possessions and refining their habits and commitments to goals, the guys experienced the gift of freedom to pursue relationships, hobbies and careers that were important to them.

Where before they had jobs and incomes that enslaved them in a continuous cycle of financial, relational and emotional “insecurity,” today Milburn and Nicodemus freely and intentionally dedicate their lives to sharing their experience of minimalism with the world. Together, they participate in speaking tours, maintain a popular website and blog and have written two books on the subject.

Milburn acknowledged one of the biggest challenges we face, including when considering alternative ways to celebrate the holidays, is the pressure we feel to conform to societal standards. When we make a big change, we’re afraid of what people will think of us, and we struggle to obtain the approval of those we care about.

“I started to realize that there’s so many things we [obsess] over constantly, but a lot of the pressure is 99 percent internal,” Milburn said. “The pressure we feel … is actually pressure that we [put on ourselves].”

Take the act of gift-giving, for example. It is common practice and many expect us to gift things on certain days or holidays. It is difficult to deviate from that deeply engrained tradition, especially when immersed in a world that is becoming even more obsessed with it. However, if you make your intentions and expectations known to friends and family, you will find that people will respect the choices you make, whether that’s choosing to not participate in gift-giving or, as Milburn has done, gifting alternatively and creatively.

“The way my perspective has shifted now with gift-giving, in general, is that I give gifts of experiences or, if it’s material goods, things that are consumables, like a bottle of wine or a really nice bag of coffee from Press Coffee,” he said. “It’s something someone can use, or, if it’s an experience, it’s a memory that can be shared, from great concert tickets or an evening of watching the sunset together. That sounds cliché until you actually end up doing it and it’s great.”

Milburn’s alternative gift-giving experience (avoiding “cuff links or something cheap, shiny and plastic from Wal-Mart”) is one way he has deepened relationships with those he loves – rather than, in an attempt to make up for the lack of his presence in their lives for the past year, temporarily remedying them with gifts.

“It’s weird because many of us try to give material items to make up for the time we don’t spend with the people we love,” he said. “It’s what I did for years. Those possessions can never make up for lost time. I would say the next time someone asks you what you want for Christmas, consider responding with: ‘Your presence is the best present you can give me.’”

Milburn has found that friends and family have not only come to understand how his new lifestyle fits into the holiday tradition of gift-giving, but have also developed an appreciation for how his decisions have freed him to spend more quality time with them.

“Once people understand that and I explain that I will still be around for the holidays (in fact, this minimalist lifestyle allows me to spend more time because I am taking back my time), I am able to gift more time to you, which is more meaningful than buying you anything from the store,” he explained.

Concert tickets, breakfast in bed, vacations, foot rubs and planned day-trip activities are among some of his recommendations for great ways to feed your relationships.

Milburn also advised avoiding the money and time required to obtain superfluous material items at doorbuster sales and instead giving the gift of quality time with and to loved ones. The additional stress of last-minute shopping, excessive spending and meaningless consumption that come with Black Friday sale shopping really detract from focusing on spending quality time with those we love, as well as from being creative in giving meaningful gifts to them.

The element of surprise

Giving the gift of time or a memorable experience saves both parties involved the trouble of “exchanging a tie for tie, which neither even wants and which then becomes an obligatory act,” Milburn said. He added, another gifting strategy he uses is avoiding traditional gift-giving days and holidays. Instead, treating someone to concert tickets or dinner on any day of the year, while initially taking that person off guard, is a way to show how much you really care.

“I don’t want to wait until December 25 when everyone expects a gift anyway,” he said. “I think a way to make a gift more meaningful is to give it on a day where you don’t feel obligated to give it. Then it comes from authenticity. I find that that is much more meaningful in building relationships.”

Another great way to give back to the community while building relationships with friends and family, Milburn adds, is to gift your time in love and service. He remembers a time when he and a group of friends spent part of the holiday season donating their time at the House of Bread in Dayton, a local soup kitchen that Milburn describes as “one of the best in the country.”

The gift of good

Along with planned and random nonobligatory gifts of experiences or time, there are still large parts of the world and our lives that are dependent upon material goods, many of which are integral and add joy to our lives. Traditional holiday gift-giving is not something you have to completely remove yourself from once you have made the decision to disassociate from the hyper-consumerism of the season, Milburn said.

A practicing minimalist does not deny the need for basic material goods but seeks many different ways of making wiser purchases. Milburn offers a couple of recommendations on how to get the most out of our spending on material goods, including making purchases that positively impact society, our communities and our individual lives.

First of all, consumable goods like good wine, coffee or chocolate are material gifts you know will be used and can even contribute to a good, shared experience with someone. Additionally, Milburn said, purchasing high quality consumable goods from locally-owned businesses is one great way to positively impact your community and local economy through your holiday shopping.

“Support the people in your community who are making a difference,” Milburn said. “Small business owners have to make money too, yes, but the money they earn is not the primary driver for what they do. They are passionate about what they do, and they are experts of what they do. So why not go out of your way to support the local businesses in your community who are actually making a difference?”

As a Dayton native, Milburn knows of and loves many local businesses that offer great holiday gifts, but there are a few, specifically, that came to mind, he said, and that he recommends to other practicing minimalists.

Here are some of his locally-made/collected, quality holiday gift recommendations:

Bag of coffee or gift certificate from Press Coffee: Press offers not only coffee, but also some of the finest roasts and brewing methods of any coffee shop in the region. A gift promises more than an average cup of coffee. It’s a gift of quality and local expertise. (

Stationary, invitations and other paper, pen and writing goods from The Envelope: This local fine paper and invitation shop specializes in selling and working with quality paper and designs to offer shoppers customizable invitations and a variety of fine paper stock, as well as provide expert graphic design services for social invitations and other printing needs. The shop also sells gift items like candles, journals and other paper products. (

Vintage furniture and other artful pieces from Jimmy Modern: Located in the Oregon District, Jimmy Modern sells timeless, vintage furniture pieces and art deco-inspired wares that have been preserved throughout the years and collected from all over. For unique furniture gifts, the shop offers everything interesting, eclectic or modern to furnish your home. (

Gift certificates for good, fresh ingredient meals from Thai 9 and Wheat Penny: These two restaurants rank high on Dayton’s list of great dining experiences, with quality ingredients and expert cooking as top priorities for both establishments. Thai 9 satisfies any craving for Asian cuisine and caters to the spice-infused palette while also specializing in sushi dishes. Wheat Penny uses only the freshest, most wholesome ingredients for its high quality, flavorful dishes. (,

A day-trip to or a season membership with the Dayton Visual Arts Council: DVAC, one of the region’s leading contemporary gallery spaces and artist organizations, offers a number of benefits for anyone who purchases a gallery membership, including invitations to all exhibitions, programs and events; discounts on programs and events; and access to the newsletter, which contains information on upcoming activities. (

What Milburn and his work on the The Minimalists team shows us is that we can, indeed, buy our holidays back. But it actually does not involve buying or trying or working harder at all. It involves looking introspectively within ourselves, at a larger sense of purpose, and making the holidays and our lives easier by slowing down, enjoying our relationships, and saving the money and time for the important things. It really is just that simple.

For more information about The Minimalists, please visit

Reach DCP freelance writer Tara Pettit at Page

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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at

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