The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on small businesses in 2020. All over my town, I see empty storefronts where family restaurants and small stores used to be. It makes me sad to think about how different the world is going to look when this pandemic subsides. Now that the holidays are upon us, I am seeing so many posts about shopping at small businesses and keeping our holiday spending in our local economies. I totally understand why. Our neighbors need us to shop small so our holiday dollars can keep their businesses afloat.
I do my best, but the truth is, I can’t usually afford to “shop small.”
We do what we can. We get our weekend take-out from local restaurants. Sometimes I drive across town to buy meat from a local grocery store that runs 5 for $25 specials on things we need anyway. We have seen second-run movies at our local drive-in in 40-degree weather to help keep them afloat. I just purchased some vinyl decals from a local woman to customize our Christmas stockings. We shop small when we can pull it off.
We also gave a solid wood playhouse away for free to help another family provide a merry Christmas for their little girl. My family is taking care of our community in the ways that we can, but we can’t afford to frequent the local places that could use our support. Honestly, we aren’t frequenting any place but our living room right now—but when we do shop, it’s more economical and COVID-safe to shop from big stores that offer conveniences like free shipping, curbside pickup, incredible sales, and dollar sections.
My husband and I both work, but my income is part-time and very modest. He is in the military. We pay our bills and provide for our children, but we don’t have a lot of money for extras. During the holidays when all three of my children need gifts on the same day, I have to “squeeze every quarter until two dimes and a nickel pop out,” as my grandfather used to say. That’s not always compatible with the “shop small” mantra.
I would absolutely love to be the mom that buys her children beautiful hand-crafted gifts from local artisans for Christmas. Last year, I attended a huge Christmas fair with my girlfriends. I intended to do some shopping for my children and support local businesses. I wanted to shop small.
Some of the things I saw left me breathless, but many were clearly not in my price range or made no sense for me. I marveled at the gorgeous hand-smocked clothes and cashmere teddy bears, but I didn’t even turn over a tag.
But a few booths caught my eye. So, I browsed but ultimately passed on the giant hair bows for my unborn daughter. I walked by the monogrammed diaper covers even though they were SO CUTE. I kept my eyes open for the perfect thing to buy my boys.
Finally, I saw it. An older gentleman was selling hand-carved and painted wooden puzzles, and they were beyond words. Amazing. I approached the booth intending to purchase one for my younger son who was puzzle-obsessed last Christmas.
Then I saw the price. I knew it wasn’t for me. This beautiful puzzle would cost more than half of my entire Christmas budget for my younger son.
He deserved every single penny of what he was charging. Truly. This isn’t a complaint about his prices. I would have paid him every cent if I could have. It’s not that I don’t understand the value of his work. He must spend hours painting those little details. A true craftsman.
I just can’t afford it. If I can get a Melissa and Doug brand wooden puzzle from Target for a fraction of the price (and make my child just as happy) I have to do that. That’s what makes sense for my family’s modest budget.
Of course, I understand the difference between the heirloom quality toy I passed up at the craft fair and the mass-produced one I grabbed at a big box store. I know that in the long run, the other puzzle would have held up longer, and been more beautiful– and it definitely would have looked better on my Instagram.
But kids don’t understand that kind of thing. My three-year-old certainly doesn’t. I don’t have to ask my husband permission to spend money, but I knew he would have been disappointed if I spent a good portion of our Christmas budget on one (exquisite) puzzle. His opinion matters to me. We love to hunt down good deals together, carefully making lists and balancing the haul so that everyone gets things they love, and we don’t overspend. I wish all of those “good deals” could benefit small businesses, but that’s just not how it always works. I’ve got boutique taste, but I’ve got a Target and Walmart budget. In the battle of big box versus local small business, my wallet unfortunately wins.
Shopping small often means spending bigger and shopping in person. Neither of those things make sense for my family right now. Due to COVID, we have everything that can possibly be delivered sent right to the house. This makes all of our groceries and our occasional take-out meals slightly more expensive. We allow for that in order to be pandemic-smart.
That means that this year, everything is a tiny bit tighter than usual. If “shopping small” isn’t really a thing we can do on a regular year, it’s definitely not in the cards this year.
“Shop small” is a great concept, but it requires a lot of privilege. In order to frequent local establishments, you need to have the money and the time to shop within their often-limited hours. You need to have the luxury of valuing quality, and spending more now to save money later. Right now, you also need the privilege of good health without any of the risk factors that would be likely to make a COVID infection lethal for you.
So many of us are just doing the best we can. Shopping local for Christmas gifts is great, but right now, a lot of families are more concerned about staying healthy, paying rent, affording groceries and keeping the lights on. Then you’ve got the families like mine- privileged and lucky enough to have everything we need, but not quite comfortable enough to easily afford the extras without a lot of planning.
There is no shame in understanding that shopping small and local is ideal—even if you are not able to participate right now.