As the holiday shopping season gets into gear, remember that buying cheap goods made in China contributes to our trade imbalance, the "creative destruction" of American jobs, and global carbon emissions (both from coal-burning power plants in China and from the container ships transporting the raw materials and finished products across the ocean).
It's almost impossible to avoid buying products made wholly or partly overseas. However, if you are willing to make the effort to buy American where you can, this website is very useful. With so many of our friends and neighbors out of work, the holidays will be merrier if you support local businesses as much as possible. Buy books and DVDs from a bricks-and-mortar store rather than online (if you sign up for coupons, it can be just as cheap). Give gift certificates for services. Your grandmother doesn't need more perfume or dust-collecting knick-knacks, but she might enjoy a day of pampering at a salon or day-spa, or a dinner with the family at a nice restaurant. Studies have shown that people who spend their money on experiences rather than things tend to be happier.
Many of us make charitable contributions during the holiday season. There are a great many very worthy charities that do a lot of good with those contributions. There are also charities that spend more money on fundraising than they do on the programs that help those in need. The American Institute of Philanthropy does an excellent job of researching charities and helping donors get the most bang for their buck. Their website lists top-rated charities in a variety of categories. For a small donation, you can subscribe to their Charity Rating Guide, which gives more detailed information about how much various charities spend on fundraising and administration versus services.
Finally, if you are starting to make 2011 vacation plans, think seriously about visiting Las Vegas or New Orleans. Both are terrific cities for visitors, and both have been hit harder by the recession than many other places. Las Vegas was ground zero for the real estate bubble, and New Orleans' fishing and offshore drilling industries took a big hit after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, just as the area was beginning to bounce back after Katrina. Both places can be affordable vacation destinations if you avoid their peak tourist season and patronize the restaurants that target locals rather than tourists.