If you secretly wish that you could skip the whole holiday gift-giving chaos, you are not alone. A 2017 survey found that 33% of Americans would rather skip the holiday season than spend money on gifts. We can feel their pain. In fact, 60% of Americans are carrying some credit card debt, and swiping the plastic for holiday gift-giving typically adds at least another 6 months of payments.
Shopping, baking, decorating, cards and letters, parties, family gatherings. The holidays can make us crazy. These may be tasks we don’t have the time — and sometimes the heart — to perform. So what’s the solution? Invoke the “sanity clause,” says Andrea Van Steenhouse, a Denver psychologist and author of A Woman’s Guide to a Simpler Life.
“Ask yourself: ‘Who do I really want to be with? What do I really want to do?’” We often do things out of obligation, or because we’ve always done them. The holidays are a great time to re-evaluate our priorities, she says. We combined some of Van Steenhouse’s tips for simplifying the holidays with Living on the Cheap’s advice for savvy, non-traditional gift giving.
Change your family (and spending) traditions
Change your family traditions to meaningful ones that won’t break the bank. Just because you’ve bought your sister an expensive gift for the past 36 years doesn’t mean you have to continue that practice.
Set a holiday budget and stick to it. Don’t let emotion drive your shopping and spending. It feels great to buy gifts for loved ones, until the bills start to arrive post-holiday. Whether you have $100 or $500 to spend on holiday festivities and Christmas gifts, when temptation strikes, remind yourself how happy you will be in January when (not if) you stick to your budget and don’t overspend. (See our article on how to have an elegant party on a budget for advice.)
Spend less than last year. Plan to spend 80% of what you spent last year. If you don’t know what you spent last year, take your best guess, and keep track this year so you will know. To help you stay on track, download free apps like Santa’s Bag or Christmas Gift List.
Plan ahead to save money on holiday meals. Prepare the turkey dinner from scratch or make it a potluck. Assign a different scratch-made dish to each family member. Even children and teens can learn tasks such as how to assemble green bean casserole or peel potatoes. Cooking this way really saves money, so enlist all the help you need. If you have friends and family attending, make it a potluck and ask them to bring a dish. People like to participate; find out if they have a specialty they want to bring and cross it off your to-do list. You’ll not only have more time to spare, but you will also build new memories in the kitchen.
Buy only gifts that you can pay for in full by Dec. 25. Spend only what you have, not what you wish you had. Don’t buy Christmas gifts using credit cards to get you through the holiday. If you need to spread out the cost, use the buy now, pay later program at major retailers. Caution: Be sure to read the fine print and choose a layaway plan with no service fee. Those extra fees can end up costing you more than credit card interest. (See our article “Are ‘buy now, pay later’ alternatives to layaway a good idea?”)
Limit the amount you spend on every gift. One family I know limits Christmas gifts to something homemade that costs no more than $10. Whatever rules you choose, set a maximum dollar amount for each gift and stick to it. Pick gifts like coffee gift cards, movie tickets, books or fashion accessories that have lots of price points and selection. If the hardcover book you want to buy is over budget, find a paperback bestseller or locate a hidden literary gem by enlisting the staff at a good local bookstore. If the necklace you want to buy is too expensive, buy a less-expensive pendant that you know the recipient can use on an existing chain, or give a gift card to an affordable accessory store.
Gifting alternatives within families
Gift buying is a burden for many. But when a family decides not to buy everyone a gift and instead draw names, each person only buys one gift. Caveat: “There’s always a holdout. Someone who still wants to buy everyone a gift. Let them. Eventually, they’ll come around.” Another option is to buy one big family gift, such as a television, board games for family game night throughout the year or a family computer.
End gift exchanges between adults and in extended families. You can save a lot of time and money if the adults in extended families agree not to exchange gifts with each other. They may also decide to limit gift-giving to the children in their immediate family. This may work better if opening Christmas gifts is done at each individual family home prior to the shared event. When the extended family gets together, it can be only to share the meal, games, storytelling and other holiday entertainment.
Pick a theme. You could set a theme, such as the handmade-and-under-$10 theme mentioned above. Have the family come up with several ideas and pull one from a hat for this year’s gift-giving. Themes such as “Foods Around the World,” “Eco-Conscious,” or “It’s Alive!” can create some wonderful memories. Set a limit to the cost. These themes could be combined with drawing names for gifts, or with fun gift trades like Yankee Swap or White Elephant Trades.
Do charitable acts in lieu of gifts. As a family, agree to participate in a charitable project for the holidays. This can include donating cash or goods to a food bank or charitable cause, volunteering at a soup kitchen to prepare or serve meals, helping at a food bank to pack holiday boxes or deliver food to home-bound clients, or helping to pack and send care packages to our troops overseas. Don’t overlook extending kindnesses to neighbors such as transporting a disabled person to do their gift or grocery shopping, shoveling snow or clearing leaves from clogged gutters or street drains.
If you really like writing Christmas cards, go ahead and do it, Van Steenhouse says, but if not, find a way to gracefully get out of it. If anyone comments that they didn’t get a card, just say, “I’ve found that sending a card once a year isn’t very meaningful to me anymore. I’d rather find another way to connect with you.” (Maybe give them your e-mail address and let them take the initiative.) Or consider sending cards only to senior members of the family, who love receiving mail.
Let’s say you make some holiday treat (maybe your homemade fudge) every year, but find fewer people are eating it. Stop making it! If anyone complains, give them the recipe and let them make it. If you’ve always made three desserts for Christmas dinner, cut it down to two, or even one. Those feasts can be taste overloads, and at the end of the meal, the same few dishes will be scraped clean and the other side dishes ends up as leftovers or in the trash. Decide which dishes are family favorites, and reduce your cooking time.
If your holidays include a round of events and parties, be selective in what you attend. “At some point you have to say, ‘How much is enough?’” Van Steenhouse says. Choose the ones most meaningful to you and skip the rest. If you go to several parties that require you to bring a dish, take the same recipe to every party. You will minimize your grocery list, reduce preparation time, and make it easier on yourself. Do you make a memorable baked ziti? Make and freeze several batches in foil pans, so you can pull one out and bake for the next party.
Say “no” to office Secret Santa exchanges
Bah, humbug. Not really — you are not the only one in the building who wishes they could opt out of the gift swap. Instead, suggest a thrifty alternative, like a potluck or a “My Worst Gift” exchange (where participants wrap an ugly, used or unwanted gift to swap).
Start new traditions
Read Christmas or other inspirational stories aloud as a family. Find an old radio program like Cinnamon Bear and play an episode each evening. Bake cookies or make candy from scratch. Teach your children generosity by asking them to sort through their toys, selecting gently used toys still in good condition that they no longer play with and donating the toys to a charitable organization.
Participate in the holiday spirit without spending
In lieu of gifts (or in addition to limited gifts), plan a schedule of holiday services and events. Major cities and even small towns offer a variety of free plays, pageants, concerts and church services that capture the spirit of the season. Take a drive to marvel at Christmas lights. Attend an inspirational religious service or awe-inspiring tree lighting ceremony. Immerse yourself in some holiday music. Visit your local Living on the Cheap Network site to find free or low-cost events near you.
Don’t be influenced by influencers
Stop reading articles or looking at Instagram accounts that tell you how to have a perfect Christmas, she says. “Your table setting will never look like that. The recipes are too complicated – who makes that stuff? They just put pressure on you to achieve a perfection that’s not attainable.” The most important thing is to have dazzling smiles and happy laughter around the table.
In other words, relax, get real – and simplify.
When you give gifts, make them meaningful
If you still find it hard to shop for certain people on your list, try the tips mentioned below to get them something useful. The best part about these kinds of gifts is that the pricing varies and can fit any budget. The point is to make the recipient feel special and to enjoy the process of gift giving. Start a new tradition!
Give gift cards from restaurants that have had 15 minutes of fame. To make a regular gift card a little more interesting, buy some from restaurants that have been featured on television. Look for places to go on a site like TVFoodMaps.com. It showcases 30 food shows and 4,000 restaurants. Look for places there or through their mobile app. You can search by the actual food shows where the restaurants were featured like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Man Versus Food, Chopped and many more.
You can also search by location or the TV Guide Listing on the site. I visited a diner featured on the show Drive Ins, Diners and Dives with Guy Fieri as the host in my own state. I wasn’t able to see the show when it aired but found out about it later through the site. The restaurant was just under an hour away. The food was great and it broke me out of visiting the same old places.
If your recipients are traveling by car to see you for the holidays, perhaps you can locate a restaurant on the site that is en route when they head back home. Base your recipients itinerary around a restaurant that was visited by famous food show stars like Michael Symon or Anthony Bourdain.
Help fuel up for those on the go. Avid road trippers and college students may like a practical gift like a gas card. This useful gift can help defray costs for those who travel often. Whether they are headed to a place with sand and palm trees or just going back and forth to college, they might appreciate this gift. A thoughtful gift like this might mean that money from a part-time job can go towards other needs or a little fun. Feel out if the person would enjoy this type of gift in advance so you don’t get a big thumbs down come holiday time.
Tickets come in handy. Getting tickets to a play, musical or an area movie theater is a desirable gift. Maybe your nephew hasn’t seen The Lion King yet, or your auntie is a movie buff who would love a pair of tickets to see The Intern at her area cinema. You can buy tickets based on the recipient’s interests and use it as your trademark gift to give year after year. Those you exchange with on a regular basis can plan what they want to see in advance and tell you what to buy in advance. They will have something to look forward to each year as well as cherish the memories for years to come. You will also have the added bonus of not having to scratch your head to come up with a new idea over and over.
Redecorate your child’s room. If your child is that person on your list that happens to have everything they need and want, consider revamping their bedroom. As kids get older, their tastes change. Maybe your daughter has outgrown that princess pink paint or all of a sudden is into animals and wants cat posters all over her room. Or maybe the Thomas the Tank Engine theme needs to go. Give the gift of room reinvention. Check out sites like Pinterest or glean inspiration from design blogs for age-appropriate ideas. This can be just what the decorating doctor ordered.
Pay a bill. This may seem silly and “un-holiday.” But years ago, my son found himself between jobs, and he was having some trouble keeping up with the monthly bills. I paid his utility bills for him instead of giving him a traditional gift. He was happy and relieved that the bills were paid, and he quickly got on his feet with a new job. Elderly family members often suffer their bills in silence, and could use a helping hand with monthly debt.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy:
- Homemade gifts: 11 easy ideas for drink & sweet mixes
- 10 thoughtful gifts that keep on giving
- 35 tips to save money and time over the holidays
- Make your own holiday gift bags
- Ways to deal with your post-holiday financial hangover
- Practical gifts to give this season