Christmas is six months away. Just sayin’.

I don’t bring this up to make you nervous about shopping. Instead, I want to point out that we all have choice about how – and whether – to buy.

Earlier this week I posted a new column at Get Rich Slowly, “10 ways to build a gift closet that’s both deep and cheap.” The comments section got pretty spirited, with some people saying “Yay!” and others saying “No way!”

Writers accused me of cheapskatery, of giving crappy gifts, of cluttering other people’s lives with musty-smelling Stuff.

I beg to differ. My gift closet is a cedar chest, so gifts are guaranteed to be non-musty-smelling. (Also moth-free.)

Yet I know that gift-giving can be pretty fraught. Some folks can’t afford to give and thus feel bad about receiving. Some worry that their presents aren’t good enough. Some think that it don’t mean a thing if it don’t go ka-CHING!

It’s no wonder people yust go nuts at Christmas. But it doesn’t have to be that way.


Keeping it affordable

Some choose to cut back on gift-giving, especially with regard to extended family. This would be welcomed by those hit hard by the recession, those who have long-term goals such as buying a house, or those who simply don’t want more stuff in their lives.

An easy solution is to institute a policy like “gifts for kids only,” or “gifts only for people under 18 or over 80.” Some families opt to draw names, so that everyone is responsible for one gift only.

Or why not propose a white elephant auction? Again, you’d be responsible for just one gift, and the stealing and re-stealing can be a lot of fun.

It’s possible to give experiences instead of stuff. The proliferation of social commerce sites such as Groupon and  make it possible to get meals out, spa days, live theater and other treats at deep discounts. This only works if you know the recipient’s tastes, of course, and the experience doesn’t have a too-soon expiration date. (Hint: Few people need massages as much as a new mom does. Few people have a harder time scheduling time away as a new mom does.)

Experiences can also be homemade. I used to give my daughter coupons for things like “One homemade pumpkin pie (24 hours’ notice required)” and “one load of laundry washed, dried and folded.” This might work for you, too. Your cousin who has three kids would probably appreciate a few hours of child care; an older relative might like a promise to clean out the roof gutters in the spring.

The important thing, of course, is to make good on your offer. Don’t promise to babysit and then be unavailable every time they ask.


Defining “affordable”

If money’s a real issue for some members of your family, set a very low price limit. I suggest giving people the choice of one or more of these themes:

  • Best of the yard sale
  • Found at the dollar store
  • Clearance-bin stunner
  • Extreme couponing
  • Loss-leader specialist
  • I can’t believe it’s a re-gift

This is not a challenge to find the tackiest gift imaginable. It’s a challenge to find just the right gifts for relatively little money. If your family is on board with this, draw names as soon as possible – this gives everyone plenty of time to create super-personalized presents on super-low budgets.

Some examples:

  • Your recipient is an 18-year-old college freshman, strapped for funds. Start compiling a box of free-after-rebate toiletries. Closer to Christmas, watch for snack items that you can get cheaply or free with coupons. This care package should be greatly appreciated.
  • Your sister provides child care in her home. School-supply sales begin around the middle of July at office supply stores and also some drug and department stores – and some of the deals are unbelievable. I’ve seen packages of pencils, crayons and notebook paper for one cent, kindergarten scissors for a dime, markers free after rebate. Fill a copy-paper box with this stuff.
  • You’ve never written in the cloth-bound book that your workplace Secret Santa gave you last year. Give the journal to your niece, who wants to be a writer, along with a couple of gel pens you bought at the school-supply sale. Compile a bunch of famous quotations about writing and include them, too.
  • You live in a family of bookworms. Look for good fiction at yard sales and thrift stores. I’ve gotten some terrific tomes for as little as a quarter. I’ve also bought hardback books at the dollar store.

I enjoy gift-giving and contrary to public opinion I don’t mind spending money. I just don’t see any reason to overspend.

Readers: Have you started shopping yet? Are you planning to cut back? To do away with gifts to certain people (e.g., adults) entirely?

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  1. Harry Martin

    Oh gosh, I wish my family would go to picking names. Instead I have a list of 22 people! I’ve gone to doing couples gifts, but it would be such a relief to just focus on one.

  2. Holly Samlan

    i KNOW the holidays are 6 months off but first I have to cover DGD1 bday, Dad’s bday, DD1 bday & anniversary and DD2 anniversary.

    I *tried* to load your GRS post 2 days in a row & it would NOT load for me. I had a response all prpared so here it is:

    I accumulate free samples all year long for Christmas stocking stuffers. DD1 & DD2 hit the gym several times/week. They get deodorant, shampoo, conditioner & lotions. DD1 is a tea nut. SIL LOVES a certain razor. I just found 6 I got FREE in my stash. I also send for FREE samples of men’s care stuff for him. DD1’s spouse is a chocolate NUT so I save some of the candy I get CHEAP for her (I like the same stuff so I just share). Each kid, spouse & grand usually get a shoebox full of stuff.

    I hit the Dollar store & Target Dollar Spot for stuff for the grands & office notions for the adults. I also hit the local charity book resale for everybody. I hit the major Target toy clearance whenever I find/hear about it & I have 3 Targets in my area. I have already gotten several target gift cards to fund these actual buys.

    I buy Christmas, Halloween & Easter stuff for the grands when it hits 75% off clearance at CVS, Walgreens and/or Target to save for the following year.

  3. Holly Samlan

    There is a BIG used book sale annually in a nearby mall. I hit it up either seniors day (50% off) and/or bag day and stock up on books for the grands and sometimes for the adults (specialty cookbooks).

    I stopped doing adult Christmas gifts after each of my DDs had a child. Only do the stocking stuffer thing mentioned above.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Holly: You are a frugal shark! [[tips hat, bows in admiration]]

  4. Those readers at GRS can be a tough crowd.

    I also wrote about Christmas yesterday. We overspent a little last Christmas for 2 reasons: we used a credit card (paid it off in Jan) and we waited to the last minute. This year, I made a list of everyone and I’m going to try to be more organized going into the holidays. I’m also going to set aside money every month between now and then to use cash this year. I also want to try to be a bit more creative and now I have some time.

  5. As someone who doesn’t like a lot of stuff cluttering up my space, I have started asking folks to donate to charity in my name instead of giving me a gift that I’d have to find space for. It’s a win/win, because most charities don’t disclose the amount donated, so it could be $2. or $2k and I wouldn’t know..and it’s a better use of everyone’s funds, and hopefully it get’s them inspired to do the same in future! Just a suggestion for the anti-clutter folks out there! As always, a wonderful column Donna, please keep them coming!

    • Donna Freedman

      @BC: There are some great ways to donate. Heifer International is the one most people know, but others exist too. I think that needs to be a blog post….
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  6. jestjack

    Ever since this…”Great Recession” hit I have made an effort to give more practical gifts. Last year when my folks and brother’s birthdays rolled around I stopped by the local saw mill. I purchased a load of leftover “slabs and blocks” that were mostly oak for each and showed up unannounced to deliver and stack the wood. It was a “pleasant surprise” and provided some economic relief. With heating oil over $4 a gallon these gifts were original and greatly appreciatted. DF just said to me last week ….”think you can get me another load of that wood for my birthday?” It seems he prefers this gift over another sweater…LOL….

  7. cherie

    I’m frugal by choice not necessity. And I didn’t even read your gift closet post because I knew I’d already agree with everything you said LOL. I can’t imagine why people would think it’s being cheap or giving junk to do this kind of thing. I find that everyone loves my gift s mostly because I spend the same amount I might for a reasonable gift in a better way and get MUCH BETTER gifts!

  8. A few of my fellow broke friends and I have an unspoken agreement to not exchange gifts; whenever it’s a birthday we do something fun but inexpensive, like go out for coffee and just enjoy each other’s company.
    Most of the people in my family work in far more lucrative fields than I do. Although they know that I’m a broke grad student, I still feel bad that I can’t afford to match the expensive gifts they give to me. I tell them they don’t have to spend so much money on me, but they often do anyway, which is nice of them.

  9. Chris D.

    A good friend of mine several years ago suggested that we cap our Christmas gift costs to eachother at $5.00 each. She enjoys her yard sales, and I hit the thrift stores when I can, and this way we each can find something special for each other with out breaking the bank. (I haven’t started doing this with other friends or family, though.)

  10. SherryH

    My extended family draws names at Thanksgiving. Only folks who will be at the Christmas get-together are included. It’s fun and a bit more personal to just have one person to buy for. (Younger children aren’t included in the draw, but generally get gifts from each family.) One of my favorite frugal gifts from a year we were really broke: a “post card tour” of the state we’d recently moved to. I sent about a postcard a month to the aunt whose name I’d drawn, and later heard from others that she really looked forward to them.

    We live so far from family now and all our friends are in the same financial boat as we are, so we don’t do much in the way of presents. When we do, it’s usually food – often homemade baked goods.

    • Donna Freedman

      @SherryH: A postcard tour — what a great suggestion for a low-cost gift! Thanks for sharing it.

  11. A few years ago, when I started on the slide to lower income when I realized that I could no longer buy gift baskets and things of that nature for close, married friends/friends with families, I started buying presents only for their kids (small ones) that were usually books that I bought discounted at Borders or bought all the books together through amazon, where they were discounted with free shipping. For the parents, I baked cookies (usually biscotti or something equally mailable) and made chocolate candy. I would occasionally buy mini coffee or tea packs to go with these and would mail them across country as early as possible (only a couple of recipients live elsewhere) or brought them with me when . Generally a pretty big hit, more meaningful because I made the stuff and cheaper all ’round.

  12. This is a great post, Donna, and I’ve already started working towards saving money for gifts at Christmas. I’ve been following Penny at The Saved Quarter. She does amazing for spending no more than $100.00 at Christmas and gets great stuff. I’ve been swagbucking and using cash rewards from my AMEX blue card (used responsibly, of course). I’ve been consistently spending less and less each year, and hopefully this year will be the lowest! :)!

  13. CandiO

    As always, I started shopping the day after Christmas for next Christmas. I am about halfway done. I have pretty much always been this way and EVERYTHING I buy gets gifted. (I also love those bath and body stuffs that SO many on the other site seemd to laothe)
    My favorite after christmas sale is cologne. My mother’s husband LOVES cheap cologne, so I go out the day after Chrsitmas when it’s all 50% off and buy him next years gift sets of the stuff. He’s happy and I ‘m happy.

  14. Now A Country Mouse

    I love to stock up gifts for a select few in my family by getting some of the higher quality brands that go on summer clearance this time of year, (ex. Yankee Candle, Bath & Body Works), for as much as 75% off. I patiently wait each year and shop for these higher-end gifts ONLY when on clearance; everything goes on clearance again online the day after Christmas as well. (No credit cards allowed.) I have also learned not to over-indulge in the clearance items! Two years ago I was blinded by $2 B&BW perfume and I bought a few too many. Lesson learned!

  15. Suzanne

    I am trying to figure out the most tactful way to get out of buying gifts this year. Its too often a big waste of money. Thankfully i dont have a lot of ppl to buy for but its time to stop the madness! Lets get together and share a meal and remember what Christmas is about and call it a day 🙂

  16. Kelly Campbell

    I too have a ton of birthday’s before I ever get anywhere near Christmas too. (only)Brother, boss, nephew#1, sister #2, nephew #3 and my mom. Ugghhh.

  17. Marcia Carli

    Great article Donna! How far in advance could you purchase gift cards for November birthdays and Christmas? Would this summer be too soon?

  18. Christmas comes at the same time every year, so do May graduations, teacher presents, birthdays, June weddings, and the sprinkling of babies all year. I say, keep the prize stash well stocked all year, because noone gets enough advance notice.

  19. ok, just read your “10 Ways” article. Once again, we’re on the same page, and I’m preaching to the choir.

  20. Holiday Fool

    Along with how to put away a frugal Christmas, can you please do a companion piece on cancelling Christmas?

    I don’t mean literally cancel it all, just the gift-giving.

    I am tired of being the recipient of rooster salt and pepper shakers, XL clothing (I’m 80 pounds), thimble collections, used cosmetics and other worthless stuff that I always end up trying to return, sell at the consignment shop for pennies on the dollar or give to charity.

    It’s not so much the fact that I spend time and money giving gifts that I actually see the recipients wearing or using because it’s something I learn they want and need. I just don’t want the hassle of disposing of this stuff anymore. And I don’t care if the gift is from Saks, the Dollar Store or a regift, I simply don’t want it.

    How do I tell people this year (finally) that I am bowing out of the gift part of the holidays (and it’s not just because of the money)? I obviously cannot get it across to them that I don’t need/want anything that they seem to think I can’t live without (or that they can live without and decide I can’t).

    I sound ungrateful – I’m not. I AM insulted tho. And I’m so tired of pretending. If I have to squeal over another armadillo statue, I’ll faint.

    Do I need to resort to wearing a tee shirt that says “My name is Mary. I volunteer at the animal shelter. They need food and blankets. Can you give me that for Christmas?”

    • Donna Freedman

      @Holiday Fool: Perhaps you should tell your relatives/friends that you’re working toward minimalism or that you have enough things and that you really, truly, honestly don’t want gifts. You can give them the option of contributing to the shelter, but you also need to be prepared for the fact that (a) some folks will be insulted or hurt and (b) some folks are regifting because they’re on a tight budget and not only won’t make a donation but could react defensively or angrily.
      It’s still your prerogative to say “no gifts.” But keep in mind that that someone’s feelings are going to be bruised: the givers’ (who feel sad that the gifts they perhaps chose lovingly are being rejected) or yours (because you might look like the bad guy when all you want is to do away with what you see as a hassle).

  21. We tend to go overboard at Christmas. And mailing has gotten very expensive, too, so the combo has me knitting hats and scarves for family that live back east. And books are always welcome. Trying to get away from the “stuff” gifts, but the experience ones like theatre tickets or dinner gift certificates tend to be pretty expensive.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jenny: I think a hat or a scarf is a pretty nice experience, myself, because it can be used so often. But I know what you mean. Hats and scarves could potentially be mailed in padded envelopes (recycled ones from your business, of course). If you mail early enough you could send the stuff third-class, although sometimes it isn’t that much cheaper. I send a lot of homemade jam, which is heavy, so I use the flat-rate boxes (and lots of bubble wrap).
      Perhaps you could subscribe to social commerce sites (Groupon, Buy With Me, et al.) for the cities where your recipients live and watch for deals for theater, restaurants, massage, etc.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  22. That reminds me… I don’t have to buy either wrapping paper or gift tags for the next 3 Christmases!

    I gave one friend a home made gift bag 18 months ago (oddly shaped present) which came in really handy for her husband when they’d run out of all occasion wrappings.

  23. Shellye

    Seems like no matter how much I cut back each year, I can always find more ways to trim the Christmas budget. Doesn’t help that my two daughters’ and step-daughter’s b-days are within days of Christmas, but now that they’re older and appreciate gift cards, I use my MyPoints, MyCokeRewards and SwagBucks to get those for free. I usually get a haul of free Sephora stuff when I cash in those points that I use for holiday gifts, and I am always trolling the clearance sales at Target and CVS. One thing I’m trying to get into more this year is buying quality stuff at secondhand stores and estate sales.

  24. I’m still saving up for it!

  25. My in-laws go waaaay overboard at Christmas now that we have a kid. So Santa only fills the stocking. DH agonizes all year on the perfect gifts to get for his family… at this point we’ve got something for one of his grandmas. Last year we took cues that we got from people at Thanksgiving. I don’t know if we’ll be able to visit for Thanksgiving this year.

    We have a gift closet for preschool birthday parties. It has a lot of regifting things in it (the in-laws really do go overboard), and some stuff I got cheap from Scholastic. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/frugal-confession/ .

    People are pretty good at getting stuff off my Amazon wishlist for me. All year as I decide I want stuff, rather than buying it, I stick it on my Amazon list. Around Thanksgiving I take stuff off I no longer want. Maggie and I sweep through each others near the end of the Christmas season and buy each other the stuff we really wanted but nobody got us. It adds a layer of excitement.

  26. I was one of your “Yay”s on GRS. Those readers do get a bit prickly. You’ve encouraged me to really get started on thinking up ideas this year especially as last year my homemade gifts were a hit with the family. But I want to round things out a bit this year so I’m trying to get creative and it being less than six months to the big day, it’s a good time to get going.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Mutant Supermodel: It’s prime garage-sale season, you know. 🙂

  27. I’m trying to knit my way through Christmas this year to lighten up my yarn stash. So I may buy some small things, but almost everything else will be knitted.

  28. my family won’t draw names… (my fiance’s family does though!) so I have a $$$ limit per person… They don’t like it, but I can’t afford Prada… and I think $50 a person is very nice… (my fiance was floored when I told him $50 was the limit and they thought I was cheap.)

    • Donna Freedman

      @South County Girl: Wow, $50 is cheap? I think that’s a lot.
      Good luck with that bunch. You’re going to need it, I’m afraid.

  29. I have been preparing early on this year for my kids. I am a single mom and finances tend to be stretched pretty tightly. I have been entering giveaways and watching sales and clearances, in addition to yard sales of course.

  30. Hootieman

    I cut the birthday giving back to one friend. At Christmas, I give a gift to one friend, and to the family of one relative. Usually, it is something small. The women get nice bath soap, and the men get thick socks for hunting or some other small thing. I send something small for her grandchildren too.

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