Giving gifts is one of the biggest stressors of the holiday season. The key is planning carefully for your seasonal spending. If you don't plan, you can easily watch your spending skyrocket in December.
It's easy to get lost in the commercialism and hard to reign in the buying. It's even more difficult to help your friends and family understand why you aren't willing to drop $100 each on a gift for you, your spouse, 16 nieces and nephews, six siblings, four parents, three dogs, two grandparents, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Take a step back and take a deep breath. We've got your back so that you can master the gift-giving while keeping your budget in check.Thankfully, there are ways to opt-out of traditional gifting gracefully. Great alternatives include starting a gift exchange, skipping gifts completely, drawing names, or going the DIY route, just to name a few.
These ideas make it possible to be both frugal and generous at the same time.
Start A Gift Exchange
Instead of buying something new for a friend or relative, consider what you have in common and exchange things you already own that revolve around your shared passion.
For example, Richmond Howard and his wife are still saving for FI, so years ago they started exchanging books with their in-laws. Each person picks four to five books that they already own, wraps them up, and gives them out at Christmas.
“The best part is that it gave us a conversation piece throughout the year,” he said.
Implementing this kind of exchange is easy when you have something in common, like sports, knitting, reading, or other hobbies. When you agree to do this kind of exchange, no one gets offended that you're not spending money on something new. Plus, sharing interests is a great way to bring people closer together.
If you don't have as much in common, a gift exchange can still work. You may just have to think a little harder. Consider what the other person likes compared to what you have that you no longer want or need. Maybe you bought a tool that you used once to do a DIY home improvement project and haven't taken it out of the box again. If the person with whom you're exchanging gifts loves tools, there's your gift!
Do An Experience
Instead of traditional gifts, do experiences together. Buy season passes to the local zoo, amusement park, museum, theater, sporting event, or whatever else your extended family or friends love to do together.
While it may seem pricey at first, it's essential to keep the end game in mind on this one. For example, if the zoo costs $100 per pass per person and you have five people in your family, that's a quick $500. That can make people who are striving for FI and watching every penny really flinch.
However, if you're not buying anything else, that's a great deal. You're often able to go as much as you want throughout the year. If each individual day pass for the zoo is $25, as long as you go more than four times during the year, you've made back the cost of what you spent and every subsequent visit cost you nothing.
Because this can be pricier, it's important to talk this one through with your friends and family before you do it. Make sure everyone is comfortable with the choice of what to get tickets for and what the final cost will be.
Draw Names For A Secret Santa
If it seems like the number of people at your holiday gathering is multiplying rapidly each year, this is an easy solution to buying a lot of gifts.
In my extended family, this has worked very well. We break it up by kids and adults. Each of the adults draws the name of another adult for whom to buy a gift, and each child does the same for another child.
As an immediate family of six, we still have to buy six presents. But that's still a whole lot less than we would have to buy if we purchased something for every person who comes for Christmas!
Here are basic rules for a successful Secret Santa:
- Collectively set the budget for each gift and stick to it. In our house, it's $50/gifts for adults and $25/gifts for kids. You can go lower or higher, depending on what everyone participating in the exchange feels is reasonable.
- You can't draw a name from your immediate family. My husband and I are already giving gifts to our four kids and each other. It doesn't make any sense for us to be able to draw each other's names out of the hat.
- Give suggestions about what each person might like. Have each person write down two or three ideas of gifts that they might like that fall in the budget. This takes even more stress out of the gift-giving experience.
DIY is “Do It Yourself,” and this can be a huge cost-saver during the holidays. All you need to know is what hobby, skill, or talent you can use to create gifts this year instead of buying everything.
It's really fun to think creatively about this and figure out where your skills meet the needs of those around you.
- Are you a great baker? Make a cake for people on your list.
- Are you a dancer? Offer to take someone dancing or teach them a dance.
- Are you a handy person? Offer to spend a day at someone's house fixing up the little things that they can't.
- Are you a writer? Write a story for someone or about someone.
- Are you great with kids? Offer to help a harried family out and babysit for a few hours.
Do A White Elephant (Yankee Swap)
This is a fun tradition for families to start, especially if they love to laugh and have a good time.
You can find rules for white elephant exchanges online, but the general idea is that everyone brings a wrapped gift. In order, determined by drawing numbers, people either take a gift or steal one from someone who has already had their turn. You can't stop someone from stealing your gift. If that happens, you either steal one from someone else or take another wrapped gift. The game continues until everyone has a gift.
Here are tips for making it more fun.
- Have a sense of humor. I was part of a white elephant gift exchange every year with friends, and we tried to outdo one another in how obnoxious the gifts were. One person brought a snow globe that had actual mold in it. Another person brought a garden gnome dressed like a football player from a college team that was hated by everyone else. You get the picture.
- Make it a yearly event. You can have a lot of fun with recurring gifts. In our group, there was a wooden owl that showed up every single year. Whoever ended up with him agreed to bring him back the next year.
- Lower your expectations. The white elephant exchange is not the place where you're going to get the sweater you wanted or a gift card to your favorite restaurant. This where you're going to get someone's old license plate, a set of tea towels from the '80s with cats embroidered on them, or a cookie jar that roars like a lion every time you open it – but you have a lot of fun getting it!
Utilize Social Media Sites For Potential Deals–Or Freebies
One thing social media is really good for is finding deals. Whether it's FB Marketplace, Craigslist, or neighborhood groups, you can often find someone who is already selling – or giving away – what you are looking to get.
The key to successful buying on social media is remembering that you're buying used items. Some are much closer to brand new than others, but these are all secondhand items. You can't purchase something off of Craiglist for a fraction of the retail cost and be disappointed that's got a scratch or a dent in it.
- Don't be afraid to bargain. Buying something used online is not like buying it from your nearest superstore. If you think someone has listed an item at too high of a price, ask them to come down.
- Know what the item is worth. While you should feel empowered to bargain, you should be respectful of the item's worth. If you have your eye on an antique, it's not going to be free. Don't insult the seller by offering too little money.
- Be safe if you have to meet the seller to purchase the item. All the usual safety rules apply: Meet during the day, take a friend, and meet in a populated area.
- Search early. Because you may have to spend some time waiting for people to respond or searching for the item you want, this is not a place to do your last-minute shopping. Search early and buy quickly if you find what you want at the right price.
- Take advantage of the “Buy Nothing” groups. As people become more conscious of giving away what they no longer need instead of throwing it away, the popularity of “Buy Nothing” groups has skyrocketed. Remember that you can ask for things in these groups as well as give things away.
I recently had a great experience with a “Buy Nothing” group.
My youngest son asked for a Wii for Christmas. A whole set plus games easily costs hundreds of dollars. I put a wish on my “Buy Nothing” FB group and even offered to pay a little money because it was a pretty big ask. Within minutes, I had someone sell me her Wii, WiiU, 15 games, several controllers, a couple of platforms, and some figurines for $20. Another woman gave me a bag of 15 games for free. My son is going to be thrilled on Christmas morning, and so am I knowing how much I saved!
You can't control how your family spends around the holidays, but you do have control over how you spend around the holidays. Know your budget and how many gifts you need to buy. Then use this list to reimagine how you can gift in a frugally generous way. It's possible and it's worth the work to think differently when you escape this season without holiday debt!