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Celebrate cheaply (without tacky homemade gifts)

DIY isn't the only way to reduce holiday spending.

By Karen Datko Nov 17, 2009 11:49AM

This guest post comes from Anna Viele at ABDPBT Personal Finance.

 

I originally published this post last year in response to Oprah’s annual “Favorite Things” show, which, in 2008, featured gift ideas that cost “next to nothing.” I found the ideas shown on that show really not very good, and in general they supported the idea that homemade gifts suck.

I mean, a box covered in pinecones is not something I want, unless my son, Mini, makes it for me, and even then it’s probably going to end up in a storage box.

 

As I said last year, I think that approaching the holidays without gratuitous overspending requires us to think, not to glue-gun. So here are the 10 realistic ideas I came up with last year for overhauling the holidays, plus a few more that I’ve gathered over the past year. Some will work for you, others won’t, but all of them are better than making silly things that are probably going to show up in somebody else’s trash can.

 

Go gift-less, or save gifts for just the little kids. Half of my extended family has agreed to a no-gifts policy for the past few holiday seasons. I have a simple dream of this extending to the other half of the family in years to come, but so far negotiations have been at a stalemate. Some people are more attached to the idea of exchanging gifts than are others, but the important part is that we get together and celebrate, not that the festivities are centered on a gift exchange.

 

If you do decide to go gift-less, it’s probably a wise policy to exclude small children from it, because it’s very tough to explain things like this to kids, particularly if they believe in Santa Claus. On the other hand, there may be no better time than a child’s early years to condition them to a simpler concept of Christmas.

 

As an adult, not exchanging gifts might seem almost shocking at first, but it will also feel like a huge relief. And going gift-less will not only save you money, it will also save you time (no shopping) and effort (less cleanup). For the tree huggers in my audience, you can even say that going gift-less is easier on the environment because no gifts means no wrapping paper, which means fewer dead trees. Go treeless for Christmas, and you might as well be starring in the next season of “Living With Ed.”

 

So if you can swing it, I highly recommend working out some kind of deal like this with your family, friends, co-workers, etc. You may have to be the trailblazer who suggests it, and if so, you will have to decide on the best spin for your family -- emphasize that togetherness is most important; lament the over-commercialization of holidays; stress how broke you are -- whatever you think might work. For particularly stubborn families who celebrate Christmas, you might suggest a stockings-only policy the first year, if they think it’s too radical to go cold turkey.

 

Choose names. Another way to handle the large/extended/step family situation is to draw a name out of a bag and that’s the one gift you have to buy for the holidays. I’ve been trying to do this for years with my family, but they won’t agree to it, unfortunately. If you do this, then each person has only one gift responsibility, and you can set a price limit if you want.

 

Set a price limit for gifts and stick to it. You can tell people ahead of time that you want a toned-down holiday season, and see if they’ll agree to smaller gifts or a price limit. Again, sometimes you have to be the trailblazer in these kinds of situations. Sometimes you have to be willing to say, “Look, money is tight this year, so we are thinking about having a much more scaled-down celebration this year.” Most people will appreciate this kind of honesty, especially when it saves them money. So be the brave one. People will admire you for it, especially these days.

 

Team up. My brother and I teamed up on gifts for many years for various family members, and this saved me a lot of money and a lot of headaches. Depending on the gift situation, there may be somebody with whom you can team up, split the shopping and go for a slightly less expensive option by teaming up.

 

For example, if you can afford to spend $20 on a step-sibling, you’re stuck with the usual CDs, gift cards, and bath products route. But if you team up, you can get a better gift for the same money, or a slightly better gift for less money per person. Even better: You don’t have to find as many gifts, because you’ve got somebody doing half of the list for you.

 

Wait until Dec. 20 or later to buy gifts. Some of us will probably do this anyway, just out of sheer disorganization. Last year, there were many deep discounts around the time that Christmas got closer because sales projections for the holiday season were so low. It is likely that things won’t be much better this year, and though this is not a foolproof plan, it’s worth a shot.

 

Consider alternative gifts that involve time rather than money. The old “gift coupon book” idea is one that you can recycle, although in my experience those coupon gifts never actually get used. What I would suggest is a more comprehensive approach.

 

Say you have a friend with a new baby. Make arrangements with her husband to take care of the baby for a specific night so the couple can get out of the house. Have a date already set up, make reservations for them, announce you are coming on that day. A similar tactic could be used for cleaning a friend’s house, doing the friend’s laundry, or any other kind of chore. Again, have a specific time and day in mind when you offer.

 

Other ideas include: Organize a painting party for somebody who just moved into a new home or wants a redo; offer to pet sit when your pet-loving friends go on vacation; offer your trade or skill as a gift if this is possible; or organize a dinner for a group of friends in lieu of gifts.

 

Look for stores that offer “price adjustments.” I once worked for a major American apparel conglomerate that owns three well-known clothing store chains. The company -- as is the case with many large chains -- had a policy of offering price adjustments on items that went on sale up until two weeks after you purchased the item, provided you brought in your receipt. I don’t know if the company still has this policy, but it is definitely worth your time to ask about the return policy for every item you buy.

 

If a store offers a price adjustment, then wait until a few days before Christmas to buy gifts from that store, save the receipts, and then go in the day after Christmas (which, yeah, sucks, but saving money is not for the faint of heart) and get back, say, 20% on your purchase, because nearly everything goes on sale the day after Christmas.

 

Sell old stuff on eBay, Craigslist, Amazon, and/or have a yard sale to pay for holiday gifts. This one still involves spending money on gifts, but instead of having all the money come out of your budget or (horror) go on a credit card, commit to raising all of the money for your holiday gifts from selling old stuff. This way, it will feel like found money, and you won’t have to give anything up in order to give presents. But you need to limit yourself to the funds you raise, or else the plan goes out the window.

 

Commit to not using credit cards, no matter what you do. If you are really committing to a financially sane future, your freedom from credit cards is never more important than during the holiday season. Many people buy gifts on credit cards and then have to face the music when they get their bills in January. This year, be OK with letting the Joneses “win.” Don’t use your credit cards -- if you still have them -- for anything, whatever you do. If you make it through the holiday season with just one idea intact, this is a good one to choose.

 

Ruthlessly pare down your gift list. Sure, it’s nice to bake cookies for your neighbors, or buy your kids’ teachers Starbucks cards. I used to be a teacher, so I know I loved it when I got those little holiday tokens. But we don’t have all this extra money this year, and in my mind, the kindness of the gesture is compromised when it has become an obligation. We are going around giving each other things out of a sense of HAVING TO, and that ruins everything.

 

So here’s my radical idea: Let’s just stop, OK? Forget these peripheral gift recipients. I know it sounds heartless, and I have nothing against spreading holiday cheer in theory. But, wherever possible, you need to save the gifts for people who are truly a part of your day-to-day lives. Some of these people are just not going to make the list this year. Like your hairdresser, for example (You already tip them! They are not your employees, they are service providers, so no more Christmas bonuses! Stop the insanity!), bosses (they are supposed to give YOU a bonus, not the other way around), dog washer, dry cleaner, lawyer, broker.

 

Think big, give small. One of my best friends often gives small gifts, and they are always among the best I receive. She has given me large gifts on occasion, sure, but throughout the time I’ve known her, she’s always been a great gift giver because she figures out exactly what I would like when she goes shopping, and finds things I would never be able to find on my own.

 

One time, she got me a stationery set made out of old New York City subway maps. Not only was it green before green was cool, it probably cost only $10 or so. But it was an awesome gift. One time she got me just a magnet, but it was a magnet that had a lot of meaning because of a series of inside jokes that we had going on between us.

 

The way I picture this friend shopping is that she is always on the alert for things that would please her friends, rather than buying something that seems like “enough” for the occasion. It’s a great way to think about gift-giving in terms of quality and not quantity.

 

Make customized photo albums. Digital photography is fantastic in many ways, but as time goes by, people are keeping fewer and fewer actual photographs. One way to combat this and make a budget-friendly gift is to design a custom photo album and print it up as a gift from your family to both sets of grandparents, the aunts and uncles, etc.

 

Each year, we make a year retrospective book at Blurb of Mini’s life and give it to both sets of grandparents and several other people who are close to Mini. These books are really nice, and can be as fancy or as simple as you like. We usually can get a smaller-sized hardcover book for about $40, which is not too expensive if you’re talking about a gift for two or more people in one. Other services like Shutterfly and Kodak have photo albums that are even more reasonably priced.

 

Don’t send Christmas cards. Do I have to be the one to tell you this? Nobody cares about your Christmas cards. They are just one of those things that you get and then feel uncomfortable about wanting to throw away. That’s why people string them up on ribbons -- they want to make a big thing about how they’re not throwing them away, even though they really want to throw them away. And if you have enough holiday news for a newsletter, maybe it’s time to start a blog for nobody to read.

 

Put a cork on the decorations. You probably have enough decorations already. Don’t buy any more. Sure, get a tree. But beyond that, eh. Just work with what you have. 

 

Start saving in January. Is there a line item for Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate) in your budget year-round? There should be. Not only will you end up with the cash to pay for Christmas, you’ll also find that you spend less overall when you’re forced to think about it year-round.

 

Stop it with the baking. Listen, we’re all fat. We don’t need to go around handing out cookies to each other at Christmas. If you must bake, at least can it with the fruitcake. Nobody eats that stuff except for my grandfather. If you need his address, shoot me an e-mail.

 

Related reading at ABDPBT Personal Finance:

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