A Better Gift Giving Guide

It’s that time of year again.  You know, still a few weeks away from Halloween, and yet Christmas trees and decorations are available in retail stores, and holiday gift giving guides are popping up all over the internet.  Invariably, they are lists of the hot toys and gadgets of 2010 – the things that your loved ones will supposedly want and appreciate the most this holiday season.

But are any of you tired of the commercial feeding frenzy that seems to take over the last couple months of the year?  Do you ever complain about the crowds, the lists, the effort required to find just the right gift, the stress, and all the hoopla?  Do you struggle to rid your house of clutter only to find that it comes crowding back in – nicely wrapped with bows on top – during the holidays?  Do you ever spend more than you can really afford on gifts, and then find yourself stressed about money in January?  Do you get so excited about the holiday season that you build it up in your mind to be far bigger than it is, and then find yourself a bit let down after it’s all over?

It doesn’t have to be this way.  My own family (my husband, son, myself, my siblings, and parents) celebrates Christmas by getting together for a big family dinner, but nobody brings presents of any sort, other than a side dish.  We always have a great day together, but there’s no shopping (other than for groceries) involved, no money spent, no worrying about trying to find just the right gizmo for each other, no wasted wrapping paper, no gifts to return the next day… it’s about as stress-free and happy as a holiday can be.  We used to exchange presents when we were young, but my parents stopped getting Christmas presents for us when I was about 17, and started taking a family vacation at Christmas time instead.  That’s not really practical anymore now that all the children are grown, but we still get together most years to eat and hang out together, and gifts never cross our minds.  My husband and I did exchange gifts the first couple years we were together, but we quickly decided that we didn’t need a special holiday in order to give each other things, and abandoned the practice.  We have not given our son gifts for Christmas yet either, although he’s only two (we may change that once he’s in school in a few years – we’ll see).

My mother in law loves to give gifts.  Most of the time, the boxes she sends are filled with books and clothes, with a few toys.  We’re grateful for the things she sends, and I do enjoy making her a gift each year, usually something along the lines of a scrapbook filled with pictures of her grandkids.  It’s something I like doing, and it’s not stressful at all – especially since I really only have one gift to make.

In previous years, I’ve made ornaments for our five nieces.  I started doing it in 2001, when there were two nieces.  I enjoy doing it, but I’ve decided that the girls probably have plenty of ornaments now, and we’re starting a new tradition this year.  We’re going to donate money to a charity in each niece’s name, opting for charities that will mean something to each of them (for example, one is really into horses, so for her, I’ll be looking for a charity that protects wild horses).  Charity Navigator is a great resource for finding reputable organizations.  We also donate to charities in the names of a few of our friends each year, and for my husband’s father.  We’ve found this to be a great option for giving something to people who already have everything they need.  No clutter, and the money that we would have otherwise spent on random trinkets gets used for something much more worthwhile (and meaningful for the recipient, since we choose charities that are close to their hearts).  For most of our friends, we simply get together for a meal, or talk on the phone, or something simple like that.  We’ve simplified our holidays to the point where the Christmas season around here is pretty much the same as any other time of the year, but with a bit more socializing.  No money stress, no frantic online shopping, no fighting the crowds at the mall… it’s pretty awesome.  And there’s no letdown after the holidays are over either.

I asked a few of my favorite minimalist bloggers for their thoughts on holiday gift giving, and I want to share their wisdom with you.  Everyone has different ideas about what they want their ideal holiday season to look like.  Just make sure you’re being true to what you and your family really want, rather than what advertisers have tried to convince us that we want.

Joshua Becker, who blogs at Becoming Minimalist, is married with two children.  Here’s what he had to say:

As we enter the holiday season (and my birthday which is in December) here is our philosophy on gift-giving and its intersection with minimalism. It is likely to vary from others, but that’s fine and healthy because it works for us – and that’s what matters most. Our approach to gift-giving and gift-receiving is based on a couple of assumptions. Assumption #1: Giving gifts is an act of love and appreciation. And I think I could argue that it is more than a cultural phenomena. Assumption #2: For many, receiving gifts is a primary mode of being affirmed in love. Some would even define it as their primary “love language.” Because of those two assumptions, we have not stopped giving gifts nor have we asked relatives to stop giving us or our kids gifts during the holidays.

Instead, we have asked for more thoughtful gifts. Many people believe the lie that giving more gifts equals showing more love, but that is not the case. In reality, 1 thoughtful gift communicates far more love and appreciation than a whole sock-ful of trendy trinkets. For our family, this means we purchase 1-2 nice gifts for our children and each other rather than 7-8 made from plastic. And for our relatives, we try to purchase things that we know they need rather than things on sale at the department store… and sometimes what they need most is a nice dinner at a fine restaurant with a complimentary babysitter to watch their kids.

This holiday season, don’t buy more. Buy thoughtful.

Miss Minimalist, an American living in the UK with lots of experiences and very few possessions, shares her ideas for “invisible gifts”:

I love the idea of “invisible gifts.” For example, instead of buying your best friend a new scarf, offer to babysit her kids for a night. Instead of giving your mom a department store knickknack, cook her a fabulous meal. Alternatively, share your skills and expertise: do someone’s taxes, fix their computer, give them a massage, or teach them how to sew. These gifts keep the spirit of the holiday alive, while eliminating the stress, clutter, and debt!

I also like making charitable donations in lieu of exchanging gifts. The money we spend buying each other gadgets and tchotchkes can do a world of good for those less fortunate. The key is to make it fun: spend an afternoon with loved ones choosing favorite charities /together/. Selecting a sheep, goat, or water buffalo to donate through Heifer International, for example, can be a lot more fun than fighting crowds at the mall! Such an experience will make your holiday richer and more meaningful, and you won’t have anything to return or declutter later on.

Tammy Strobel, the blogger behind Rowdy Kittens, sums up a perfect minimalist, stress-free holiday season:

We don’t give traditional Christmas gifts anymore. Instead, we give our time and money to charity or contribute to our nieces and nephews college fund. If you absolutely have to give someone a gift, do it yourself. For example, make a scarf, baked goods or brew up some homemade beer. :)

Remember, the holidays shouldn’t be about sutff, but devoting time to relationships.

I hope you find some inspiration from these ideas, and figure out your own way to create holiday traditions with your family and friends that are sustainable (both for yourself and for the environment – throwing away a garbage bag filled with wrapping paper each year is not sustainable!) and fit easily into your budget.  The holidays shouldn’t be about shopping and stress, but somewhere along the line, that’s what they’ve become for a lot of people.  Why not make this the year that you start simplifying, relaxing, and enjoying the season instead?

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  1. says

    Nice to see I’m not one of the only people thinking about Christmas already – it’s Thanksgiving this weekend which means Christmas is already so close!

    We have traditionally always come together as a family to indulge in one big feast of snacks and foods and goodies. We usually have enough for twice as many people and enjoy the food for the next few days after the feast. We also tend to do this on the 23rd so that the 24-26th are days spent relaxing and further enjoying the holidays. It’s really become a family tradition and now that my siblings are getting older and moving out we all bring our contributions for the evening.

    We do still I’ve gifts but as of last year have switched to pulling names out of a hat and putting a maximum dollar amount on any other gifts given. It worked out great, we are gravitating more to thoughtful gifts rather than spending lots of $ and buying too many gifts. My other half is unfortunately still deeply accustomed to elaborate and extravagant gifts, though I suspect this year he will have to adjust due to his income situation. I hope that we can then also gravitate to a less materialistic Christmas in our own home.

    Great post!

  2. Christine says

    When times were better, my extended family and friends used to exchange gifts at Christmas. I did the list months before, a spending limit and tried to navigate my way through the crowded mall and 2nd market. I watched my gifts being added to the wall of nick-nacks which stood 30 feet high and 20 feet wide with trinkets displayed 3 deep. The wall was an obligation that caused many an allergy attack and much disdain of the people who were called upon to assist in its cleaning.

    I enjoy living in an uncluttered house. I do not wish to stand in line for an hour to return an item I have no use for or do not wish to maintain just to get credit for something I could use when I could have avoided the whole issue in the first place by not exchanging gifts with the recipient. I enjoy the time I spend with my friends but see no purpose to the gift giving ritual that Christmas has become once you have identified the reality of the rhetoric behind the ‘holiday season’, which would be more aptly named the ‘retail season’.

    My family members who do not have to work get together for a meal. The children, who are all are under age 6, will receive a few gifts. The adults just chat, play with the kids and their new gifts or watch the football game.

    My beliefs were confirmed when my little nieces enjoyed the teddy bear bedtime story book I bought them for Christmas. I did not pay much for the nicely illustrated book but an aunt who can take some time to read them a bedtime story out of the book is priceless.

    I enjoy playing Santa for the children who would likely receive nothing without the kindness of strangers. The “Angel Tree” program has a less popular receipt end to the experience which is just as important as many people are needed to organize the distribution of the toys which go to 5k needy families locally. The toys are not delivered to the homes of the children. Everything must be planned, organized and managed so volunteers can make the process of visiting the North Pole run smoothly.

    I ask of you to support this event by picking up your Angel Tree tag at the mall and shopping where you must in order to fill the wishes of a child who would otherwise receive nothing, and maintain your family’s budget at the same time.

  3. M- says

    We send everyone Honeybell Oranges from Hale Groves! I like buying from farmers, something make me happy. No malls, no crazy people, they keep the list of family…

    Oh and Honeybell Oranges are super yummy!

  4. Emily Anne says

    Thanks for this- I’ve been struggling a little with how to balance my interest in minimalist living with family members who want to celebrate Christmas more “traditionally” with lots of gifts that we can’t afford to match. I love Christmas and don’t want it to be a time of cognitive dissonance where we live in a way that’s not congruent with the way we live for the rest of the year.

  5. says

    Great timing on your post. It’s good for people like Emily Anne who want to start making changing with the traditional gift giving time to have ideas early on. Often there is some training involved with friends and extended family.
    We’ve always been restrained with our kids primarily because we have a large extended family and they would get so many gifts. I realized early on the kids did not miss us (their parents) giving them one small gift (hee, hee, I’m very tricky!). As the kids got older and people would ask what the kids wanted for Christmas I would give them a list like donate to a charity under their name, give to their college fund, something homemade, etc… Some would ask again, ‘no, really, what kind of toy would they like’, and I would send them the same list.

  6. Kaytee says

    My husband and I use special occasions such as anniversaries to either donate to a charity or buy something that for each other that we know the other could really use, but had been going along without. For example, one year I got my husband (then boyfriend) a small coffee grinder and a heating pad. He got me new brake pads for my bike and replaced lamp that had been smashed when I moved. He also did the actual brake pad replacement :) This year we donated to a local pet shelter for our anniversary.

    In general, most of our personal or holiday festivities involve feasting traditions rather than presents, such as wassail at Yule. Because most of the rest of our family celebrates xmas the traditional way, we give everyone a jar of our homemade bread & butter pickles from our homegrown cucumbers. We even put our own silly label on the jars with Simpson-ized pictures of ourselves. This is the third year we’ve done this, and everyone is excited to get their pickles.

  7. Stacy says

    It’s hard to downsize, but we’re getting there. For my brother’s family, a gift certificate for pizza and a new-to-them card game for a family game night–which are big in our family. Donation to St. Luke’s in my father’s name, since he is in remission from cancer. Still thinking for an idea for my mom. For our 3 yr old daughter, we got her a wooden dollhouse with the furniture and all, for about $80. She also gets some books from us. And that’s it… that’s where it’s hard–to not buy her more presents when friends all around us are getting tons of presents for their kids. But we also have a house just under 1000 square feet, and we have to be selective. My husband’s family are all in South America. They all get a nice, personalized card and family picture from us. It would just be too much to ship anything.

  8. Kris says

    A few years ago, my family finally agreed to stop giving Christmas gifts. Instead, we have our traditional family dinner and we each bring cookies to trade with one another. My husband’s family hasn’t quite parted with the idea of needing to give gifts, so we ask them to donate to Kiva or Heifer International instead of buying us things we don’t need. Friends have been more than happy to give up gifts as well. My husband and I put money into a vacation account instead of giving gifts.

    I’ve started enjoying the Christmas season as there isn’t much pressure involved anymore. I don’t have to worry about saving enough money, charging things I’ll need to pay for in January or trying to cram more errands into an already busy December.

  9. Carmela says

    My husband & I have 5 grown children ( 3 with spouses) and 6 grand children. We are fortunate that we spend every Christmas day together and have a big family meal. Not only do we want to keep the spending down, we also don’t want the gifts to be the main focus of Christmas. Each adult draws a name from a bowl and buys a gift for that person. Then each “Unit” picks one child’s name.A unit is a couple or the single person. Besides their own nuclear family each person only has to get a gift for two other extended family member. So far this works well. Next year? Who knows, since 2 more babies will be added to the mix. !!!!????

  10. Amanda says

    I don’t celebrate Christmas due to its pagan origins. However, I really appreciate this article when it comes to gift giving. Why do we live in a world that sees gifts so much for their monetary value?!

    I wish my DH would quit the anniversary gift giving. But, it’s special to him so I got him a case of wine. I know he enjoys it and we can’t afford it in our every day budget. =)

  11. says

    @Amanda… Pagan origins? It would seems rather religious to me, perhaps that we celebrate it in December is pagan, but Christmas itself is a far cry.

    Thanks for the article, honestly I am driven bananas by stores having Christmas stuff already. I think they should give an extreme early Christmas shopping discount.

  12. Lori McKinney says

    It really is a dilemma since some people’s love language is gift giving. My biggest objection to the whole thing is the stress it generates, but maybe some honest reflection on my part has to admit much of that stress is created by my own procrastination. All in all, there is a lot of food for thought and gift giving should be tailored to meet the needs of giver AND recipient. The fact that it is often the result of competing to be the favorite is the most tragic reason to give.

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