Holiday Giving: Getting Real Part II

Ceramic santa saying ho, ho, ho.


Christmas Costs A Pretty Penny


As much as I like the sights and sounds of the holidays (See Part I of this series:  Holiday Giving: The Magic Of Christmas Part I) I’ve learned there’s a practical side to giving I can’t afford to ignore.  What does holiday shopping cost?  According to a recent Gallop the average shopper expects to spend around $715 on gifts in the 2010 Christmas shopping season.  Ouch.  I don’t know about you, but that kind of money takes a real bite out of the old wallet.  Of course, the more kids or family we accumulate as our kids grow up and bring home significant others, the more painful the bite.   And that’s why I offer a dozen alternative gift-giving ideas at the end of this post—to help you save money while still enjoying the spirit of the holidays.


The Magic of Christmas


Christmas means many things to me.  I remember sitting on Santa’s lap and describing in glorious detail my latest “must-have” toy.  Early on, my ideal toy was something as simple as a Tonka Truck or a new set of Legos. I admit I still like Legos and could easily be convinced to play with them.  When I got a little older, I usually wanted the latest video game or game console.  In my teens, my hobbies became more varied, and cash was always king.


Make It Personal


Gift cards are an easy alternative.

These cards were displayed at my local grocer.

These days, a lot of gift giving comes in the form of gift cards.  Cards used to be a disappointment for me.  I always appreciated the thought that whoever gave me the card didn’t know what I liked so tried to give me something more generic.  The trouble was getting the “wrong” card didn’t feel a whole lot better than getting the wrong shirt or a book I’d already read.  But then, as it so often does, the world changed…


I recently discovered you can exchange or sell your unwanted gift cards.  Wow!  In fact, you can buy them for a discount instead of paying full price.  It may be worth mentioning the companies that do this will charge a fee if you turn one in, but hey, I think that’s a lot better than letting it lie around in a drawer. I discovered there are a number of companies now offering this service, but these two look promising to me—Plastic Jungle and Card Pool.  One note of caution:  Make sure that whatever site you end up using guarantees the value of the card.



I think I still prefer the idea of a “real gift” to a plastic gift card.  To me, it means the person giving the gift took a little more time and wanted to do something special.  I realize that doesn’t work for everyone, and it holds a certain risk that I may not like the gift anyway.


It’s Better To Ask


Here’s a safe bet:  It’s almost always better to ask what a person wants unless you know them really well.  And while, I’m on the subject of giving something unwanted, I’d like to mention a book that was recommended to me a few years ago.  It’s called “The Five Love Languages”.  The basic idea of it is that each of learns to give and receive love in different forms.  For some, showing love might look like an act of service—for example, making the effort to clean up the house without being told.  For others, love could be given or received in the form of a “physical” gift—perhaps a box of chocolates.  The point is we each have a built-in favorite, which makes the whole concept of giving more complicated.  If your significant other doesn’t speak the same love language you do, they may not get how much you really care.  It’s definitely worth a read to find out what makes people tick.  Hey, it might even qualify as a gift idea!


Which Is Best?


Thanksgiving turkey.

Either way, you can’t beat the holiday eating.

These days, I think I prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas. The two holidays are very similar to me, except one still seems to be all about gathering together and being thankful for the bounty of food, whereas the other does the same on the surface, but the priority is all about giving.  Need I mention that giving often translates into spending too much?


I’ve thought a lot about gift giving over the years.  As I mentioned in Part I, my kids are grown now, so consider myself lucky to have experienced the magic of the holidays from both sides—as a kid and as a parent.  I have to admit, there’s something truly joyful in watching your child’s eyes light up and sparkle as they rip the wrapping off a present.  Is it possible giving is really no more complicated than that?


The Best Toys


Rocks and sticks are best.

We often had more fun at the beach than playing with store-bought toys as kids.

I think the thing I learned as a parent was that my kids always lusted after the latest toy, but probably got the most fun out of being imaginative.  For example, the sticks and rocks we found at the beach were often vastly more entertaining and durable than any store bought item.  I personally believe this has a lot to do with the facts that sticks and rocks (a) are natural, and (b) can represent so many different things to us.  It’s like the difference between a good book and the movie version of it.  When you read the book, you get to imagine how the characters look and where they live.  In a sense, you can escape into a world of possibility.  The movie is another form of escape, but the vision is supplied for us so it rarely lives up to our imagination.


Feeling Obliged


There’s a point where I find giving comes with lots of expectation.  Whenever I feel obliged to give, obliged to give a gift of a particular value, obliged to find something that will be appreciated, or perhaps obliged to give a gift to anyone who might end up giving me something to in return it’s hard not to feel put upon.   That’s a lot of pressure, though in truth it’s rare I recognize it, until the bill shows up in the next credit card statement.  I wouldn’t want to leave the wrong impression, here, either.  I like giving.  I just wish I had the ability to come at it with an open heart, no matter the sense of obligation—either real or imagined.


What We Learn By Example


Zero-Based Living is an idea we promote on this site.  It’s all about conscious living, and conscious living asks us to reexamine our basic assumptions and priorities.  There are real costs to gift giving.  If I go out holiday shopping unprepared, I potentially risk wiping out the family budget or blowing savings that might be critical for an emergency.


Pay attention to the messages you give your kids.

What messages do we give our children?

While it’s true I want to give my kids some of the same joy I experienced as a child, it’s also true that parenting holds a certain responsibility to teach values, and sometimes those values are a far more important gift than any material possession will ever be.  If I throw away money I never really had in the first place, what message do I reinforce to my children?  That it’s okay to recklessly spend on a whim?


A Balanced Approach


As in all things, the best course is usually a balanced one.  If you love shopping and giving gifts and have plenty of money to spend, I say go to it and enjoy!  On the other hand, if money is tight, make sure you to treat yourself right as you think of spending during the holidays.  If giving to your kids means everything to you, then make sure they understand why it’s so important to you to spend beyond your means.  This will teach them the value of the giving, plus help teach them to treat their things with proper care.  You might also instruct them on the importance of saving money for a rainy day.  There’s nothing wrong with asking them to put a portion of any money they receive into a savings account.  Sooner or later, they’ll end up thanking you.  For more on this topic, see our post “Teach Your Kids To Save).


A Gift Of Love


I remember being a kid without a lot of spending money and wanting to buy my parents (who I still happen think are the greatest) the best presents ever.  It was impossible.  My parents had far more money than I did.  In fact, my allowance was pretty much my only source of income and they gave me that.  What did I do?  I did what every kid does.  I made them something and tried to express my love for them in the thing I made.  I can’t say for certain whether they got the message, but I suspect they did.  I know I did, when my kids made me things.


Giving More With Less


In the spirit of imparting love to our friends and family on a limited budget, I present the following list for new ways to approach the concept of giving.


If you're good at art, give it for Christmas.

• Make something for someone you love instead of buying it. If you’re good at an art or craft this can be easy.  I like digital art and have given family members calendars I made using some of my favorite works in the past.  If it’s only one or two calendars, you can do this by hand, but I found if you have pictures or art you can create a professional looking calendar or photo book at places like Fedex/Kinko’s, Kodak or Costco for a pretty reasonable rate. You can also frame art or pictures or have it turned it into a puzzle or a mug.


Give pies for Christmas.

Give a pie coupon.

If art isn’t your thing, try to figure out what you like to do—for example, maybe you like cooking. If so, could you make cookies, breads or pies?  If you don’t have the time to cook right now, why not give a coupon worth four pies in the upcoming year?  That way you can spread the joy year around.  I’ve also been offered great gifts that were coupons for a service—for example, mowing the lawn, garden weeding, or vacuuming.  One of the best home-made presents I ever received was a coupon book for a dozen hugs.  That was terrific and just shows that the possibilities are endless.


• Budget for gift giving—this is a gift to self. For years, I dealt with paying off credit cards after Christmas, but then I finally decided I didn’t like making the holiday even more expensive by paying all that interest.  Since then, I created a separate savings account and put aside a little money each mouth.  It’s fairly simple to set up an automatic transfer if you use on-line banking.  If not, take a trip to the bank and get help.  Sixty dollars a month adds up to $720 a year, which happens to be a few bucks more than the Gallop poll average I referred to earlier.


• When I can’t afford a gift, or it’s someone I know casually, I sometimes like making my own holiday greetings cards. There are many scrap booking stores who sell supplies for this, so I can get as fancy as I like.  If buying new is too hard to justify, I’ve also found scrap booking supplies at garage sales for pennies on the dollar.  No mater how fancy I go, I try to include a nice note or letter.  It doesn’t have to be long.  I think it’s as important to say how much the recipient’s love or friendship means to me as it is to tell them what I did all year, but I’ve found either to be nice when I’m on the receiving end.


• I’ve also discovered that taking the time to visit a friend or family member can be as important as any physical gift. Face to face contact is easy to forgo as I get busy during the holidays.  My wife and I always try to make some time for it.  For the past few years we’ve hosted a “potluck” white elephant gift exchange with many of our friends.  It’s great to see old faces, plus it’s fun to turn old trinkets into laughs.  I know the party scene doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s a terrific way to combine visits.  Smaller dinner parties also work.  Again, try a potluck if you’re on a tight budget.  One other note:  I’ve found many older people already own most of the things they need, so a visit can actually be more meaningful than any gift I might buy for them.


Christmas cookies are delicious.

Make cookies with a friend.

• I mentioned cooking before, but cookies and candy really deserve their own special category. If you like baking, make some holiday cookies and give those instead of something store bought.  Or better yet, organize two or three friends and have each make one or two different kinds.  That way you can get together and exchange them for added variety. You can also make your own candy.  If you need some ideas to get started, there are many great recipe websites online such as, and of course we feature recipes on this site (see our recipe page for some great ideas).  And don’t forget those kids!  Kids love making cookies with you so be sure to get their help.  That kind of love works two ways and turns out to be a remarkable gift.


• I encourage those in my gift giving circle to agree on a maximum spending limit. Limits are a gift for everyone as they keep spending under control.


• Another good trick: Instead of buying something for everyone in the family, have the family set up a gift exchange. Put all the names in a hat.  Have everyone draw a name.  Set it up so everyone buys only one gift for the person they draw.   I’ve also done this with a group of close friends or with coworkers.


• At least someone hammers me every time I mention this idea, but I still think it’s worth considering: Buy your own gift! Have all the people in your gift giving circle agree to a maximum budget for gifts. Now, each of you go shopping and buy one or more items for yourself.  Stay under the agreed upon limit.  Take your item(s) home, wrap them up and put them under the tree.  On Christmas, take turns opening gifts.  Spend some time telling everyone why you wanted what you got and how thankful you are they facilitated getting it.  I’ve yet to get my family to agree to this, but I think the best part of the plan is (a) no one should be disappointed with the outcome since they picked out their own gift and (b) it’s bound to mean less time in traffic and overcrowded malls.  Yeah, okay…go ahead and get in line to get your licks in.


• This is something I’ve yet to arrange for myself, but I’ve heard is a real winner.  Agree to skip the gift exchange this year in lieu of a special trip somewhere. Maybe your family has always wanted to visit Hawaii or Disneyland.  Use the money you save by cutting out regular gift giving to spend time sharing a wonderful memory, instead.  One way to make sure to keep the memory alive is start a trip scrapbook that you put together as you go.  You can add pictures, mementos, postcards and write short blurbs on significant events—for example, you could mention your best dining experience or something you saw along the way.  Finally, keep the book with your Christmas decorations and take it out each year.  Then sit back and watch all the fun as everyone gathers to reminisce.


• I tried this with my wife one year and we decided not to repeat it, but I’ll mention it anyway.  Don’t buy any gifts to exchange this year. Instead, make time during the day to be together—go for a walk, sip at a glass of wine or read a book in front of a roasting fire, and give each other a gentle massage.  Though we like spending time together this way, it turned out both of us missed the ritual of exchanging gifts.  Neither of us predicted we would end up feeling disappointed and it may not be the same for you, but it turned out that we learned something about ourselves that day.  I suppose that was a gift, too.


• Buy used books and videos. There are many terrific second hand book and video stores where you can find items as good as new.  One store I’ve found several great buys at is called Half-Price books. For a location near you click here. They also buy your used books and movies so sometimes you can come out of the store with hardly any out of pocket cash required.  I think a good book or movie is always a great present and getting it for pennies on the dollar can save a lot of money in the long run.  You can often find books and DVD’s at garage sales too.  Most sales are during summer months so this will have to be a part of next year’s savings strategies.


• If you’re shopping for someone who seems to have everything, sometimes a small donation made out to one of their favorite charities is the perfect gift. Let’s face it: There are a lot of folks who could use our help so a gift like this has the advantage of giving twice over.


Have you been good this year?

Have you been naughty or nice?

• Whether you’re well off or flat broke, helping others less fortunate is a wonderful way to experience the joy of the holidays. There are a lot of food shelters begging for help at the holidays. Many churches sponsor free meals or you can check with your local Salvation Army.  Another way to find groups who serve meals is do an internet search on “free holiday meals in “your city”” (quotes around your city only).   If you want to brighten a child’s day, you can find many programs like The U.S. Marine Reserve Toys For Tots that seek out needy children and make holidays a brighter, happier experience with a gift.  Again an internet search on “toys for needy children “your city”” should bring up a list of organizations in your area.  If you can’t donate an item yourself, you may be able to volunteer to wrap packages.  I think the best giving sometimes comes from knowing I’ve done a good deed for someone in real need.


Do you have another gift giving suggestion?  Or perhaps a favorite memory about the holidays?  Why not share it in the comments below.


One Response to Holiday Giving: Getting Real Part II

  • DM says:

    Terrific thoughts. the idea of giving homemade treats are always fun both me and those I share with. Here are a couple of yummy recipes. They’re tasty & easy to make.

    1 – Pkg. Chocolate Almond Bark
    3 – Cups Rice Krispi Cereal
    2 – Cups Mini Marshmallows
    1 – Cup Creamy Peanut Butter
    Melt bark in Microwave until creamy. Add peanut butter & mix well. Add remaining ingredients & mix well.
    Drop by teaspoonfuls onto wax paper until dry.

    1 – Pkg. White Almond Bark
    4 – Cups Captain Crunch Cereal
    1/2 Pkg. Colored Mini Marshmallows
    1 – Pkg. Salted Peanuts
    Melt Bark in Microwave until creamy. Cool a bit
    Add remaining ingredients & mix well
    Drop by teaspoonfuls onto wax paper until dry.


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