Beyond the No-Spend: Approaches for Christmas Gifting

Photo by Neil Brooks

Photo by Neil Brooks

We love giving gifts at Christmas. It’s a beautiful tradition that flows straight from the true meaning of the holiday. But this, of course, has nothing to do with all the materialism, over-consumption, and over-spending surrounding the season.

People love to extol the benefits of their approach to Christmas gifts, but what works for one family may not for another. And what you’re comfortable with may differ from your relatives’ preferences. We strive to keep Christmas spending reasonable without being Scrooges. Here are a variety of tactics to consider for reasonable gifting.

1. Secret Santa. I have four siblings, and while growing up, we wanted to give each other gifts but couldn’t afford to buy each sib something good. Early on, we devised the siblings secret Santa (though no one ever kept it a secret). We’ve carried on the tradition until this year, when we opted for an exchange amongst all the adults.

2. Fixmas Christmas. One friend felt their family had enough stuff—and a lot of unfinished projects. He declared a Fixmas Christmas, in which your gift to each person was to fix something that was broken. For his wife, he replaced their broken faucet with a new one they scored for free. Last year we joked about the new muffler for my car being one of my gifts.

3. Secondhand/homemade. For the non-sibs, my family for the past three years has declared a “secondhand Christmas.” Some people opt to give cash or gift cards, but for those not afraid of the thrift store or crafts, we ask for wish lists and shop secondhand. (I am afraid of crafts.) Last year I got my mother a full silverware set at the thrift store. The year before I found her a nice coat there.

4. No-spend. Some people prefer to call a truce and say “we don’t need anything, and we’re not buying gifts this year.” At some point it feels a bit ridiculous to shop for people who already have plenty, so if no one in your family is in need this year, consider a no-spend Christmas.

5. Kids-only. The past two years, Neil & his sibs decided to skip their gift exchange and just do gifts for the kids. I wouldn’t suggest this in my family since we’re the only ones with kids, but they have cousins on Neil’s side and it’s fun for everyone to watch the kids open gifts.

We aim to make Christmas morning magical for our kids, but it doesn’t take a big budget or fancy gifts to do so, especially while they’re young. We budget a certain amount per kid and aren’t afraid to buy used (or even freebies). Books, board games, and small toys or craft supplies are a hit so far. I try to think “winter entertainment” for the long, cold months ahead. Some people set a number of gifts per kids.

6. Common experience. One year Neil’s family called off gifts and we all headed to a cabin in scenic region two hours away. We hiked together, took turns cooking, and played games. It turned out to be more expensive that our usual gift-buying routine, but it was a wonderful time together as a family. Simpler common activities like sledding, going to a restaurant, or ice skating together would also fit the bill.

7. Spouses don’t exchange. I’m not a fan of this for us, but some couples like it. We often save items we’d like to purchase or replenish for our Christmas or birthday wish lists. Neil’s gifts from me this year will replace broken/worn out items of his. I think waiting to receive these as gifts is more exciting than just buying them for yourself. However, for those who would rather make purchases as needed, it may make sense for spouses to skip presents.

8. Donations. We’ve opted to make donations instead of gifts for a number of relatives who have requested it. There were several years when instead of Neil’s siblings’ gift exchange we all donated to a charity.

We’ve gone back and forth over the years, and while it might make things easier to do the exact same thing each year, it’s also nice to be flexible and decide what makes sense for that year’s circumstances. I love the giving aspect of Christmas and never want to declare “no spend Christmas” for all time. We’ll take it one year at a time and enjoy what each season brings.

How does your family approach Christmas gifts?

28 Responses to “Beyond the No-Spend: Approaches for Christmas Gifting”

  1. Holly Johnson says :

    We do kids-only with all the nieces and nephews. That really helps because there are so many adults. It was silly to buy for each other when we’re all adults who have what we want/need already. It’s just wasteful.

    • Kalie says :

      I completely agree. For me the kids-only as much about coming home with less excess stuff as it is about limiting spending.

  2. David Taylor says :

    My partner and I keep our money in our pockets these days and use the money we would have spent on vacation instead. I’d rather sit in the sun away from the rubbish UK weather for a week than get the latest winter coat! I’ve told my colleagues at work to donate my Secret Santa allowance to charity, I’d rather the money went to somebody less fortunate, after all what do I really need for £10? This year we’ve also been making a box up each, where we add something every day in December on the lead up to the big day and we’ll donate it to the homeless shelter in our local town instead. Christmas is a time for giving, sometimes we need to look to those who are in need most. Great post!

    • Kalie says :

      Great ideas, David! I agree that a vacation sounds a lot better than more stuff I don’t need. I also love the idea of donating items to the homeless shelter. Our family did a food drive last year (initiated by my preschooler) and it was great to drop off 70 pounds of food to the bank!

  3. CarolineRSA says :

    My husband’s grandmother used to to invite the family to lunch to celebrate her birthday, on the 16th of December (which is a holiday here in S.A. ) each year. After lunch we would all sit and talk about the things we wanted; books, CDs, new socks, seedlings, favourite biscuits, whatever. I know it sounds terribly spendy and consumerist, but now his gran and both parents have passed on, and this is one of the things I miss the most. I don’t miss the presents themselves, I miss everyone caring about what their loved ones need or want most, and listening and making lists.

    • Kalie says :

      I don’t think sharing gift ideas is terribly consumerist, especially when they sound like relatively small and thoughtful gifts. After Thanksgiving this year we drew names, then passed a list to write to gift ideas for the Secret Santa. I’d rather give what someone actually wants! Sounds like your family had a lovely tradition.

  4. Josh says :

    My wife & I buy gifts for each other. For our extended family, we tried to buy from charity gift catalogs as much as possible to help out a good cause.

    With my wife’s siblings and parents, we do a spinoff of Secret Santa called “Victorian Christmas” where we buy one gift in the following 4 catergories (Something to Eat, Something to Read, Something You Need, and Something to Play With). We try to set the limit at about $5 per category so it’s a fun way to get some stocking stuffers but not break the bank as our familes aren’t quite ready to only start giving gifts to the children yet.

    • Kalie says :

      I like the Victorian Christmas idea. I’ve heard of those categories before but not the name. A spending suggestion for those items is a great idea, too. We take the kids-only thing on a year-by-year basis. If there’s a year where people have more needs or requests we’ll be happy to change it up.

  5. Harmony says :

    This is a great list of options – with one (or more) that should be perfect for each family’s unique situation. You’ve got me brainstorming about an experience gift for my sister, because I really don’t think that she needs any more stuff.

    Mr. Smith and I don’t usually exchange gifts, but he did ask for another video game controller – so he can use two-player mode with Goofball. That seems pretty reasonable to me 🙂

    I do want to find a nice way for the kids to get involved with donating to the needy this Christmas.

    • Kalie says :

      Glad to hear the suggestions might help with a gift for your sister.

      That sounds like a great gift for your husband. We did something similar this year. We got our son a Nerf gun, and I got my husband one so he can play it with him. I’m sure his little sis and I will end up using it too.

      We are taking our 5-year-old to help with a local low-income kids’ Christmas shop. The kids earn “dollars” for the store by attending after school programs and tutoring sessions, and doing homework. Then they can pick out gifts for their family, and unlike the options at many elementary schools, there are lots of practical necessities included as options. Anyway, the store itself is too hectic but he will be able to help with the set-up a few days beforehand.

  6. Amanda says :

    What great options, Kalie! I do think Christmas giving is different for each family and sometimes varies by year. I know my family gives differently than my husband’s family and we try to maintain flexibility with this. We mostly buy just for the kids, though we typically give our parents one gift each (most of the time, it’s something hand-made).

    My husband and I opt to buy each other shared experiences over gifts. Over Thanksgiving, for my husband’s birthday, we went out to eat for breakfast (just the two of us!) and then went rock wall climbing. It was such a great day!

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I think it’s important to be flexible and adjust to each side of the family’s traditions and preferences, within reason. We will still buy for my husband’s parents. So it’s not strictly kids-only, but we skip the sibs & spouses. Both of our mothers have birthdays near Christmas so we always end up getting them bday gifts no matter what.

      I’m so glad you got to have a fun day with your husband. Sounds like a wonderful experience!

  7. Apathy Ends says :

    My wife and I set a low limit for our gifts for each other, usually just try to find a couple fun things we usually wouldn’t buy.

    On one side of my family all of the cousins do secret santa, 20 dollar limit and we usually pick a theme (last year was yellow gifts only) – no gift cards allowed. There have been some pretty funny gifts over the years.

    • Kalie says :

      I think those relatively inexpensive but thoughtful gifts are the best. Especially something that’s a treat you wouldn’t buy yourself. The themed gift exchange sounds funny!

  8. Linda Sand says :

    1970 was the best year. Our toddler daughter was the only grandchild and the youngest sibling was a high school senior when my mother-in-law changed the rules. Every one was to provide a gift for everyone else but no one gift could cost more than $1 plus tax and free was better. A Hallmark date book went to the socialite. A plastic accordion went to our daughter with ear plugs for me. One brother brought everyone a warm cinnamon roll. My MIL got a set of jacks and we all sat on the kitchen floor playing. People were so creative and we laughed and laughed.

  9. Clearwing says :

    I like these suggestions. I have done secondhand shopping for others with success, even when it wasn’t a thing. A Fixmas would be amazing. I have also thought of asking family to remove things from my house and donate them for me as a gift – I have so much I need to get rid of that others could use.

    My parents and in-laws seem to favor spending a lot, though, so any requests for a no-spend holiday results in awkwardness when the other party buys gifts anyway. So I ask for memberships to museums or tickets to plays. At least they understand we don’t have the funds to reciprocate on the same level of spending.

    • Kalie says :

      Oh, decluttering that you don’t have to do yourself sounds like a wonderful gift! I’ve had such good luck secondhand shopping, and my husband once got me a nice wool sweater for Christmas that way.

      Each family (and side of the family) has a different view of gifting. At least they aren’t expecting you to spend a lot in return!

  10. Fruclassity (Ruth) says :

    Good ideas here – and I appreciate your “It’s different for every family” approach. In our immediate family, for the first time this year, we drew names for stocking-stuffers. That means my husband and I will be responsible for a total of two (one each) stockings instead of five. Around here, that’s a savings of $150. I was so surprised our kids were for it. Flexible traditions – a good concept : )

    • Kalie says :

      That’s nice you can use a Secret Santa for stocking and save money (and time) that way. Glad to hear your family was flexible but you can still maintain the tradition. It does seem like the dynamic has changed as our families have grown and changed with time.

  11. Fulltimefinance says :

    We do common experience with grand parents. The reality is they have everything the want to buy so it’s be a waste. Therefore we ensure we setup some special time for them and the kids.

  12. Tonya says :

    I like the idea if Fixmas! I’ve never heard that before but I have a long list for Santa. lol! But I can see more people needing that, or something like “free babysitting for a night” than stuff.

    • Kalie says :

      I asked my husband to Fixmas a necklace with a broken clasp. He gave it to me years ago and I’ll appreciate it so much if he takes it to the jeweler for me. Free babysitting is an awesome gift for parents, too!

  13. Frugal Millennial says :

    I love your “I’m afraid of crafts” comment. Me too! Luckily, I only have a few people that I buy gifts for… my parents, brother, and husband. My hubby takes care of buying the presents for his family. If I had more people to buy gifts for, I would probably suggest Secret Santa or setting a spend limit.

    • Kalie says :

      I tried to craft for an hour before last Christmas. I liked it as a kid but now the standard is a lot higher, and I hate feeling like I “wasted” time on something that didn’t turn out. Which is how crafts usually end for me!

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