Skip to main content

These are lean times.

Some of us are fortunate enough to still be doing OK financially, even if it's paycheck to paycheck.  Others of us... are not doing OK, or we can see "not-doing-OK" barrelling down at us like a freight train.

And yet, the holidays do come around, lean times or no.

As always, my thanks to sarahnity, regular author of this column, for letting me discuss gift-giving yet again.  In her words:

Welcome to Frugal Fridays where we share money saving tips, discuss living frugally and generally talk about personal finance issues.

I've always had a soft spot for tales of winter holiday merriment, often from years long since past, where gifts were simple but joy was abundant.  Where did that spirit go, I wonder, when I look around at the frantic excess that so often marks our winter celebrations today.

I've also been thinking about the oft-quoted comment, recently attributed both to Rahm Emanuel and MI Governor Jennifer Granholm:

You don't want a crisis to go to waste.

Perhaps out of crisis this year, we can find the opportunity to truly make this holiday less about acquisition of expensive "stuff"?

In last year's Frugal Gifts: Holiday Edition, I explored multiple ways that the concept of frugality could be applied to holiday shopping.  These ran the gamut from sale shopping, to shopping with an eye toward sustainability, to making your gift dollars do double-duty as fund-raisers.

This year, I think it's appropriate to narrow the focus to what an extremely inexpensive holiday might look like, with some literary nuggets to inspire you along the way.

First, from Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Laura and Mary think they have emptied their stockings...

Ma asked if they were sure the stockings were empty.
   Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure.
   And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny!
   They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny.  Think of having a whole penny for your very own.  Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.
   There had never been such a Christmas.

What I take away from this kind of account, memoir or fiction, is that Christmas hasn't always been this materialistic!  It's harder to scale back than to start with low expectations of course.  But it can be done, if there's either the will or the necessity (or both) to do so.

Most important point for a low-expense, low-"stuff" Christmas (and I said this last year too):


I'd challenge you this year, whether you need to or not, to pick what feels like a ridiculously low dollar figure, either as a total or per person for gift-giving.

What do you think?  Could you "do" Christmas on $20 per person?  How about $15?  Do I hear $10?  Or, take it as a budget total: what's the lowest total spending you can envision?  Then... what if you cut it in half?


Enlist your loved ones.

I don't recommend a family meeting full of long faces as you go over a doom-and-gloom budget line by line.  What if, instead, you entered into this with excitement and good grace - fake it till you make it, if you must.  Turn it into a challenge or a game.  Who in the family can be the most creative about making holiday on a shoestring?  

Talk about strategies together.  Make an agreement.

Here are some thoughts on how that might look, some borrowed from previous diaries:

  • Do you have situations where everybody is buying gifts for everybody, where you might be able to draw names and each get one gift for one person instead?  (Thanksgiving gatherings can be great times for a Christmas name-draw).

  • Do you have situations where it might even be a relief on both sides not to "have" to give a gift?  Can you decide together just to write a heartfelt card, or make a coffee date, instead?

  • 1864 House referenced a wonderful family re-gifting tradition, whereby you don't purchase anything new, but re-gift from among your current possessions.  "You can only re-gift items that you actually love, and you know a family member would love as much or more."  

  • An anecdote from my own experience: my mother's family always had piles of presents under the tree, but very few of them were "real".  The rest were re-gifts, or jokes, or even something surreptitiously swiped from the recipient, being re-presented with great fanfare under the tree on Christmas morning!  The wrapping was always an important part of the gift.  You could get away with giving someone their own hairbrush, as long as it was disguised as a giraffe...

  • Creative budgeting -- are there things that you're going to need to buy anyway that can help beef up the merriment quotient under the tree?  If it's going to have to come from the clothing budget anyway, for example, maybe it doesn't have to "count" against your frugality game!

  • Useful memes for keeping down the number of presents for kids include:

    "Three gifts and a stocking".  The thought is that the Magi only brought three gifts to the Christ child, and that ought to be plenty!

    or, I'll also reprise another children's gift guideline I mentioned last year:

    Something they want,
    Something they need,
    Something to wear,
    Something to read.

  • Speaking of kids, a useful comment from Magnifico last year:

    Most kids in America do not need more toys. What they do need are trusted and safe adults to spend time with them. If you don't have a child of your own, offer to take a friend's child to the park, or the zoo, or a museum, or the library... it's a gift to the child and a gift to his or her parent. The last thing most American kids need today is another toy.

  • In a similar vein, how about inexpensive gifts that come along with a promise of family fun together?  My family often put a 1000-piece puzzle under the tree, with the understanding that we'd all work on it together during the holiday.  Inexpensive card games or a book of MadLibs (remember those?) might be another option.  Maybe one of those $10 gingerbread-house kits, to assemble together?  Or how about a book specifically selected as a read-aloud for the whole family?  (This works for couples too, doesn't need to involve kids!)


Then, there's home-made gifts...

I'm making a separate section for these, because they can be an excellent foundation for holiday gifts on a super-tight budget.  Be aware, of course, of the trade-off between money and time: it's not worth doing homemade gifts if it will be more stress than joy for you.  Also be aware, as quoted from last year:

Sometimes materials for homemade can add up to the point that the gift is no longer particularly frugal.  Be aware of what you're spending on materials, and consider recording that on your gift-list as well.  I like to shop the sales at craft stores like Michael's or JoAnn Fabrics -- check your local circulars or search online for their printable 40%-off coupons.

One low-cost homemade idea I'm using this year is that I'm making a set of matching fleece hats for nieces & nephews.  Fleece isn't necessarily a super-frugal homemade gift if you're buying enough for, say, a no-sew fleece blanket.  But with an aforementioned 40% off coupon, or buying from the remnant table, you can get several hats out of a yard of fleece!

An idea from EJP in Maine last year:

Hanging bags to hold plastic shopping bags for re-use.  It uses just a little fabric, encourages recycling, and people seemed to love them.

(One pattern is here).

The above pattern is from CraftBits. I'd add that there's some other neat inexpensive projects at the site, such as Homemade Hair Scrunchies or a soda can holder made from a vintage LP!

One could really do a whole diary on the home-made gifts thing, but I'll let you contribute your favorites in the commments.  Here are a few additional links for sites with some ideas:


A Few Additional General Holiday Frugality Ideas - and Links

Ideas for an inexpensive tree - if you live in a college town, you might consider scrounging a tree after exams, abandoned by students who got a tree for their dorm room or apartment until they left town.

Do you have another plant at home that might be suitable for decorating in place of a tree?  (One year Mr. AnnieJo and I hung a bunch of little angels on our dragon-tree plant instead of getting a Christmas tree!)

Don't forget the old standby of stringing popcorn chains, maybe with a few cranberries in between to be festive -- lots of fun as a cooperative project!  Paper chains are cheap and easy and decorative too.

Another place to save some money, if you haven't already made this switch: form-letters and photo-cards and postage can be an expensive item, especially if your list is long.  How many of those could be sent out via e-mail instead this year?

Two more additional money-saver links from

63 Gift Ideas Under $10

Thirty-nine Frugal Tips for Saving Money at Christmas


Giving of Ourselves - Together

From Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, which begins with a Christmas story in lean times indeed.  The four daughters each receive a single book from their mother, and each give their mother a single present (and then make merry together creating a theatre production).  Remember what happened with their Christmas breakfast?

"Merry Christmas, little daughters! I'm glad you began at once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?"

They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for a minute no one spoke, only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously, "I'm so glad you came before we began!"

You don't even have to give away your Christmas breakfast to help others in need over the holiday.  Ask around your community for volunteer opportunities for your family to participate in.  Not only is it something joyful and meaningful to do together, that costs nothing but your time, but it's a good reminder that whether or not we're having difficult times ourselves, we have something to share with others who may be having an even tougher time.


And finally, one last literary word,
from the Grinch himself:

It came without ribbons!  
It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes and bags!
-- How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

Yes, indeed.  What is necessary, and what is excess?

And with that... let's hear from all of you!

Originally posted to AnnieJo on Fri Nov 14, 2008 at 12:01 PM PST.


Do you plan to scale back gift-giving for the 08 holidays?

46%57 votes
31%39 votes
13%16 votes
1%2 votes
0%0 votes
6%8 votes

| 122 votes | Vote | Results

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site