This Season, Give the Gift of No Gifts

No one wants another scented candle. But post-party cleaning help? You’ve got a winner.

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When I was growing up, each of the six siblings in my family bought each other and our parents a Christmas gift. Because five of us had birthdays in December or early January, we also bought five birthday presents.

Buying 11 or 12 gifts, plus another handful for friends, didn't seem so bad. The gifts weren't expensive. My 7-year-old brother once wrapped up a bag of M&Ms for me.

But as time passed, my sisters and brother married, had children, and suddenly, we had 37 people coming for Christmas. Add in a few more holiday birthdays, teachers, co-workers and friends, and we were headed for the poorhouse.

It was time for "the talk."

The holiday season is all about tradition, But families change, and sometimes traditions need to change, too.

While you're thinking about family holiday traditions, take a closer look at all the other people you buy gifts for: your boss, co-workers, college roommate, your neighbor who invited you to a holiday open house. Do any of those people really want or need any more stuff? Yet, every year, we all rush around and struggle to find the time and money to buy useless things we can't afford for people who don't want them.

The truth is, no one in my family needs 37 gifts. Your kid's teacher doesn't need another mug, and few of your friends really want another scented candle.

It's time to do your part to change holiday tradition.

Talk to your friends and family about gift-giving, and see if they agree it's time for a change. Most will be relieved. You could give up exchanging gifts, or set a dollar limit. My family's solution was to draw names. Now each of the 37 of us buys just one gift. Some buy gifts for children and spouses and some don't. We also gave up exchanging birthday gifts, unless we find something that's just perfect.

Are you ready to establish new, more financially-sustainable holiday gift-giving traditions? Here's how to start:

  • Give up gifts. Make it clear to friends that you don't want to exchange "little gifts" out of obligation. Give them the gift of freedom from that obligation to you.
  • Give an experience. Instead of exchanging gifts, opt for an evening out, a trip to the movies, a movie night in, dinner at home or a holiday baking party. The traditional Black Friday shopping day can turn into a day at the spa with your mom.
  • Make do-it-yourself gifts. Knit a sweater, make posters or DVDs with photographs of special times with friends and family or create herb-infused cooking oils with herbs from your garden.
  • Give edible gifts. Gourmet coffee or tea, homemade sweets, chocolates, a bottle of wine – all are likely to be more welcome than another knickknack. And, they won't take up space in the house for years. Instead of exchanging gifts with co-workers, bring in bagels and coffee in February, when the holiday sweets are long gone.
  • Give time. For many of us, time is much more valuable than stuff. Rather than bring a hostess gift to a party, offer to help clean up when the night is over. Take your niece or nephew to a concert or a basketball game. Spend an afternoon going through old photos with your grandmother.
  • Finally, consider a retro gift: a card with a heartfelt handwritten message about how much your co-worker, teacher, friend, sister or brother, really means to you. Those kinds of gifts are much rarer, and more precious, than one more scented candle.

    Teresa Mears is the editor and publisher of Living on the Cheap, an online magazine that shows its readers how to live well on less.