Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
It’s holiday time! Also known as my excuse to write about the holidays with fervor and spam you with photos of Frugal Hound dressed up as Santa Clause, a reindeer, an elf, and… oh that poor dog. Much as we all love the holidays (OR MAYBE IT’S JUST ME), there’s a sneaky penchant for them to become expensive, stressful, and overpriced. To which I say: they don’t have to be. I promise.
We’re going to focus on holiday gift-giving today and the overarching theme I want to highlight is that the holidays are as expensive and as stressful as you make them. Mr. Frugalwoods and I spend very (we’re talking very) little on Christmas and yet, we absolutely love our Christmas traditions! I’ve devoted quite a few lines of text to these traditions over the years and you can read all about them here:
- Our Festive, Frugal, and Merry Holiday Traditions
- How To Give Frugal Gifts With Joy And Generosity
- Holiday Gifts For Frugal Weirdos To Give And Receive
- Our Festive and Frugal $100 Christmas
- 7 Great Gifts For Frugal Weirdos
- …ok there are more, but I’m embarrassed to admit it. You can go here if you want to see the full list. Also, apparently I love the word “festive.” We all have our weaknesses.
Sidenote: Mr. FW and I happen to celebrate Christmas, so that’s where my examples stem from, but I think these tips and strategies are generalizable to any holiday you celebrate–birthdays and anniversaries included!
Frugal Gift Giving
I’ve polled the best frugal resource out there–the readers of Frugalwoods–and compiled their suggestions for frugal gift giving below. But first, I need to wax on for awhile, just so you feel like you’re getting money’s worth with this post. Plus, who am I kidding, I am ridiculously long-winded.
Contrary to our mainstream culture’s belief, frugal gift giving does not equal miserly gift giving. Giving as a frugal person is about being strategic, planning ahead, and placing the emphasis on togetherness and family as opposed to material possessions (so basically how we frugal people live all year round).
To Give or Not To Give?
The elephant in the room for frugal gift giving is the question of whether to give gifts at all. Mr. Frugalwoods and I, for example, do not give gifts to each other because we see no point. We buy what we need throughout the year and neither of us wants a bunch of unneeded junk cluttering up our home. Prior to embracing frugality and understanding how much happier we are living a simpler life, we exchanged gifts and all it did was stress us out.
We were running around behind each other’s backs trying desperately to spend money on stuff that the other person usually ended up returning to the store… an exercise in futility to be sure. Our mutual decision to cease giving gifts came about as a result of a conversation in which we realized that what we both want for the holidays is a chance to spend quality time together. Instead of wasting time and money shopping for each other, we now spend that time and money together as a family. We cook special meals, we go out to eat, we watch Christmas movies at home, we go on hikes, and we hang out. It’s perfect and it’s totally absent the rat race stress of buying stuff. It’s also true that not giving gifts is an illustration of our decision to smooth out our happiness curve and create a life we enjoy living every single day.
A word of caution on this strategy: if implemented, be sure to implement it with the full input of your partner. Don’t be showing up to Christmas morning/Hanukkah night with no gift for your partner and then blaming Mrs. Frugalwoods for saying it was ok. You need to discuss this approach together well in advance of the holiday, agree on what will be comfortable for both parties, and ensure that it is truly a mutual decision. I will not be held responsible for angry partners on holidays ;)!!
Second-Hand Gifts For Kids (newsflash: they do not know the difference)
This will be the first Christmas where we actually give gifts to our daughter. For her first Christmas, she was a whopping one month old, so no point. And last year, at all of one year old, she had no clue what was going on and there was still no point in giving her gifts. This year, I think it’ll be fun to watch her open a few presents–all of which I’ve bought used at garage sales over the course of the year.
Let’s be honest here, kids have no idea if a toy is used or not and they absolutely do not care. The only people who care are the parents. I imagine this will shift as Babywoods gets older, but at two years old, a toy bus is a toy bus whether it was $1 at a garage sale (which it was, thank you very much) or $22.99 on Amazon. Immaterial to her. Either way, she gets a ‘wheels-on-bus’ (that being what she calls all busses).
I source all (yes, all) of Babywoods’ stuff used and gifts are no different. I wash everything I purchase for her and then hide it in the basement where she can’t see it (genius parenting, I tell you). If you’re wondering how I manage to find everything second-hand, check out How To Find Anything and Everything Used: A Compendium Of Frugal Treasure Hunting. The novelty of new toys and books is incredibly high for a two-year-old, but their interest also wanes pretty darn quickly. Buying used toys and books is a way to save massive amounts of money and also to not stress out if she doesn’t end up enjoying a particular toy–I simply pass it along to someone else.
Babywoods is book-crazy right now, so I’ve been hitting up used book sales at libraries and scouting out deals on books (circa 0.10 cents to $1 per book) that I think she’ll enjoy. I caught her reading Mr. FW’s “Fine Homebuilding” magazine the other day, so maybe I should just give her back issues of those ;).
I’m also not a fan of giving mountains of toys to kids. First of all, they don’t need mountains of toys (research demonstrates that kids typically play with only a fraction of their toys) and secondly, excessive gift-giving sets a bad, materialistic precedent. It teaches kids that the holidays are about greed and about how much they can get. It’s not generous to spoil your children, it’s doing them a disservice.
As parents, we get to set the tone for what gift-giving looks like in our family and if it gets out of control, that’s entirely our fault. It’s up to us as the adults to set a good example of generosity, simplicity, and a focus on people, not things.
Reining in the deluge of presents isn’t depriving children; rather, it’s setting them up for understanding their privilege, recognizing how fortunate they are, and giving them the opportunity to delight in small pleasures (which, coincidentally, is also how to experience contentment and fulfillment as an adult). If you’re having trouble communicating this message to other family members or grandparents, we tackled that thorny topic in a reader case study last year: Reader Case Study: The Case Of The Over-gifting In-Laws!
As Babywoods (and her little sister!) get older, I like the idea of implementing the four-gift rule with my own twist added, such that they’ll each receive:
- A gift they want
- A gift they need
- A gift to wear
- A gift to read
- A gift to donate (I’ve still got to figure out how we’ll orchestrate this, but maybe I’ll have them each adopt a child through the Angel Tree at our church or they’ll each select a charity to donate to. Either way, we’ll figure out a way to incorporate giving into receiving. Let me know if you’ve figured out a good system for little kids!).
I’m also into the idea of doing a ‘family experience’ gift as the girls get older, such as an annual membership to a museum or a fun family outing. Anything that encourages us to explore and spend time together as a family is a win! Plus, it’s probably something we’d be buying anyway, so why not make it a gift.
Gift Giving To Adults
Plenty of folks do kids-only gift giving, which is a great strategy! I, however, enjoy giving gifts to the adults in my immediate family. Over the years, I’ve honed this approach and come to realize that I like giving gifts that are:
- Purchased locally
- Charitable gifts
I hate clutter, I hate things going into landfills, and I hate wasted money. So by buying gifts that fall into one (or more) of the above categories, I hope I’m avoiding those three pitfalls. Mr. FW and I have a Donor Advised Fund through which we donate to charities every year and I enjoy making gifts in honor of family members. My parents and in-laws have done the same for us and I think charitable giving is a perfect gift!
I am also a particular fan of consumable gifts (such as food, soap, lotion, etc) because they’re meant to be consumed, shared, and enjoyed! Frugalwoods readers relayed a bevy of ideas for homemade and consumable (yum) gifts, so I’ll take this opportunity to share my ideas for practical gifts.
Practical gifts are usually more expensive, but I’m totally OK with that provided I know the item will get used. Another thing I love about practical gifts is that they usually facilitate greater frugality. For example, our hair clippers–with which I cut Mr. FW’s hair–cost us a mere $20 and have saved us untold thousands on haircuts over the years. Fun fact: Amazon informed us that we’ve owned our clippers for five years as of this week. That, my friends, is a lot of free haircuts. The more you know.
Here are a few other practical gifts we’ve given (or received) over the years that’ve been a hit:
- Electric kettle
- Corelle plates and bowls
- Glass food storage containers
- Travel coffee thermoses
- Electric blanket
- A vacuum (Don’t laugh! This is an awesome vacuum, which I bought for my parents because I have one and love it so much).
Kitchen items are particularly welcome for frugal folks since a core tenet of frugality is, well, cooking!
I feel that books merit a category all their own as they are such fabulous frugal gifts to give and receive. Books are sort of the ultimate frugal gift as they facilitate greater frugality by teaching you new skills, they encourage a slower pace of life by taking you away from screens, they’re the best form of entertainment, and perhaps most importantly, a passion for reading means you’ll never be bored or lonely. What could be better!
This is also my chance to shamelessly (I mean, no shame whatsoever) plug my book, which publishes March 6, 2018. My book, Meet The Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living, is available to be pre-ordered right now and, if you order by December 1, 2017, I will mail you a signed bookplate for free in time for Christmas! You won’t receive the book itself until after it publishes (on March 6, 2018), but you’ll have the bookplate in time to wrap and put under your tree. Full disclosure, people, I haven’t sent out the first batch of these bad boys yet, but don’t fret, they’re on their way!
Here are all the places where you can pre-order my book:
To receive your signed bookplate, follow these steps:
- Pre-order my book through one of the above listed online retailers
- Forward your book pre-order receipt to this email address (AND ONLY THIS email address!!): firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fill out the form I’ll send you via email requesting your name and address
- Wait by your mailbox for your signed bookplate to arrive (give me a few weeks to get it in the mail to you)
- Store your signed bookplate in a safe place for several months since…
- Your copy of the book itself will arrive from the retailer your pre-ordered it from AFTER the publication date of March 6, 2018
If you’re so inclined, you can read the full details of my forthcoming book here.
Create Parameters Around Giving
Something I noticed in the reader responses is that many people like to create parameters–or expectations–around their holiday giving, which I think is a fantastic idea! Giving only to kids, doing a gift exchange, choosing names out of a hat, setting a dollar or number of gifts limit, or focusing on ‘experience’ gifts are all ways to control spending, stress, and post-holiday clutter.
Plus, establishing these parameters ahead of time lets everyone know what to expect and ensures you’re all on the same page. As I mentioned above, we set the tone for our kids and they’ll calibrate their expectations from our actions. Santa Claus can bring just one toy, people. This is entirely within your control! I mean, he has to fly all around the world after all, seems like one toy is totally sufficient (and already going to max out sleigh capacity if we’re being honest).
The Ultimate Frugalwoods Readers Holiday Gift Guide!
Ok enough from me! Let’s delve into the stellar gift ideas from all of you fine frugal folks. I received too many fabulous responses from readers to include all of them below, but you can check out the full conversation on our Frugalwoods Facebook page. I’ve divided the suggestions up by category this year since it seems we frugal people like to give gifts that fall into one of the following areas:
- Beholden to specific parameters
Sarah wrote, “My parents love a photo calendar every year. I always used Shutterfly when they ran a free calendar promo as others said, but last year I decided to get even more creative and create my own using IMom’s calendar template and adding my own photos in. Even cheaper than shipping from Shutterfly and still super cute!”
Hannah reported, “I just bought Christmas postcards thanks to your Frugalwoods suggestion! Thank you!”
Laura shared, “We’ve made a variety of photo gifts with Modge Podge and have done some custom wood burning on cutting boards, wooden spoons and serving platters!”
Jennifer explained, “Every year I make a calendar for my mother-in-law using pictures from the previous year. It also includes everyone’s birthdates and anniversaries (she’s one of 6 so there are a lot of them). I wait for Shutterfly to offer a coupon for a free calendar and then all I have to pay is shipping! She uses it all year and looks forward to getting them each December.”
Mandy wrote, “My parents started a tradition a few years ago for all three of us ‘kids.’ We each have a box with our name on it and they fill it throughout the year with deals they’ve found, mementos they’re passing on, freebies they’ve found/received/etc. It’s always full of useful, practical items (with a splash of fun things!) that seem more and more exciting the older we get.”
Pam reports, “My in-laws give us grocery items for Christmas. My father-in-law wraps each item individually. I haven’t bought toilet paper or laundry detergent for years! Our first Christmas together I was a single mother who had recently bought a house. Those Christmas gifts stocked my pantry!”
Michelle shared, “I love gardening and had tons of seed packets and saved seeds from my vegetables in an ugly shoebox. My teenage son decorated a pretty box for me to put them in. I loved it.”
Asa wrote, “Me and my siblings gave each other ‘work hours’ for renovations in our homes. We got a lot done; changed kitchen at my sister’s flat, painted and made a total make over in my brother’s small one-room flat! It was fun but we were also very tired.”
Margaret shared a novel idea, “Last year was the beginning of my frugal living budget, so I decided to collect wood pallets and chopped into kindling, for my three friends who have wood burning stoves. I purchased 3 hessian sandbag sacks from B&Q hardware store for £1.00, filled each sack with kindling, then pleated thick string to tied the top. A simple recycled homemade gift that was well appreciated.”
Bronwyn wrote, “One year, I made my teenage son a binder/recipe book of all his favorite dishes/recipes that I cook. He enjoys baking, and this allowed us to spend time after Christmas teaching him how to cook his favorite recipes (that I had put in the binder). We still add to it throughout the year. Now that he is in college, he still references it (which makes me happy). We also go to a local used bookstore and pick out a book for each other as a gift. I am a single mom and we both love reading—he doesn’t care if a book is new or used, as long as it is good.”
Carline shared, “My best frugal gift was, paradoxically, quite an expensive one. It was my e-reader (just a tablet, not a Kindle or any special brand). It obviously wasn’t free, though my husband did really thoroughly pursue the best deal he could feasibly get, but it has meant that I now have nearly every book I could ever want, generally free. I did and do use our library, but read fast and always have at least one book on the go… and had a terrible weakness for buying second hand books and buying books generally, which looks virtuous, but actually was just a waste of money!”
Tracey shared, “Today hubby and I made homemade jams – I was going to buy exclusive chocolates for my 11 direct reports from local chocolatiers for NZD$12 per person; the jam will be much nicer and I am loving some of the ideas on here for next year! Thanks, going to save a ton of money, which is helpful as we are on day 2 of the Uber Frugal Month Challenge!
Brian wrote, “One of the main things I try to do for Christmas is buy as much as possible local, and I try to buy consumables. I long ago lost the battle I tried to wage against consumerism in Christmas, so instead I try to at least have my dollars stay in the community as much as possible, and I try to fill my wish list with the same. For my dad, beer has been a great go-to gift: Buying from local breweries supports a local business, I know he will like it, and it’s something that won’t clutter up the house. I like giving good coffee too – we have a great local roaster and their coffee isn’t very expensive. One of the best presents I ever gave was a book on comics about one of my friend’s favorite comic book writers – I bought it at a used book store in the summer and saved it. For my niece and nephew, the closest thing I have to kids, I spend a little more sometimes; but otherwise I stick to roughly $25. Although this year I will have a girlfriend for Christmas so that will change my formula a bit. She’s already said “I don’t need gifts, but I require quality time” and she seems to be fairly frugal like I am. Good question for Ms Frugalwoods and the rest of FW readers: Good gift for a new girlfriend who is frugal-ish?”
Carolyn shared, “…my favorite of all gifts I have ever received is a letter from my husband and also one from my youngest daughter telling me how much I meant to them and the reasons they loved me. Best present ever! My husband had framed his and my daughter had hers in an envelope. Did not get both same year, got daughters 20 years ago and husbands 10 years ago. I still have both letters and will keep them. Best gift in the world!!”
Kristine relayed, “I have a small family and we’re not big on gift-giving. I have standing agreements with several relatives to just give a donation in each others names and leave it at that. My frugal friends consider forced gift-giving a bit annoying, so we give each other homemade gifts throughout the year, not specifically for Christmas. For the people who are left, I make homemade soaps, biscuits, reusable shopping bags, or a gift of money, if I know that is what they want. Very simple, very efficient, and I don’t have to trot around the mall with all the noise and people (big win!)!”
Leslie writes, “We buy bulk organza bags from the dollar store or ebay and fill them with Christmas themed treats such as mini candy canes or other candy items. I steer away from cooking treats as I already spend a lot of time in the kitchen at Christmas. The organza bags are for classmates, teachers, neighbours and people who help us out throughout the year. A completed bag, candy and all, costs around 0.50 cents a bag. For close friends and relatives we usually give a gift with a beer, a cider and either some crackers, nuts or chocolates in it. The left over beers and ciders from the cartons are then our Christmas drinks. The total costs of a completed gift bag is around $15.”
Bonita shared, “Many years ago, my husband and I made our own wrapping paper, using rubber stamps, embossing powder and marking pens on plain brown paper. Each gift was figured out as to where the ‘top’ would be and then we would stamp it, etc. I don’t remember what we gave everyone, but heard back from lots of the family that they didn’t want to open the gifts before Christmas and many of them saved that paper!”
Erin wrote, “I make ‘rice packs’ which can be used as hot or cold packs for sore muscles or bumps. Take a few square feet of a cotton print, sew three sides together, sew channels about 1.5 inches apart, fill the channels with rice, then sew the fourth side. To use warm, microwave for 1-2 minutes (use caution until you know how long to go!). Bonus is the soothing smell of warm rice.”
Amanda wrote that she’s made, “-cinnamon applesauce ornaments. These are always a hit! You can get everything at the Dollar store.
-Plates of homemade cookies.
-Mason jars of dry cookie ingredients with a recipe.
-Movie night in a box: Redbox code, bag of microwave popcorn, and a bag of candy.”
Bronwyn shared, “For co-workers, I made little bags of cranberries, an orange, cloves and cinnamon sticks, with instructions to put in a crockpot with water to make the house smell nice.”
Angela reported, “We give consumables to everyone but our wee kiddos. I make chocolate truffles (I was given an amazing recipe years ago, most people think they are from a chocolaterie) and my husband makes wonderful ginger beer. Everyone loves it and usually starts asking around now if we’re doing it again. I give something small and light to my best girlfriends (scattered around the globe), last year I decorated calico shopping bags, personalising them to each one; this year I am making them beeswax wraps so they can ditch cling wrap. I could bang on about consumerism at Christmas for hours, it’s a real bugbear of mine! We choose to give to charities and food banks with all the money we don’t spend on useless cr@p.”
Jessica wrote, “I dry herbs from my garden in the dehydrator, put them in baby food jars and make little sets for friends. I make my my own laundry soap so I’ll make an extra batch and use it as a gift. I bake cookies and breads and use the cans and tins people gave me the year before for teachers gifts.”
Laura shared, “I️ cleaned up my old iPhone and gave it to my little brother. I️ could’ve gotten cash for it, but he needed it so it was the perfect frugal gift!”
Anna does exactly what I do and wrote, “My daughter is 2 – throughout the year I have scored free kids toys from my local Buy Nothing Group, and hidden them from her. I’ll wrap them up and put them under the tree – she doesn’t care that they are used!”
Bronwyn reported, “My Dad really likes mystery novels. I went to a used bookstore and found the first book in about 5 different mystery series he hadn’t read yet. For each book, I wrote a little note explaining which series it was book #1 for. Because these are all first-in-series books, they had been out for years and were quite inexpensive by the time I purchased them. Also, my Dad really appreciated the work I had gone to to find the first books — something he never has the patience to do himself.”
Jennifer shared an inventive idea, “Kids love color chips [paint store color samples] in their stockings!!! And they’re free! One of the stocking stuffers I invented when I was out of work.”
Gaile wrote, “I always love used books to give and receive.”
Laronda relayed, “For our own family, we are shameless secondhand purchasers. My parents enjoy old, unusual books, and our kids have learned that Craigslist is a treasure trove of gently-used or even nearly-new Lego sets, scooters, and even a Wii one year.”
Cathy explained, “We’ve enjoyed giving memberships to zoos and museums to our kids and grandkids. They are such a good investment for a whole year of fun and education and they can even share discounts with their friends.”
Hannah shared, “We love to give experiences that provide memories and time together. One year we wrapped inexpensive kites for the kids to let them know we were headed to the beach for vacation (which was the rest of the gift for all of us).”
Jackie wrote, “My best frugal Christmas gift was sewing lessons actually. The upfront cost was a little steep but the skills I learned have helped on our frugal journey. I can do simple clothing repairs now as well as make small gifts.”
Aislinn relayed, “Me and my husband prefer to give ourselves time together. This year our ‘gift’ will be a day off together before Christmas to pick out our tree. We get a real one every year. We’ve also managed to convince grandparents to buy our children new clothes and books instead of adding to their toy pile. They get to enjoy giving something and we know the children are getting something they need and will use.”
Haley shared, “I received a gift membership to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science which allowed me to take my little scientist to the museum as often as he wanted to go! It was great!!”
Ashlee wrote, “I received a gift card for the state park system. We used it to purchase a year-pass to the state parks. It was awesome!”
Desiree wrote, “We do 3 gifts like the 3 wisemen gave Jesus. Then we do 1 Santa gift because they believe in Santa and 1 family gift. I’m doing an aquarium family pass this year .. I used to give my kids a dozen gifts each and I found they didn’t really appreciate the stuff .. this way we take turns, they have time to look at the item, and we really put a lot of thought into each item because there’s only 4.”
Grace relayed, “This year for the kids we are sticking with the 4 gift rule: Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. We are no gift giving for any adults in the family. We will buy a gift for our niece and nephew. I made ornaments and will send one to each family with the Christmas card. I think I spent a total of $7 for the stuff to make the ornaments.”
Jessica does of combination of the two traditions, “For our family we do three gifts (like the gold, incense and myrrh) from the wise men: Something they want, something they need and something we will do together, like tickets for a concert or a membership to the zoo.”
Laurel shared, “Our extended family just switched to Secret Santa (there’s an online site to make it easy) so we’re each buying a gift for one person instead of six. We all get to buy goodies for the baby.”
Jodi wrote, “My husband and I don’t buy gifts any more. We stopped about 4 yrs ago and it’s such a relief. There are too many people to buy for and too stressful trying to find the ‘perfect’ gift. Spending time, throughout the year, with people we enjoy and mean the most is more important.”
Meghan relayed, “My Dad is one of 5 kids and each sibling has one or more child and now some of the cousins are married. So, each year we draw one person’s name and buy a gift just for that family member. We have a party where we exchange the gifts. It’s one of my favorite Christmas time traditions.”
Jeff wrote, “For both sides of our family we switched to a Yankee Swap, instead of buying presents for each individual person. I think each person spends a max of $20. It has been a resounding success. There are many hilarious, goofy gifts, and some just plain great ones. You can steal other people’s presents in a Yankee Swap, which ramps up the fun. There are always many laughs. Way, way better than a regular, boring, expensive gift exchange.”
Sarah shared, “I like to pick out one fun small thing for my nieces and nephews, and usually cap that around $25 per child. For adults, we pick a charity to donate to each year, and include a note about our donation with a bottle of wine or nice bag of coffee/chocolates (depending on what the person likes as a treat.)”
Jan wrote, “Many, many years ago, I stopped buying gifts for friends. Everyone throws in and we adopt as many children as we can with what we have to donate through Angel Tree. It grew at work and this year we are adopting 25 children. I organize and whoever wants to help shops. It’s also tax-deductible. My mom and husband and I don’t exchange gifts. I am a couponer and coupon all year long and make gift baskets for grown kids and their wives with hygiene, cleaning, and laundry stuff. My grandchildren are harder but this year the oldest are 10 and 12. The old me went all out. Now, they know they have a monetary limit of $50 and I will put $50 in their savings accounts. I have always split their birthdays like that except it was $25 to spend and $25 in their savings accounts. I have a new 3-month-old grandchild and one coming in January so we will just start off like that with them.”
Melissa shared, “Last year we made donations in each other’s names. I loved it because I was in grad school. (So I could give $20 and nobody was the wiser!).”
Have A Holly Jolly Frugal Holiday!
Frugality at the holidays is not about being miserly, it’s not about avoiding the festivities, and it’s not about being a grinch. Rather, frugality encourages us to focus on our priorities, to remember why we’re celebrating in the first place, and to spend thoughtfully and within reason.
I also want to point out that the holidays are not an emergency, people. They happen at the same time every single year. Given this, the holidays are not an excuse to go into debt. They are not an excuse to overspend and they are not an excuse to bring financial hardship upon yourself.
Spend money in ways that are reasonable and meaningful to you and your family. Having a hundred gifts at Christmas is much less important to a kid than having parents who aren’t stressed out about their finances. Keep perspective on what’s truly important and remember that the most valuable, fulfilling aspects of life aren’t things at all.