Reader Suggestions Of A Frugal Holiday Gift Guide (aka Staying on Budget the Non-Grinchy Way)
There you are, frugaling through the year, with your money on your mind and your mind on your money when, BAM, it’s the holidays and all the cash you saved and scraped is siphoned off into an endless swirl of gift buying, wrapping paper, holiday party hosting, and Christmas tree be-decking.
Ahh well, better luck next year, you think as you start January broke, deflated, and feeling ever-more Grinch-like.
BUT NOT THIS YEAR! The Frugalwoods gang (law enforcement take note: we are not actually a gang) is coming to your rescue today!!! We celebrate the holidays, we give gifts, we party it up, but we don’t lose our frugal cool.
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. Read my disclosures here.
Gift Giving The Generous, Yet Frugal, Way
Over the years, I’ve used a combination of all the below hacks to get through the holidays with frugal festivity:
1) Use credit card rewards.
This is the best way to save! For any gift that I buy new, I use our cash-back rewards credit card. If you use a credit card to buy things you were planning to buy anyway, and if you pay your card off in full every month, this is an amazing way to get something for nothing.
One credit card that’s particularly relevant for holiday shopping is the Chase Freedom card because it offers up to 5% cash back (in certain purchasing categories) AND you can transfer points over to the Chase Sapphire card for free airline tickets. Not bad!
If you’re able to handle paying your credit card off in full every month, then I think it makes sense to accrue points and use them towards either cash back or travel rewards, both of which can reduce your overall holiday spending. More on my credit card strategy here: The Frugalwoods Guide to a Simple, Yet Rewarding, Credit Card Experience. (these are affiliate links)
Oh you guys, you didn’t know I was a re-gifter?!? From way back, homies. Waaaaaay back. I re-gift new (in package/with tags on) gifts that I’ve either received and can’t use or that I’ve bought–get this–from a garage sale. Anytime I see a kid toy/book/item in a package at a yard sale, I scoop it up. I know that thing’ll be useful for someone on my list.
2) Give second-hand gifts.
Those new gifts in packages with tags on? Those are not for my kids! Nope. The new stuff is for other people’s kids. My kids get straight-up second-hand, used gifts. I scour thrift stores, garage sales, and hand-me-downs for gifts that are inexpensive and that I know my kids will enjoy.
I stock up all year round and keep a box labeled “gifts to give the girls,” which I mete out for their birthdays and Christmases. Look, as far as I know, Santa does not do packages with tags on. He’s more of an old-school fellow with no use for cellophane. I’m just keeping it real.
Here’s what’s in our used gift stash for this Christmas:
- A fairy dress-up costume with wings (this was a hand-me-down that’s in excellent condition!)
- Coloring books (from a garage sale, but never used!)
- Crayons (from a garage sale, but never used!)
- Books (from used book sales at local libraries)
- A wooden toy train set (this was mine as a kid and my parents saved it for my kids!)
3) Give cold, hard CASH.
In last year’s gift guide, I mentioned my plans to give Kidwoods’ teachers homemade foods. Approximately 200 teachers commented that this would likely not be appreciated by said teachers. You all advised I go the cash route to show my appreciation for educators and so, I did! I’m grateful to everyone who weighed in on this and offered their perspective. Kidwoods and I made cards for each of her teachers (I included a handwritten note per your advice) and stuck cash inside each card. This approach was: 1) easy and low-stress; 2) something Kidwoods had fun helping create; 3) very much appreciated by the teachers. This’ll be my plan for all the kids’ teachers every year until further notice!
4) No gifts; just coal.
I give my love a lump of coal and he gives one to me. Actually, no coal, no gifts is how me and my main man roll. Mr. FW and I decided years ago to forgo exchanging gifts with each other. Instead, we focus on spending time together and going out for a nice meal whenever we can con someone into watching our lovely children…
What we also do is buy household items for ourselves throughout the year. These purchases are things we think will make our lives better/easier and that appear to be high quality and long lasting. Here’s a few favorite household items we’ve gifted each other over the years:
- Our robot vacuum, aka my bestie, was one of our greatest household purchases of all time. This thing vacuums our floor like a–well, like a robot–and it does an amazing job eliminating work from we weary humans. I love the Roomba so much I wrote an entire ode to it: When Spending Money Equals Happiness: Why I Bought A Roomba
- Electric kettle
- Corelle plates and bowls
- Glass food storage containers
- Travel coffee thermoses
- Electric blanket
- Hair Clippers + bottle of wine to ease them into home haircuts (a gift set for the frugal friend in your life)
- Our mattress. Another thing I love so much I devoted an entire tome to it: How My $279 Amazon Mattress Is Holding Up After Seven Years
Most of these are things we use every single day of every single year, which makes them frugal gift winners! (the above are affiliate links)
5) Kids only, please.
My sister and I have five kids between us and we decided a few years ago to only give gifts to the kids, not to the adults. She sends me a list of things her kiddos would enjoy and I do the same.
We keep the items inexpensive and geared toward what each kid wants. One year, for example, my niece specifically requested a particular bottle of shampoo and I was happy to oblige.
6) Homemade, homegrown, home fry.
Not everyone escapes my homemade escapades. Since Mr. Frugalwoods and I spend 9,967 hours planting, growing, harvesting, and preserving food every summer and fall, our families are saddled with such items as gifts each Christmas.
For each of our extended families (our parents and our siblings + their kids = six families total), we ship out a homestead care package of foods we’ve preserved.
I try to pin everyone down on what they enjoy eating and so some people get more pickles and some people get no maple syrup and other people get a double batch of apple butter.
7) Go local or support your friends!
To round out the homemade goodies boxes for our families, I like to add a few items I buy locally or that my friends have created.
My friend Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez recently launched Statement Cards, which are greeting cards that celebrate women’s ambitions and achievements beyond marriage and motherhood.
I am in love with these cards and need all of my lady friends to get raises and buy houses so I can send them cards with messages like “Closing the pay gap like a boss.” Friends–consider yourself put on notice.
8) Give me your list or I will buy you a plastic chicken lawn ornament and you will be guilted into using it.
For any other gifts I want/need to purchase–for family members, for the angel tree at church–I require a specific list. I do not like guessing what people might like. I do not like shopping full stop, so a detailed list (ideally with links so I can buy it online!!!) makes me a happy holiday camper.
Donating to charity is another cornerstone of how my family celebrates Christmas. Every December, Mr. FW and I sit down and make all of our philanthropic gifts for the year. I’ve written about our approach here:
- How We Make Meaningful And Tax Efficient Charitable Donations
- How We Donate To Charities Like Billionaires
Other Holiday Things
If you’re interested in how I handle things like decorations, parties, and festive food, I’ve covered those topics in exhaustive (and likely exhausting) detail in the following:
- Reader Suggestions for Celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving On A Budget (all about decorations!)
- Reader Suggestions: Holiday Gifts That’ll Spread The Love But Not Break The Bank
- Reader Suggestions For A Deliciously Frugal Thanksgiving
- How I Take My Own Holiday Family Photos (And Make Them Look Good!)
- No Turkey, No Problem! How We Celebrate Thanksgiving Our Way
- Our Festive, Frugal, and Merry Holiday Traditions
- How To Give Frugal Gifts With Joy And Generosity
- The Patented Frugalwoods Cheap Christmas Card Hack
And then there’s the classic, all-time fave: Laugh So You Don’t Cry: What It’s Really Like to Celebrate Christmas With Little Kids.
With that, let’s turn to the readers!!!!!
Frugalwoods Readers Dish On The Best Frugal Holiday Gifts To Give (and receive)!
I tried to divide this up by category, but you know how that goes… so, enjoy!
Katie shared, “We now do homemade Christmas with all extended family and friends: it’s amazing and the people in my family who participate get together for a really nice dinner at one of our houses – I have made vanilla extract, laundry detergent, candles, orange cello, limoncello, hot cocoa snowmen etc. I have a Christmas app that I use to keep my list and when I shop (year round) I update my list so that I don’t overbuy etc. I like experiential gift giving like play tickets or a weekend away for close family. Penseys has a great teacher gift box that generally goes on sale for $5 each that makes a really nice gift for teachers. I generally make enough of my homemade gift to give to all my friends as well as any service providers like our mail delivery person as well as for hostess gifts at holiday parties. Buying materials in bulk for my homemade gift giving lowers the cost and I try to do gifts that you can “use up” so that they don’t add to clutter in peoples houses.”
Kate said, “I put together a photobook of the year for my mother and father in-law for Christmas every year. I ask all the siblings for pictures from the year and a short write-up of the highlights, then I spend a few hours putting it together. Shutterfly usually runs a holiday promo on photobooks, so it typically costs $40 or less, which we split between the 4 siblings. My in-laws LOVE it so much. They cherish the books, and my FIL cries every year when they open it.”
Carly wrote, “As far as teachers go I usually make a flower arrangement for each teacher. I used to work in a flower shop and I live in the Pacific Northwest so I get a container at Goodwill and go cut pine, Holly, and other greens to make a centerpiece then I add a candle, ribbons, flowers, pinecones, etc… I help my kids make gifts for their friends and grandparents every year. We have done bookmarks, magnets, and those melted broken crayons in molds to make bigger crayons lol. I’m a fan of giving functional gifts!”
Tamara wrote, “I am a knitter and like to give something that I have made. Sometimes the yarn can be pricey, but it is a thoughtful gift that is often treasured for many years, not something that is quickly disposed of. Here is a pic of the blanket and hat that I knitted for my parents last year at Christmas. Also, pics of the slippers that I knitted for my adult children last year.”
De shared, “I make homemade luxurious soaps, peach syrup, chocolate dipped goodies like strawberries, homemade coasters with 4” white tiles and photographs.”
Rita said, “I love to take pictures, and this year a friend suggested I take some of my best pics and turn them into jigsaw puzzles as gifts. You can use an online site to have them made for about $15. One of a kind gift, and encourages family time.”
Marie likes to give, “Homemade preserves.”
Laura said, “I put together easy DIY beauty products for family members like bath salts and whipped body butters last year. I’ve also done subscriptions for wine and beer clubs for my parents and in-laws. Magazine subscriptions and event tickets for kids are great.”
Consumables (yum…. )
Sionainn wrote, “My grandmother was forever trying to give things away, so I gave her tea every year. She was always thrilled and actually used it. My mother insisted on buying her a “proper” present. One year it was towels, and she was furious to find them at my aunt’s and cousin’s houses 😹”
Kellie said, “We’ve always done hampers that include fancy christmasy food items. We make them up ourselves so we can adapt the items to the people and try to use a useful vessel to put everything in. This way people use everything up instead of having some gift to have to own and add to all their other stuff. Children we get Christmas themed crafts they can play with/make/be occupied on the day/during the holidays. We don’t gift to each other… instead we go shopping together and buy some treats to eat, or of we need anything, we buy those things, especially after Christmas when everything is on sale. I’d love a fancy food hamper myself actually…but no one ever makes me one !! We decided between my bff and us this year that our presents to each other will be presence. We’ll spent some time together. We plan to put up her decorations together or maybe go to a Christmas markets together. Something like that.”
Jennifer said, “Last year my daughter’s teacher got a bag of spices from Penzey’s. They give away free bottles all year long so I saved them up just for this reason.”
Hope shared, “We do consumables for the adults in our lives. So things like: fancy coffee beans, local honey, collections of treats from Trader Joe’s, fancy beer, olive oil, etc. For our nieces and nephews we do books (I buy used when possible) and sometimes clothing. As a teacher, I’m always happy with any gift or card from my students, but the most useful ones are grocery store gift cards, Amazon gift cards, and consumable treats. It really is the thought that counts though, it’s just nice to feel appreciated.”
Laura said, “I usually make maple nuts for teacher gifts. Super easy and since we make our own maple syrup, not bad on the pocketbook. This is also a gift that can be used up, won’t cause clutter and is usually greatly appreciated. In spring, before school is our I usually make a bag of fresh veggies for the teacher. The first time I did this the teacher almost cried, she said it was the most thoughtful gift anyone had ever given and they used it all up. I bought carrots and potatoes from the farmers market and added our own greens and herbs to round it out. I don’t exchange gifts with friends usually or again the maple nuts are great or cookies. With family we try for things that will be used it again food. My family loves to get garlic so depending on the harvest they get lots of garlic, maybe some canned goods like salsa or jam if I know they use it.”
Holly wrote, “Teachers get gift cards to a local coffee place (that also offers tea, food, & other beverages so that there are many options to pick from). Nobody needs another mug.”
Angela shared, “We usually give consumables to the adults we give to each year. We make the same thing – I make chocolate truffles and my husband makes ginger beer, and often around October we are eagerly asked by friends and family if we’re doing again, because they’re yummy and such a treat (once you’ve had home made ginger beer, you’ll never go back to the commercial stuff).”
Holly wrote, “One year my husband and I treated ourselves to a couples spa day (massages, pedicures, a lunch at their restaurant) and that was the absolute best gift we could’ve given each other – the gift of time spent together to unwind and truly relax in the week just before the holidays.”
Kristi said, “My husband and I pick out three things we want and that’s it. I have a few friends where we pick a day to spend together doing whatever (usually a pedicure). But mostly my best friend and I give each other books. I give my nieces nothing for presents and instead put money in their account for a trip to wherever they want to go when they are 16/17.”
Lindsay relayed, “For our extended family, we have proposed different options, including a white elephant swap amongst adults and skipping gifts to adults and making memories instead. This year we are going to a Holiday event with lights at a farm together.”
Carla said, “Getting together as a family and sharing a meal (that I shop towards for many months) is our priority. We have the best stress-less Christmases and are enjoying them with the second generation and the ten grandkids know Christmas is about love and presents are secondary and if you ask them they will happily tell you and they don’t miss out at all.”
Practical and Needed!
Carolyn said, “I like to give and receive gift cards. I love to receive books, new or used; food care packages; anything I absolutely need. For my birthday I needed underwear updated so I told girlfriends which ones I wanted as I was unable to do my own shopping; for Christmas I need thermal underwear shirts.”
Tarina suggested, “A few of strategies:
1. Just talk to people and see if they too are finding it stressful in buying presents for each other. A surprising number are relieved to opt out of buying.
2. With large groups of friends we all by one little present and give them to an individual…then we play a game. Each quick round the winner can trade their present for someone else’s…it gets very frantic as the game continues as the best/worst presents are traded.
3. With my adult children I ask for time with them without the grandchildren. We do simple things like cook together and enjoy a self made meal and a bottle of wine with lots of uninterrupted chatting.
4. With the grandkids they get a little present to open but we then spend a day together where I’m totally focused on them. Simple things like the park, playing games and maybe the cinema as a treat.”
Megan likes to give, “GIFT CARDS and a hand written thank you card!”
Gabby said, “I love giving books! They usually aren’t terribly expensive and can be very personal if you put thought into it and don’t just give what you yourself would like (I’ve been taking notes on the What Should I Read Next podcast when a book they discuss makes me think of someone!) I look for “very good” condition copies on Abe Books if they price on a new book is high… A book is a books, whether brand new or not!”
Karen likes to give, “Lottery tickets. The gift that always fits.”
Laura wrote, “For the kids we are doing a need, want, read and wear gift. Some are combined like a family trip to a local ropes course and some are a particular pair of sneakers or a climbing helmet. Bad parenting moment here, I don’t necessarily spend the same amount on all 3 of my children. I base it on what will actually be used or is wanted. My little people don’t know the difference yet anyway. It might matter to them someday, but not right now.”
Mary shared, “I have 6 nieces and nephews and my husband and I put money in their 529 college savings accounts for Christmas. It saves us time from having to run around town and buy gifts/wrapping those gifts and I’d much rather give them something for their future than a toy they’d play with for a short period of time. 😄”
Angela said, “For our children we give small gifts that they need (like pj’s, markers, calendar etc) plus a few fun things like chocolate, and bubble bath in their stockings. They get one decent gift from us under the tree. We’re Christians and try to give big ticket items like bikes etc for birthdays, to help keep our focus on the reason for the season. With my children I try to help them think about giving to others, so we usually make/bake gifts, and do a reverse advent calendar to give to our food bank (I usually give it to the food bank in January as they are often swamped at that time of year, due to people overextending themselves at Christmas).”
Carly shared, “We do Christmas just for the kids. Our family is so spread across the country that we no longer do gifts with them. With the shipping costs it gets out of hand fast. I have one niece and we do send her a gift, but I have started sending her money and a card. I do try to send a nice picture of our kids to the grandparents too. We also try to travel to spend Christmas with family every couple of years, so we all count that as our gift. For our kids we do a gift that has some educational benefit (generally something STEM), a book or game, and something functional (snorkel sets bought on clearance this year). That’s our spin on the something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read. Santa brings a toy (nothing big, maybe a $25 Lego set and some candy) and then they get toys from their grandparents and aunts/uncles.”
Cindy said, “This year we’re going to try “something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read” and let the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and my stepson’s mother fill in the rest. It’s just too much stuff otherwise! We set a budget of $1,000 overall for everyone (us, kids, teachers, family, friends, etc.).”
Lindsay wrote, “We are doing something you want/need/wear/read from us to our kid, and to our nieces and nephews. This structures it so we don’t overbuy with all the wonderful things we see.”
Go Giftless and Grateful
Carly wrote, “My husband and I don’t exchange gifts because we’re saving for FI and we’re both overwhelmed by the amount of stuff constantly inundating our house!”
Cindy relayed, “My husband and I don’t gift to each other. We prefer some sort of quality time activity like going downtown for an overpriced yet amazing meal.”
Set A Budget (and stick to it!)
Lauren wrote, “I absolutely love the holiday season and thinking of gifts to give to our family members. Because it is so easy to overspend in the holidays, my husband and I set a budget for the following Christmas in January, then put money back each month for the holiday season (including traveling home to see his family). We use this sinking fund approach to lots of our larger, expected expenses— property taxes, car registrations, etc. In addition to this, we use creative approaches to giving gifts to each other and our daughter. We keep it to four things: one gift of service, one family experience, one “want”, and one need. It makes the gift giving even more fun! Pictured is our now-19 month-old, then-8-month-old, enjoying her first holiday season. She was all about the lights!”
Lindsay said, “Ways we stay frugal include making an actual list of people we are going to buy for in October and making a rough budget. Then we choose what kinds of gifts we might want to get so we can look for used options, sales, or track Amazon prices on camelcamelcamel.com. For little stocking stuffers, we shop the Christmas clearance the year before. We agree on how much we want to spend and then pay 70%-90% off to get stocking stuffers for everyone.”
Allison shared, “I got married this year and it kind of catapults you from the young adult child within a family to head of a new family. It’s the first year I can’t consider myself included in my parents’ gifts to family members. 😬 We handle presents with our siblings by being super honest about our price limit for them and their kids. And we all stick to those limits. (I love the challenge of creatively finding something that will be appreciated within this price limit.) With our parents, we often pass our ideas by our siblings and/or go in on a shared gift with them. I don’t want any of them to feel bad because we gifted drastically differently and often one of us has a great idea that the rest of us can get in on. And then with other relatives, we don’t openly share this, but we work to limit it to $25 or less. Our family is, thankfully, so much more focused about quality time together and isn’t judgy about our gifting lightly so that we can travel to see all of them more and also establish ourselves as independent adults.”
Kelly shared, “For all gifts, I sit down and make a “holiday gift budget” and seriously try to stick to it. This keeps us from getting a dreaded credit card bill in January. I know what we are going to spend and am prepared for it. Some years we will sign up several months in advance for a credit card that gives a generous sign-on bonus and use that bonus towards Amazon or Target gift cards that we designate specifically for Christmas gifts. Last year, we signed up for a Chase credit card that after spending so much gave us enough points for $700 in gift cards. This isn’t for everyone, but we made purchases with the cards that we would have made anyways and paid it off in full every month. For our kids (ages 4, 4, and 1), we buy used gifts at thrift stores and consignment sales throughout the year. I do let the older two make a Christmas list when the holiday season starts and buy them a few new things off of it. During the holiday season, I want to give generously to charities. This year we’re really focusing on paying our last bit of debt off and so I’m looking for opportunities to give through my time instead of just cash. Our church hosts a “Christmas boutique” as a fundraiser and is looking for donations of baked goods to sell. I can make homemade cinnamon buns pretty cheaply and I plan to give many trays of those. Another random tactic I am thinking of taking this year is using holiday-themed reusable grocery bags to wrap gifts in instead of gift bags. They are usually the same price as a new gift bag ($1), are much sturdier and serve many more functions. We’ll see how that goes over!”
Secret Santa and/or A Dollar Limit
Pauline wrote, “About 20 years ago we started the $5 limit for gifts for our extended family (brothers, sisters, niece, nephew, grandma etc). We have had some wonderful gifts and some not so wonderful! The key to giving good gifts on a budget is being willing to shop for them all year round. You constantly see things on sale at the grocery or supercenter – if it brings someone to mind that is going to be on your list buy it and stash it until Christmas. I also just buy stuff sometimes that could be for anyone, but is a really good deal. Like $8 Oster Blenders that are being phased out (typically about $40) and these are for White Elephant gift exchanges at church or with further extended family get togethers. Our family is also receptive to thrift/yard sale items so that is another place to get fabulous bargains! 🙂 Merry Christmas everybody!”
Samantha said, “After trying to introduce Secret Santa years ago, my family have come round to it 🙂 we also have a secret Santa for our pets too otherwise we all buy them presents as well. I just don’t buy other presents with a few exceptions of Goddaughter and new baby niece etc. My go to is books and crafts where you don’t end up with something you won’t use again afterwards.”
Grace shared, “We do Secret Santa in our family (all of us “kids” are 17+ and there are no children). I coordinate it with an online Secret Santa random generator that allows everybody to make a wishlist and include links from other websites. We set a $50 limit per person. We love it because we only have to buy one present each and everybody ends up with something they actually wanted/needed rather than a random gift they don’t want.”
Lea wrote, “On my dads side our extended family is 50+ so we started a tradition where everyone brings one gift and we play a Christmas trivia game to determine who gets what gift. The limit is $30 and there’s no pressure to participate. It works really well because the trivia is half the fun and if someone’s stuck with a gift that doesn’t work for them (ie the 15 year old got a bottle of wine) everyone’s willing to trade since the gifts aren’t crazy expensive.”
Adrienne said, “My husband’s family is large so we’ve started doing $20 max gift exchange for adults and teens. Local treats are usually a big hit. Everyone buys gifts just for their own little kids. Getting everyone together is the biggest “gift” and i try to help the hosts with the cooking since that gets $$ also.”
- Communicate with your close friends and family about your expectations–and theirs–around holiday gift giving. Would everyone be amenable to skipping gifts this year and instead doing a special activity together? Would Secret Santa or a dollar limit work?
- Plan ahead and set a budget. Shop year-round (garage sales included!) to capitalize on sales.
- Don’t fear gifting second-hand gifts–especially to your own kids!
- Consider making homemade treats to gift.
- Discuss the possibility of going gift-free with your partner/spouse. In what ways could you celebrate without spending money?
What are your favorite frugal holiday gifts to give?
User Generated Content Disclosure: Reader comments and responses are not provided or commissioned by Frugalwoods or its advertisers. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by advertisers. It is not the advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.
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