Giving Christmas Gifts on the Cheap

Cheap Christmas Gifts: Why Not Start a New Tradition?

Thoughtful holiday gifts don't need to cost a fortune or create excessive financial stress. Flying Colours/Getty Images

According to a Consumer Reports poll, Americans are scaling back their holiday spending in droves. (This may be due to the fact that so many people are experiencing financial stress now, plus more than 12 million consumers still carry debt each year from the last winter's holiday season!) If you’re happy with your holiday spending level, you may simply want some holiday gift ideas. However, if you would like to cut down on spending in attempts to avoid the stress of holiday debt, here’s a creative list of cheap Christmas gift giving ideas.

Perhaps you can start a new family gift-exchanging tradition, allowing you and your entire family to save more each and every year.

Draw Names

Many families, especially extended families who are spread out in different cities, adopt the name-drawing tradition for gifts. Basically, each family member only buys one gift for one person, and everyone gets a gift from someone. Whom you give to, and who buys for you, is determined by drawing names from a hat. This is simply taking the office "Secret Santa" idea to your family or friend group, but it doesn't necessarily have to be secret.

This strategy can really save you money in terms of buying for and shipping gifts to several individuals. Not only does it save you the stress and expense of shopping for multiple people, but it can also ensure that everyone gets one nice gift. The drawback is that you may end up paired with someone who you aren’t as close to, or you may find it difficult to not buy a special gift for the relatives to whom you feel closest.

Just Give Gifts to the Kids

Another strategy for large extended families is to have each relative only buy gifts for family members under 18. This greatly cuts down costs and ensures that those who might appreciate the gifts most -- kids -- are the ones who get them. It then becomes a sort of rite of passage when the kids grow older and switch to the gift-giving role.

Here are some gift ideas for kids.

Place a $15 Limit

Another strategy people employ is putting a spending limit on each gift. While you and your family can choose whatever number you want, keeping the dollar amount low can sometimes spark people to become more creative with the money that they do spend, taking advantage of sales or putting a lot of thought into the best way to make the most of the allotted budget. While this may cut down on the number of expensive gifts exchanged, it also takes a lot of the pressure off of the situation. There’s no more feeling like you need to spend a lot to show people how much you love them, worrying about spending more or less than they spent on you, or looking "cheap" if you shop the sales.

Books Only

Agreeing to give books only can be an excellent way to keep costs down. Buying loved ones just the right book is a way to show that you know them well and understand their taste. Books also provide hours of fun reading in addition to some interesting topics of conversation. Giving paperbacks can ensure a pretty low cost, and including a gift receipt can basically make any book a "coupon" for any other book the recipient wants (if it turns out you didn’t quite capture his or her tastes).

You can also give a journal and let people make the gift their own, which is especially helpful for those whose reading tastes you don't know, or who aren't avid readers. The book gift idea may not work as well for a non-reading crowd, but this is a great way to go for a group of avid readers.

Homemade Gifts

Gifts that you make need not be comprised of pipe cleaner, tissue paper, or painted macaroni. Most of us have some sort of creative side, and you’d be surprised by what you can create if you put that creative side to work. Some of my favorite gifts to make and receive have been family photo albums, quilts, custom-made place mats, crocheted blankets, custom-made playlists (for those on a really tight budget), hand-painted pottery, and cookies.

Some gifts do take considerable time to create (especially en masse), but those who enjoy creating often find it a worthy trade-off. 

Thoughtful Cards

Because “it’s the thought that counts,” if your group is really on-board with saving money, you may want to consider just exchanging thoughtful cards. The key is for the card itself to be blank -- you create the meaningful message. For those who want to try their hand at poetry, even an average quality poem goes over really well with most recipients -- how many of us get poetry written especially for us? For those who can’t even force a crude limerick, writing about fond shared memories or the qualities you love most in your recipients tends to work just as well.

Coupon Books

Creating a book-o'-favors for your loved ones, including good deeds especially for them, can be an incredibly thoughtful money saver. Coupons offering free babysitting to busy parents, airport trips to the frequent traveler, or a hand-delivered homemade meal to just about anyone can be a welcome and thoughtful gesture. (The possibilities are wide open when you create a coupon book for a spouse or child!) The key to making this one successful is to be sure to follow up and push people to actually use the coupons, or include a specific date on which they should be used, if possible.

Delicious Gifts

While cookies, brownies, and bars tend to be gone within days, few faces fail to light up when presented with tasty treats. If the sugary stuff would be an unwelcome diet saboteur, you can always assemble a healthy fruit basket, wine and cheese basket, or come up with your own cheap-and-tasty basket idea. Mmmm.

After-Christmas Shopping Spree

Recently, "Super Human Radio" host Carl Lenore shared this one with me: Why not buy the gifts right after Christmas, when everything is drastically reduced? While this one may not be for everyone, it does have some bonuses: Fewer returns and exchanges of not-quite-right gifts, obvious savings, and the "fun" of doing something slightly different than everyone else. You can still exchange beautifully-wrapped “IOUs,” give a picture of the gift you intend to buy or provide small "token" gifts (like candy) on the actual holiday.

Consumer Reports: 76% Plan to Cut Back on Holiday Spending. Consumers Union 2008, November 6, 2008.

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