One Way to Reduce Holiday Stress: Reframe Gift Traditions

Consider ways to make gift-giving with family and friends a smaller and less expensive part of the holidays.
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Written by Annie Millerbernd
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Have you made your holiday gift shopping list yet?

Do you find that question stressful?

Holiday shopping can bring up plenty of anxiety-inducing questions. What does the scent you pick for your sister-in-law’s candle say about what you think of her? Does your son still want the video game he mentioned in August? Why does a hair curling iron cost $600?

More than half of holiday shoppers (55%) say buying gifts stresses them out, according to NerdWallet’s 2023 Holiday Shopping Report.

To cut back on shopping stress, consider making gift-giving a smaller and less expensive part of your holiday. Traditions don’t change easily in many circles, so here are some tips to get you started.

Communicate spending expectations

If you want to change the way your group gives gifts, communicate your financial boundaries clearly, says Ambus Hunter IV, an accredited financial counselor based in Baltimore. This could mean setting a spending limit that’s lower than previous years.

Whether money is tight this year, you’re working toward a savings goal or you want to cut gift-giving costs permanently, Hunter recommends being transparent with your loved ones about why you want to change the tradition and what you want to do instead.

Sharing personal financial details can be uncomfortable, so it may help to start by suggesting a dollar amount that works for your budget. Just be open to negotiation, he says.

“This ultimately is a compromise among all of you, and being willing to hear other sides and being willing to compromise is going to be key,” he says.

Start a new tradition

Introducing new ways of giving, in addition to a spending cap, can lower costs even more.

The Secret Santa method, where everyone in a group draws a name and anonymously buys a gift for just that person, is a popular choice.

White elephant gift exchanges, which have different names and interpretations, are similar. Generally, everyone buys one present under a certain dollar amount, and on the holiday each person selects one wrapped gift from the pile.

In previous years, certified financial planner Brittany Wolff did a thrift-themed white elephant with her husband’s cousins.

“That was the most fun Christmas event ever, because it wasn’t about spending that much money, it wasn’t about getting something of value, it was about what was the most fun thing you can find at a thrift store,” Wolff says.

You could also go the “want, need, wear, read” route and buy a present for each verb. This theme works especially well for kids, but adults can adopt it, too. Hunter says he came up with his own theme one year, giving each adult family member a bottle of wine and a book.

Make the thought count

A slimmed-down holiday doesn’t have to mean compromising on quality. Medina Colaku, a New Jersey-based home and lifestyle content creator with a focus on secondhand materials, suggests reframing your perspective: quality this year could mean thoughtful instead of expensive.

You don’t have to be naturally good at gift-giving to make this work, she says.

“I think what makes it special is the effort, the time, the attention behind whatever you’re giving,” she says.

You could give your vegan friend a special cookie recipe, propagate a plant for someone with a green thumb or blend spices and herbs in a fancy bottle for the chef in your family.

Replace gift-giving with an activity

In some circles, opening presents is a main event during holiday gatherings, so if you’re cutting back on gift-giving, you may need to coordinate a new activity.

Wolff, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina, lists a few ideas she thinks everyone in her family would enjoy, then polls them via Google form. One year, a trip to the National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina, won.

For the upcoming Christmas holiday, she scheduled a big brunch and a walk around downtown.

“I do think somebody has to spearhead it, though,” she says. “So if you are going to be the one to bring it up, be ready to [plan it].”

In your group, it might be a day of volunteering, a cookie bake-off or a game. Hunter’s family plays charades.

“That’s one of my favorite parts of our get-together, and in those moments, no one cares about gifts” or how much money was spent, he says.

Spend with January in mind

Hunter has one plea for shoppers: “Do not go into debt for holiday spending.”

Even with spending caps, you may need more funds to cover other holiday expenses. Before swiping your credit card, consider other ways to find extra cash and save money this season:

  • Search your budget for expenses to cut — even for a month or two — like subscriptions and other memberships.

  • Pick up a part-time job or sell some of your items on Facebook Marketplace or an app like OfferUp.

  • Cost-compare at different retailers and look for holiday deals when you’re gift or decoration shopping.

If you choose to finance your purchases, look for the lowest-cost options. That may be a 0% APR credit card, a store card that gives cash back or an interest-free “buy now, pay later” plan.

With any financing option, Hunter says, make a plan to pay the gifts off in the new year.

“Once the Christmas tree is down, the lights are off and we’re in that cold and bland January, those credit card bills are showing up,” Hunter says.

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