Alternative Christmas Gifts and Traditions to Help Your Family Afford the Holidays

You don't have to go broke to guarantee your family a Merry Christmas. Try out these money-saving tips and skip the holiday shopping craze.

The holidays can be wallet-draining. We feel pressured into spending money on big presents, elaborate meals, showy house decorations, charities, and travel. It adds up!

Now more and more people are questioning the true meaning of the holidays for them. Some people find that Christmas leaves their home cluttered with items and struggling to appreciate them. Some are also discovering the emphasis on “stuff” is stressful and distracting from focusing on quality relationships with their loved ones. There is also conversation around the environmental impacts of present-giving and gift wrap, not the mention the financial drain and credit card debt associated with this time of year.

There are all sorts of new holiday traditions that people are trying these days to opt out from the rat race of buying gifts, holiday sales, trend-following, and present-wrapping. Here’s a selection of ideas to prevent you from running up a credit card tab in order to pay for holiday gifts and all the other expenses that accompany this time of year.


One of the best ways to reduce the costs of expensive family meals is to host a potluck. While Thanksgiving has already come and gone, this idea can still work for any upcoming Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, or other holiday parties you may have on your agenda. Ask every guest coming to dinner to sign up to bring an item. You can even limit spots in different item categories to make sure your guests branch out from only bringing desserts and drinks.

Potlucks are a great way to increase gratefulness and learn more about each other while cutting down on the holiday spending that goes into hosting a large meal for a lot of people: Guests often bring dishes with personal significance, and the act of sharing is very heartwarming.

Here are some other ideas for hosting a large family meal on a budget.

Giving thanks rituals

Families have been coming up with creative ways to practice gratitude for the things they already have instead of focusing on material possessions. These rituals can replace more traditional gift ideas or holiday traditions, such as decorating.

For example, instead of spending money on traditional holiday decor, you can have children write down things for which they are thankful and display them on the mantle or somewhere else in your home. You can even make a paper chain out of the gratitudes and hang them in a safe place in your home.

At Christmas dinner, you can go around and state the things for which you are grateful. This is an especially great option in lieu of prayer for families that are not religious. It also distracts everyone from thinking about presents.

Using stockings to leave notes is another creative way to incorporate thankfulness into the holiday season: You can have everyone in the family put anonymous compliments in others’ stockings to spread positive cheer and holiday spirit. This can take the place of stocking stuffers, and the best part: It doesn’t cost any money.

Secret Santa gift exchange

Instead of requiring everyone in the family to give a great gift to every other family member, you can choose to do a Secret Santa gift exchange. This option is wonderful for families on tight budgets because each person only has to put thought and money into one present instead of spending all that extra money on multitudes of gifts.

With a Secret Santa gift exchange, you have time to think of something great, personal, and affordable. You will be able to spend more on that one gift than you would have otherwise, but can also keep it within budget. This will make for a much less frustrating and stressful shopping season for everyone.

Bonus tip: This also works great for families with lots of kids. Instead of spending money on lots of stocking stuffers and small gifts for all the nieces, nephews, and young cousins, conduct a separate Secret Santa gift exchange among the children (with the caveat in mind that the parents will probably have to help purchase the presents).

Share present costs

This is another method of reducing the cost burden of present giving. Instead of individually buying presents for all of your family members, set up gift-giving teams. Combine forces with your teammates to find the perfect gift and split the cost of that gift down the middle. This will help to rein in your holiday budget while gifting the perfect present.

Handmade gifts

Some families participate in a tradition similar to a Secret Santa, but with handmade gifts. This is a great tradition because it is cost effective, and the focus of the gift is creative instead of materialistic. It’s also very personal and heartwarming to receive a gift made especially for you.

Imagine: Instead of exchanging products you purchased at the store, your family exchanged poems, songs, playlists, art pieces, handmade soap, knitted items, baked goods, or any other creative ideas that come to mind.

DIY is in: So pitch the do-it-yourself idea, if not for this year, then at least for next year, and see how it goes.

Charitable giving

Similar to the above idea, assign each family member one other person. Instead of giving your assigned person a gift, donate to a charitable cause on behalf of that person. The goal is to donate to a charity that would mean something to the person for whom the gift is named. This is a lovely tradition steeped in gratitude, giving, and thoughtfulness, and the donation doesn’t have to be large. The recipient will be touched that you understand what’s important to them. And it takes out the stress and materialism of present shopping.

Avoid the wrapping

In order to skip out on the cost and environmental fallout of wrapping presents with paper, some families are opting for wrap-free giving. Instead of wrapping paper, hide gifts in reusable bags or simply label them. This also reduces the holiday stress of cleaning up after a large family gift exchange or visit from Santa.

Volunteer with your family

Instead of present-giving or shopping, many families opt to volunteer instead. Giving the gift of time to the community is a gracious gesture – and all it has to cost is your time. Volunteering at a soup kitchen or somewhere else meaningful to your family also encourages quality bonding time in addition to an opportunity to talk about generosity and gratefulness.

Low-cost family activities

Instead of waking up on Christmas morning excited for presents, some families wake up excited to go hiking together, walk the dogs together, roast marshmallows on a bonfire, or some other family-friendly bonding activity. Replacing material gifts with rich experiences and using time off work for spending quality time together is a wonderful option that more families are trying out.

What traditions will you start this year?

These ideas are just a start. Many families get creative with coming up with new traditions that work for them and help them opt out of holiday stress and expense. You can discuss as a family what’s important to you about the holidays and decide on new traditions together. If you come up with something meaningful to everyone, then the tradition will continue year after year, everyone will look forward to it, and you will pass it down for generations to come.

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