The Broke Person’s Guide to Gift Giving

Don’t let your desire to give awesome, thoughtful gifts to friends and family members drive you into debt—just learn how to give more with less!

You’ve probably heard some version of the 1905 O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi. It tells the tale of a husband and wife who can’t afford gifts for each other, so they each secretly sell off one of their prized possessions.

The wife cuts her hair and sells it to buy her husband a chain for his pocket watch and—in a twist worthy of a Twilight Zone episode directed by M. Night Shyamalan—her husband had sold his watch to afford expensive combs for her hair. Now both of their gifts are useless.

Well, the wife’s hair will grow back eventually and she can just use the combs then. And the husband will still probably look pretty cool with an awesome chain hanging out of his pocket.

Regardless, the moral of the story is that they still have their love, so it doesn’t matter that they can’t use their gifts in an optimal manner. But the real lesson is that they should have read this article! Then they would have known how you can give good gifts within your budget!


Set expectations appropriately.

Don’t be embarrassed to let your friends and family know you’re working on a tight budget. If they’re the sorts of people who deserve your generosity, then they’re the sort of people who will be sympathetic to your situation. And if they do have lower expectations, then those expectations are all the more likely to be exceeded. Your gift could even be time spent together.

“This summer, starting now, talk to your friends and family and suggest that you don’t exchange Christmas/holiday gifts this year,” advised Holly Wolf, Director of Customer Engagement for SOLO Laboratories (@SOLO_labs). “While it’s warm outside, it feels planned out, thoughtful, and not just panicked over money.

“My conversations go something like this: ‘I enjoy spending time with you throughout the year.  That’s a real gift to me. So rather than exchanging gifts that we really don’t need, let’s commit to spending more time together this year. Let’s hike more/take more walks/hang together more.  The holidays are busy and stressful enough. Let’s make them easier for both of us by not exchanging.’

“Nearly everyone I’ve suggested this too has agreed not to exchange. Only one person needed a bit more time to come to terms with it.”

Lina Kristjansen, the co-founder of FiveYearFIREescape, offered a similar approach: “One way to deal with the cycle of gift-giving is to break it altogether. If you want to do it without sounding like a Grinch, you could say: ‘This year we’re saving up for a vacation, let’s just get together instead of exchanging gifts!’ Of course, you can replace vacation with your own goal, like paying off debt, creating a rainy day fund, or a purchase you’re actually excited about.

“People will respect your decision when you share the bigger picture behind it, instead of just saying ‘we can’t afford it.’ Besides, your family and friends will probably welcome the chance to break the gift-giving cycle if you give them the alternative.”

But if you still feel the need to give physical gifts, you have many affordable options.

Dissect a gift basket.

If you think about it, a gift basket should really be called a “gifts” basket, since it contains multiple gifts. On that note:

“If you have several friends and family members you’d like to give gifts to but you’re short on funds, you can always buy one large gift basket and then create smaller gifts using the included items,” suggested Beverly Friedmann, content manager for ReviewingThis (@ReviewingThis).

“By purchasing a (neutral) gift basket you may be able to give several people different items at once, and you can include cards with each. This will likely save you a considerable amount of money in comparison to purchasing individual gifts, and your recipients will never be privy to where their present came from.”

Turn downsizing into giftsizing.

Do you have a lot of clutter and have been thinking about Kondo-ing your living space? Well downsizing could also be an opportunity to make progress on your gift list.

“Several years ago, my grandpa started giving away gifts from his past for Christmas in place of new purchases,” recounted Kelly Shea of TrialandEater.com (@TrialandEater) and TheWabiSabiLife.com. “These gifts come with a personalized note about why he is giving each of us this particular item, and a story from his life. These have turned into mementos that we all look forward to.

“This year, as I downsized and moved, I adopted the same gifting philosophy for people’s birthdays. Items that I received from conferences or other travels, kitchen items I might have otherwise given away, a new chocolate bar, books that I have finished reading—if they make me think of a particular family member I gift them and tell them why.

“This intention based way of gifting not only makes my family members feel like I truly thought of them, but it also cuts down on costs and gifting people items that end up as clutter that they don’t need.

“And they don’t have to be fancy to be appreciated—some items I have sent recently include chocolate and snacks, a free pineapple tote bag I would have otherwise gotten rid of, duplicate kitchen items, makeup samples, and a shirt that no longer fit me that I knew would fit my cousin. It’s kind of like an adult care package!”

Consider used items.

“Used” doesn’t have to mean “bad” or “broken down.” Gently used items can still make very nice, and more affordable, gifts.

“If giving something physical is important, visit a thrift store to look for a gently used gift instead of something brand new,” recommended Logan Allec, CPA (@moneydoneright), owner of personal finance website Money Done Right. “Thrift stores are great places to score great deals on treasures, especially if you are short on cash.”

Make something.

Making gifts tends to be much more affordable than purchasing them. Also the people you’re giving them to might grade the gifts on a curve. But we bet they’ll actually love them as well!

“While it may seem cliche or even impossible, if you’re very tight on funds you can always make your own gifts,” advised Friedmann. “If you enjoy art, writing, or making items at home (i.e. plants, jewelry, knitting), you may be able to use your skills to put together gifts that are even more special to your friends and family than store-purchased items.

“One of the best gifts I’ve received was a card in conjunction with a self-learned piano song. The sentiment behind the gift is always the most important part.”

Want a specific, relatively easy to replicate example? Read on!

“Since my wife and I were both from large families, our holiday gift list was always quite long,” offered Timothy G. Wiedman retired professor of Management & Human Resources at Doane University(@DoaneUniversity). “And when I was in graduate school, our finances were stretched pretty thin.

“So several years in a row, for many of our holiday gifts, my wife and I made sheets of ‘hard rock candy’ in various colors (red, green, yellow, and dark gray) and complementary flavors (peppermint, wintergreen, lemon, and licorice).  As I recall, we used a simple stove-top recipe that included Karo syrup and cane sugar (with confectioner’s sugar topping off the finished candy).

“After the basic concoction reached the proper temperature (somewhere around 300 degrees if my memory is accurate), it ‘cooked’ for several minutes before each coloring/flavoring combination was added; and then it was spread (about 3/8 of an inch thick) on cookie sheets that had gotten a thin coating of confectioner’s sugar.

“Then I took the sheets outside to cool and harden by placing them on our ancient picnic table. We lived in central Ohio, so the finished recipe hardened fairly quickly in December. Finally, each hardened sheet of candy was ‘cracked’ into smallish pieces and given a final ‘dusting’ of confectioner’s sugar.”

Now take this advice and use it in your gift-giving endeavors. There shall be no twist endings for you! To learn more about stretching your budget further, check out these related posts and articles from OppLoans:

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Contributors

Logan Allec (@moneydoneright) is a CPA and owner of the personal finance website Money Done Right.  After spending his twenties grinding it out in the corporate world and paying off over $35,000 in student loans, he dropped everything and launched Money Done Right in 2017.  His mission is to help everybody—from college students to retirees—make, save, and invest more money.  Logan resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife Caroline.
Beverly Friedmann works as a Content Manager for the consumer website ReviewingThis (@ReviewingThis)—with a background in Sales and Marketing Management—and is from New York, NY.
Lina Kristjansen is the co-founder of FiveYearFIREescape where she blogs about her family’s early retirement. She quit working at 31 with kids and a house in a pricey city. Her husband retired one year after her, too. She got there through saving, financial savviness, and rental houses.
Kelly Shea is a former financial analyst turned writer and photographer who has a passion for wellness and vegetarian food. She loves sharing her recipe creations and her latest foodie adventures from her travels across the country on her food and travel blog at TrialandEater.com (@TrialandEater), along with wellness and alternative lifestyle topics at TheWabiSabiLife.com.
After 13 years as a successful operations manager working at two different ‘Fortune 1000’ companies, Dr. Timothy G. Wiedman spent the next 28 years in academia teaching college courses in business, management, human resources, and retirement planning.  Dr. Wiedman recently took an early retirement from Doane University (@DoaneUniversity), is a member of the Human Resources Group of West Michigan and continues to do annual volunteer work for the SHRM Foundation. He holds two graduate degrees in business and has completed multiple professional certifications.
Holly Wolf is an executive with over 30 years of experience in banking and healthcare.