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6 Ways to Handle Gift Giving on a Tight Budget

While it may be better to give than to receive, sometimes, giving hurts. If you’ve ever looked at your bank account just before the holidays (or right before a slew of family birthdays), you know what I’m talking about. Even the most generous of people can feel a pinch when the expense of giving ends up eating into next month’s grocery bill.

The reality is, most people have been there. If your college years were particularly tight, or if you’ve known the ache of trying to care for a family after losing a job, chances are your family and friends have been through something similar and understand the strain. This year, try to let go of the obligation or expectation to give, and get real about your finances, committing to keep your giving under budget. You may discover that what you end up giving – yourself, your time, or your talents – ends up meaning more than you could have imagined.

How to Give When Money’s Tight

There’s no shame in being on a budget, and there’s nothing embarrassing about going through a lean time. When you accept the reality of your financial situation with confidence, it becomes much easier to address gift-giving. Use these tips to get started.

1. Be Honest

There is great freedom in honesty. While it might initially be hard to admit to family and friends that money’s tight, once you do, your honesty will unburden you from the weight of gift-giving expectation. And you just might be surprised – many people carry their financial problems close to the vest, fearful of pity or unsolicited advice. But if you’re brave enough to share your situation, others might open up as well, sharing in the relief of paring back.

Several years ago around the Christmas holidays, my sister called me and said, “Laura, this year I just can’t. I’m going to send you a card, but that’s it.” I was so relieved. My husband had just been downsized and there was no way we could afford to ship presents all over the country. My sister’s honesty about her own need to keep gift-giving simple was an incredible gift in itself.

The trick about this type of honesty is to draw your own gift-giving boundaries before letting others know. For instance, rather than saying “Money’s really tight this year, so gift-giving is going to be hard,” which may leave others confused about how to move forward, try providing your own solution, such as “We’re really watching our budget this year, so rather than doing our normal gift exchange, I’d love to do a cookie exchange instead – are you open to that?”

Not only does this help provide your family and friends with a framework for your budget, but it also cuts down on the potentially awkward moment after you share the news. Your mom will be less likely to fill the silence with reassurances or advice if you give her something else to chime in on.

Great Honesty No Lies

2. Draw Names

When my siblings and I were in our early 20s, none of us could scrape two pennies together. My sister was in college, my brother and his new wife were both in graduate school, and my husband and I had both just landed our first post-college jobs. Buying presents for siblings, much less siblings and new spouses, just wasn’t feasible.

It was around this time my parents instituted the “draw names” method of gift-giving. Rather than buy presents for everyone, we each drew one name from a hat, and we were told to buy a present for just that one person, spending only $30 or less. It was an amazing and wonderful system. We each received a present without breaking the bank or feeling guilty for not doing more.

This method is particularly nice for holiday gift-giving among families, and can even be instituted year-round. For instance, everyone in your family could pull one name from a hat as the gift-recipient for the year. If you were to pull your brother’s name, then you would do something nice for your brother’s birthday and major holidays, but wouldn’t feel obligated to buy a big present for each of your other sibling’s on birthdays or holidays.

This is particularly helpful when families share similar birthdays. In my family, there are five birthdays within the span of three weeks – buying for everyone is incredibly hard, so anything to simplify the exchange is beneficial.

3. Buy and Give in Bulk

When it comes to giving, it really is the thought that counts. If you want to give something to the people you love, don’t assume you have to come up with a completely unique gift for everyone on your list. Rather, decide on one thoughtful present that you’ll end up giving everyone. This simplifies gift-giving and enables you to buy items in bulk, ultimately saving  you money.

Buying and giving in bulk is particularly nice when you make a gift from the heart. For instance, consider giving plain white mugs (you can pick them up for $1 each from Dollar Tree), each with a favorite quote or message written on it with Sharpie, and filled with candy, homemade cookies, or your favorite flavor of coffee.

4. Enjoy Togetherness

Nine times out of ten, the memories from holidays and birthdays are more about the shared experiences than about the gifts. If you’re on a budget, suggest a big family outing in lieu of buying presents. Everyone involved can pay their own way, with the ultimate gift being that you all spend time together. For example, gather siblings, nieces, nephews, and grandparents together for a day of ice skating and hot cocoa, or see if there’s a community theater presenting “The Nutcracker” at a reasonable price.

One winter my whole family decided to go camping together over the holidays, and it was an incredible experience. Each campsite only cost about $12 per night. We stocked up on low-cost “campfire food” (hot dogs, s’mores, eggs, and bacon), and we spent hours hiking, playing cards, and telling stories around the fire. It was affordable for everyone, and we came away at the end of the trip with many memories to cherish.

Enjoy Each Others Company

5. Give Memories

Sometimes giving memories is just as important as creating them. Many people snap pictures on their smartphones all year long, but very few people every turn those digital photos into something tangible

If you’ve filled your memory card with pictures of your friends’ weddings, your cousins’ basketball games, and your mom’s art shows, get a few of the images printed professionally. Choose one picture per person on your list, print the image, and frame it in an inexpensive frame (you can buy four-by-six-inch frames for as little as $3 through online retailers like Displays2Go).

Or, put together a GrooveBook for everyone on your list. GrooveBook is a monthly subscription company that sends you up to 100 four-by-six-inch photos from your smartphone’s directory for just $3 per month, including shipping and handling. You build your GrooveBook based on the photos you’ve taken, then have it shipped to yourself or someone you love. Each additional GrooveBook you purchase costs the same, flat $3 fee.

If you have photos galore that you’d like to share with 30 family members, you can send a book to all of them for a total of $90 (plus the monthly subscription). While the photos themselves come in a booklet-like form, the edges are perforated so individual photos can easily be removed and framed.

Otherwise, there are plenty of one-time fee services that allow you to upload your digital photos for albums or prints, such as Snapfish and Walgreens.

6. Give of Yourself

Sometimes the best gift you can give is more of yourself. People are busy – between work, school, family obligations, and community or church commitments, it’s easy to lose touch with the people you love the most. Take a personal inventory of your own special talents (maybe you mix a mean cocktail or make a killer lasagna), then come up with a creative and helpful way to give your talents to your family and friends.

For instance, if you’re handy with a drill, pick up takeout one night and show up at your sister’s to hang the shelving she keeps complaining about. Or if you’re an organizational mastermind, buy your parents coffee one morning and offer to go through the boxes of old photos and keepsakes they’ve allowed to stack up in closets. Not only will the recipient appreciate the benefit of your talents, they’ll also have the chance to spend some much-needed time with you.

Spend Quality Time Family

Final Word

If gift-giving is feeling like a chore, obligation, or weighty expectation, then it’s time to make a change. Whether you make three figures or seven figures a year, the spirit of giving should benefit the giver at least as much as the one receiving.

Even if you can technically afford to give luxurious gifts each year, think carefully about your reasons for giving. Paring back and simplifying your approach to giving can help remind you why you want to give in the first place.

How do you keep tabs on giving? Do you have any tips for those on a budget?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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