Gift Giving on a budget
Gift Giving on a budget

Money Etiquette: Holiday Gift-Giving on a Budget

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When it comes to gift-giving over the holidays, my good friend Richard is a pro at the “shrug it off” approach. Last year he didn’t purchase gifts for anyone. And on Christmas morning, during his family’s standard “gather around the tree and open gifts” ritual, when it came Richard’s turn to hand out his gifts for others, he was empty-handed. While there was a bit of awkwardness and side-eye action going on, he simply endured the tension.

While Richard is extremely frugal and his family almost expects him to skip gift-giving, this may not be the case for everyone.

If adhering to a “no-gift” policy this holiday season isn’t something you can or want to do, how can you approach gift-giving without coming off like a “no fun”, non-participatory curmudgeon?

Here’s the thing: You can cut back on how much you spend on a gift in a tactful manner. Here’s a short list of “dos” and “don’ts” for holiday gift-giving on a budget:

Do: Make a Pact Ahead of Time

Work out an agreement with your friends, both immediate and extended family members, and even co-workers. I don’t buy holiday gifts for my friends, but rather indulge them for their birthdays.

Over the years my immediate family and I have agreed on setting a hard limit on how much to spend on gifts. And for extended family members, we’ve settled on a White Elephant exchange among the adults, and gifts just for the kids. My partner and I aren’t into gift-giving in general. We’re super particular and practical about our belongings, we’ve agreed to donate to a charity instead.

Do: Set Expectations

Don’t be afraid of being the first one to breach the topic. Set expectations ahead of time so that everyone gets on the same page. Chances are that your loved ones are sharing the same concerns about overspend as you. That way no one’s feelings get hurt and no one feels “stiffed.” They may even breathe a sigh of relief that they’re off the hook on buying gifts.

Don’t: Be a Tacky Regifter

We all have a tacky regifter in our lives. The one who gives you a sweater that is something you’d never wear, or is three sizes too large. Or the one who looked like she bought a bunch of knick-knacks from her grandma’s closet, and hastily stuffed them in a gift bag (unless that’s your jam).

I have nothing against regifting. I do it all the time. But there’s certainly a tasteful way to approach it. For one, figure out what the person likes receiving. You might even take a peek at their Amazon wish list. Then, match up stuff you’ve been gifted to the giftee. The key is to put some thought into it. Also: new stuff you come across from a swap or Buy Nothing Project group is great for regifting. And don’t overlook gift cards. As long as the gift card is for a retailer or restaurant that the giftee likes, it could certainly come off thoughtful.

Do: Try the Double-Up Tactic

Consider the “double-up” approach. What this means is try to find ways to spend on gifts by spending on things you would spend money on anyway. And spend your time in a way that’s fun for you. For instance, if you make a point to donate to charity at year’s end, consider making a small donation made to a charity on behalf of someone in lieu of a physical present. You might enjoy scouring through the different non-profits. Of if you want to travel more and have a budget for it, suggest gifting fun day trip with a friend on your list.

As a pseudo-minimalist, I personally get bogged down by my belongings, in both owning and buying stuff. That doesn’t mean that I never buy stuff, or won’t buy gifts for loved ones who enjoy receiving presents. But I do try to be careful with “browsing” and the time I spend shopping. On the flip side, if you enjoy shopping, then, by all means do so. Just be careful with sticking to your holiday budget.

Don’t: Make Exceptions to Your Budget

That killer Black Friday deal you want to swoop in on, or fearing your gift won’t be good enough. Leave those temptations and emotions at the door. You created a holiday budget for a reason, and it’s important that you stick to it. Otherwise, you’ll be suffering from holiday debt hangover.

Try to keep your holiday top of mind by reviewing it every week or so, and making tweaks as necessary. And don’t forget to assign a spending limit to each person on your gift list and commit to that limit. It’s helpful to remind yourself that the holidays come every year, and exchanging gifts is a small part of it. There’s no reason to go into debt if you can avoid doing so.

Do: Give Yourself Permission to Do the Minimum

Many of us feel the strain of obligation and expectation over the holiday season. Paying more than you can comfortably afford on a gift as a sign of love to a person. Or finding yourself mired in an “I must spend the same amount as my rich cousin Janice” thought cycle.

You don’t have to skip gift-giving altogether, but be cool with doing the minimum. Do you need to give everyone in your department a present, or will a plate of baked goodies suffice? Can you offer a single gift for an entire family, instead of buying individual presents? While you may be doing a little less, you’re also showing that you’ve thought of them over the holidays.

If you’re a people pleaser, this may be tough-going. Setting boundaries is a form of self-care, and self-care takes discipline. The path to kindness, particularly to your pocketbook, may not be what initially bodes well with your gut instinct. Give yourself the okay with doing less regardless, and be cool with the fact that not everyone may march to the beat of your drum.

Practicing etiquette with holidays gift-giving takes a bit of finesse, tact, and thinking outside the box. But by knowing the dos and don’ts, you’ll skillfully maneuver gift-giving without blowing your budget.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or view of Intuit Inc, Mint or any affiliated organization. This blog post does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further

Jackie Lam
Jackie Lam

Written by Jackie Lam

Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers. More from Jackie Lam

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