How to Give Without Breaking the Bank

Living & Spending
on December 6, 2013

‘Tis the season for holiday parties, cold hands, hot cocoa and gift exchanges. Though generally agreed upon as the most wonderful time of the year, the holiday season happens to also represent a season of stress—and a distinct strain on cash flow.

This year, in the interest of budgeting success, now and continuing in the New Year, we’re subscribing to a “keep it simple” philosophy, one that awards clout to thoughtfulness over expense.

In search of perspective, we spoke with etiquette expert Peter Post, director of The Emily Post Institute and author of etiquette text Essential Manners for Men, for tips on giving generously during the holidays, without breaking the bank.

First and foremost, make a budget, and stick to it. “The first thing you want to do is establish a list of the people you want to give to and ask yourself what you have to spend for everybody. And then stick to your budget,” says Post. “I think the real key is that you should never be in a position in which you’re putting yourself into debt in order to give gifts. That’s a mistake.”

If you find yourself in an unfamiliar state of financial strain, concerned with meeting a level of expectation—don’t be. “Give what you can,” says Post, “If it’s not as exorbitant a gift as you gave in the past, so be it. You aren’t on the hook to repeat a dollar level the next year just because you were able to do it the year before.”

For budget-friendly gift giving among families and groups of close friends, Post suggests setting an agreed-upon range for spending, even arranging a Secret Santa drawing so that each member is only responsible for purchasing a single gift.

Next, make it personal. The team at the Emily Post Institute reminds us, “…it is most important to remember that the spirit of the gift is more important than the gift itself.” It really is, as they say, the thought that counts.

With that in mind, consider make-it-yourself options. “Homemade gifts are great. You can be as creative as you want with a gift,” says Post, “If there’s an obligation on your part to give a gift, give the best gift that you can. If you don’t have as much, maybe it’s a gift in kind…it’s something you’ve made, something you’ve created. Maybe it’s an offer of your time.”

From a budgeting standpoint, homemade gifts are a fantastic idea—as long as you take time to weigh the cost of materials against the price of a store-bought gift item. One drawback to the DIY game is falling down a rabbit hole of craft supplies. Edible gifts and projects calling for tools you already have on-hand are great budget-friendly options, and the gift of time is perhaps the most budget-friendly option of all. Consider these creative holiday gift ideas to get your wheels spinning:

  • Sample Sizes: Present friends with a carefully wrapped sample size of a favorite pantry staple, plus a handwritten note. Think along the lines of a small bottle of a favorite olive oil, spice blend or coffee, and an offer to host dinner in the coming weeks.
  • Edible Gifts: Gift family and friends with a big batch of homemade sweets. To make a little go a long way, split a batch into smaller, individually wrapped portions (each with a personalized note or gift tag) for neighbors and co-workers.
  • The Gift of Time: For the family on your street, offer up a set of Crayons and inexpensive coloring books to the kids, with an accompanying offer to the parents for a night or two of free babysitting.
  • Crafty Gifts: There’s no end to the wide array of DIY holiday gift ideas floating around the web. Websites like Pinterest and Craftgawker are great resources for DIY inspiration and tutorials.
  • Bulk Buying: If you luck into a good deal on a high-quality branded product in bulk at your local warehouse store—think chocolate, candles or bath products—snatch it up! You can find ways to personalize the gift later, either by adding to it or implementing creative packaging.

Budgeting and spending concerns aside, it is just as important to receive graciously as it is to give graciously. “Not only is it the thought [behind a gift] that counts, but as the receiver, you should appreciate the thought that went into it,” says Post. “That’s one way to make the giver feel comfortable with what they were able to do.”

And at the end of the day, if you’re uncomfortable leaving someone out—don’t. But be diligent in staying within your budget.


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