Yes, simple and special is nice. There’s some kind of spiritual purity reserved for the families who agree to exchange just a couple gifts each year and not go overboard.
Personally, I don’t have the restraint.
Thankfully, there are some ways to balance having an overwhelming, hedonistic, indulgent Christmas morning against the Recession, the wealth disparity, or having a single income. Obviously, as with all economization advice you read on the internet, your mileage may vary, but these are the top five ways I’ve found to save money without having to cut back on the scope of gift-giving holidays.
Yes, scheme. Plot. Machinate. Plan. Think as far in advance as you can and make a list of things your children might like next year, the year after, or even just “someday”. When a friend raves about a gift she gave her 8-year-old, save the product page so you remember it when your kids get there. I do this with an Amazon wishlist– not only are lots of things available on Amazon for the best price, but also Amazon has a universal add to wishlist button so I can keep all my ideas in one place. Then, every year, as I’m sitting down to plan my family’s holiday gifts, I can review the wishlist and pick the things that are relevant to the smalls that year.
Set aside some storage space for future gifts. I have a couple of 18 gallon plastic containers set aside as my gift stash, so whenever I come across something that will be a great gift for the smalls in eight months, three years, or just “someday”, I have a place to put it. When I see something great on a flash deals site in March, I buy it and stash it away for Christmas. I buy a discounted bundle of 12 tubes of touchable bubble solution when I only need 2 and put the extras in the bin to fill stockings or goody bags or make a trip to the park better months or years from now.
Most of the things my family gets for free also go into the gift stash– things like ID card lanyards and conference nametags are excellent fodder for the dress-up box, penlights and flashlights and keychain pens and coin purses all make great stocking stuffers, and obviously the bigger stuff like travel mugs and notepads can be small gifts on their own. It’s worth taking an extra pass through the stuff you’re about to trash or donate, too, just in case any of it could be put in the gift stash for your kids later on– Mardi Gras beads are excellent dress-up necklaces or decoration for fairy gardens, scarves can become playsilks, old plastic combs are good painting tools, kitchen gear like colanders and cooling racks can be used in art or pretend play or the play kitchen, and a dead flip phone (with the battery removed, of course) makes an awesome pretend phone for a toddler.
I also have a big box of upcycling– things that are too interesting to recycle or throw away, like sub-divided boxes that used to hold chocolates or sandwich picks or those little plastic tables that keep your pizza box from squishing your toppings. One of the best gifts you can give a little kid is an assortment of “junk” like this and some basic art supplies.
You know the boxes your parents always nag you to take home from their attic? The ones full of pogs and Polly Pocket playsets and Jurassic Park action figures? Don’t donate that stuff! Your kids might love it someday!
Now obviously you should keep anything heirloom-worthy, like those handmade wooden toys from your carpenter grandfather, but most of the toys left over from your childhood are probably still worth playing with, even the cheap ones. Discard anything broken and anything that doesn’t reflect your values as a parent (bye bye Barbie!), but tuck the rest into your gift stash for later. Lots of things, like plastic animal figures 6-year-old you painstakingly collected from the zoo gift shop, are identical to their modern versions. Some toys, like Tangrams or card decks or prisms or marbles or jacks or rubber band boards, are nearly immortal in their appeal.
Now, I don’t necessarily believe that Gigapets will make a comeback, but tweens are into gimmicky toys like that. If your parents already spent good money on cheap plastic crap in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, why would you toss that cheap plastic crap only to have to spend YOUR money acquiring more of it for your kids?
Take credit where none is due: use necessities to bulk out holiday gift piles by adding office/art supplies, clothes, educational books, hobby supplies, and other stuff your kids will need over the next year, even if you might not normally think of such things as “gifts”.
Obviously kids love novelty art supplies like patterned duct tape and rainbow crayons and cute Japanese erasers, but standard supplies are giftable, too. Younger kids can always use a new notebook or pad of watercolor paper, a couple packs of those color-coding stickers from the office supply store, mailing address labels, hole-reinforcer stickers, index cards, popsicle sticks, or their very own roll of masking tape or painter’s tape. Older kids love to have their own pair of decent-quality scissors, puff paints, hole punchers, clear tape, white-out tape, glue dots, pens and mechanical pencils, kneaded rubber erasers, and report folders or 3-ring binders. Gum erasers are cheap and can be used for their stated purpose or to carve stamps.
Little kids love to wear clothes patterned with their favorite things, and tweens and teens will love the goth-esque accessories that go on clearance after Hallowe’en or the heart-themed ones that are on sale after Valentine’s Day. A book related to a project your child really enjoyed in the first half of the school year or one that you think will help them connect to something coming up in the curriculum can broaden their horizons and might lead to a lifelong passion or career interest.
The winter holidays are also a great time to make sure your aspiring NBA player has court-worthy shoes that will fit for the last half of the season, or to add to your little equestrian’s tack, or to upgrade the backpack or sleeping bag your child takes to summer camp. Make sure everyone in your family has warm socks, slippers, mittens/gloves, scarves/cowls, hats, and other winter gear. Maybe this year your child is ready for an embroidery kit, a tool box, or their very own wooden mixing spoon.
By far the most effective way to cut costs without sacrificing goods is to make those goods yourself.
You can make big things, like bean bag chairs and clothing and furniture. But you can also make little things, like playdough or hair accessories or notebooks. And you don’t need any special skill or a lot of free time to do some homemade presents: A bag of chocolate chips and a promise to make cookies with your 7-year-old before the end of winter break is a great gift that practically anyone can make essentially for free. A simple jar of infused almond oil or homemade balm and a promise of a massage is a similarly fantastic homemade present for your partner.
There’s still time to make homemade presents for this year! Even at the last minute, you can make great things.