This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale at Childwild.com.

Not sure what to buy for your loved ones this year? Still singing the recession blues? Consider buying nothing at all.

I didn’t buy anything on Black Friday, I didn’t buy anything today, and I won’t tomorrow. This holiday season, I won’t be going near a mall. Under our tree, there will be no plastic toys, no new clothes, and no last-minute matched set of leopard-print mugs for my sister when I panic on Christmas Eve because I have no idea what she wants. There also wont be any dipping into my savings accounts to buy gifts.

Thousands of families will be doing exactly the same thing this year as part of The Compact. The Compact has a simple premise: Everyone who signs on agrees to “buy nothing new” for one year.

Note: For more about the Compact, check out these articles from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.

Gifts for Kids
For tips on surviving a frugal holiday, I turned to the Non-Consumer Advocate, Katy Wolk-Stanley. Katy is coming into her third year on The Compact. And as a mom of two boys, she knows a thing or two about kids and holiday shopping.

“Christmas is a huge challenge for people who are trying to save money, and for people who are trying to minimize their garbage output and the low-quality stuff that comes into their family,” Katy says.

Here are her guidelines for giving to children during the holiday season:

  • Shopping is okay. Katy made it clear that “not buying new” doesn’t mean “no shopping”. She swears by Goodwill and consignment shops. Buying used, she points out, not only saves money, but it’s always a “greener” choice than buying a newly-manufactured item. Online, you can surf eBay or your local Craigslist for second-hand treasures.
  • Swapping is even better. “You could do a gift swap where people get together, bring the toys that aren’t being used, and swap,” Katy says. “You’d have to make it an evening without kids, which has its own benefits!”
  • Presentation matters. Some kids will be looking for “new” gifts under the tree, and new to them means boxes and brands. Katy suggests looking in higher-end kids’ consignment shops, where you can often find gifts still in their boxes. For kids and adults, Katy offers lots of creative wrapping ideas, like presenting movie tickets with a box of movie-theater candy. For families, try giving toddlers play silks (long pieces of colorful silk) as a gift, and then use the silks to wrap gifts each year for the kids as they grow older.
  • Santa buys second-hand, too. My kids still believe in Santa Claus. They’re expecting a pile of Stuff under that tree come Christmas morning. I ordered them a classic dollhouse from “Santa’s workshop” (read: eBay). They’ll get to spend the morning unwrapping each little piece of furniture, instead of a dozen different gifts.
  • Be creative. Last year, Katy gave each of her boys a kitten. Rather than put live kittens under the tree, she put some stuffed animals they already had under there with paper tags around their necks that said, “Please exchange me for a real kitten.”
  • Don’t be afraid. Chemicals like lead, BPA, and phthalates are common in older toys (even ones that were new last Christmas). Sharp edges and loose parts can cause accidents. A simple way to avoid these problems? Buy simple toys. Unpainted wood gifts, for example, are free of toxins regardless of their vintage. Another simple option: Don’t worry about it. You probably haven’t carefully researched every new toy that comes in the door. Today’s used toys are no more dangerous than last year’s new ones.
  • Talk to your relatives. “Just explain that you’re trying to decrease the number of gifts given to your children and talk about why you’re doing it,” Katy says. “Possibly offer some other ideas where a person can be creative and still do something special for a child that they love.” Easy for her to say. I’m a pansy when it comes to tough talks, so last year I sent mom a letter asking her to “tell Santa” what kinds of gifts would be most appreciated.
From the archives: Here’s a classic look at the four things children really want for Christmas.

Gifts for Grown-Ups
Toys, books, clothes and treats will take care of most children’s wish lists. But most of us have adults we’re expected to exchange gifts with too. From the office party to family festivities, we find ourselves shopping for friends and relatives.

Here are a few great ideas to replace the leopard-print mugs and bottles of wine you might have been handing out in past years:

  • Art. Art may technically be Stuff, but it’s a far cry from imported plastic junk. My most treasured gifts in the past year have been original art pieces by photographer Molly Tomlinson. These gifts can be surprisingly affordable. Many good-but-not-famous artists sell their work for $20 to $50 — no more than you’d spend on a Big Plastic Thing at the mall. To find good original art, go to holiday craft fairs, visit local studios, or search the listings on Etsy.
  • Time. Many people love gifts of time. You can offer to babysit, to come to their house and help with an organizing project, or to paint their dining room. Last year, my husband gave me a pretty card with a year’s worth of babysitting commitments from friends and family. I burst into tears on the spot, but I’ve been all smiles every month since when we drop our kids off and go out for an evening alone together.
  • Experiences. Movie tickets. A gift certificate to a favorite restaurant. Museum memberships. While a non-material gift may seem better suited to adults, even little kids can enjoy them. Last year, my mother presented my kids with a yearlong membership to the New England Aquarium. She took them there the day after Christmas, and they were also able to enjoy it several more times throughout the year.
  • Charity. Charities depend on holiday season donations to make their year-end numbers work. You can help them out and cross some items off your gift list in one blow by donating in a loved one’s name. Charities like Heifer International, Kiva and the Red Cross all make it fun and easy with “virtual gifts”. For example, Heifer lets you give a family in the developing world a cow on your mom’s behalf. Have a cow, Mom!
  • Fancy food. Who doesn’t love food? From baked goodies to homemade salsa, it’s hard to go wrong with tasty treats under the tree. Just be sure you know the giftee’s dietary restrictions. Anaphylactic shock is no one’s idea of a happy holiday.
  • Handcrafts. It’s a time-honored tradition to give your own handcrafts to loved ones during the holiday season. You probably don’t have time to knit sweaters for everyone on your gift list, but many lovely crafts are easy and quick. You can get your kids involved in making ornaments, ceramic handprints or other treasures for grandparents. Craft supplies themselves can get expensive, but if you have a skill like knitting you can make beautiful unique gifts.
From the archives: One of the most popular posts in GRS history features more than 30 homemade Christmas gifts you make yourself.

  • Nothing at all Do you have to exchange gifts with every adult in your family? With your coworkers? Your friends? Think carefully about who to put on your gift list, and who would be better served by a thoughtful card or a warm phone call.

Many people have probably done their shopping already, so it’s too late to change course. But there’s always next year. (Or, if you’re a last-minute shopper like J.D., there’s still this year.) And consider joining The Compact in January. You’ll have lots of company, and a whole year to work up to a non-consumer holiday in 2011.

This article is about Consumerism, Frugality, Shopping