A non-consumer Christmas: Simple gifts for kids and grown-ups

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.

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

My siblings and I typically draw names out of a hat so that we only have 1 person to shop for instead of 8 (4 siblings plus spouses). This makes like simpler for all of us.

But, this year we decided to simplify life even more. Instead of buying that one $40 gift, each of us are donating to a charity of our choice and then discussing what we chose at our Christmas party.

I personally love this idea. It enabled my wife and I to give gifts to some local children that would have otherwise received nothing!

Jaime @ Like a Bubbling Brook
Jaime @ Like a Bubbling Brook
9 years ago

Experiences are my favorite gift from the ones I love most 🙂

I wrote about some of my DIY gift ideas here: http://likeabubblingbrook.blogspot.com/2010/12/10-diy-christmas-gifts-for-5-or-less.html

I love a simple Christmas; it helps me stay focused on what REALLY matters 🙂

Jaime @ Like a Bubbling Brook

Brett | Investing Part Time
Brett | Investing Part Time
9 years ago

I hate the consumerism of the holiday season as much as anyone, but these are some good ideas. I think you left out the important idea of giving someone a gift by giving it to someone else. For example, donating money to a charity that is really important to your heart, and then presenting them with the information about it and telling them why it’s so important to you. I doubt anyone will get mad at receiving that. Or you could let them choose what charity to donate to so they have more of a choice 🙂

Mrs Claus
Mrs Claus
9 years ago

One thing that relieves some of the stress,something I see mentioned far less than the ‘no gifts/no spending’ rants (I was glad this was a realistic post rather than one of those rants against ANY December consumerism) is to set up an automatic deposit to begin the first week of January, set to have the amount you’d like to spend by the middle of October. We consume for ourselves all year, we only freak out about it at Christmas when it’s for others. Why not prepare for it, no matter what gifts you ultimately decide to buy, or how much… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

I love these ideas 🙂

I often feel a little guilty this year when I see commercials inviting people to buy their loved ones TVs, jewellery or the latest tech toy — but the guilt goes away pretty quickly 🙂 We have a modest spending limit in our family, and over the years friends and I have moved to spending time together rather than exchanging gifts. It really takes the pressure off and I don’t feel like anything is missing.

Katie
Katie
9 years ago

For example, donating money to a charity that is really important to your heart, and then presenting them with the information about it and telling them why it’s so important to you.

Maybe, though if it’s not something that’s already important to the other person, it could get pretty freaking preach. Maybe better to donate to a charity that’s close to the recipient’s heart.

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
9 years ago

Sierra, Thanks for the nice write-up. I am pulling together a great collections of gifts this year from thrift stores, which I wish I could write about on The Non-Consumer Advocate, except that my family all reads the blog! I am buying a couple new gifts, but that’s only because my sister and son both wanted flatiron hair straighteners, which I didn’t feel was safe to buy from a thrift store. Really though, buying gifts is an excuse for me to spend a few days going to thrift stores, which I *love* more than most any other activity! If people… Read more »

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
9 years ago

I guess I no longer have to feel bad about never writing up a piece about The Compact for Get Rich Slowly.

Ha!

Katy

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

You can only buy used if you rely on a lot of other people to keep buying new so that you have a steady stream of used goods available.

It’s a bit like saying you’re being kind to animals because you don’t eat any meat that you killed yourself, but if someone else killed it, then it’s fine.

JB
JB
9 years ago

Here is what we are doing this Christmas and why: First, no adult gifts. My parents, my wife’s parents, and my wife are all in agreement with this. Instead, we are giving most of that money to a single mom who lost her 2 year old son to cancer. She also has no working car. We also donated money to a family who we know of who could not afford to adopt the child they are wanting to adopt. Our parents also are finding a family to donate to in need this season. Second; start early… what I mean is,… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

The thing that finally made Christmas less of a stresser for me was just admitting defeat. It was making me crazy that our families who supposedly love us and want to make us happy blah blah blah just thought we were crazy hippies who were borderline abusing our son by not putting batteries into his toys when they stopped making noise. I was so angry all the time at being ignored, belittled, and misunderstood – not to mention guilt-tripped into spending more money on extended family members doing what *they* wanted, when they wouldn’t extend the courtesy back. So I… Read more »

JB
JB
9 years ago

Oh, and my son who is a TYPICAL boy has enough toys, old and new, to keep him busy… his favorite? A wooden train (not train tracks, just a train made of wood) his great grandmother had in her house for about 30 or 40 years. When she moved out to go into a nursing home, she mailed that train to him. Cost? Nothing. Kids are not as needy in the toy realm as you think. The more complex toys you buy them, the more gameboys and handheld electronics you buy them, the lower their imagination goes and the easier… Read more »

Abbie
Abbie
9 years ago

If you’re looking for affordable art (starting at $20 a print), I’d suggest http://www.20×200.com. It’s a great way to get a unique gift and support artists (and it’s a lot of fun to see their newest editions come out)

My dad is a big time gamer and he’s getting http://www.20×200.com/art/2010/12/day-114-dice.html

Luke
Luke
9 years ago

I still buy presents for everyone in my family because (as Rosa says), a lot of people simply aren’t mentally equipped to cope with the concept that everyone’s idea of Christmas isn’t the same. While we were growing up, all the boys in my house were obsessed with Lego – led to my lifelong interest in architecture. Functional toys like Lego are great for fostering the imagination, but they also stay ‘useful’ for longer as they don’t go out of style. For example – a Wii game typically only lasts as long as it takes for the kids to complete… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

Hey, I’m giving away $50 for your favorite charity at my web site!
It’s too late for us this year. I’m getting a new noise cancellation head phones from the Mrs. 🙂
I love Lego too, I forsee a lot of lego in our future.

Jackie
Jackie
9 years ago

Love the “Have a cow, mom” line 🙂

A few years back we stopped the vast majority of Christmas exchanges altogether. Prior to that, we’d been giving gifts for 20-25 people. Now, we do gifts for at most 8, including the exchange between myself, my husband, and my son. We dramatically cut back on the total number of gifts there too — doing from 1-3 gifts plus stocking stutters like a candy bar, chapstick, etc.

The funny thing is, the less we give, the more enjoyable things are.

IRS Hitman
IRS Hitman
9 years ago

How about gifting your services? I’ve acted as a financial adviser for friends/done their taxes for free for the holidays and they loved it.

Graphic designers can make graphics for friends, webdesigners can make websites, etc.

You provide a real service and save your friends/family the huge expense of hiring a professional.

MC
MC
9 years ago

My parents used to confiscate the toys and the like from cereal boxes. They were used as stocking stuffers. This accomplished three things: no breakfast table arguments, no wheedling for cereal in the store because of the prize AND fun dohickies in the stockings along with the orange and walnuts.

Briana @ GBR
Briana @ GBR
9 years ago

Originally I was under the impression that we WEREN’T exchanging gifts this year, until my mom said “I got your gift” and my dad texted me “What do you want for Christmas”. I’m keeping it simple. Granny’s getting Lotto scratchers. Papa is getting car wash coupons. Dad is getting something Raiders as usual or something for his house. Mom’s getting spa gift certificate. The only one’s I’m really splurging on are my fiancee and my 2 year old nephew. I’m not going all out for my siblings or cousins like usual; we’re all older now. No need!

Jaime
Jaime
9 years ago

we don’t do christmas gifts anymore, not really, we might give each other one gift something small but that’s it, christmas to us is about spending time together, watching movies, talking, etc. My family has a low stress christmas and trust me it makes us all happy.

Wojo
Wojo
9 years ago

I really liked the idea of “presentation matters.” I never thought to dress up used gifts with nice packaging to make things look newer, but you’re absolutely right–this is exactly what kids will be looking for under the tree. Part of me wants to say “But wait, what are we teaching our kids if we get them “fake” new stuff? That they can just get new stuff all the time?” But I think when the time comes and they’re old enough, there will be a time and place to teach those lessons. For now, they just want something “cool” under… Read more »

Ryan Waggoner
Ryan Waggoner
9 years ago

We’re in the process of phasing out Christmas gifts, but our extended family is making it difficult. They seem really hung up on the idea of buying and giving stuff, which makes it harder for us to avoid it without feeling bad.

HollyP
HollyP
9 years ago

I would dearly love to hear about the strategies others have used to convince families to cut down on the gift exchanges. My mother & one sister go absolutely crazy on birthdays and Christmas and I cannot make them stop it. This year I have taken a deep breath and decided that even if they want to spend $150 on gifts for each member of my family, my family and I are only spending $50 on each of them. Not because I begrudge them the cash, I just don’t want the craziness and the unnecessary stuff. But maybe learning about… Read more »

Penny
Penny
9 years ago

For those looking to make gifts, the blog SewMamaSew posts several new craft projects for each day of November.

Camille Gaines
Camille Gaines
9 years ago

In the spirit of reducing shopping, one of my favorite gifts for my sons, who are now teens, are coupon books I make. I include things like a free shoulder rub or foot massage, getting out of one chore, a trip to the coffee shop, a dinner pick, etc. I make them on 3×5 index cards with colored markers, hole punch them, and run a small ribbon through the hole. I always enjoy the time we spend together as a result…so, I guess it is a gift to me too! Happy holidays!

JB
JB
9 years ago

@HollyP… I dont know what to tell you… I didnt expect anything but cooperation from my parents and in laws when I told them we were going to give to needy people this Christmas instead of buying adult gifts… I cant imagine how ugly the mirror image would be for anyone who would balk at that notion… that during Christmas we give to those in need. People who demand gifts during Christmas, when they have everything they need, or demand you give them a list even though you have everything you need in life, when there are so many in… Read more »

JL
JL
9 years ago

When I think of Christmas, all I can think about is the Stuff. Last year my husband and I donated a big box of unwanted gifts to Goodwill. My brother and sister-in-law were relieved at the idea of not exchanging gifts, and so am I. I like the idea of small donations to charity. I wish we could say no gifts or one gift exchange, but our families just won’t embrace that.

Empty
Empty
9 years ago

I grew up in a family that did Christmas to excess, but we all drifted away from that–too much work. Now we exchange food/wine and my Jewish in-laws always give us some kind of membership (a year of Netflix or to a local museum). Used books we’ve enjoyed have also become a big part of the holiday. My mom is passing on the best of the books she kept from our childhood to our kids each year. We ourselves give the kids three gifts: something they want, something they need, and a surprise. In combination with what they get from… Read more »

evelyn
evelyn
9 years ago

My family and I long ago gave up giving gifts for Christmas because of the materialism and advertising hype, etc. Why give gifts at all? We get together for a great meal and save a ton of money! Instead, we celebrate Thanksgiving, send Thanksgiving cards and have a Thanksgiving celebration, focusing on gratefulness and the joy of being together and having each other.

Miss Roman Apartment
Miss Roman Apartment
9 years ago

The individually wrapped pieces of dollhouse furniture is inspired!

That said, my family stopped exchanging Christmas gifts about 5 years ago, even for the kids. Instead we focus on experiences: sleeping in late, baking cookies, petting dogs at the animal shelter, serving food to the homeless, singing X-mas carols, going to the zoo to see the lights…the season is so much fun, no one misses the presents!

JC
JC
9 years ago

Heifer International (HI) is an organization that claims to work against world hunger by donating animals to families in developing countries. Its catalog deceptively portrays beautiful children holding cute animals in seemingly humane circumstances. The marketing brochure for HI does not show the animals being transported, their living and slaughter conditions, or the erosion, pollution and water use caused by the introduction of these animals and their offspring. By definition, animals raised for food are exploited in a variety of ways. The animals shipped to developing countries are often subject to; water and food shortages, cruel procedures without painkillers, lack… Read more »

Dewey
Dewey
9 years ago

This year is the first time that I am going to be spending Christmas with my family in five years!! However, as a grad student, I am super super broke. So, to be sure that I still had something for them under the tree, I had a friend who is good with a camera/photo shop take some nice pictures of me. I printed them out off my flash drive at Fred Meyers (Wall greens and other such places have this service, it super easy to get the picture to look just how you want it) for under a dollar a… Read more »

E
E
9 years ago

I need somewhere to vent: my MIL was all sad/mad the other day because I said only 3 gifts per child…she actually said this is the worst Christmas because she can’t give our kids everything they/she wants to give them.
I was almost in tears… 2 years ago our family was almost killed by a drunk driver on Christmas day…talk about the worst Christmas.

Kathy
Kathy
9 years ago

I started this years ago but found out some of my husbands relatives were not in agreement – they have not spoken to us since. All we were really doing was mailing gift cards across the country and I saw no sense in that. I will admit I have not been able to stop the knick knacks with coworkers – they just show up on your desk….

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Nothing says “I love you” like cold, hard cash.

First Gen American
First Gen American
9 years ago

My favorite gifts are time and fancy food.

Kimberly
Kimberly
9 years ago

Definitely love the idea of a non-consumer Christmas. This year, instead of piles of toys and junk that gets forgotten within a week of the big day, I’ve elected to spend the same money on redesigning my children’s rooms.

They desperately needed furniture, and I’m complimenting the redesign with some elements that will also help the environment (new thermal curtains to help reduce our utility usage year round). And my younger son is repurposing the furniture I had in my room as a girl.

Helen
Helen
9 years ago

I’m a student, me and my parter are also saving for a house deposit and have just got engaged so as you can imagen the need to save is huge. I told all of our relatives in November that my budget per person was £10 bringing me a total of £120 for xmas (we have a lot of birthday at xmas too!). I nearly cracked this morning after looking through a bag of presents left by my sister in law for me and my boyfriend. Shes cleary spent much more on us. After reading this i’ve decided to stick to… Read more »

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago

A couple years ago, I gave my nieces a subscription to “craft project of the month,” where I mailed them a home-created craft project (all supplies and instructions included). The supplies were already here or purchased cheaply, and because I used to teach arts and crafts, I had all kinds of projects in mind.

Kids love getting mail. And though they didn’t always do the project I’d suggested, they happily made something else with the supplies.

Debbie M
Debbie M
9 years ago

JC, do you have a charity that you do recommend?

partgypsy
partgypsy
9 years ago

I really like the ideas esposed by Miss Roman Apartment for other activities that bring warmth and joy to Christmas that do not involve consuming. Even if we bought our children zero presents they still get an (over) abundance of presents. It’s not like we haven’t had the talk, but people do as they want regarding gifts. I guess that’s why they are called gifts. I hope as they get older we can segue into more spiritual and less consumer oriented activities. Ps for the person who doesn’t like Heifer International, they have non-animal gifts as well, such as the… Read more »

Suzie Bee
Suzie Bee
9 years ago

As I’ve grown up, I’ve got more and more into the idea of buying experiences rather than stuff. For example, on a friend’s birthday a while ago, my other half bought us all dinner and I took us all to the theatre. It was much more fun and memorable than buying more socks or another mug. This year I am taking my mother out for a special treat – just us two – and I’m sure she’ll really appreciate it.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

@E #33 – I’m so sorry. That is just self-centered of her, I hope the hurt doesn’t last long.

Andrea
Andrea
9 years ago

@41- I agree with you about Heifer- and I am a vegetarian. I also think after the diatribe about Heifer by the poster-there should be an alternative suggested by him/her.

MP3
MP3
9 years ago

My brother and sister-in-law were going through some tough financial times a few years ago and asked for no presents among the adults. Very brave of them and I was happy to join them. But my mom just fell apart. They were ruining Christmas for her. The season means nothing now. Why should she decorate her home if she couldn’t buy gifts for them. etc. etc. etc….She’s just made it such a difficult season for everyone with her depressing attitude that I ended up having to work doubly hard to try and make her Christmas enjoyable. Which I think was… Read more »

jay
jay
9 years ago

So many of there comments make me so sad. Truly people are addicted to consumerism and are selfish most during the giving season

Paul @ brokeforcollege
Paul @ brokeforcollege
9 years ago

My girlfriend has been teaching me to knit this year, so we decided to knit each other scarves for christmas, and even though it takes the secret out of it, the appreciation and love that each of us has put into it will make them among the most cherished gifts that we give or receive this year. We are also giving her mother, who works too hard and still has to cook when she comes home, the gift of making her dinner by proxy. We have made some fresh home made ravioli and accouterments that she can keep in the… Read more »

Danielle
Danielle
7 years ago

I love alot of these ideas. My husband and I are pretty good about not going overboard for the kids christmas presents. Unfortunately my in-laws go crazy. For everyone else I make something from the kitchen. Goes over well without breaking my budget as we are trying very hard to live debt free.

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