Plan Your Gift-Giving to Save Time and Money

Last Christmas, I had some great gift ideas: They were heartfelt, they were personalized — and they couldn't just be bought at a store. We're talking custom-made ornaments, family calendars, and photo books filled with precious memories made that year.

Unfortunately, Christmas snuck up on me, and I only pulled together two of the gifts in time for the holiday. This irked me because, one, they were great ideas. Two, I'm a planner. Planning is my thing, and it's not normal for me to fail to plan. Three, I had to come up with ideas at the last minute that were within budget.

The benefits of planning (or, why bother?!)
I won't repeat Christmas 2009. Nope, this year, I'm getting organized. I realize that some people think this sort of planning is a drag, but there are some real benefits to taking 30 minutes or so to organize your gift giving, such as:

  1. No shockingly high credit card bills or scarily low checking account balances. I used to put away a set amount of money each month for gifts. As I've gotten better with managing my money, that tactic fell by the wayside, but it's still a valuable idea, especially if there are times of the year you know you'll spend more. For example, in my family, everyone seems to be born in the month of April. It's good to keep in mind that there will be more gifts given in that month, whether I choose to set aside money for it or not.
  2. The gifts are likely to be more personal. I dislike the idea of gift giving just to satisfy an obligation. I want to give a gift that makes someone feel like I've given it, and them, some real thought. But it's hard to think of a heartfelt gift when you're wandering the malls at the eleventh hour, looking for something, anything, so that you don't show up to the bridal shower empty-handed.
  3. You can get creative. Remember my wonderful Christmas gift ideas? If I had started earlier, I could have given those gifts, which were not only more personal, but also were fairly inexpensive. It's not possible to create a scrapbook of a family reunion as a Christmas gift if it's already December 20.

You don't have to be Martha Stewart to make a nice, personalized gift. Search online for easy ideas, like simple ornaments, frames, and food gifts.

If you don't want to get your hands dirty, check out the products you can make with photos on sites like Snapfish, such as scrapbooks, calendars, cards, collages, canvases, jewelry, planners, address books, and more. Etsy is another good source for unique items, and you can leave the crafty part to someone else.

A (less than) 37-minute investment
I timed myself as I created my gift plan so that I could let you know that it only took 37 minutes to do this. Then I created a spreadsheet [9kb XLS] (oh, how I love spreadsheets), so that it would take you even less time. Edit it and make it your own.

First, you'll list every holiday, event, or occasion for which you give gifts. List the recipients in the next column (you may need to add lines for an occasion with more than one recipient). In the third column, brainstorm a few gift ideas. If you aren't sure, write in some of their interests that might spark ideas later.

Next you'll add in the date of the event, and if it's a gift that needs to be started early (think reservations, tickets, special orders, handmade gifts, etc.), fill in a start date. If I want to work on those photo books, I need to include a start date two months out from Christmas.

Tip: Put these start dates on a calendar. I like Google Calendar because it sends an e-mail reminder.

Finally, if you know the cost or if you have a set budget, include that on the planning sheet. After I'm done with this, I like to sort the list by event date and print it out.

Keep your list in your planner or somewhere accessible. It's a working list, so it needs to be close at hand so that you can write down good ideas as they come to you or cross off gifts you've already purchased or made.

Tip: While you're out and about with your list, don't forget to pick up wrapping paper, cards, gift bags, and bows when they are on sale. Another great place to stock up on gift wrap items is at a dollar store. My mom finds beautiful gift bags at the dollar store, and I've learned to follow her lead.

Do you plan out gifts in advance, or do you prefer to wing it? Leave your tips on planning and budgeting for gifts below!

J.D.'s note: My wife has a gift spreadsheet, too, and she updates it throughout the year. My own methods are, well, less planned. I'm the proverbial last-minute shopper. Also, here's my big list of homemade Christmas gifts, many of which are appropriate for other times of the year, too.

More about...Budgeting, Planning

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Sam
Sam
10 years ago

We plan ahead for budgeting for Christmas by setting up an auto transfer into out ING holiday account. It is wonderful that by the time Christmas rolls around we have more than enough in our account to cover cards, gifts, the tree. However, one of the best steps we took was to reduce our gift giving both at holiday and birthday time. My brother and I started by agreeing to no gifts between him and I and then we slowly expanded it so now our family doesn’t do gifts for any of the adults in our family except our grandparents.… Read more »

Hannah
Hannah
10 years ago

Just a note… If you don’t already have Microsoft Office on your computer, you don’t need to have Excel to use this method, or to open April’s spreadsheet. You can use Google docs for the spreadsheet, and Google calendar to keep track of the dates. No desktop software is needed, and you can access it from anywhere (work and home).

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

Hey April,

In the mornings, I usually skim all the blogs I’m subscribed to and read them over again later.

As I was skimming this post, I read “give a more personal gift – create a spreadsheet”. Of course my girlfriend would love a cool budgeting spreadsheet for Valentine’s Day! Who wouldn’t?

April
April
10 years ago

@Hannah–Thanks for the tip!
@Mike–I would LOVE a cool spreadsheet for Valentine’s Day! 🙂

Jessica
Jessica
10 years ago

It should be “while YOU’RE out and about.”

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

Sounds like an iPhone app in the making.

Ris
Ris
10 years ago

I recently opened up a checking account with ING because they were offering a $50 bonus after 3 months. I have $20 deducted from my primary checking every month and put into that ING account. That, plus the $50 bonus (that I have since received) is my emergency gift fund. That is the only thing I’ll use the money for and that way I don’t feel the pinch all at once since I already have some money put aside expressly for that purpose. I try to plan gifts and use my phone to make notes for gifts for people throughout… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen
10 years ago

I love this article. Thank you, April. Gifts have been something that have been a challenge in my finances because in the past I have felt more guilty not buying something extravagant than I have about not having the money to do it. In recent years, I have done the make your own gift and love it. I made a cookbook for my friends and family for Christmas. It included each of their recipes that have been shared with the group and stories behind the recipes and I even put pictures of the food in the book. I think it… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

Gift-giving, the way it’s normally done in our society, is the king of all methods of generating Stuff (of the capital-S variety). People go out of their way to buy Stuff that they don’t want themselves, to give to other people who quite likely don’t want it either, and then the people who received it have a social obligation to keep it forever instead of selling it or giving it away to someone else who might actually want it. We’ll spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on things that nobody needs and probably doesn’t even want. I’ve opted… Read more »

Wearsunscreen
Wearsunscreen
10 years ago

I like Google calendar too. I just learned yesterday you can sms text it and query your day, next day, or next event on your calendar from a normal cell phone.

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

A couple of options you failed to mention:

*Use recycled materials for gift wrap – newspaper, interesting materials, scrap fabric… with a few stitches, a jean leg or old shirt sleeve can be a gift bag.

*If you have a rewards credit card, you can use your rewards for gifts. My Amex Blue card lets me buy gift cards to Home Depot, Williams Sonoma, Barnes & Noble and other stores with my rewards points. They offer the best value of the gifts available, and I either give the gift directly or use the card to buy a gift.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl
10 years ago

Totally agree on the planning thing…it makes gift-giving much more fun and much less stressful.

On a funny note, though, I did wait until December 20 this year to start on a scrapbook for my husband’s grandma. I did get it done in time (you can see pictures here: http://www.thefrugalgirl.com/2009/12/scrapping-scrapping-and-more-scrapping/ ), but it took some dedication during those few days before Christmas. I am NOT doing that again!

Jerry
Jerry
10 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree on the planning idea. My wife is the planner and it has been insurance for our budget that she’s done that over the years. Planning definitely leads to more creative gifts. When I take the time to plan gifts, my wife usually loves the outcome.

Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
10 years ago

Great article! I always thought it was little old ladies who planned Christmas gifts in July (my grandmother had her shopping/creating done by September every year). And every year, I would wait to the last minute and regret not being able to do something more thoughtful. This article makes it easy for me to plan ahead and feel good about that!

Julie
Julie
10 years ago

This is awesome! You rock, April.

Caitlin
Caitlin
10 years ago

I only plan out gifts in advance if I am 100% certain that there is only one perfect item that will do. If there’s not a specific item that person wants/needs, I’d much rather browse around and discover something new and wonderful for them. I think of ideas, of course, but I wouldn’t decide everyone’s gift ahead of time.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Tyler K., you rebel you. 🙂 I’d like to say I’ve opted out of gift giving, but mostly I’m just LUCKY because a) hardly any of our family or close friends have kids and b) we all live far enough apart that we aren’t visiting on every birthday or holiday. When these things are out of the picture, the gift expectation kind of falls off. We pick up little things on our vacations and send them off to the family, who just like to know we are thinking of them. I don’t think either of us has “gone shopping” for… Read more »

michaela
michaela
10 years ago

This is such a simple idea, and it makes so much sense. Yet why had I never thought of it?? Trotting off to make a spreadsheet now….

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

This is a great idea! I did something similar last year for the weddings and baby showers I knew were coming up. It certainly helped me stay on track financially, and helped me figure out what was realistic to spend. (It also help me find money-saving coupons and discounts… but don’t tell 😉

I’m going to try your idea and include birthdays, mother’s and father’s day, etc.

Money Funk
Money Funk
10 years ago

Just as I used a spreadsheet to organize and overhall my closet… all I have to say is, “there is a spreadsheet for that?”. LOL.

great job. I like to plan, but the holiday time sneaks up on me before I have it. 😉

Lindsey
Lindsey
10 years ago

I start planning early, but there’s always a few projects that don’t get done. This year I started working on projects for next year (tracing my husband’s family tree back hundreds of years) for my husband’s side of the family as soon as Christmas was over. I’m determined to have it finished by the end of summer. What’s great about it is I can just make copies and give it to all of the family members.

Sierra Black
Sierra Black
10 years ago

A spreadsheet!?! April, you are completely out of control. I cannot imagine being organized enough to think of this, let alone do it. But now that you have I am totally stealing yr spreadhseet. Awesome.

KittyBoarder
KittyBoarder
10 years ago

I am wondering how many guys dislike V-day because of the headache of choosing a gift for their significant others.

I like V-day but dislike gift giving idea on V-day especially we’ve been together for a while. We love each other everyday. Why should we give each other a gift on a specific day? My husband would buy me sometihng he thought I would need or like on a non-VDay and it means a lot more than a gift given on a routine day such as V day.

Dotty dot dot
Dotty dot dot
10 years ago

Oh, I’m a planner. Not only do I plan, I shop waaaaaaay early, too. I purchased my 2010 stocking stuffers after Boxing Day 2009. I have some kids who are very special to me (nieces, nephews, and godchildren) and I like to send them a little gift on holidays (V-day, Easter, Halloween) and I use the same method as above: purchase for the following year the day after this year’s holiday). My roommate thinks I’m nuts, but I always get relevant items for 75-90% off, which just shows how much the stores think they’re “worth”, doesn’t it? I purchase for… Read more »

Rosa Rugosa
Rosa Rugosa
10 years ago

Yes, Tyler K! People who don’t need stuff & have tons of stuff, giving other people stuff they don’t need and getting more stuff in return – sounds like a social disease to me! After the fateful black Friday when Jdimytai Damour got trampled to death in Walmart, I realized that I really didn’t have to participate in this madness any more, and I can report great success so far. (No, I wasn’t in Walmart on any other store on that day, but it really had an impact on me nevertheless). As I gave my gifts that year, I said… Read more »

David/Yourfinances101
David/Yourfinances101
10 years ago

Heartfelt, home made gifts are much more well-received by anyone. At least that’s been my experience

Jan
Jan
10 years ago

I agree with Karen- You need to get this to I phone.
We save all year for Christmas and then give money- lol.
Spending it after Christmas goes a long way!

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Another gift-giving trick I use: When I go on vacation I love to shop in local craft stores with unique items. Part of my vacation budget is given to purchasing items for later gift-giving. That way I don’t feel deprived, adn I have a chunk of my shopping done.

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Timely post. Gift giving always seems to put a huge dent in my budget. I actually had to decide to decline an invitation to a birthday brunch that would have costs upwards of $80 bucks. This got my creative juices flowing, I need to give more thought to handmade gifts and other crafts.

The Skeptical Housewife
The Skeptical Housewife
10 years ago

Hmmm, I like the idea of putting money away every month for gifts. I already put an amount away monthly for our yearly expenses (my husband’s car insurance, house insurance, AMA memberships, etc.), but nothing for gifts. Now I’m going to think about starting to save for them, too! It would sure make Christmas a lot easier.

Jessica @ Life as I See It
Jessica @ Life as I See It
10 years ago

I tend to buy gifts way ahead of time and my problem with that method is that I tend to forget the gifts I have for people and over buy. I just found a really cool – and currently free!! – iphone app called Giftbox. It lets you list all the people you want to buy gifts for (or you can list it as “baby showers”, “toddler boy birthday gift”, “wedding shower” etc. if you like to buy generic gifts for unexpected occasions). Under each persons name you can add your list of gift ideas and/or the gifts you have… Read more »

DianaH
DianaH
10 years ago

I like to shop all year long for our gift giving. I also try to have a theme for our Christmas gifts so it makes it a little easier to shop. This year, we are giving books so I look for book sales. I have also found some great books at the dollar stores and thrift stores.

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