The perfect gift is cheap and easy

If you're panicked because you still haven't thought of the perfect gift for the people on your Nice List, you'll be relieved to know you don't need to spend as much time as you might think looking for something thoughtful. You also don't need to run up your credit card bill.

Why? Because neither of these things is likely to be appreciated by the gift getter.

In fact, a 2008 study from Stanford University researchers found that spending a lot of time and money to select a gift doesn't make a bit of difference to the recipient. According to Francis J. Flynn, an organizational psychologist at Stanford, the price of a gift is more important to the giver than the getter. (Plus, most recipients actually prefer cash or something from a gift registry, such as their Amazon wish list.)

Continue reading...
More about...Giving, Psychology, Relationships

How (and where) to donate unwanted Christmas presents

If you give (or receive) a gift that misses the mark, returning the item is the natural thing to do. After all, return policies are pretty awesome these days.

However, if you decide to make a bigger impact with your gift -- an item that you've probably survived without just fine for the last year anyway -- why not donate it?

Why You Should Think About Donating an Unwanted Christmas Gift

  • If you donate your unwanted gifts, you'll decrease clutter. Cutting clutter has emotional benefits that I don't understand, but I feel better when my life and environment are clear.
  • Your item might be useful to someone else. Many times, I have kept items I didn't really need because I might need them sometime. But I find it easier to donate or sell items if I imagine those items making someone else's life easier or better ... you know, instead of taking up space in my spare closet.
  • Improve your community. Along with being useful to someone else or an organization, your donation may improve your community. How? By giving your fellow community members something they really need or letting a community organization raise money with your gift that could help them operate other community-boosting programs.
  • You may be able to deduct donations on your taxes. According to the IRS, you may deduct certain donations if you've given to qualified organizations. You must maintain documentation of this donation, however.
  • You're giving something. If you weren't able to donate as much as you wanted to in 2015, this is an opportunity to give a little something without, shall I say, much of an investment from you. If the gift had been given to you, you didn't invest anything at all. But, I still think it counts as giving because you could have returned the item for cash or returned it for another item.

Woman gathering toys to donate after Christmas

Continue reading...
More about...Giving, Planning

Giving makes us happier, but what if you don’t have much to give?

Maybe it's because I'm getting older, or maybe it's that I'm in a better financial place than I was just a few years ago, but lately, I've been thinking a lot more about giving back.

In recent years, it's becoming more important to me to be socially conscious and charitable. I'm secure, I'm healthy, and I'm free. That contentment seems to urge me to check in on the rest of the world.

Or, maybe it's coming from a more selfish place.

Continue reading...
More about...Giving, Frugality

Resisting the holiday spending trap

Every year, I fail to really account for the cost of Christmas. "A few hundred dollars," I think, for gifts, and then by the first few days of December I've bought several pounds of butter, and lots of my favorite seasonal chocolate, and the big size of maple syrup because I'll be baking and pancake-making a lot this winter. And suddenly I've already spent a few hundred dollars, and not a gift among them.

And because my children are children, having grown up in a big extended family of good Christians who are totally O.K. with Santa, (and let me reiterate: a big family, with traditions including fat, stuffed stockings and gift-giving to aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, going to public school and occasionally coming across those toy ads in the circulars from department stores like the local Fred Meyer… ) well, they expect something. Like, a big something. They want their Christmas-morning minds blown.

I've done this to myself. Continue reading...

More about...Frugality, Giving

Lowering expectations for Christmas

Personally, I begin to panic every year as the holiday season approaches. It's not because I don't love Christmas. I really do love the holiday season, in general. I just cringe at the thought of all of the money that gets spent unnecessarily, especially mine. And as holiday spending has steadily grown out of control, expectations have come along for the ride. What is now considered to be a reasonable amount of presents is completely different than it was when I was a kid. Nowadays, children are getting showered with big gifts, expensive toys, and things I never would have dreamed of receiving as a child.

My mom once told me that, when she was young, she typically got an orange and some candy in her stocking on Christmas. Seriously. And she was thrilled to get it. She also reminded me that she and her siblings would each get only a few small toys as well. The thing is, this isn't just some story about walking 10 miles to school, uphill, both ways. It is actually the truth. Of course, it happened 60 years ago, and I cannot believe how times have changed. Kids certainly expect a lot more gifts now, and it doesn't take much to figure out why things have changed so dramatically.

Doesn't it seem like the holiday season creeps up on us earlier every single year? It is no longer surprising to see stores decorated for Christmas in early November... way before Thanksgiving! This year, several stores even announced that they would open for Black Friday on Thanksgiving Day, and they made many customers upset in the process. Continue reading...

More about...Budgeting, Giving

25 Ways to Give (Without Breaking the Bank)

In the past nine months I've found $12.89 in singles and specie. The cash has shown up in a number of places, but most of it is from coins I picked up.

As usual, I'll squirrel away the found funds until Thanksgiving, at which time I'll write a check to a food bank. I've been doing this for a couple of decades, including a span of several years during which I had neither a vessel into which to urinate nor a casement through which to dispose of it.

This was a painless way to help others at a time when I worried nonstop about my own ability to stay afloat. Giving to others got me out of my own head, reminding me that plenty of people lived with considerably fewer resources (financial, emotional, practical) than I had.

Continue reading...
More about...Frugality, Giving

How I stopped excessive gifting

Most of us struggle with some psychological aspect of money that can impede our savings. Whether it be the lure of clothing stores, nights out with friends, or stocking a top-shelf liquor cabinet, there tends to be one thing or another that creeps from our wants category into our needs. I've never been a compulsive shopper and always preferred voluntary simplicity, both in the kitchen and in my closet. This means that for most of my young adult life, I had good control of my finances.

Then I Started Dating…

Dating quickly made gift giving my Achilles heel. As with other debt-inducing habits, it seemed harmless at first. Here are some things I started doing, not realizing how much money I was shelling out:

  • I never liked to show up at my girlfriend's apartment empty handed so I always had her favorite Snapple or a magazine for her in hand. (Six bucks, just to say hello.)
  • I always wanted to pick up the check, even when we were out with a friend or two. (Could be upwards of $100, just to show I cared.)
  • I brought expensive bottles of wine to dinner parties, not to show off, but just to enjoy with everyone, even if I was just as happy with $7 bottle myself. ($25 to try to find community.)
  • I was sent to the store to get simple baking supplies, but instead of getting the normal vanilla extract, I would get the fancy packaged one for twice the price. Take that philosophy down the entire list of supplies and I'd racked up a pretty hefty bill. ($50 extra just so we could feel high society together.)

It was never about seeming rich to my friends or girlfriend. I took pride in my penny pinching in every other aspect of my life. I honestly thought it was about generosity and showing affection, nothing more. Continue reading...

More about...Giving, Budgeting

That’s a Wrap: Some Alternatives to Traditional Gift-Wrapping

Looking for a greener Christmas? Re-think your gift wrap. According to Stanford University:

  • If every U.S. family wrapped three gifts in repurposed materials, the gift wrap saved would cover 45,000 football fields.
  • If every family reused two feet of holiday ribbon per year, the ribbon saved could tie a bow around Earth.

Feeling like a planet-despoiling bastard yet? Don't beat yourself up too badly. I use some holiday paper myself. But I obtain/use it in very specific ways:

  • Buying during post-holiday clearance sales — they're practically giving the stuff away
  • Re-using wrap when possible
  • Using non-traditional wrap
  • Getting paper and gift bags in non-traditional ways

You can frame the “to wrap or not to wrap” question in three ways: frugal or eco-friendly, or both.

Continue reading...
More about...Frugality, Giving

Why I still pick up pennies

The most-read piece I ever wrote for MSN Money's Smart Spending blog was an essay called See a penny? Pick it up! It got more than 1,657,000 hits before MSN changed blog platforms. After that, the penny essay and most of the other things I'd written went to live on a farm, where they can run and play with all the other articles.

And me? Still gleaning dropped coins. I pick up road pennies with copper coatings ravaged by traffic. I fish nickels out of puddles. I've spied dimes glinting across parking lots. I rescue quarters from bus-stop gutters.

Occasionally I find paper money, usually one-dollar bills. This year was unusual because I found a $10 and a $20 bill along with 23 quarters, 52 dimes, 15 nickels and 288 pennies.

Continue reading...
More about...Giving

10 ways to build a gift closet that’s both deep and cheap

The holidays are about six months away. Why wait until the last minute to shop? Answer: You shouldn't. And you won't have to if you have a decently stocked gift closet. Some people I know keep their eyes open starting on Dec. 26 and are finished by mid-summer.

It's more than just the December holidays, though. A small selection of “evergreen” gifts (non-perishable, non-trendy) means you're prepared for any birthday, anniversary or new baby that comes along.

Building your gift closet doesn't have to cost much. I always trot out the example of the puzzle depicting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the perfect gift for a jigsaw-loving relative. Still shrink-wrapped when I found it on half-price day at a thrift shop, it set me back a whopping 35 cents.

Continue reading...
More about...Frugality, Giving