The Regrets of Christmas Past

Every summer, my wife and I cull our closets for stuff we and our kids no longer use. This is followed by a yard sale (complete with the obligatory lemonade stand from our kids), and the items that aren't sold get donated to a local thrift store that uses the proceeds for charity. In the end, we have more closet space, some extra cash, an entrepreneurial opportunity for our kids, and a tax deduction.

And a little bit of regret.

Many of the items that get sold or donated were gifts we purchased for our kids or each other. They were enjoyed for a short time — or, sometimes, not at all — then relegated to the Pile of Misfit Stuff. It's like that Marla Singer line from the movie Fight Club:

Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it. Like a Christmas tree. So special. Then, bam, it's on the side of the road.

Kinda depressing. And expensive.

1980 Gates Christmas - Tiff and Kris

 

I know: It just turned November — do we really need to start talking about the holidays already? Well, if you'd rather not, read the rest of this post with your eyes closed. But my wife and I are already planning, because this year we are trying to avoid spending money on gifts that only provide a onetime squib of joy.

We know that no gift will be enjoyed forever, and that part of the fun of the holidays is letting lose a little bit. Also, we're a little surprised each year by which presents turn out to be the favorites, so just limiting the number of gifts makes us a little nervous. Maybe we'll cut out the wrong ones!

Our solution is to make an extra effort to spend less on the presents we give, and to give presents that will survive next summer's closet-culling. Here are some things we've learned through the years:

Give things that provide repeat pleasure
Obvious, I know. But it's not so obvious when you're shopping. Two Christmases ago, we bought our son a Spider-Man action figure that climbed on doors. It looked so cool! And it was pretty fun…for about five minutes. Compare that to the Roku box I bought my wife last year. It allows Netflix subscribers instant access to thousands of movies and TV shows (though not necessarily the recent blockbusters). We don't have cable TV, so NetFlix is our main source of movies. By getting the Roku box, we cut our Netflix subscription down from three DVDs at a time to one, saving $8 a month, which paid for the box in less than a year. And we use it several times a week.

When it comes to kids, we've found that gifts with narrow uses get used the least. Conversely, gifts with multiple uses, in all sorts of places, and in all sorts of spaces, get the most action. The classic example is Legos, which my kids play with in their rooms, in the bathtub, in the car, and even use for homework projects. (In fact, the Legos I was given as a kid serve as the foundation of my kids' Legos collection; that's a gift that has retained its usefulness!) A slot-car racing set, on the other hand, requires set-up, takes up space, and the cars just go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round.

Get it used
We've already started prowling Craigslist for things our friends and family might want. If items on your “To Buy” list are suitable to be given pre-owned, now's the time keep an eye on the classifieds and (if you have an open-ended “To Buy” list) sites like Freecycle.org.

 

Buy year-round
This is something my wife does very well. She buys potential presents at all times of the year, when she finds them at excellent prices, and keeps them in the “gift box” in our basement. It's also handy to have when you're invited to a birthday party and don't have time to get a gift.

Give experiences over stuff
This may seem to contradict our goal of buying things that last, but you know what they say about memories and all that. For my mother's 70th birthday, my sisters and I took her on a trip. It wasn't exactly cheap, but she valued it more than anything I could have wrapped. Plus, some experiences really can be the gifts that keep on giving, such as art, photography, or cooking classes (complete with providing babysitting services, if required for the recipient to attend the classes).

Buy in bulk
Sierra Black recently wrote about the pitfalls of buying in bulk, and I agree. But if there's ever a time to save by buying a lot of stuff, it's the holidays. It works for gifts, and for food if you'll be entertaining or hosting relatives. As an experiment a couple of years ago, I looked at how much I'd save by shopping at Costco compared with my regular grocery store. I bought nearly identical items at both places and spent 37% less at Costco.

Underwear!
One holiday season, I bought pairs of white underwear in bulk, decorated them in ways not appropriate to discuss on a family blog, and gave them to my friends. I assume they were gifts that got multiple uses, though I didn't perform any random spot-checks. The point, of course, is that homemade gifts really can be the most memorable…and least-expensive.

Be honest about what you don't want
I have a very spotty record when it comes to buying things for my wife. In the past, she was too nice to tell me when she didn't really like something I bought her. So it stayed in our closet until the next summer, and then…well, you know. Now, I keep all receipts, and she's much more comfortable returning items that I gave her. (And I've been better about getting her friend's help at holiday time.)

J.D.'s note: Robert may be worried that it's too early to write about Christmas, but if Google traffic to this site is any indication, the Christmas season started weeks ago. Last year's article on homemade Christmas gifts has been on fire!

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Generation Y Investor
Generation Y Investor

I’m a big fan of giving and receiving experiences as presents rather than items. Experiences are memorable and don’t fill up closets. Nothing like going out to a nice dinner or seeing your favorite sports team play live.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett

The waste associated with Christmas has indeed become depressing.

I am tough on a lot of issues. But I have a hard time being tough on this one.

We will be careful about how much we get for the boys. But we won’t be careful enough. Going by past experience, we will not draw the line boldly enough to solve the problem. I feel that this is one re which I pretty much have been overcome.

Rob

Andrew
Andrew

We actually use a site called Christmas Wish List to set up personal lists. We then do a Secret Santa exchange among siblings or within the family. Everyone gets things that they were really wanting, but the fun is in not knowing who will give your gift!

Jackie
Jackie

I’m a big fan of cutting back on the number of gifts given and received. I don’t think you have to worry about cutting out the wrong ones. Somehow when there is a significantly smaller number, the gifts are more appreciated. Maybe it’s like a collectible — the rarest ones are enjoyed much more than the ones that are a dime a dozen — even though they may inherently be very similar to each other.

Sam
Sam

Its not too early to start talking about Chirstmas but it is TOO EARLY for Christmas decorations and music in the stores. For us, we have been slowly weaning the adults in our lives off of Christmas, come on guys you don’t need any more stuff and we don’t need any more stuff let’s come to an agreement on no more stuff exchanges. In my family, we have an agreement no gifts for adults (except for Gram and Grandpa they get a gift) at Christmas, we do give gifts during the year if we see something that is a must… Read more »

Dana
Dana

I’m a big fan of edible gifts, preferably home made. But the steak gift certificates, and gourmet food delivery are also pretty fun. People enjoy the experience of eating something that they may not indulge in themselves very often, then there is no clutter laying around 6 months on. A favorite gift I give are the home-made truffles (recipe from Alton Brown) which I learned about on this very site! I also like to keep my ears and eyes peeled when at a friend or relative’s house. Sometimes people mention some small thing they are constantly annoyed that they don’t… Read more »

Anthony
Anthony

Many people frown at the idea of re-gifting or giving used items…

But what if everyone is giving used items? Everyone would have to think of items they no longer use and that someone else would want and enjoy. It’s cheesy, I know, but you wouldn’t have to spend a dime. And if everyone else is doing it for you (planned in advanced, obviously), then it will be “okay”.

KM at Long-Distance Life
KM at Long-Distance Life

Very thought-provoking post…this is something that’s been on my mind as well. It’s frustrating to put time and effort into picking out a gift you think someone will like, only to have it languish unused in his or her closet for a year and then be tossed out or given away. Just recently I was at my parents’ house and saw the remote-control helicopter I thought my mom would get a kick out of a few years ago–it was still in its packaging in the garage! Makes me lean toward experiences or homemade gifts, although I still have trouble figuring… Read more »

Danny
Danny

My wife and I try to never buy things as gifts. If we do, we always go practical (i.e.: Clothing). Usually, we make gifts. It gets a lot harder to do that because of the time it takes to make something and because a lot more thought has to go into it. Usually, I do things in the woodshop but my wife also sews things. It works out and we end up giving something that becomes an heirloom rather than a garage sale trinket.

~DB

David C
David C

Several years ago, we started to jump off the Christmas bandwagon, so to speak. We realized that there was a lot of excess and a lot of angst associated with getting that perfect gift. Now, my wife and I get each other a token gift and our immediate family has followed suit. The exception to this is the kids, although they are growing up and starting to level out in their wants (if that is possible). Two years ago, we sort of “adopted” a single mother and her two sons. She is an immigrant from South America who came to… Read more »

Little House
Little House

Experiences are always a great gift idea. For the last two Christmases, My mother-in-law has purchased my husband and I gift certificates to the theater. We get to pick and choose about two performances throughout the year, and we really enjoy the gift.

I have also purchased Omaha Steaks as a gift for our families in the past. Yes, it won’t last until next summer (ewww, yuck!), but the whole family can enjoy the variety of the gift package.

And I agree with Sam #5, it’s too early for the holiday decorations and music in stores. We just finished Halloween!

KC
KC

My family is pretty straight forward about what we want – like circling it in the catalog or providing a direct link to the product via an email. This way you get and give exactly what you want. My friends and I just tend to go out to eat together as a gift. We even go dutch – sometimes these are friends I don’t see too often – so it is a nice present. We don’t have kids, but my friends who do said to not buy them gifts. They get so much from grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc that it isn’t… Read more »

Rick Francis
Rick Francis

We have been favoring experiences over toys and it has worked pretty well. Our son recently turned seven. His big birthday present from us was a trip to a water park, and we encouraged relatives to get him acting lessons which he really loved and basketball lessons. He still got plenty of toys from the kids at his party. Who knows, maybe one of these lessons will help him find a career later in life.

-Rick Francis

T
T

This year, my family decided that we’d all contribute to a fund to take a vacation together. We put money in for birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Days, etc, instead of scrambling to come up with a gift idea every couple months. Once the fund is sufficiently robust, we’ll use to to rent a cabin (or something–we haven’t gotten that far yet) and spend time together. The best gift of all!
Note that this doesn’t count for the kids, although typically I fund their 529s and give them something small (usually books, because I’m a librarian and can’t help myself).

Anne
Anne

I am also going the food route this year for a bunch of people. There are some local companies in Columbus making really good things, stuff I know my parents wouldn’t buy themselves, like cashew butter (YUM!) and real maple syrup, so I am getting them that kind of present. A nice little package of an assortment of goodies. I know they will get eaten and be liked. I agree buying things year round for Christmas giving is a good way to go if you need to get several gifts. I think my only splurge this year will be on… Read more »

Doggie
Doggie

The whole thing is more constructed out of a sense of guilt, obligation and social pressure, rather than a true spirit of “giving” anymore. It’s become a sad, expensive joke. Giving is one of the most wonderful things we can do — but not out of obligation or feeling pressured at a certain time of year. Isn’t is silly and sad that we budget so we can buy people a bunch of crap they don’t really want? (And that they feel compelled to buy us crap we don’t want, even though most of us here seem like we’d be perfectly… Read more »

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren

My family absolutely cannot understand why I can’t come up with a list of things I want for Christmas each year. Honestly, I could come up with something, but I just don’t want to. Christmas is supposed to be about sharing love for one another and I’m not the type of person that feels loved by receiving presents. All I really care about is the togetherness. My girlfriend and I have almost entirely done away with physical gifts and moved to shared experiential ones and we couldn’t be happier. Gift giving is a 2-way street, though, and I understand that… Read more »

Shara
Shara

I’m a firm believer in gift receipts. I also have a very modest gift giving budget. But part of Christmas is the surprise factor, or buying something for someone they wouldn’t buy for themselves, or vica versa. Some of my favorite items are things that were too useless or extravagant for me to buy myself (kitchen tools, ipod & accessories, etc). But they always come with receipts and the understanding that there is no insult if they’re used. We continue to give gifts, even among the adults, but we don’t have huge extended family either (one married sibling on each… Read more »

kaitlyn
kaitlyn

Christmas is my downfall! I think last year I spent over a grand on my family alone. I pay for everything for my sisters, and then I still get everyone expensive gifts ($200 worth of cosmetics, $250 jeans…). I can’t seem to stop myself!

Courtney
Courtney

My extended family has done “White Elephant” for Christmas for almost ten years now. Every year, it’s a huge success! People get to get rid of stuff, some people receive a great gift, and the actual “exchange” itself is very fun. Lots of laughter, no money spent, and best of all, no extra clutter for anyone!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_elephant_gift_exchange

Golfing Girl
Golfing Girl

My rule of giving is that if it can collect dust, I don’t buy it. I like gifts you can “use up” or are intended for daily use.
P.S. Underwear???! I would find it quite bizarre for a friend to buy me underwear (and if you bought in bulk I’m guessing one out of every 6 may have actually fit the recipient). Kind of weird unless it’s a gag gift–and if so, not very practical, thus breaking the gift giving rules anyway. Just my 2 cents.

ebyt
ebyt

I don’t have kids so I don’t worry too much about going way overboard, but I think it helps to define a budget. My mom and sis and I are really close, and we usually agree on a set amount (at least me and my sis do). When I was still in university, I’d go all out with the gifts and try to impress my family, but in the end they knew it was just contributing to my debt. Sad, really! So the last couple years I’ve toned down the spending. I think having a good meal and a few… Read more »

StephCat
StephCat

This year I’m doing handcrafted gifts. I knit (check out the blog!) so close friends/family are getting hats, socks, &/or mittens. I’ve also already made soap and will be making some bath salts.

I may try making these….http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2007/06/cinammon_rolls_/

Also, will probably do some sort of coupon/experience books for the hubby & a couple close friends/family.

one last….I might make a webpage for my brother….he hosts kid’s parties, hikes, etc.

nickyt
nickyt

I don’t think well under the pressure of last minute shopping – regardless of the occasion. Like Robert’s wife, I either shop year round or I keep an envelope in the back of my calendar that has pages torn from magazines, pictures from websites, ideas jotted down on the back of receipts with the name of the store. In addition to Christmas and Thanksgiving, we celebrate 8 birthdays within my immediate family between Nov. 2 and Jan. 4. If I didn’t plan ahead I would blow my budget and the family wouldn’t eat for a few months. As of today… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth

We solve the kids gifts problem by giving “family” gifts — which, as several others have mentioned, are often food focused. Last year, we did an olive theme — Olive oil, olive themed kitchen linens/potholders etc, olive chocolate (!Vosges, I’m not sure if anyone was crazy about it but it was interesting!) and even books with “olive” in the title. We’ve done popcorn themes (with a hot-air popper), icecream (with a maker and dishes etc) and honey, and this year we’re doing a potato theme… Whenever possible, we include a jigsaw puzzle, and we can adjust up or down depending… Read more »

Kim
Kim

I have the opposite problem – my new MIL loves to give us tons of stuff we don’t need, and have no room for in a 2BR condo. Lately she’s been unloading all of her crappy knick-knacks on us. Husband feels guilty about giving/throwing it away, so into the closet it goes! We have hinted that we don’t want anything, anything at all, for Xmas; we’ll see how that goes!

Dlyn
Dlyn

First off, I love the title to this article. We’ve been doing food presents sent to family and friends that we won’t actually get to see on the holiday for a long time now. It has become our tradition. Another tradition that I picked up from my mom is to make gifts. I just learned to knit and have been making scarves out of funky yarns for all the gals. We always try to get/make something for everyone even if its just tiny and even if they don’t get us anything. It’s our favorite holiday but we never spend more… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa

haha, Legos were my first thought when I started reading this. Now that my son is old enough for Lego (he’s 4) we got the old legos out of the attic, and this will be the first Christmas we can put Lego on the list. Also, we usually don’t get him gifts (he has enough grandparents that he’s generally covered). But I ran into a Lego sale this week so I bought him one. Then we have to see if people actually buy off the list. My family doesn’t always do gifts – we do “if you see something you… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy

I am vulnerable to overspending for Christmas, especially on my family and my children. In the past it was the one time of the year I kind of “let go” and would often get obsessed trying to find the perfect gift for everyone because I wanted to make them happy and feel uniquely “loved” (sound familiar?) My solution (a work in progress for both myself and my loved-ones). During the holidays emphasize activities over materialistic things. Secondly for my immediate family, during the year if I see something they particularly want or need, to go ahead at that time and… Read more »

Elsie
Elsie

Great Article! I’ve already started to shop for Christmas and know exactly what you mean….I’m going to suggest to relatives to stop doing gifts for adults. There are just too many things I get that’s pretty much end up in donation pile lke you. For adults like teachers and mail man and such…I’m creating a sphagetti kit as present…total cost for each gift is about $1.

wolfgirl
wolfgirl

With no small children and both sets of our parents dead, present buying is actually a little easier for us. Birthdays result in eating out and a movie from the two grown children who live in town. The others tend to send money and say for us to eat out or do something fun. Christmas is mainly fun stuff-action figures from The various Dr. Who series, zombie books, candy, but nothing very expensive. We also have several birthdays in November and December which may be the reason we ended up downplaying Christmas giving. We mad Thanksgiving the big holiday. That’s… Read more »

The Tim
The Tim

I just wanted to say that I love the photo of J.D. and his friend holding those odd Dutch child statues.

Dlyn
Dlyn

[email protected]#30 – Great idea with the spaghetti kits. This would be nice for those friends & family members who are out of work. I think we’ll have to add this in with our sweet treats to them. I also love getting these inexpensive thoughtful gifts.

katiya
katiya

I just don’t do Christmas and I have a husband and 8 month yr old son. I emphasize birthdays more than holidays but son/SO get experiences over meaningless things for the most part. My husband just asked me the other night what do I want for XMAS and I said an experience like the ballet, symphony or write me a personal letter or read a poem to me that you like or keep a journal! I said if you feel the need to buy me something gold or silver long dangling earrings is the only thing I want. I have… Read more »

wolfgirl
wolfgirl

If anyone plans on making changes to long established giving traditions, you may need to start planting the seeds for next year now. Many people buy throughout the year and may not take well to sudden changes. And children may need to have time to change their expectation of what they will get and give. This year my son approached my with the idea that of giving my husband a combined cash gift from the kids for his birthday and Christmas this year with the same for me next year. Both of our birthdays are in November. Hubby thought it… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

The underwear idea made me laugh! Reminds me of a story I heard about my mom’s university days. One year, she knit tiny little hats and scarves in the school colors for her male friends as a gag gift. The materials cost her very little — it was the labor and the unique idea that made the impact.

Kerensky97
Kerensky97

My family broke the gift giving tradition with the “Give experiences over stuff” mentality. We’re not anti-consumerism or anything but a few years ago as we were having a Christmas meal together and reminiscing about Christmas past. Every fond memory we had as children were the places we went and nights out we enjoyed, we could hardly remember what gifts we received. As the kids got to be about 16 we had jobs and just bought what we wanted with our own money, ever since then Christmas gifts were less important. Since that night we decided to use 90% of… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1

DH and I have done mostly “experiences” for years, although we’re guilty of stuffing stockings. 🙂 Sometimes the gifts work out great, sometimes not (like the Neat Receipts scanner I got him … never used; or the ipod he got me … never used). The experiences are ALWAYS a winner. Like tickets to a fancy dinner dance with floor show, or a weekend getaway to wine country. My parents say they don’t want Anything. But I know that Nothing would make my mom sad, so I am making them a photo book on Blurb using pictures I’ve taken on our… Read more »

Beth
Beth

Nope, definitely not too early to be thinking about this stuff!

One thing I’ve regretted not giving is pictures to my relatives. I’m planning to fix that this year.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

I’ve essentially stopped giving gifts altogether. I’ll probably give two this year. One to my wife, and one to my parents. I don’t have any kids yet, though, so that may change again in the future.

Suzanne
Suzanne

In my family we talk about Christmas gifts at this time of year (in fact, we did it on Sunday). We decide the dollar limit on gifts for the adults (generally $50-100 each depending on the economy)and for extended family we usually do Secret Santa or we say no gifts. We do send cards. But it works well; none of my generation really needs much, the grandparents definitely don’t need stuff in their downsized-homes. The kids have no limit, but everyone generally buys them one item each that’s anywhere from $10-75. My entire gift budget for Christmas is about $350… Read more »

Jo
Jo

I have been reading for awhile but haven’t posted. This is something I am struggling with this year and appreciate your posting about it now. We are trying to tackle our debt this year and aren’t sure how to handle this with family. Our kids are young so they won’t care and my husband and I are on the same page. It is our parents and siblings and a couple of closer friends we are most concerned about. Anyone have suggestions for helping ease the transition now b/c it is kinda late in the year (when I know some buy… Read more »

Mark
Mark

My entire immediate family is pretty comfortable. We’re not rich, but we’ve been smart with our money, and don’t “need” for anything. This makes getting gifts for them very difficult, since all of us can afford to buy just about anything we feel we need or want. I have recently been toying with the idea of giving money to charity in the names of family members, and giving them the receipt, letters-of-thanks, etc. as a gift showing they contributed $200 to Meals-On-Wheels (or whatever their favorite charity or cause is). They also get to take the tax deduction, since it… Read more »

Paul in cAshburn
Paul in cAshburn

Best stocking stuffers for 2009?
Silver dollars. When inflation returns in double digits, recipients will be amazed at your thoughtfulness – and they never spoil.
Or Biscoff cookies, individually wrapped, which also don’t spoil quickly.
Both are treasures that can be enjoyed at any age!!!
🙂

Kevin
Kevin

Our family is tossing the gift-giving thing out the window this year and saving the money for a trip to Disney World in the summer of ’10. I’ve always hated giving and receiving gifts, so I thought this was a fabulous idea!

Maebel
Maebel

Kevin @45. Please don’t let people who enjoy giving you gifts know how much you hate receiving them. They may look forward to this time of year to show you how they feel. And, as someone else mentioned, it may be too late to suggest they don’t give you their traditional gift. My sister did this once a month before Christmas and I had been making her something special all year. I was tempted to throw it in the trash.

E
E

Love the Christmas Wish List site – I sent it to my family.

My parents are huge gift-givers – it’s not xmas without heaps of things under the tree. My husband also. Cutting back is not a viable option for me. But I make donations for people who are out of town, or put together small unique food baskets or something. I hope the wish list site will help my parents get us stuff we can use as opposed to just stuff. 😉

Kevin M
Kevin M

My families (wife’s and my own) have cut back our gift purchasing quite a bit from just a few years ago. I struggle to even put together a ‘list’ since I usually buy myself anything I really want. Even still, we probably buy a dozen gifts for nieces/nephews, parents, and grandparents. We’ve been making calendars with photos of our kids for our grandparents the past couple years, with great appreciation. I’m going to try to channel my creative side and make more gifts this season.

Tracy
Tracy

I work for a company that repairs and re-circulates thousands of video games, books, DVDs, and CDs a week. I know it seems cheesy to buy used, but it IS a great way of saving money and it helps keep the recycle system alive. I know that our company has personally saved over 55 tons of used CDs and DVDs from the landfill by allowing people to trade them in for cash. Your helping the environment, cleaning out your closet, and getting cash all at the same time. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov

Hey Robert, The best gifts not only give repeat value, but are SIMPLE and EASY to use. Why are Legos a timeless gift? The type of toy that people of all ages play with endlessly, then pass down to others who keep on using them? Because not only do Legos give repeat value through endless building combinations and opportunities, but they’re EASY to start playing with. You don’t need a manual to figure it out. You dump out the blocks and start stacking. Simple and easy. Sure, you can use instructions to build the pre-planned structures, and there are pieces… Read more »

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