It's almost holiday time - let the neroses begin!
November 2, 2009 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Holiday gift giving going out of my comfort zone but I don't wanna be a scrooge. Please hope me. Longish explanation inside.

My family Xmas list is feeling unmanageable. I know some big families draw names, but I have 2 medium sized families (dad/stepmom's & mom's). It has been tradition in both families to exchange gifts between everyone with couples generally giving a gift jointly and sometimes receiving jointly and adults give gifts to the kids too.
Mom's side used to be manageable but family has grown. Xmas includes gift giving between all my grandmom's family (grandmom's kids and spouses, my cousins, and cousin's kids). Dad is remarried now (stepmom, half sister & kid, stepsiblings & spouses). So I'm up to 20 people or so without even getting into my close friends (my non-blood family). I'm the only single person (besides the young folk) and I have no kids and no full siblings so I can't even use the excuse of "only exchanging gifts with a nuclear family".

Now for the questions:

-How do I do gifts without being chintzy? I like to buy nice gifts (especially for mom & dad) but I can't afford to splurge on everyone. What's reasonable? I can't afford what I used to be able to when I was in a 2 income family.
- Am I scrooge? I do make a decent living and I could afford more gifts if I cancelled my upcoming vacation. (OTOH, since my divorce a few years ago, I have been enjoying traveling to places I enjoy & having hobbies so I'm loathe to do it. Is that awfully selfish?)
- I like to give gifts to my close friends, too. Is it appropriate to spend more on my best friends than on stepsiblings I see a few times a year?)
posted by pointystick to Human Relations (36 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give one family oriented gift per household? For example, experiential stuff like museum memberships and the like. It is quite appropriate to spend more on your closest friends than your seldom-seen stepsibs.
posted by jgirl at 9:04 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

GIve presents to whomever you want. Kids don't care if you give them something little, as long as it's from the heart. (I.e., no christmas sox, yes small lego). Adults, well, fuck 'em if they don't understand.
posted by notsnot at 9:04 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

My family started out setting a spending limit on family gifts, then as more and more of my generation had kids, we cut out giving gifts to the adults and gave exclusively to the children. Maybe it's a good idea to have the gift-giving conversation with your family?

As to gifts to friends vs. family, unless they all get together on New Year's and compare prices, I think you should give whatever gifts you want to whomever you want.
posted by xingcat at 9:04 AM on November 2, 2009

Wow - that's an impressive number of people.

My 2 cents (not in order of your questions)
- it is TOTALLY not scroogy to wan to limit your gift giving - it's your life and$$, and you should enjoy it! Do not feel guilty about taking a vacation or doing fun stuff...
- In my view, you should give what you are comfortabl giving. It's perfectly normal to spend more $ and effort on your friends, and close family
- can you do something cool but not too pricey for your not-so-close family? Home made preserves or candles... are any of your hobbies 'craft-y', so you could make something for the holidays?

we ususally buy a case of nice, but not super expensive wine, and then gift a bottle to people to whom we're 'expected' to give something, but dont know well
posted by darsh at 9:07 AM on November 2, 2009

We have all agreed on a spending limit. In addition to saving money, it saves time as well - less time thinking, shopping, wrapping - and means that we can focus on other parts of the celebration that we really enjoy, like special meals and outings.

We went to the spending limit because my brother and I proposed it. It's a great idea - just offer it up!
posted by Miko at 9:08 AM on November 2, 2009

Christmas is about hanging out with your family. Not about breaking your bank and canning your vacation.

Give 'em food items---generally cheap, always appreciated. Or make them something. I am pretty poor, so I always just buy one book for everyone. But I put a lot of thought into what book I think they'd like. It's personal, fun to receive, fun to shop for, and comparatively inexpensive.
posted by Darth Fedor at 9:10 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding books for everyone. I've got a similar-sized gift list and am similarly frugal, and usually do that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:12 AM on November 2, 2009

We've moved from drawing names ($50 limit) + stocking gifts for everyone else ($10 limit), to just stocking gifts, because they are the most fun and often most useful. It didn't take long to get everyone on board, there still tradition, and things to unwrap (or unsock). And my family isn't even that large. It's not only much easier, but then the women folk go after holiday sale shopping together and get the things they really want.
posted by kimdog at 9:20 AM on November 2, 2009

I'm not quite in the same boat as you, but I do have some of the same feelings. I am married with three children. We are a one income family and really don't have much to spare as far as giving a lot outside of our little family. And truth be told, I don't really want to spend a lot on people I don't have much of a relationship with. I'd rather spend my money on my sweet children and awesome husband.

Don't cancel your vacation to fund Christmas gifts for people that you hardly see and perhaps don't have much of a relationship with.

I suggest you come clean with your family, that you just cannot afford to purchase so many gifts and that, due to the economy, others are probably pressed for funds as well. Suggest drawing names and come up with a limit you are comfortable with. I would also suggest that each couple or family counts as 1 gift. That way one family, who may be feeling the economic crunch, does not need to come up with 6 different gifts. Instead, each family/couple is treated as 1 entity.

It's ok to simplify Christmas.

Mom and Dad may be different. I usually do spend more on my parents, just because . . . they put up with me even now and I like to do a little extra for them.

How to give gifts without being chintzy . . . my solution to that is to make the gifts meaningful and clever, not expensive or elaborate. A few years ago I was inspired to make a gift based on "brown paper packages tied up with string . . . these are a few of our favorite things." In it each member of my little family bought something they enjoyed particularly recently. I chose my favorite linen spray, my husband chose some favorite nuts, my daughter chose her favorite book (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane), and my 5 year old son picked out SpongeBob Squarepants fruit gummy treats. We put them in a box, wrapped that box with brown paper and string, and attached a note that said, "Brown paper packages, tied up with string . . . these are a few of our favorite things."

The gift was well received since it was clever and because it included things that we enjoyed that we thought others may enjoy as well. The variety was a hit. Each "package" ran us about $15.00. We gave 1 package to my Mom and Dad, 1 package to my brother and his family, 1 package to my sister and her hubby and 1 package to my single brother.

I also LOVE homemade gifts, no matter what they are. Just picturing someone actually making me a gift gets me all teary. The time, effort and talent going into it is just really awesome.

I like (or love) the suggestion of getting memberships for families - to a museum or zoo. We've gotten those gifts before and they are WONDERFUL! As a one-income family, we often don't have a lot of money to spend on that sort of stuff, so it really was appreciated and treasured.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:22 AM on November 2, 2009 [9 favorites]

Oh! Sassyfras's "gift package" idea reminded me of a similar idea which went over a treat with some relatives:

I got a bulk pack of free movie passes at a multiplex chain that I knew was in everyone's area, and got a similar bulk pack of Blockbusters gift certificates. Then I got a couple boxes of microwave popcorn packs and some boxes of Raisinets and Goobers. I split them all up amongst 5 couples -- each couple got a pair of movie passes, a pair of Blockbusters gift certificates, a packet of popcorn, and one box each of Raisinets and Goobers; and there you have it, five "night at the movies" gift packs for about $20 per pack.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:29 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't feel bad that you don't want to spend loads of money to fit in with the commercialization of Christmas. They're your family - they probably aren't viewing this as a gift extravaganza if they're over the age of 12.

In my family, gifts were usually restricted to children and immediate family - i.e. we got gift cards or chocolates or such from our aunts and uncles when we were kids, and gifts from our family.

Last year I wanted to give nice gifts that weren't bank-breakers. I second food items, especially ones that can be shipped cross-country without spoilage, like a pound of various chocolate hunks (from Trader Joe's). Last year, I made caramels and pecan turtles (pecans+caramel, chocolate-dipped), including a box of "evolutionary mistakes" that I still get comments on for their tastiness. I plan to do the same this year since it worked out so well last year.

I send books to my brothers - usually ones I already own and know that they'll love.

One of the hardest parts is that my parents can already get anything they need for themselves, so if I don't send food items, I'm trying to find something cool and yet not useless, so it's often also kitchen gadgets.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:35 AM on November 2, 2009

I've found that gift giving is much more fun when there are some restrictions, whether it's a theme or a price range or some other type of limit that obligates you to think harder about the recipient's personality. When there are no holds barred, you tend more to just grab something or get bogged down in all the options, but when you have a structure to work within, you're forced to be more creative, and the results are much more interesting.

So whether you can spearhead a drawing within a family group that lets you focus on fewer gifts, or just give yourself some buying rules like those suggested above, you yourself will have more fun shopping and feel less overwhelmed with choice and cost.

It's not chintzy and it's not scroogey, it's just a way to heighten the enjoyment of giving, and a gift that was chosen and given in the spirit of fun and love is better to receive, too. Since my own family started instituting various parameters for holiday gifting, we've had many more "Wow!" moments on Christmas morning than we did when it was more free-form.
posted by padraigin at 9:41 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could also propose that in lieu of some or all of the gift exchange, that you participate together in an adopt-a-family program through a local social service agency, and everyone take a different member of the family to shop for. Not only is this a super nice thing to do, and fun because you're not wracking your brain to shop for the same people you always shop for, just proposing it tends to remind people how well off we already are and take the edge off the internal reaction that says "But I'm afraid there will be LESS STUFF FOR ME..."
posted by Miko at 9:46 AM on November 2, 2009

The membership idea is a really good one. I've also given a couple of the food gifts mentioned on this page (some of the recipes even have ready-made gift tags for you to print out), like the chili pecans, blueberry pecan pancake mix and spice rubs.
posted by amarynth at 9:47 AM on November 2, 2009

This is the perfect year to start cutting back--I think a lot of people were in denial about the recession last year, but now you can easily say to your families, you know, given the economy I'd rather not fall prey to all the commercialism. How about limiting gift spending to $10 each / only give gifts to kids under 18 / whatever you'd prefer to do.

It's definitely not scroogy. I do think you should talk about it beforehand though--nothing feels worse than showing up nearly-empty-handed to find someone else went all out. Have a discussion (or send an email) in the next week or two, before people start really shopping.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:01 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You didn't mention if your families have outright rejected the idea of drawing names or some other alternative. Have you suggested it, or are you just anticipating that it won't be received well?
posted by purpletangerine at 10:04 AM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: purpletangerine, I haven't broached it because it's a problem because I have 2 families and since I have no siblings, no one else is in the same spot, although others do have inlaws so it may be similar.
I am also feeling guilty about spending money on myself - when I was married we vacationed where the Ex wanted to go (with his family. Every. single. year.) so I'm still excited about doing my own thing but wonder if my family views me as selfish.
also so worried that I misspelled "neuroses". geez.

There are so MANY good ideas here!
posted by pointystick at 10:13 AM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: I should add: I'm not asking for anything big, either. As a recipient I am fine with handmade, or small, or a donation to Heifer International, or nothing at all. :) I just am feeling the need for less "stuff" in my life and enjoying experiences instead.
posted by pointystick at 10:17 AM on November 2, 2009

I wouldn't necessarily assume that "no one else is in the same spot." The economy hit all of us, and you never know what people secretly may be worrying about.

Maybe bring it up with people by also talking about how you want less stuff yourself anyway, "and while I'm thinking about it, I'm also being a bit more frugal; do we all want to do something to simplify things for everyone?..."

This is not to say that you may not still get one or two stuck-up stickybeaks who carp about "omg but it's christmas and i want to be generous and how dare you stop meeeeee...." but you may find that more people are in the same boat as you. (I also wouldn't worry about your vacation plans being sneered at -- who knows what they're spending THEIR money on, after all?)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:26 AM on November 2, 2009

I would bet my Christmas-themed vest that someone in one of your families is feeling the same way, but is too nervous to bring it up. So you be the brave one to bring it up. I would bet my other Chrstimas-themed vest (yes, I have two ::sigh::) that everyone will wonder why you all didn't make the change sooner.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:28 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

We usually give the biggest or priciest gifts to Mom and Dad, just 'cause. Sometimes it's just a matter of having seen something I know Mom or Dad would like and putting it away, so that by Christmas it becomes a big box o'stuff.

But, like you, we all have family that we don't spend so much time with, and so it's hard to pick something out. I would suggest something easy and homemade, like cookie mixes or spiced nuts or pumpkin breads or cookies, that you put together for some of the families in canning jars with fabric over the top, like this, or movie packs as suggested--a *family* gift, that will run you less money but is also thoughtful. I've made magnets using some ideas in this thread, embroidered tea towels, placemats made with bamboo chopsticks and waxed twine, hot cocoa mixes with peppermint stick stirrers--there are lots of things you can make yourself.
posted by misha at 10:29 AM on November 2, 2009

I have a huge family, big enough that I've adopted a system that I openly talk about so that nobody's feelings get hurt. Money is never mentioned as the reason for my doing this, instead I say that it is to keep my gift list manageable. Everyone relates to that, and many have even adopted my system:

- grandparents get visits/calls and/or cards/pictures (it's all they really want anyway).

- parents get a decent, thoughtful gift (typically completely unpractical).

- each sibling gets a decent gift, downgraded to small token gift at adulthood, disqualified altogether once they have children (fun/practical).

- each niece and nephew gets a small gift, ~$10 value ("fun on the spot" type gifts).

- extended family do not get gifts. If an extended part of the family decides to do the "name" thing, they can assume my participation via something out of my mythical bin of plausible gifts.*

- friends should not expect gifts from me because I have so many people to buy for. I will sometimes make an exception if someone "needs" a gift, or if I see something someone "has to have" -- but reciprocation is not expected.

- Every now and then, I'll try to do some kind of picture card for everyone.

So I guess my answer is that whatever you choose to do, be open in advance that you're doing it, and that it's to keep your list sane. Most folks will understand with fair warning, since it's usually when gifts are wildly unbalanced that feelings get hurt.

* = I grab deals year-long, because it's handy to have plausible gifts on hand just in case. If a family member is having a tough year, I let them raid the stash for themselves to give away; if it overflows, I'll donate and/or give away things. I shamelessly stole the idea from my Grandmother, who did the same... except with a room instead of a bin. If ebay had been around when she passed, someone'd have made a fortune off the stuff.
posted by Pufferish at 10:40 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Are there lots of youngish kids? Get them all Hexbugs. (I have young cousins, both boys and girls, who love gadgets like this and they can all run around making them crawl together)

One of my cousins made homemade pomegranate jam for everyone and gave it out in pretty little jars. That was immensely more enjoyable than the random t-shirt my uncle got me three sizes too large.

There are probably lots of neat things on Etsy you could get in quantity, and hand out to people; even little cross-stitched quotes in a frame for $10 or $15 could make a thoughtful gift for someone.
posted by olinerd at 10:42 AM on November 2, 2009

Agree with Olinerd. Depending on your particular skill set, you could make a really nice _______ for each family. I'm of a similarly large family, and I plan on making everybody fancy chocolates this year, and maybe rounding it out with a book.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:55 AM on November 2, 2009

SIMPLIFY! We are in the same boat; we've got over 30 individuals on our "have to buy for" list and the shopping alone (not to mention the money) is enough to ruin my season.

So... a few years ago, we started the tradition of giving everyone the same thing. (Except kids, who get a kid's gift.) Each family gets a themed gift basket such as:

-Treats that are secretly healthful: Dark chocolate, salmon jerky, etc.

-Beach basket: Chowder mix, salt water taffy, etc.

-Breakfast is on us: Muffin mix, fruit compote, etc.

People seem to really like this, because we are giving something that is consumable, and they don't have to keep or store it.

As for thoughtful, "I know you so well" gifts, well, we've decided that that is what birthdays are for.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:05 AM on November 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

This is how it seems to work for most of the Christmas gift-giving in my extended family:

Very close relatives get thoughtful gifts tailored to their interests.

Everyone else gets a variation on the same small, nice, but affordable thing. Nice soaps or candles in different scents for different people. Nice nonperishables in different flavors. Nice tea or coffee ditto. Nice homemade sweets. Nice handknit scarves in different colors. Nice little blank journals. And so forth.

This concept mainly applies to adults, but I would imagine that if you want to buy for kids, you could take a list of their ages to a small local toy store or book store at a not-too-busy hour and ask them to help you fill a bag with age-appropriate items that are all about $5 (or $10, or whatever your limit is) each.
posted by Orinda at 11:42 AM on November 2, 2009

Anyone who gets pissy because they didn't get a "good" gift at Christmas doesn't understand the spirit of the season. Don't be guilty by taking a vacation. Most people need a vacation. Most people do not *need* a Christmas gift.

I think that this whole "gift giving" thing is overrated. Since I've always been on the sunny side of poverty, my friends and family understand... The kids get the "good" gifts because it's harder to explain economics to kids than it is to adults. Really, any adult who doesn't understand hard times is just greedy.

As for good, cheap gifts - I agree with previous posters about books & consumables, and (if I'm sending them in the mail) gift cards.
posted by patheral at 12:06 PM on November 2, 2009

One of the best, cheapest, most personal gifts you can give is a book. Not just any book, but a book you truly, truly think your recipient will love. Pick an awesome book for each family member and either inscribe the book or a card (depending on how your family feels about writing in books) with a few lines about why you think they will love that book, how it made you think of them, etc.

Everyone gets the same thing, so no petty jealous squabbles, but everyone also gets something unique to them.

Not wanting to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on gifts doesn't make you a scrooge, at all. If one person starts downsizing Christmas a little, you might find that the rest of the family follows suit, and that's probably for the best. Everyone stresses out over the this stuff, even people who like buying gifts, so bringing the tension down for everyone would be good.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:39 PM on November 2, 2009

"Hey guys, I can't give gifts to everyone this year, so I'll be making a donation to _____ in your honor. Merry Christmas!"


"Hey everyone, I was wondering if all the focus on gift-giving was making anyone else crazy. I'll be doing ____ in lieu of gifts. Anyone want to join me?"


"Hey y'all, instead of giving each other gifts, why don't we adopt a family together, and make their Christmas a happier one?"

Do this ahead of time so that people don't feel "ripped off" and can choose (if they wish) to not give you a gift if you can't/won't reciprocate.

I don't think you're a Scrooge. The holidays are so consumerized and stress people out in a ridiculous way. Why not cut out the gift-giving (and let's be honest, you don't want half the stuff people give you anyway) and focus on spending time together? Other posters are right, though -- food gifts such as cookie or bean soup mixes put together in jars, etc., might go over well.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:45 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

A cheap present would be a [nice] christmas tree ornament (or multiples of the same ornament if it is on the cheap side but works well in a group). Either buy a bunch when on sale (a few days before christmas is a pretty good bet), or, if you are crafty, make them.

I feel your pain, I have 20+ on my list and my suggestions of cutting back at Christmas are over-ruled each year.
posted by saucysault at 1:10 PM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

1. I would splurge on Mom & Dad. What is reasonable is what is comfortable for you, and them. From a gift-receiver stand point, I think spending too much is worse than being "cheap". (and I don't mean "crap, I only spent $5 on your gift, but you got me $50" but "holy cow I know you can't really afford this, and now I feel uncomfortable")

2. You're not a scrooge. You'd be selfish if you choose your vacation over helping out extended family with a hospital bill or somesuch. "Depriving" people of "stuff" they may not really care about isn't selfish. Something that may help you feel better about this is trading dollar value for your time and thought.

How about every household gets a burned CD of Christmas and holiday songs, and a layered jar cooking mix (like peppermint hot cocoa). Buy ingredients in bulk, and set up an assembly line. These can all be made at about a dollar each, and would only take an afternoon to finish. Older kids get books, or maybe an iTunes gift card. For smaller kids, grab them a handful of dollar store toys. Things like yo-yos, frisbees, bouncy balls, dinosaurs, get played with more often than you might think. Also kids love seeing their names on things, so maybe pack them in a tin jar with their names written in paint pen, or small canvas tote bags with puff-paint. Scale any of these ideas to fit your time and budget.

3. Absolutely, I think it's fine to spend more on close friends than distant family. If for no other reason, you know them well enough to spend the money on something they will really like. I have an aunt that for many years would send our family a huge box of strange gifts. One year it was polar fleece vests and gloves in all the wrong sizes (plus we lived in New Mexico, which got cold, but come on) and a strange assortment of candy bars and cat stationary. Unless cat stationary is really your best friend's thing, she'd probably thank you for a more thoughtful gift, and likewise your family will appreciate something practical or utilitarian.
posted by fontophilic at 1:31 PM on November 2, 2009

Would the themed gift basket work? One for each family, plus a stocking stuffer for each kid under 18 tucked in? I like that idea, and I like the themes that were suggested, like Winter Warmers and Breakfast Is On Us. You could do that at Trader Joe's for not much per family.

I have also done gift baskets with cookie mix in jars made from bulk-bought goods as the centerpiece, with wooden spoons and spatulas and tea towels and pot holders or whatever from BB&B to sort of bulk it up. If it's nicely presented it can look pretty extravagent!
posted by DarlingBri at 3:04 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

This year, everyone is getting canned sauces, fig jams and shallot confits I made. Inexpensive, delicious and personally-made.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:31 PM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Christmas wreaths, like those sold at LL Bean and the like, make awesome gifts for adults. Send one to a household and give the little kids small individual gifts and you're golden. We've been doing this for years now and have been told over and over how appreciated it is, because the wreaths are festive and smell good and everyone can enjoy them, and after Christmas you can just mulch it or toss it on the compost pile.

And yeah, you really can't go wrong with baked goods, especially homemade, and most especially if you're at all good at baking. Just about everyone loves Christmas cookies, fudge, brownies, and/or cakes.

But definitely get the under-18ers something individual to open, because, you know, presents.
posted by balls at 6:40 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

A cheap present would be a [nice] christmas tree ornament

I wholeheartedly agree! The great thing about giving ornaments is that they only need to be on display one month out of the year, so the recipient can just pack them up. Also, it seems like Christmas is the one time of year that folks will display things that are not really to their taste. I like modern decor, but I can put up kitschy country or gaudy Victorian at Christmas. So you don't have to stress over whether the ornament is a perfect fit.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:22 AM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: So many great comments & suggestions (I risk greying out the whole page with "best answer"s!). Thanks, All!
posted by pointystick at 10:40 AM on November 3, 2009

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