I can't afford my family's Christmas expectations, how to handle this appropriately?
November 19, 2009 12:04 PM   Subscribe

My husband lost his job, we're not sure how we're going to pay the rent in January, and my family is being assholes about Christmas gifts.

This is a little complicated so I'm going to try and break it down.

My family:
1. my mother and stepfather (no kids)
2. my dad and stepmom
3. stepsister A + husband + 1 small kid
4. stepsister B + husband + 1 small kid + 1 teenager

Mom and stepdad don't want us to buy them anything. They have been extremely generous. Dad and stepmom see Christmas unfolding as usual; we buy gifts for them (2 adults) the kids (3) and we each pick one name amongst siblings (so, 2 adults per family)

On his side, there are 6 adults and 5 small children. There's no expectation to get the adults anything on his side, and we're all universally broke anyway.

So, in total we're expected to buy for 8 kids and 4 adults. This is money we Do Not Have - it will go on credit cards. I have no qualms about buying stuff for kids, they're not resposnsible for our poor decision making. I would hope the adults would be more understanding, but when I suggested that we not draw names for the adults this year, I got the dirtiest look. Both of my stepsisters and their husbands are working; my stepsisters have well paying jobs. They know my husband lost his job, they know my job doesn't pay well. Appearances may be deceiving because we bought nice cars when we were both working. We made some bad decisions, I won't lie and we are working hard to rectify this. But it infuriates me that I am expected to spend $150 on adults that don't need anything, when we're already going to spend ~$200 on the kids.

Religious appeals won't work, Christmas is pretty much a secular thing. My stepmom is all OMG tradition and her daughters have inherited this attitude.

Also, we have exhausted my mother's and father-in-laws generosity, so we may have to ask my dad & stepmom for a loan if my husband doesn't find a job in December. My husband is really and truly embarrassed about taking their help, he doesn't want my dad to think less of him (my dad is old school) and he'd rather put the gifts on credit cards than make this an issue. Me, I'm just plain pissed off that they'd rather get a f--kin sweater vest than help us buy groceries. If you haven't guessed, we're not close to begin with, but there's not been any open animosity either.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (64 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would completely bow out of Christmas, even for the kids. Tell them that you won't be able to participate in gift-giving this year due to personal circumstances, and will not accept any gifts from any of them, either. If that'll make you and your kids uncomfortable during the festivities, can you spend the holiday with your mom and stepdad instead?

I also don't think it would be practical to run up debt on gift-buying and then to have to possibly ask your dad for a loan.
posted by scarykarrey at 12:08 PM on November 19, 2009 [41 favorites]

How about you call them out on it? Give them the receipt for your groceries or rent, wrapped nicely.
posted by banannafish at 12:10 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Why can't you just make them some kind of homemade small gift? I mean, I know you can't reply, but if they are assholes about getting something homemade and cheap, and express as much, I'd probably tell them "fine, then. I guess we cannot celebrate Christmas with you at all this year. We'll call you when we get back from Mom's to hear how your day went."

Nobody can force you to do anything. I know you already feel horrible. The way they are acting is horrible, too. I'm sorry that you're dealing with this, but better late than never to make lifestyle changes (and see how your family relationships really are weighted and valued).
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:10 PM on November 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Fuck 'em, and feed 'em fish heads. Say exactly what you said to us: "Would you rather get a sweater vest and than have us afford groceries?"

Just because they're family doesn't mean you have to lay down and take their shit.
posted by notsnot at 12:11 PM on November 19, 2009 [33 favorites]

I'm sorry, this sounds like a really frustrating time for you. I wouldn't take your family's insistence on Christmas tradition as malicious though; these times are important to a lot of people. However, I don't understand why you have to spend so much on gifts for the other adults. Surely some handmade gifts would work as well - why not bake some cookies or bread or something like that?
posted by Think_Long at 12:13 PM on November 19, 2009

I don't want to oversimplify anything here, but if it were me, this just wouldn't be an issue. I just wouldn't buy gifts, for anyone.

Your priority is to take care of yourselves. Gifts, though while a nice gesture, are not a necessity. Food is a necessity, a roof over YOUR heads is a necessity.

I would call all involved and say financially it is not possible and it is not reasonable to expect anything from us given our situation.

Now there is also a way to compromise. If the family is really not understanding and you feel the need to save face then just go to a dollar store and find 8 cheap kids gifts and 4 cheap adult gifts and be done with it. Keeping up with the Jonses is just a waste of good money that SHOULD be going towards things that you need, regardless of any 'poor' decisions you may or may not have made.

Good luck, I know families can be tough.
posted by WickedPissah at 12:14 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Just say no. They'll get over it.
posted by something something at 12:14 PM on November 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I am siding with the posters above. Your relatives have an incredibly inappropriate sense of entitlement. YOUR family's financial security comes first above everything and I think once you come to terms with this, everything will fall into place. This is not your problem; it's theirs.
posted by crapmatic at 12:14 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, please allow them to fuck themselves. This sort of meaningless, peer-pressured consumerism is also what gets people into debt and other bullshit. If you can find it in your heart to make them something sweet and/or beautiful, by all means do that. But if you don't enjoy the challenge of making things for as little money as possible, don't bother. I'm really not convinced that you need to spend $200 on the kids either.

Honestly, I remember my uncle's girlfriend, when I was a kid, giving everyone these little handmade smelted-glass Christmas ornaments that I thought were weird and random. But it was christmas and it was family and I was raised well enough to say they were beautiful and great. This is an interesting parenting opportunity for the stepsiblings: are they going to teach their kids to be ingrates too?

On preview: baked goods would be lovely.
posted by xueexueg at 12:19 PM on November 19, 2009 [8 favorites]

Have you considered explaining it in a detailed letter? I understand the "fuck 'em" responses above, but nothing you've said necessarily means that they couldn't be coaxed into seeing where you're coming from. Yes, you've already tried bowing out once and received a dirty look, but you could include this in a letter explaining to the offending party how this made you feel in your present circumstances.

A letter explaining where you're coming from needn't be touchy feely or reproachful. If you write something honest, then from the sounds of it, if they still get sniffy about it, then take the fuck 'em route.
posted by Beardman at 12:19 PM on November 19, 2009

Nobody gets the right to demand gifts from you. That your family is trying to do so at a particularly bad time for you is unkind and unfamilial, to say the least. Ignore their demands, tell them you can't participate this year. I think spending the time with your supportive mother and stepfather is a great idea -- remove yourself from the situation entirely. They can be pissed off, but they can't spend your money for you.
posted by katemonster at 12:19 PM on November 19, 2009 [10 favorites]

he doesn't want my dad to think less of him (my dad is old school) and he'd rather put the gifts on credit cards than make this an issue.

Maybe you should have the rent conversation and request with Dad a bit early. How will he react if you ask him for rent money Dec. 26th when he knows what you put out as presents on Dec. 25th. It might not be rational, but I'd expect a question about how you could afford to buy presents if you now have to ask him for rent money. Forestall the whole issue by admitting to Dad how bad things really are, including that you may need to ask him for help if things don't change in the next few weeks.
posted by OmieWise at 12:20 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

it will go on credit cards

Don't do this. If you feel you must give them gifts, bake cookies, or buy from Goodwill or thrift shops. Make gifts from items you have around the house (I'm doing a bunch of catnip mice for friends and family with pets. Total cost: $3.00 for catnip, plus the sacrifice of a couple of shirts I don't wear anymore). Regift. Scan and print family photos. Give coupons for babysitting. If you think about it and you're careful, you can probably do all 4 adults for $20 tops. Small children are happy with coloring books and puzzles (or regular books), and they don't care if their toys are "new" -- just "new to them. Again, I bet you can do the kids for $5.00 each.

Its sometimes hard to get used to the idea of gifts not equaling "bought from Macy's" but with a little creativity and time spent scouting out your options you might be surprised.

when I suggested that we not draw names for the adults this year, I got the dirtiest look

Don't suggest. Just state flat out: "This year, we can't afford to do Christmas in the same way we have in the past." Dirty looks or not, its your choice to buy a gift. Its not an obligation.
posted by anastasiav at 12:21 PM on November 19, 2009 [19 favorites]

Would it be possible to buy inexpensive gifts, or to make gifts, for the adults (and possibly the children)? I don't think anyone should feel pressured to give gifts (that kind of defeats the spirit of the thing) but if you're hoping not to ruffle any feathers, perhaps simply trying to keep the cost of gifts down would work.

You could offer, as gifts, a weekend of babysitting for your stepsiblings (if you live close by). Supplement these gifts with any special talents you or your husband have. Can you draw/paint/sculpt? Can you write children's stories for the smaller children? If you decide to go this route and offer a list of your resources and skills, I'd be happy to provide further suggestions - I've had to get creative with holiday gifts before.
posted by shaun uh at 12:21 PM on November 19, 2009

I think you need to be completely honest here and not continue the bad financial streak you admit to have had.

Be open and honest with your family and if they can't understand that you are, without any leeway, completely broke and the expectation for you to spend approximately $1,000 on non-essential items when you're unsure if you can make your rent next month is simply out of the question. Even if you were to put it on a credit card, it's more than likely that you'll see that $1,000 debt cost you in the line of 15-22% interest on payments, even micropayments, you can not afford to begin with. Loss of income, regardless of season, is a time to pull in the belt-strings and reassess where you are in the world. Do you really want to cause a financial scar that you will have difficulty healing over another's vanity? It might sting, but you need to shut this down in the name of pragmatics.

Speak to them in person if possible, on the phone if necessary and be polite but clear. Explain that you are embarrassed about it, but the economy as a whole is not your fault. Keeping your own family above water is simply too important at your current juncture than unfortunately to participate fully in seasonal festivities and spending beyond your means. Explain that it isn't a reflection of your sentiment of love, but your fiscal circumstances. Perhaps when you are back on your feet you'll be able to make up for it. Kids or adults, you need to *simply pass* on gift giving this year. You can't afford it and it's not like they are going to be doing without if you don't provide a gift.

The holidays aren't about religion for my mélange of a family either, but expecting a family member to go into debt simply to provide something I'm likely to either return or pack away is ridiculous. This is your family, you shouldn't be expected to keep up appearances.
posted by eatdonuts at 12:21 PM on November 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

I would bow out of gift-giving, and if they insist that that's part of Christmas somehow, bow out of the festivities altogether. Take the day and have dinner, just the two of you. If the idea that you are nothing but entities that purchase free stuff for them is what keeps Christmas alive for your family, you're better off without the holiday at all.
posted by xingcat at 12:22 PM on November 19, 2009

I logged in just to post this:

Tell them to go to hell. Gifts are not obligations. Gifts are not family-tax.

Tell them you cannot afford gifts, if they insist, tell them to go f$#% themselves.

I cannot emphasize this enough.
posted by Spurious at 12:23 PM on November 19, 2009 [25 favorites]

Why are you spending $150 on people you aren't close to? Yikes...

To answer the question, tell them that you simply can't afford to buy them anything. If they don't like that, that's on them. That's their problem, not yours. As someone else said, it might be fairer if you don't accept gifts from them. Actually, I think it might be a good idea to not accept gifts from them anyway, as they don't sound like the kind of people who give gifts with an open heart.

If these people are so messed up about this stuff that they'd rather you starve, have nothing to do with them. Life is too short to deal with folks like that, especially during the season of goodwill. Sounds like your relatives could do with a good dose of goodwill...
posted by Solomon at 12:24 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Homemade gifts or nothing at all. No explanation beyond what has already been given.
posted by The World Famous at 12:24 PM on November 19, 2009

Miss Manners generally indicates that "Oh I'm sorry that's just impossible" is the wa to move forward with this. that said, you and your husband have to be on the exact same page on this and this seems like it may not be the case. Deal with that first. You have time to make some plans where if you do decide to bow out, no one will feel like you did this at the last minute.

My general feeling is make a decision, be firm on it and let people know without the 'you're being assholes" part.

I'm a grinch at holidaytime. I get nobody anything and expect nothing from anyone. Some people get me gifts anyhow [knowing that i don't give gifts] and as far as I'm concerned that's on them. Recently I've been spending a more Christmas-time time with my boyfriend's family. They do gift exchange. it's been suggested that since people will be getting me things, I should reciprocate. I'm fine with that. It's manners and an easy way for me to show that "I care about you" thing that is hard with people you don't spend a ton of time with. However. Spending holidaytime with them [which is already a compromise, I'd prefer to be elsewhere] does not in any way dictate what I get them.

I made custom t-shirts for the kids [color printer + iron on+ thoughtful image + good t-shirt = $5-10 and esp good for younger kids]. I got appropriate and loved books for the adults and some of the older kids [at paperbackswap.com this is free, cheap otherwise]. I got little tchotchkes for everyone as well so people had a gift or two to open. And that was it. I wrote thank yous for the things people got me and I helped with the meals.

So, it's clear you're stressed but I think you've got a jumble of annoyance at your family [why aren't they being cool about this?], your own money concerns [does getting gifts that aren't expensive solve the problem?], pressure from family [husband wanting to just pay for it] and you feeling that if you're going to do it at all [do you have to?] you have to do it RIGHT. Honestly I think the last one of these issues is going to be the easiest to get over. Put aside your GRAR and tell your family you'd love to exchange gifts but you're on a budget. If that's not okay with them you can be all "oh that's too bad, but we're on a budget so fuck y'all" or whatever. People who try to pressure other people into doing the holidays THEIR way are lacking in grace. Don't follow their model. Be gracious and do what you think is right and try to get you and your husband on the same page of that. Good luck, I know it isn't easy.
posted by jessamyn at 12:25 PM on November 19, 2009 [14 favorites]

Where this all went awry is here:
I suggested that we not draw names for the adults this year

Call up stepmom and state, "Husband and I will not be participating this year's gift exchange, we know you'll understand given the economy." That's it. State, do not suggest. They can't make you buy gifts you don't want to buy and who cares about dirty looks.

If you feel like showing up to holiday festivities, bring a dish to share. If you can swing it, a tiny little inexpensive gift* (I'm talking ~$5/each) for each child would be nice too.

*paperback books cost about this much, just saying.

(on preview: what anastasiav wrote).
posted by jamaro at 12:25 PM on November 19, 2009

How many presents do you have coming your way?

Could you ask for those to be nixed and have them go to the kids instead?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:26 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'd tell them flat out that you can't participate in the normal gift stuff this year because of the job situation. If you feel the need go for something small and symbolic or homemade - do you bake or craft or the like? But really - if you're in a situation where rent is going to be problematic and your family are being jerks about it I think you need to really spell it out and then realize it's their issue not your's. I'm sure this is quite uncomfortable but generating credit card debt to buy gifts when unemployed in this economy doesn't make any kind of sense. and good luck with the job hunt!
posted by leslies at 12:31 PM on November 19, 2009

Here's what you can do if they insist on being selfish and immature about this "holiday."

1. You can buy price guns on Ebay for a song. $10, maybe $15. You can also buy those little price tags that you tie on.

2. Go to the thrift store and find the nicest thing you can. I just picked up a cashmere sweater (from Neiman's no less) for $4 at the Goodwill half-price sale.

3. Launder/dry clean said item.

4. Stick "price tag" on it. Scratch out the price. (Modesty, right?)

5. Wrap and go.


Use this time of unemployment to learn to stand up for yourself. I've had to do that (with the Hive's help) with my mother (the black Mrs. Costanza.)

Just say "No, we simply can't afford it but we look forward to sharing the holidays with you anyway."

Being unemployed, there's already so much you can't control. This you can. The word is "No."
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 12:33 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have no qualms about buying stuff for kids, they're not responsible for our poor decision making.

Not getting a gift from a family member you hardly know isn't a punishment. Skip gifts for everybody, kids don't need more things.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:33 PM on November 19, 2009 [11 favorites]

Beardman has it right. Send an honest letter saying sorry, but due to your husband's unemployment you won't be able to participate in gift giving this Christmas. If they don't understand, then to hell with them. Next year when things are better, you can give each of them this.
posted by Daddy-O at 12:36 PM on November 19, 2009

Since my family is going through this as well this year, I want to share some stuff with you that I've recently found on the web.

Christmas on a Zero-budget

Free & Low Cost Christmas Gifts

Order 100 Free Holiday Postcards from some website (including envelopes!) to send instead of Christmas cards

Over 1000 Free .mp3s from Amazon.com - download what you want, and then burn to CD at home. Make fancy CD covers. Typically they do daily free Christmas downloads between Thanksgiving & Dec 25th.

Make your own Vanilla Extract then bottle it up as a lovely gift.

Butterick Free Projects
Crafty patterns!
posted by anastasiav at 12:39 PM on November 19, 2009 [26 favorites]

They're assholes for putting you in this position. No doubt about it.

I think the 2 choices are: don't go, and let them know very clearly that it is their gift-requirement that is forcing you to not go.

OR bake a bunch of cookies and give them pretty little tins to put them in (from the dollar store.) You can make a big bunch of sugar cookie dough from which to create several different kinds of cookies. Then just let them know in advance, that in light of their unwillingness to budge on the gift issue, they should expect homemade edible treats made with love, instead of commercial presents. And perhaps note that IF fortune smiles on you in the next year, you will be happy to go back to their version of "traditional" gift-giving.

However I wouldn't want to be a part of any celebration where money spent is the main event. One of my fondest childhood memories of the holidays was when, due to a lean year, my parents just wrote and illustrated stories for my brother and I. It was very special and cost no money at all.
posted by np312 at 12:40 PM on November 19, 2009

This may be OT, but people who don't want homemade gifts are crazy. I can go buy a CD or a (mass produced) scarf. I don't have the time or skill to make cookies!
posted by JoanArkham at 12:42 PM on November 19, 2009

Christmas can happen on $20, even for that many people, and a lot of people upthread have mentioned how. Be prepared though (and this would be absolutely horrible) that if they kvetch about whatever gift you can afford for them, just usher your kids out the door and then hop in the car and head off. If they are as bullheaded as they sound, this may be the only thing to shock them into realizing what they've done and how they've treated you. Christmas is about spending time with the ones you love. It's not about stuff. If they make it about stuff, they are violating the spirit of Christmas, and it's a bad place to be.

Yes, this is harsh. I had to do something similar with another family situation one time, and yes, it hurt people, and yes, the relationship was strained, but it worked in the end, and things are reconciled.

Good luck with the job hunt, and hope this works out well for you. I'm pullin' for ya.
posted by deezil at 12:49 PM on November 19, 2009

One more thing and then I'll stop: If you decide to go the "no gifts at all" route, then, yes, tell them ahead of time. But if you decide to go the "frugal gifts" route, then don't announce it or make a big deal about it - just wrap the gifts and give them as you normally would. They're not substitute gifts. They're just gifts. The recipient shouldn't care how much you spent. It is, after all, as they say, the thought that counts.
posted by anastasiav at 12:50 PM on November 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

George Castanza from Seinfeld gave everyone in his office a card saying he made a donation to the human fund for them. I'd say do the same thing.

If it is $150, I would figure out what your time is worth and put it to a charity, telling your family members they shouldn't forget what christmas is all about in the first place.

A soup kitchen is a great place to help out and the kids will have fun, if they aren't stuck up and spoiled.

If the adults don't want to do it, poo poo them and tell them they are being greedy.

I still like the human fund idea the best.
posted by TheBones at 12:51 PM on November 19, 2009

Depending on your dad's personality, could you have a private conversation with him (with your husband's knowledge, of course) in which you explain exactly what you've laid out here?

It seems plausible to me that your stepmother and stepsisters don't understand your financial situation (either because they are self-involved and oblivious or because your husband's sense of privacy around the family finances have led to wrong assumptions in your family). I don't necessarily think you need to call up each rude, demanding relative and explain why you can't participate. I think, instead, perhaps you could approach your father and ask him to act as a mediator between your family and his family.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:53 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Call them, and tell them politely but firmly, that you have taken a close look at your financial situation and decided that you won't be able to participate in Christmas gift-giving this year. Tell them that you are so hard-up that, unfortunately, this will have to extend to the kids, which you feel terrible about but you know they'll understand, and that when you have jobs again it will be back to normal. Tell them that you look forward to spending Christmas together, as it's the companionship that's always the most special thing about that time of year, and that you're not expecting them to purchase any gifts for you. If they can't understand this, the problem is with them, not you.
posted by Dasein at 12:57 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have not given gifts for Christmas for 3 years now, and it's the best decision I've ever made.

I don't have any children in the family to buy for anymore (all grown up), and I had a good conversation with my immediate family when I decided no more gift giving.

I was on my way to the mall to try and get some last minute stuff, stressed out and uphappy to be piling on credit card debt when a commercial came on the radio for discounted breast implants from a local plastic surgeon. Boobs for baby Jesus, that were being specifically advertised for parent's to purchase at discount for their teenage daughters.**

I really felt like I was going to throw up. I went straight home, called my long distance family and told them to expect a card from me and they didn't have to get me anything either.. You should make your decision (in full agreement with your husband) a statement, not a question.

I bake cookies and other desserts for office get togethers, or give a gift card for Secret Santa or White Elephant type parties that I choose to participate in.

**Disclaimer - Plastic surgery can be a great thing, if you choose to do that. It's your body, go for it!**
posted by lootie777 at 1:00 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

but when I suggested that we not draw names for the adults this year, I got the dirtiest look.

Did you ask if you could bow out or did you ask them to table the tradition entirely so that no one exchanged presents?
posted by jrossi4r at 1:01 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

One year in college, Christmas came around and I was very completely broke, but wanted to give my siblings something. I went in my old boxes of stuff in the basement and found a goldmine of Lego. I carefully built a Lego gift box and filled it with all my old toys, some books, my old N64. (They were 10 and younger at the time.)

The kids seemed happy with it, but I was taken aside before dinner and told that This Was Not Acceptable. I felt like an ass, and was completely incapable of believing the kids were anything other than disappointed after that.

Maybe I can sway you and some other people over to my side, the side that hates scheduled gift giving.

Anytime someone expects a gift to the point where not receiving one is an insult is no longer true gift giving. It's a friendship tax. By their very definition, gifts are items given without compensation. This nonsense of trading gifts is just a manufactured economy where the currency is of questionable value and (without receipts) terrible exchange rates.

And while birthdays are generally more spaced out, Christmas involves a very large investment for a large number of people. Add in travel expenses, heating costs, etc. and winter becomes very expensive for the lower-middle class.

Whenever expectations soar (before getting presents), there is also a greater chance of disappointment. It is nearly impossible to surprise someone with a present when they get them every year on the same day.

My system is this: I give gifts. I don't pay friendship/family tithes.

Throughout the year, if I see something I think someone I care about will like, I buy it, wrap it, and give it to them. This can be anything from a stuffed toy to a KitchenAid mixer.

The recipient benefits because they are actually, genuinely surprised and thrilled, no matter how small or insignificant the present would seem otherwise. Stupid comical nightlight on Christmas is tacky; one for no reason other than to get a smile is golden.

The giver benefits by being able to materially express love in a way that actually fits his/her budget.

You'd be surprised how quickly I swung my family and friends to accept my way, if not adopt it. It only takes a couple instances of "Holy crap you bought me Arkham Asylum for no goddamn reason!" before you can once again get together for holidays and other events and exchange laughter, food and fellowship instead of debt.

(I still call and give cards on holidays; I'm not a communist.)

I know this seems like an excuse to soap box, and it partially is. But I see you dealing with a broken system and all I can think is "You don't buy someone a gift because you are required, or because a calendar or tradition dictates. You buy someone a gift to give them something that shows them 'I was thinking of you, I love you, I want you to have this thing I think you will like, and I don't want anything in return other than your happiness.'"
posted by JeremiahBritt at 1:05 PM on November 19, 2009 [35 favorites]

I suggested that we not draw names for the adults this year

The source of the dirty look might have been that you were asking them to not get gifts for each other, which they can do, and want to do. From their point of view, they might be thinking: "Why should I not participate in this Xmas tradition simply because anon can't?"

Let them know that your suggestion of cancelling the name draw, was absolutely not because of any lack of desire to give gifts, but out of an inability to do so. Explain you cannot participate this year in any gift-giving.

Being broke is tiring and stressful. If you are a crafty/baking type and these things are fun and not just a source of more exhaustion and stress, tell them you can't buy gifts but are planning on killer scarves/cookies/______.

If they are mad after putting forward your totally reasonable proposition that you opt out this year -- a proposition that doesn't take away their ability to give gifts if they want -- then you can say: Screw 'em.
posted by girlpublisher at 1:06 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have no qualms about buying stuff for kids, they're not responsible for our poor decision making.

Not getting a gift from a family member you hardly know isn't a punishment. Skip gifts for everybody, kids don't need more things.

And losing your job around Christmas is not "poor decision making."

If you want to get them gifts, look in places like $5 Below (if there are any in your area), dollar trees, and asian grocery stores. Look for little cheap nick-knacks. Seriously, $200 of gifts for three kids? That's insane.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:07 PM on November 19, 2009

I would hope the adults would be more understanding, but when I suggested that we not draw names for the adults this year, I got the dirtiest look.

Are you sure your family understood that you were proposing that only you and your husband would opt out of the gift-giving, and that you weren't suggesting that everybody had to cancel Christmas due to your financial straights?

You didn't suggest that the gift-giving between adults be cancelled for everyone, right? Right?

I think you really need to just tell everyone that you and your husband can't participate, so sorry, it's rotten timing all around to be sure, and if everyone else is uncomfortable having you there if you're not participating in the gift-giving then you will of course be happy to bow out of the celebration. (And spend it with your mom and stepdad instead, maybe?) Then you've put it on them to kick you out of family Christmas over money. I'd be surprised if they were willing to be big enough assholes to *actually* do that, but if they do hey, at least you know exactly where you stand.

And if they don't, then they really can't complain or give you crap about not doing the gift thing, because you were gracious enough to offer to absent yourself if it was a problem, and they were the ones who asked you to come anyway. Win-win.
posted by iminurmefi at 1:08 PM on November 19, 2009

Legal Definition of Gift: A transfer of property with nothing given in return.

Inform the family that, due to your finances, you will not be participating in the gift drawing this year.

The best cheap gift I ever gave my family, and possibly one of the nicest gifts of any category, was when I scanned hundreds of family photos, titled them as accurately as possible, and burned cds. It was a TON of work, but a great outcome. Give every member of your families some heartfelt token - homemade bread, coupons for yard work or mending, the holiday music cds are a great idea. Is there holiday music that your family loves? Rip it and make a family holiday mix tape. If you do coupons, just go do the work. Show up on a Saturday, and say, Hey, looks like the yard could use raking, etc. Kids are often happy with small gifts; it's fun to give kids presents at holidays.

My family gets great gifts some years, and small tokens other years. The most important thing is that every year at Christmas, I spend some time thinking about each person, and remind that person that I love them.
posted by theora55 at 1:14 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can you bake something? That suggestion seems like a good idea, if you can make cookies and/or dessert, a very special one that doesn't cost a ton, but takes time and presents very well, that's a great gift, and since it's adults, maybe spend a little bit for a nice bottle of wine or liqueur to accompany it? If it's a special dessert that one wouldn't usually make and is wrapped and presented beautifully, I can't imagine how that'd go over badly. And on top of it, while you're making this, what about making some for mom and stepdad as well, which I'm sure they'd love & would also kind of take away the fact that you can't afford to buy them gifts but they're nice enough to not expect them - they wouldn't feel bad that you spent a lot.
posted by citron at 1:15 PM on November 19, 2009

I think you need to be very clear with them about your financial situation. It sounds like they don't really understand what dire straits you're in- especially since they're well-off and probably can't comprehend that someone, especially family, could be in such trouble that they can't afford to buy Christmas gifts.

So you must MAKE them understand. None of this "suggesting" that you opt-out. As others have said, tell them straight out that you can't afford to buy gifts. End of discussion. If they're angry, fuck 'em. Seriously. I know they're family, but their attitude is horrible. I certainly wouldn't waste $150 THAT I DIDN'T HAVE on cretins like these.
posted by shelayna at 1:16 PM on November 19, 2009

Nthing bake cookies for the adults.
posted by Billegible at 1:44 PM on November 19, 2009

I would just tell them to all go to hell (the step-mum side of the family that is). Don't send them a letter, don't tell them anything else - you've already made your case and they have made it pretty obvious that they don't give a toss - you should not need to explain it any more than you have done.

This could be the time for a clean break, especially if you say you are not close. Dad's made his choice, let him live with it. I assume that the two branches of the family do not get together. Have your christmas day with mum and step-dad.

If your family can't help you when you are at your lowest ebb (which is when you really need them), then they aren't worth a damn. Stick with those who *do* support you (ie mum and step-dad).

Good luck with finding a new job too.
posted by humpy at 1:44 PM on November 19, 2009

when I suggested that we not draw names for the adults this year, I got the dirtiest look

This isn't about gifts, it is emotional ransom. What you are talking about is buying off these people, so they will be nice to you and make everyone feel okay. But you are selling out your own peace of mind to make theirs work.

You are making how they feel more important than how you feel. The situation is not a happy one no matter what, and it will be much less happy for you if you buy them stuff on credit cards. What matters to people really isn't material things. If you cave in to their demands, you lose. If you stand up for yourselves, you may feel awkward and weird but over time you will be okay with it.

I am not into hostile face-offs where I think, just fuck them if they don't like it. You are not heartless. But if it gets to that, you will come out ahead if you can live through this, hold your ground, and still have a happy holiday season.
posted by chocolatetiara at 1:45 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

My system is this: I give gifts. I don't pay friendship/family tithes.

Quoted for hell yeah.

My suggestion, should you wish to participate in some way, is this: Give the children small gifts. Don't participate in the "official" gift exchange. Bring baked goods or the like for each of the adult couples.

Don't let the bastards grind you down. If anyone raises an eyebrow or gets snarky, beam at them benevolently and tell them how grateful you are for what you have. Out-class them to the extreme.
posted by desuetude at 1:51 PM on November 19, 2009

You didn't suggest that the gift-giving between adults be cancelled for everyone, right? Right?

Yes, this is important to clarify. If that is what you meant, then dirty looks were not out of line - you were. Even if that's not what you meant, if there was any ambiguity, then you should clarify when you call your family - say you're sorry if you were originally misunderstood, and you didn't mean to suggest that others should not give or receive gifts. Then proceed with politely but firmly opting out.
posted by Dasein at 1:58 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Make them token gifts, pass the word that you are in rough shape financially and you're having to scale back on gifts.

Gifts for the kids can be a kit of fun dollar store things, a homemade book with them as main character, toys from a secondhand shop (especially if the kid is young they don't care). Kids also like to get personalized Christmas tree ornaments, which can be something as simple as an origami shape with their name or something similar.

There are a million old threads on here about cookies, candy, crafty things, etc.
homemade food Christmas gifts
homemade crafty Christmas gifts
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:04 PM on November 19, 2009

Their job is not to feed you. Your job is not to fulfill their personal holiday expectations. Here's what I'd do if I were you:

1. Use this as an opportunity to teach your kids about money, in an age-appropriate way.

2. Have your kids make gifts by hand for you, your husband, each other, and the extended family, if they're young enough to find this fun; if they're old enough that they're embarrassed by giving homemade gifts, then you should really talk about money with them this year, in great detail.

3. Whatever money you spent on the materials for the homemade gifts, deduct that from the $200 you were going to spend on your children, and throw a few homemade gifts in the mix for them.

It may be a hard lesson to learn, for you and for them, but life isn't about fulfilling expectations; that's what got you into financial trouble before, and is getting you into familial trouble now (no surprise, since at least some of your elders seem to think expectation fulfillment is what life is all about, and they taught you much of what you know.) It's about living within your means, forming familial connections, and living good lives. Break the cycle with your own kids, even if it means facing your fear of having a disappointing holiday for your kids and yourselves.

For what it's worth, lots of people send gifts for birthdays and the holiday season for our kids, but we've been tight financially since they were born (twins) -- so we spread the giving of those gifts out over the year so there's no orgy of presents expected in the future, we discourage gift-giving at birthdays and whatnot, and when we send gifts they're almost always homemade from the kids. Somehow, we still have happy children, relatives, and each other. It'll hurt to make the change, but it's a good long-term change to make.
posted by davejay at 3:32 PM on November 19, 2009

Oh, and don't engage your relatives about what you're going to do, or why, or what's expected of you, except to say "we can't engage in the gift-giving exchange, except with homemade gifts, so please set your expectations accordingly." If they're rude enough to follow up after the holiday with "you didn't give appropriately awesome gifts", then they didn't deserve the gifts anyway.
posted by davejay at 3:33 PM on November 19, 2009

It is really disheartening to read that Christmas gifts are now considered mandatory for adults. It wasn't always this way-- I swear in the '60s and even into the '70s Christmas was still just for kids with small gifts for your spouse and perhaps your parents (unless you were the Rockefellers.) But gifts for sister-in-law and the lady next door and your friends at the gym and your husband's tennis partner-- people you don't even know well enough to know what they would appreciate? That's what all that novelty gift crap at the department store is for; for people you need to gift, but don't know what they like.

So just stop. We have. Our new rule is small, homemade things for close family only. This year I am making a few mosaic pots (terra cotta pots covered with mosaic tiles that I buy with the weekly 40% off coupon from Michaels) planted with cuttings from my garden. That plus cookies, candy, and some savory pastries.

I know it is hard to buck the trend and goodness knows it feels wonderful to give the perfect gift and see someone's eyes light up-- but how often does that happen? Instead think about how we all have too much stuff. How much money do we send overseas by buying junk made in sweat shops? How much money do we give the banks by amassing debt at Christmas? How much trash gets generated by all that packaging and all those unused gifts? Over consumption is a gross and unnecessary habit. Don't let yourself be pressured into something that will bring you so little pleasure and joy.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:18 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you suggested that all the adults go without gifts, then you should have expected the dirty looks. Some people love giving gifts, it's the highlight of the season for them. So go back and apologise for that, and then say that you simply can't afford to spend much on Christmas this year, but would love to go in the draw if people are ok with you making gifts/giving secondhand. If not, you and your husband will have to sit out this year.

The start googling "handmade Christmas" etc. If you put some serious thought into it, I'm sure you can some up with something that people will love without breaking the budget.
posted by kjs4 at 4:37 PM on November 19, 2009

I concur with a number of posters that

1) you shouldn't spend money you don't have, period. Don't wrack this up on a credit card.
2) you should feel confident to say that you can't do gifts this year for adults or for everyone
3) hand made and "cheap" gifts are the way to go if you do do gifts.
4) If you do gifts, as someone above said, don't draw attention to whether they're "alternative" to spending lots of money. A gift is a gift.

I wonder, though, if there might be a slight miscommunication. You didn't want to do the draw this year, but perhaps your step sisters felt like you were saying that nobody should do that if you couldn't? It may be worth clarifying that you don't mind if others participate in adult gift-giving, but it's just not an option. You can even say "we've made some financial mistakes this past year, but we're trying to learn from our mistakes and be responsible about our budget." That eliminates any question of expensive cars, etc.

I think the key is to make sure that you have no problem with gifts being exchanged in front of you, and that you want to spend the time with them and enjoy their company (I mean, that may be a stretch, but this is how you want to spin it).

This website has some more ideas for low-cost gift giving. Nnot all are practical for your situation but you might find some ideas there.
posted by carmen at 5:01 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, please allow them to fuck themselves. This sort of meaningless, peer-pressured consumerism is also what gets people into debt and other bullshit. If you can find it in your heart to make them something sweet and/or beautiful, by all means do that. But if you don't enjoy the challenge of making things for as little money as possible, don't bother. I'm really not convinced that you need to spend $200 on the kids either.

Yes, totally. Except I'd put a little more gently... but really, kids don't need fancy presents.

How old are the kids? I'm a nanny and the kids that I work with have been most impressed by art supplies (Bucket of crayons? $10 tops. I bought a $5 vat o'clay today and it was like CHRISTMAS in clay form), empty cardboard boxes, and sticks. Seriously, sticks. I'm not saying give the kids in your family sticks - but they don't need $200 worth of presents. At all. If you want to MeMail me with their ages/genders, I'd be more than happy to help you troubleshoot some really cheap gifts that the kids will actually like and more than likely, will still play with 6 mos. from now - which certainly can't be said for most of what kids get for Christmas.

(I remember Christmas last year with the girls I nannied for at the time - they played with their gifts for a week. Some gifts never got touched at all, and those were the ones that seemed to me to be the most expensive. Sure, they looked awesome under the tree, but when it came to actual play time... a toy dog that barks and wags its tail is cute for five minutes, but you can dress up Princess Aurora and make her marry Prince Philip for HOURS.)

As for the adults, I would agree that a conversation where you say "Look, we can afford groceries OR Christmas presents" would be in order. Offer to lay it out for them on paper if it sounds like you're being stingy. One thing we did in my family one year when we were all totally broke was $5 Christmas - $5 per gift, no more than 3 gifts per person. And you know what? It was one of the more awesome Christmases ever. We don't do $5 Christmas every year since we do enjoy giving each other nice things, but the norm is one gift per person. Offer to do something like $5 Christmas - say that you want to participate, but you can't afford to buy "nice" things, so why not make it a game for everyone?

If your family really DOES want to make this into "BUY BUY BUY!" then yeah, you're at an impasse where you're just going to have to piss them off this year. Make it up to them next year - you know, after you've paid your rent.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:13 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another vote for homemade. Do not underestimate the power of ribbon and wrapping. If you take extra care of packaging the gifts in a creative way and enclosing a card with a handwritten message they will feel special. And even if they don't they can't say jack shit.

For a cheap but pretty wrapping, wrap everything in brown kraft paper or and tie with red ribbons.

Make each of the recipients a little goodie bag. Make Cookie Mix in a Jar, and enclose something the recipient would appreciate (paperback novel, candle, inexpensive iTunes card, shower gel, etc.) Place in coordinated gift bag with pretty tissue paper and card. Wrap each individual present that goes into the bag. People have simple minds, they'll be fooled by the pretty paper and unwrapping and feel like they're getting something.

Do not feel obligated or pressured. My husband's aunt gives us a mug with hot chocolate mix in it every year. The rest of us are exchanging pricey gifts (I hate it) and nobody says a peep about the mug gifts. Do not worry and do not apologize or explain. If they don't like it, that's their problem. Speaking of, you could go to one of those pottery places -- make everybody a personalized mug and put in an envelope or two of gourmet hot chocolate mix. Wrap with cellophane and ribbon. Nice.
posted by Fairchild at 5:57 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is it possible that the dirty looks came because of how you phrased it? Suggesting that the family not draw names for the adults, at all, is different than suggesting that just you and your husband bow out. Is it possible they thought you were suggesting that even the family members who could afford it should not give gifts, just because you and your husband can't afford to draw names yourselves?
posted by Ashley801 at 6:01 PM on November 19, 2009

Give the gift of socks. Works for me.
posted by diode at 6:17 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to always laugh when people suggested that I bake cookies for presents. as I would have to learn to bake first - then I found this recipe. I am not a particularly good cook, but my friend (who is an excellent cook) said, after her cookie birthday present, "I dreamed about those cookies after I ran out."

If they don't want cookies for Christmas, make these and eat them yourself. That'll learn 'em. (Note, this recipe is handed down from my Great-Great-Grandmother GoogleSearch. I changed it a bit. The original is here.)

Chewy Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies Recipe

* 1 cup butter, softened
* 1 cup packed light brown sugar
* 1/2 cup white sugar
* 2 eggs
* 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
* 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 3 cups quick-cooking oats
* 1 cup raisins
* 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C).
2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt; stir into the creamed mixture until just blended. Mix in the quick oats, raisins, and chocolate chips. Mix in the dry ingredients gently - as little as possible, just getting it all mixed. Refrigerate the dough for a few hours before baking. Drop by heaping spoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets.
3. Bake for 12 minutes in the preheated oven. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

They take 15 minutes in my oven - they don't really look cooked at the end, maybe a bit tan on the bottom. That's okay, they're done after 12-15 minutes. Longer and they'll be just as good, but crunchy.
posted by artychoke at 6:20 PM on November 19, 2009 [13 favorites]

Just say no - no store bought gifts, no homemade gifts. That's none for adults and none for kids. If they can't get it through their thick skulls then opt out of attending. You don't need to show you bank balance to justify your decision. It's a present, not a tax.

There's no shame in living within your means; in fact it's quite honorable. This year living within your means does not allow for gifts. You mentioned that you made some regrettable decisions which have led, in part, to this situation. That's okay. Now make a really smart decision to reserve your credit for genuine emergencies.
posted by 26.2 at 7:00 PM on November 19, 2009

I'm not adding much to what everyone has already said, but reading the OP makes me want to scream and/or find out who these relatives are and send them gift certificates to Walmart addressed "To: the most insensitive relatives on Earth" "From: forthright at Metafilter". I can't put it more strongly than that. This is just proof that some humans can ruin anything, even Christmas. It is "beyond the pale".
posted by forthright at 7:51 PM on November 19, 2009

Reading your story I placed myself in (the imagined) position of your step sisters and mother.
A wave of depression flowed over me.
If I had ever pressed someone to conform to my idea of how they should celebrate my, opps, THE holidays I would inwardly beg that that someone would gently straighten me out.
If you speak to them in kindness surely they will benefit.

As other posters have said, a simple direct, "We will not be able to participate in gift giving but look forward to seeing you over the holidays" seems to me to be enough. Your poignant details and situation, well, they're yours to share or keep private as you see fit.
Your ability to deal with this situation with dignity is actually a great gift to them (and their children.)
posted by Twist at 8:30 PM on November 19, 2009

Well, there's no earthly reason to do the presents with step-siblings-- since it's a name draw, they each buy the same number of presents and receive the same number of presents whether or not you two participate, so it has almost no practical impact for them. Are they seriously insisting that you participate just so there can be more surprise/variety in who buys for who? You should not feel a moment's guilt in just saying no to that.

As far as your dad and stepmom, I'm not clear from your question if you've even asked them about this ("Dad and stepmom see Christmas unfolding as usual")-- is that because your husband is embarrassed? But then you're possibly going to have to ask that same dad and stepmom for a loan right after you give them their presents? It seems like this is a pretty straightforward conversation: "So look, we're broke. And we're going to need a loan by X date if he doesn't have a job. By the way, how do you feel about skipping the Christmas presents this year?" And/or you can just go handmade/offer your time/service, etc.

Also, if you feel like you need to give to the kids and you don't feel like you can get away with cheap/handmade gifts, how about plans to do something special with them (take them to a show/ballgame/etc) at a time conveniently several months in the future when you'll hopefully be in a better financial place?
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:06 PM on November 19, 2009

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