Tips for Reining In Holiday Gift-Giving

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Want to keep the holiday crush under control without inciting a family riot? Try suggesting these gift-giving ways.

1. Set money limits. It can be tough to stick to a budget when those around you are big spenders. No one wants to hand over a pair of socks and receive a Wii in return (or the reverse, for that matter). If everyone agrees on a reasonable limit beforehand, no one will feel resentful for spending too much or guilty for spending too little. In many families, particularly those that are growing exponentially with in-laws and grandchildren, drawing names may work best. Even if the spending limit is $75, that can still be a bargain when you consider that each member is buying for only one person.

2. Remember: Less is more, even for kids. Families with young children may find it useful to cap the number of gifts, not just the monetary value. "It used to be ridiculous the amount of toys and gifts the kids got," says Jennifer Zahradnik, a D.C. resident whose husband's family includes 11 grandchildren. "And their parents were sick of having so much stuff." The adults in her family have drawn names for more than a decade; a few years ago the young children started doing the same.

Of course, in many families cutting back may take some getting used to. Michele Borba, a child-development expert and author of several parenting books, including "Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing," recommends taking baby steps. "Don't do cold turkey," she says. Borba says parents should slowly ease their children into a simpler holiday after a discussion about it. "Sit them down and tell them, 'We're cutting back this year,' " she says. "You don't need to be morose. Kids don't need to know how the Dow is doing. But for the most part, kids are pretty accepting" of changes, as long as they understand the reasons.

3. Chip in, then splurge. Instead of spending, say, $20 per person for separate gifts, a group of friends or family members should consider pooling resources for something really special. This works well for weddings and birthdays, too. "One year for a friend's 30th birthday, a group of us chipped in and bought a commissioned painting by an artist she admired," says Lisa Wise of the Center for a New American Dream. "Years later, she still has it and loves it."

Stuck for splurge-worthy ideas? Try giving an experience. For the spa fanatic, think massage. Or mani-pedi. Or a seaweed body wrap. (Yum.) Shopping for a sports fan? Forget the team jersey; get two tickets to the Nationals' season opener. A child might enjoy tickets to a puppet show or a kid-oriented concert. (If you are taking someone else's child to see the Wiggles perform live, consider it a gift to the parent, too.) For a family, buy a membership to a museum or aquarium.

4. Ask for contributions. Silver Spring resident Alysha Taylor asked her extended family to forgo gifts last Christmas and to help fund a summer trip to a Sesame Street resort in the Caribbean for her, her husband and their two young children. "It's fairly common in our family to group together to buy a larger gift," she says, so she knew the grandparents wouldn't object to this sort of guided giving.

In some families, however, requesting monetary contributions can make for a delicate discussion. Borba recommends using tact and reason. And don't hesitate to delegate the diplomacy: "You may need to have the husband ask his parents and the wife ask hers," she says. In Taylor's case, only her family was asked to contribute. Her husband's family gave other presents, which assuaged her main concern about the trip-as-gift: her 3-year-old son's reaction on Christmas morning. "There was enough stuff under the tree that he didn't miss it," she says.

5. Spend time, not money. Remember when you were 10 and out of cash, and had to get your mom a present? Remember how you cut up slips of paper and made coupons that read, "Good for One Back Rub" or "Redeemable for One Hug"? Okay, maybe the hug won't cut it anymore, but think of what you do have to offer: Babysitting services for exhausted new parents. Painting assistance for a friend who just bought a house. Pet-sitting for a honeymooning couple. And, hey, the back rub still sounds pretty good. If you are afraid that the giftee won't redeem the coupon, try planning ahead and including a date (for example, "Good for Four Hours of Babysitting on March 8"). It can always be renegotiated, and it makes it sound as if you mean it.

Borba says parents should steer grandparents and other family toward giving experiences (see Wiggles show above), rather than toys or clothes. "Talk to your parents about it. Say, 'You know what, Mom? What they really want is memories of you. Take them out and do something,' " she says. And if the gift-giver is reluctant to show up empty-handed on Christmas morning, he or she can give a small concrete symbol as well: a stuffed panda for a trip to the zoo, a football for the big game. Borba is also a fan of giving lessons (violin, ballet, baseball) provided the receiver has shown an interest. Such a present, she says, can serve as a "connector" between the giver and the receiver, particularly when the receiver is, say, a 7-year-old boy who only wants to talk baseball, even to Grammy.

6. Make it yourself. With a little time and maybe just a little skill, most adults can create something desirable with their hands: a framed photograph, a knitted scarf, a plate of cookies. "Consumables are actually great," Wise says. "Their environmental impact is minimal, and they're not going into a landfill." (She has apparently never received a fruitcake.) Instead of regular gifts, Zahradnik's Norwegian father hands out what she calls "heritage packages": collections of homemade and store-bought Norwegian food such as hjortebakkels (doughnuts), yule kaka (bread) and gjetost cheese. "I know I can buy it at the supermarket, but it tastes better from my dad," Zahradnik says.

7 Give to charity instead. Like asking for contributions, this gift alternative can be tricky to execute. The key is to make sure that the cause you are supporting is important to the receiver, not only to you. Just because you want to ensure that every Dalmatian has a safe, happy home doesn't mean that your best friend wants to celebrate Hanukkah with a donation to Dalmatian Rescue. Instead, think about what matters to her and where she already gives her time and money.

Some charitable organizations are especially good at making the donor feel involved in the cause, and some are particularly child-friendly. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, lets donors "adopt" an endangered animal; choose from a list of dozens, including the giant anteater, great white shark and golden lion tamarin. For a $25 donation, the adopter receives a certificate and a photograph of the animal; for $50, the organization includes a stuffed toy version of the creature, perfect for the hard-to-buy-for stingray lover on your list .

-- Hannah Schardt

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