Too Broke to Buy Christmas Presents

Christmas 1930 by dok1 on FlickrUnfortunately, I suspect many gift-givers may feel this way around this time of year. What was once a mad rush between Thanksgiving and Christmas has spread into a “rush” of pre-Black Friday sales during the entire month of November.

I suspect one day the entire second half of the year will be devoted to Christmas shopping, which is a sad commentary, on many levels, about our addiction to consuming and present buying.

Now that Scrooge has said his piece, let’s address specifically the issue of how to handle Christmas presents when you are not in a financial situation to buy anything for loved ones.

Setting Realistic Expectations

First, we must establish that we are all adults, and adults should, in my opinion, have very minimal expectations of receiving gifts from extended family members. Expectations should decline further given this is still a tough economy, and most people are more interested in saving their money than spending it.

Further still, a good many people are recovering from a layoff, or are still unemployed, so any reasonable person would expect that family not to buy gifts for other family members, and instead try to have a modest Christmas for their children, etc.

Having said all of that, I recognize that gift giving, and a lack of the ability participate, is the cause of much holiday anxiety. I can certainly understand that where children are concerned.

Gifts as an Expression of Love, Not a Holiday Obligation

As a parent, I want my children to enjoy a nice Christmas, and I want them to have a couple nice gifts from Mom and Dad (in addition to anything delivered by Santa). But sometimes you just have to be realistic.

If it comes down to paying the power bill or buying Christmas gifts for cousins, coworkers and friends, we’re paying for lights and heat. If it comes down to making a mortgage payment or buying electronics and toys for the kids, well, it would be silly not to pay the mortgage.

Seems so reasonable in writing, doesn’t it? But it is something people all over will struggle with this Christmas because reason doesn’t often play a big role in spending decisions, particularly around the holidays. And marketers know it. They prey on our emotional  ties to holiday gift giving and have convinced a good many of us that to forgo the purchase of presents is to show a lack of love for someone you care about. Baloney!

Too many people equate love with a tree towering over a stack of paper-wrapped presents. Too many people stack those presents higher and higher in an effort to make up for some lack of emotion they failed to show loved ones all year around.

An absent mom or dad often buys lavish gifts to make up for not being there for baseball games, piano recitals and open house at the new school. Successful kids often send expensive gifts to mom and dad to make up for never calling or stopping by to visit.

The reason I selected the photo above to accompany this post was not because the people depicted appear broke (although it was taken circa 1930, and I suspect they didn’t have a lot of money), but because the grandmother and great-grandfather show a lot of love their grandchildren through the simple act of sitting in the floor and playing with them on Christmas morning.

The photographer even comments that the dump truck he and his brother received were enjoyed for many years to come, probably because they came from someone who loved them so – not because they were especially expensive toys with flashing lights and computerized voices, etc.

Gifts aren’t all bad. After all, a nice gift can be an expression of love, if it is thoughtful and from the heart, not just because it is expensive.

I challenge everyone this year to go into Christmas shopping with a new attitude. Don’t feel an obligation to buy for everyone on your Christmas list. Feel an obligation to find a thoughtful, inexpensive way to mark the holiday season by telling someone you love and appreciate them.

Think about that person as more than just a name on your shopping list. What motivates them? What are they passionate about? What have they expressed an interest in over the last year? A “gift” for them could come in a tiny box, or be a big experience, and neither have to cost a lot of money.

It may take just a little planning or creativity on your part, but if done right, it will be more memorable than anything you find in a store.

Please share your Christmas shopping strategy with us in the comments below, and also look for more discussion on the subject of Christmas shopping at our Facebook page and Twitter feed.


  1. Totally agree. You need to set expectations up front with friends and family members when it comes to gifts, this way there are no surprises.

    Budget your holiday spending like anything else.

  2. Like many other families this year, keeping a roof over your head and food in your children’s bellies is far more important then buying the hot new toy of the season. I am making the bulk of our Christmas gifts this year. Nothing fancy or over the top, but well thought out gifts that I know my family will enjoy and love. Keep it simple…

    • sadly…Christmas was supposed to be about giving of yourself..and sharing..and peace…love…hope…
      but it’s about hundreds of dollars and people pushing and shoving and tvs, phones, computers..who gets the most..who loves you more by why is bought…it makes me sick!!

  3. Glad to read your column on the forthcoming Christmas extraganza. About 6 years ago we stopped all gift giving for family except the children. The reactions were not good and there were many hurt feelings. In truth, everyone was struggling to afford the customary presents purchased.

    Time has helped some of the family and it has freed us to focus on our finances and responsibilities. It may not work for everyone but I am thankful we had the courage to do what was best for us.

  4. We kept our Christmas shopping to a minimum when the kids were little. We got them some standard gifts that we would buy anyway, like the Fisher Price barn. Now I have 3 teenagers, so it is much different now.

    I try to shop all year long. I pay attention when I am with the kids to what they are eyeing. When it goes on sale, I go grab it and hide it in the house. Fortunately all 3 of the kids have hobbies, so it is pretty easy to buy for them, I just don’t buy giant plastic items anymore. 🙂

    One thing I don’t like is we exchange presents with my brother’s family on the other side of the country. I have no idea what his teen boys have or want. I end up spending on Itunes gift cards and hope for the best. It really takes the fun out of it though.

  5. 1. If Christmas gifting is that important to you or your family, then it is always necessary to budget (and actually put aside) $10-$20 each week- that way you wont be surprised come December when you find out someone stuck Christmas in at the end of the year(Dave).
    2. As your children become of age to understand- you have to teach them that their family won’t always be able to keep up with some of the Jones’ out there. The commercialization of Christmas is focused on getting the “hot” gift of that year and “retail sales expectations” than it is the spirit of the season. Materialism (marketing) grabs them early, and if they learn to equate happiness with materialism- its gonna be alot of disappointment down the road. It may sound grinch-like, but sooner or later they will realize life doesn’t treat everyone the same, and it is full of sacrifices. And thats not always a bad thing.

  6. We are doing a White Elephant for the majority of people and then the close people we are actually doing a “Secret Santa” type idea. We set a limit that fit with everyone’s budget and then we get to buy them gifts and fill their stockings with that limit. As for my side of the family, we are doing their gifts after Christmas so we don’t buy them things they recieve as they live on the East coast and I live in the mid-US.

  7. I read this somewhere and our family has adopted it. Each of our children get a gift of warmth (ie. a sweater, blanket) this year I crocheted afghans, a gift of love (which is a homemade gift), gift of knowledge (which is normally a book or a magazine subscription) and a wish gift which is normally a game, barbie etc. I did go a little overboard this year and bought the kids some shirts from ThinkGeek as they are getting older now.
    Hope everyone has a blessed holiday.

  8. One my husband’s side have stopped exchanging between extended family like JMD, but like bogofdebt, we also do a White Elephant exchange at a Christmas Eve party I host. It is really fun and everyone gets to open something. On my side of the family, we have for 5 years now, in lieu of buying for each other, Adopt-a-Family and buy for a needy family instead. It is lots of fun to know you are getting something for kids that may not have even had a single gift or a nice meal that day.

  9. I think this article is awesome! Christmas is about love and spending time together not giving gifts just to cross a name off your list. I truly feel as though Christmas creates a lot of stress for me because I refuse to go over budget.
    A suggestion for readers is to bake cookies/brownies/etc and bring them in little boxes for co-workers or others you feel you have to buy for. I think people appreciate a gift you made and your expression of friendship, love, etc so much more than $$. I liked the comment made about going somewhere and doing something with somebody. I truly feel children remember their christmas memories more than the gifts they received.
    If you must have wrapped presents under the tree you may also think about using paper bags or white paper as an inexpensive way to wrap.Just top the gift off with a pretty ribbon you saved from a gift or store bought item. I always save bows and bags from gifts I received and love to recycle them at gift giving time. This saves a lot of money.

  10. I just emailed all our family and friends that we can not buy or make any gifts this year. I work 6 days a week and barely pay my monthly bills (I am a single homeschooling mom.) So our finances are limited and so is our time. I would love to make gifts, but not only is time limited I can’t knit or crochet, my sewing stinks, and my cooking and baking are only so so.

    I love to buy gifts, so this saddens me, but I also don’t want stress from having utilities and such get behind.

    It is not even practical for us to put $10 a week away, as we don’t even have that to spare.

    That being said I thought I would make a list of the people I would love to buy a gift and each night write a note to one person on list on how much I love and appreciate them. This will allow me to express my love without spending any money.

    • Becky,

      I think your idea is absolutely wonderful and coming from the heart. I can’t imagine anyone that would not appreciate and love such thoughtfulness. Blessings to you and your family.

    • Writing a letter telling someone how much you love and appreciate them, in your own handwriting, is a lovely and thoughtful idea. Too many people do not express themselves verbally and do not show their appreciation in any way that can be seen and felt. The impact of those letters can literally last a lifetime, and beyond. Everyone should have a few from their family and close friends.

      Most people just want to be acknowledged, respected, appreciated, heard, understood and loved. They want to be SEEN and recognized for who they are and what they bring to their relationships. Even folks who like nice stuff are not fools and realize that real love and affection cannot be purchased and that if someone has no time for you, all the nice gifts in the world will never be enough to make up for that loss.

      If all gift-giving had as its intention to recognize people (and not reward them or bribe or guilt them), we’d have a lot better relationships. And would not all be in debt.

      If you have no or little money, you can always be creative and volunteer a service (beyond what you should be doing anyway! Nobody wants a gift of you doing what you should be doing regularly as a “gift.” That’s like when someone gives you money and says “for all you’ve done” when YOU have paid for stuff!)

      The key is focusing on what might really make a difference in someone’s life. You’d be amazed at what you’ll come up with. Doesn’t have to be big stuff.

      FYI: I like stuff, but as adults, we can either afford what we want or we cannot. It’s really not up to others to buy things on our personal wish lists. (As someone once said to me, “gifts are lovely but not necessary. I buy what I want. And I expect nothing from others.” This from one of the most generous people I know who is always doing stuff to help and is extremely compassionate and giving.)

      I love getting gifts ONLY when they are heartfelt, not out of obligation (it’s not a gift, then) and it’s really something someone wants to give to ME. The best gift is still not presents, but PRESENCE. The older we get, the more we really understand this.

    • Becky, You have done exactly what I want to do. I have been thinking, with knots in my stomach, that I need to let people know that I am unable to exchange gifts this year. My adult son doesn’t want us to exchange gifts with each other as he knows that I cannot afford it and reminds me that Christmas is not about giving gifts. Although I know this, I would just like to go in hiding the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. I have been unable to find a job (I retired a couple of years ago, but need a part-time job at least to supplement my social security benefit), and am bearly able to pay my expenses -but I am making it. During tax season ( beginning January) I can work in my sister’s (lives here) family’s income tax office. However, in order to buy Christmas gifts, I would have to charge them, which doesn’t make any sense because I would be paying for them all next year -that is if I am able to pay for them since I haven’t been able to secure a job. All the immediate family that I have is my son (adult), two sisters and an adult brother. The only person that I anticipate will be hurt and probably angry is my sister, who lives on the west coast (I am on the east coast). My younger brother, who died last year had some financial problems years back and said that he wasn’t going to be buying anything except for his wife and Children. The above mentioned sister, expressed to me that she was going to buy him something anyway. She took it personally (although he told this to all of us) that he would not be sending her a gift. I hinted at this (not buying gifts) a few years back, but received no understanding and she (because she and her family are very well off) couldn’t be empathetic. Even if I got in debt (which I can’t -I live alone and depend only on myself), what I would let myself buy, would be nothing that she probably doesn’t have or would especially like -although she would be kind and tell me she will enjoy it.

      I guess that I need to put my big girl dress on and work through the knots in my stomach and just tell her that although I love her very much and will be thinking of her and her family on Christmas day -and will give them a call then that I am unable to exchange gifts this year. My fear though is I am afraid she will mail me a gift -which will make me feel sad if she doesn’t respect my wishes. Oh well… Thanks Becky. I’ll have to decide how to word things and e-mail soon -it would be too traumatic to tell anyone this by phone. I’ll give it some thought and hopefully be able to do this tomorrow.

  11. I agree that Christmas should be all about the kids.

    I have been a single parent for 17 years and my strategy has always been buying throughout the year, although some stores offer great deals between November 1- December 25th.

    The most I ever spent was $75 after a coupon and to get free shipping for a huge box from ToysRUs filled with clearance toys, but the one thing he played with the most was large box that had contained a toy that was made into a makeshift truck with leg holes that he decorated and could run around it.

    When my son was young, I would also pick up good toys at garage sales, Goodwill or Ebay and when he was old enough to wonder why it didn’t come in store bought packages, I explained that they were specially made for him by elves and explained away any imperfections as a casualty of a reindeer mishap.

    As I am currently actively seeking work, as well as most people, I know, we have agreed not to exchange any presents, but we do buy or make small gifts for Christmas bingo games – one year it was made even more interesting by being able to nab someone else’s previously won gift if you wanted it more.

  12. For the second year in a row my family has decided that instead of exchanging gifts we adopted a family through a local organization and are purchasing gifts for those less fortunate. It can be anything from a new winter coat for a child to cleaning supplies for mom and always includes the fixings for a nice christmas dinner. This allows us to give to those less fortunate and focus on how blessed we truly are to have eachother, a roof over our heads and a warm meal.

  13. I like the idea of giving gifts to a family in need. I would rather give someone a jacket to someone who needs one, then give someone a knickknack or some gadget.
    Personally I think Christmas has become way too commercialized. Also Christmas is somewhat of an odd holiday. Originally Christmas was called Saturnalia and it was celebrated by the pagans of Rome. After reading about the origins of Christmas, I no longer celebrate the holiday.

    • We always try to think of ways to give to others beyond our circle. Whether it’s monetary donations, time or actual items (I don’t want to spend my life trying to sell stuff. I’d rather give it to people who need it…it’s harder to do these days because even when you donate, stuff gets sold via shops and picked up in thrift shops by people looking to do reselling. The people who really need clothing or household items have a tough time now with everyone swooping in to buy stuff. Even the sales staff at these places is now hustling the stuff for resale, which defeats the purpose of CHARITY.

      We’re now doing our donations only thru local agencies and institutions that do personal distribution.

      We also share our savings on bulk buying by donating to local food pantries. (And for all of you who hate “extreme couponers” you should know that many of these folks give away hundreds and thousands of dollars of stuff to churches, etc. during the year. It’s not all about hoarding. Many of these people actually purchase food to feed people during the week, people who otherwise wouldn’t be eating.

      Maybe you can’t give to a charity, but you can invite an unemployed friend over for a couple of meals a week. Some folks still feel so bad about their situations that they are shamed when friends buy food for them and feel reluctant to allow others to help out.

      Instead of worrying about Black Friday sales, we should designate the period from Thanksgiving thru New Year’s as a special time to reach out those around us in need. In any way we can. EVERYONE has something to share. Some of us have a LOT to share.

  14. I am one of the lucky ones as I have a wonderful job I worked hard to obtain,….and two stepchildren and I STILL want a frugal Christmas…this year at work I am encouraging all to give to a Veterans Charity in our district…I am making a lot of our gifts as well and having my Stepchildren make something for their grandparents mother and father (I am very crafty…knit, cannot sew very well, love to bake)….not because I want to be cheap…but because I want them to understand that Christmas is about giving from your heart and about showing respect and compassion to your fellow man..this year the theme is Christmas in a Jar….Google gifts in a jar….I may not get anything….but I do not care….Doing all this with my Stepchildren and Husband is all the happiness I need 🙂 (as hokie as it sounds :D)

  15. I really enjoy reading other peoples thoughts on a frugal Christmas. The only comment I have is not all families are willing to get on board with this concept. Neither giving to charity, giving less or giving nothing. I have moved on in life and am no longer participating in what had became a burden and was totally unappreciated. We give to local food banks and buy for a few children that have needs on an Angel tree.

  16. I was too broke for xmas this year due to serious medical bills between my husband and myself we wound up 20K in debt in one year. We ground down through our FSA, our emergency fund and finally our basic savings. I took a part time job, seasonally and that helped, but we still couldn’t manage everyone getting a gift. I’m very crafty, so I gave thought to what people like, what I had on hand, did some online research on How To and got to work. Most folks were deeply touched by the thought and time that went into these gifts. My homemade gifts seemed to have so much more meaning to them than store bought ones. More touching, every time I walk into someone’s house, I see that handmade gift proudly and prominently displayed. I started out feeling ashamed and wound up feeling pleased and happy. Next year I plan to do the same thing. Sure, it’s frugal. But for this one time a year, it expresses my love more than words. I’ll just start sooner! LOL Trying to do it all in one month was a bit nuts with a new retail job on top of it all!

  17. This is one of your older posts, but it’s such a good read. I think a lot of people feel this way during the holidays, and not setting expectations can lead to a lot of stress on yourself, and your wallet!

    What I did for my family one year was personalized family ornaments. They come in different characters, and sizes… so you can have one made of your mom and dad… or the whole family! They’re unique and special gifts that really show that you care. It’s also a great keepsake for many years.. and best of all, you won’t be spending more than $20.

    I haven’t seen them in stores, but you can definitely buy them online at quite a few sites. I used They’ve got 2 family sections you can check out:

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  18. Christmas is a time for family and friends, sure gifts are nice, but this is not what Christmas is about. Children will accept almost anything, it does not have to be very expensive. The most important aspect is to enjoy tour companions, and to be safe.

  19. My children are all grown up and now I have to admit to spoiling the grandchildren. When my children were young I spent a lot of pre-Christmas days wandering thru stores then going out to my car to cry. Then I would go back in and buy what I could afford. One year we didn’t have the money so we took hand-me-down toys from my sister and her husband and wrapped them up. That same year another 2 sisters and my mother bought some things from Salvation Army and gave them to us to wrap, God Bless Them All. Another year as they got older we were short of money and we gave them IOU’s. When we got our income tax return we bought them each a bike. But, every year we were all together and sat down to a good Christmas dinner. Sometimes you need to do something a little different. One Easter I hid their Easter baskets and wrote up clues so they had a treasure hunt. They have never forgotten that. You know what they say they miss the most about past Christmas’s? The new pajamas they always received on Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas everyone.

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