Updated on 12.18.07

Christmas, Money, Family, and Love

Trent Hamm

I finally fiished my Christmas preparations this morning, wrapping up the final presents and placing them under the tree. The only other things to be done are food preparations and perhaps a stocking stuffer or two.

I’m very happy with the Christmas choices I’ve made this year. Some of them were really good ideas that the recipient will truly cherish. Others were astoundingly great bargains on quality items. Each one, I think, speaks directly to the person who’s receiving it in some way, which is really what I yearn for most in a Christmas gift.

Yet, somehow, with all of these presents and other items, I’m somehow left feeling empty. Even though I made some very frugal choices this year, I spent a lot of money. We tried to give a thoughtful Christmas gift to everyone who has value in our lives right now: my immediate family, my siblings and their families, my parents, my wife’s parents and siblings, and my current close circle of friends. No matter how carefully we select gifts, this adds up to a lot of money spent.

Does it really mean anything? When I look at all of the gifts under the tree, I simultaneously see both the joy of giving gifts as well as the expense that went into it. Is that gift really a worthwhile expense at all?

What I’m really trying to show with each gift is a way of saying “I love you.” To me, that’s the purpose of a Christmas gift – to tangibly say to someone that they’re important to you and that you care for them. Because of that desire, it’s often easy to fall right into the trap of giving an expensive gift to someone and not worrying about the dollar amount simply because you do care for them and you do love them.

That’s fine if you’re in good financial shape, but so many Americans are not. At least one person very close to me has taken out a home equity loan just to pay for Christmas this year. Another woman in line in front of me at a store recently had her credit card declined while making a $25 purchase.

If Christmas is about saying “I love you” to the important people in your life, say it directly instead of just showing it.

Write some heartfelt notes to people and include them with a more modest gift. I’m planning on doing this with at least a few Christmas gifts this year.

Promise to do something truly thoughtful for the person instead of buying another present. One of the best gifts I’ve received recently wasn’t an item at all. It was a gift of a bed to sleep in and an evening alone with my wife, courtesy of a caring aunt who invited us to spend a weekend at her home. She pledged to watch our children while we spent an evening like we used to before the kids were born. Does it cost her anything? No. Does it mean a lot to us? Undoubtedly. Does it reflect a lot of familial love? Of course.

Better yet, at some point during your holiday celebration, take the time to sit down with each person you care about and tell them that you love them and thank them for being a part of your life. That will mean far more than any tchotchke you can stick under the tree this year – and all it costs is a few minutes of your time. Talk about a bargain.

Christmas is about love, not about who can put the best material item under the tree. Keep that in mind and don’t spend yourself into a giant mountain of credit card debt this year.

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  1. You’ve got your head in the right place, Trent. Many folks focus wrongly on the price tag instead of getting something that shows caring and thoughtfulness. Good job, and enjoy the holidays buddy.

  2. sunshine says:

    I definitely struggle with the gift-giving thing. I personally am somewhat anti-consumerist and believe that a gift is only a stand-in to tell someone you love them AND that Christmas, as we celebrate it, is a holiday created by marketing dept. of big corporations. On the other hand, I’m a bit lazy and don’t want to have to think too much about someone’s gift (I know, blasphemous). Therefore, I end up shopping at the last minute for gifts that might be meaningful and hate it. I prefer spreading out my gift-giving through-out the year when it’s appropriate. (Plus, this allows me to put thought into ONE person’s gift instead of many.)

    Sounds like you have it right.

  3. Matt says:

    Too often people forget about the fact that christmas is more than a spending bonanza! Thanks for the reminder. Sometimes the its not the gift that matters but act of giving.

    I guess I should cave to commercialism and start my shopping soon.

  4. H-Bomb says:


    I started doing something different this year and it has made a world of difference on that huge financial impact this time of year. I started shopping throughout the whole year. If I saw something good for someone I picked it up and hid it away in my closet.
    I found spending a little here or there was a lot more comfortable than spending it all at one time.

  5. Heather says:


    I do that trick too! I love “shopping” from my closet. Not only do I find I spend less, but it is a huge time saver! I also tend to keep a few things on hand that most people like and it has saved me a few times when I get invited somewhere at the last minute – or worse, when I’ve forgotten someone! Anyway, I recommend it being an on-going process.

  6. Mrs. Micah says:

    According to the love language theory, there is a certain subset of people who really feel loved through gifts (they best appreciate the thought and intention behind them). Unfortunately, that means a lot of us like gifts but don’t necessarily feel loved by them–we’d prefer “words of encouragement” “acts of kindness” etc.

    I don’t know if it’s feasible to figure out what different people on your list are most receptive of, but that might help shape Christmas shopping for friends and such…

  7. A simple gift and card can sometimes say so much more than a mere verbal I love you. It might have been financially costly, but it will pay off in the long run in terms of familial and social harmony!

  8. ngthagg says:

    While I was growing up, my Mom would keep an eye open for toys and such on sale. She would keep them in her closet, and whenever I or my siblings had a birthday party to go to, she would pull something out of the closet rather than go shopping. She may have done this with Christmas gifts as well, but I don’t know since I never saw those (until I opened them).

    Regarding Christmas presents, I usually struggle to find something that is really meaningful to give, especially for my parents. (My siblings often have more material needs which are easier to fulfill.) I had a great idea this year which I wish I had thought of earlier: I’m going to find a local event that they will enjoy and get tickets for an evening out. I’m planning on classical music for my mom, but I’m still thinking for my dad.

    Something I’ve realized is that my budget for this kind of thing is a lot higher than for a physical sort of gift. Spending time with my parents is something I value much more than any present, and I’m pretty sure they feel the same about spending time with me.

  9. Toxic says:

    This will be the first year ever when we’re not buying presents for everyone in our family. We have decided only to buy presents to our nephews who are 5 and 3 (finally old enough to be excited about presents). We have announced our plans at Thanksgiving dinner and asked our relatives not to buy us anything. Our parents were very supportive, while my husband’s sister was clearly offended and said that she is expecting a gift from us. We have decided to stick to our plan and tell our friends and family that we love them with weekly calls and visits, not with expensive gifts that will sit on their shelves or be returned to the store…

  10. Erin says:

    This reminded me of this recent New York Times article about the psychological rewards people get from giving and receiving gifts.


    “…psychologists, anthropologists, economists and marketers… have found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Indeed, psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift.”

    I love it when I think of the perfect gift for someone based on their interests, especially if it’s something they never thought of asking for themselves. It shows them that I care enough to pay attention to them and think about their interests. I think one of the problems with gifts is when you think that the value of gift-giving lies only in buying big-ticket or a large quantities of gifts.

  11. DivaJean says:

    Sometimes, you really only want the non material gifts.

    My mother in law, bless her, was very perplexed about what to get me this year. My insistence that her time watching the kidlets every once in a while so hubby & I can go out is the gift fell on deaf ears. Its really the best thing for us- kids want grandma, we get some freedom for a few hours. I think I’m getting a gift card.

  12. Sarah says:

    I have done the ‘Gift Closet’ method these last ten years, and it works well for budgeting gifts that are ‘just the right thing’, and obtained frugally. However, increasingly I find that all that energy focused on ‘things’ is all wrong. Next year, I will write checks, give homemade jam from my garden, and visit more, with pictures.

  13. Jamie says:

    Have you seen the Best Buy commercials, the ones where the kids don’t care about the pile of presents in the attic, because they only want the Best Buy gifts (and who wraps a gift in such a tacky manner, anyway)? That, to me, is what’s completely wrong with this gift-giving thing.

    You’re right, Mrs. Micah; I have some friends who receive love best through receiving gifts. For that reason, I try to space out gift-giving over an entire year. If I see something that’s reasonably priced and makes me think of them, I enjoy buying it and giving it to them (of course, I’m also liable to make a mix tape or something else free, just to let them know I’m still thinking of them). I have a seriously problem with this attitude of obligatory giving and entitlement.

    I think that a well-chosen gift not only says “I love you”; it also says I know you well enough to choose something you’ll like, and I think about you enough to make this effort. I think gift giving is a brilliant thing, and I love being lavish in giving gifts to my friends (I budget that lavishness in, of course). But I wish it weren’t so bunched up at the end of the year!

  14. thisisbeth says:

    Another path to consider is hobbies–whether woodwork, knitting, or scrapbooking, there’s likely someone to whom you can give a gift of your own making more cheaply (or better quality) than they could buy. I don’t care if my cousin only spent a dollar on the yarn for the scarf she crocheted me last Christmas. The scarf is pretty, and warm.

  15. BigRed says:

    Well, this is hard to define as frugality, per se, but this year, we’re taking a weekend and going skiing in lieu of gifts within our nuclear family. We’re letting our older daughter bring a friend (because parents are squares). We rented a condo, so, though it’s more expensive, we are saving on food by eating our own food, and packing lunches and snacks for the daytime. We’ll spend the evenings watching DVDs, playing board games and eating popcorn.

    With a high-schooler, there is only so much more time we have with her, and spending time means much more to her than material stuff, which we probably couldn’t share in with her anyway.

    It helps a lot that she is on an anti-Chinese made product kick too–if you make a decision to not purchase anything from China, there is basically nothing to buy :)

  16. That One Caveman says:

    The fun I’ve had with Christmas this year is to see how much love I could spread with $100 – my budget for my wife’s gifts. It’s been an interesting journey to find ways to cram as much value into that $100 while also expressing my love and showing how much I thought about what she really wanted and would love. I can’t wait to see her reactions on our “Broke Christmas” morning when I’ve fully stocked the area under the tree with her gifts.

  17. m says:

    To me, a gift is not equal to a declaration of love.

    Of course, there’s love behind each gift. But an “I love you” wouldn’t be the equivalent of a gift at Christmastime for me.

    A gift first of all shows that someone is thinking of you, cares for you, and wants you to have something you’ll enjoy. But it also shows the person is willing and wants to spend time on you, to think about the perfect item you’re most likely to love, to go out or go online and buy that item, to wrap it beautifully, choose a nice ribbon and matching gift tag, etc. All of that shows that the giver knows you well enough to find a great gift for you and has taken the time to really make the experience special.

    That isn’t something that you feel in the same way when someone simply tells you they love you. Love is enough, of course. But gifts have a purpose, too.

    Besides the message they send to the recipient, they also essentially force the giver to take time out of his or her life at least once a year, or whatever, to stop and think not about what new thing he or she wants next, but about what everyone else in his/her life may want. And then actually goes on a mission to find those items, buy them and wrap them, etc. (Of course there are plenty of other reasons for why giving is healthy and good that I haven’t mentioned here.)

    By no means am I suggesting gifts should be expensive, but I am suggesting that the act of giving–and even receiving–is good for us. Giving pulls us out of our “I want/I need” mentality and makes us think of others. It leads us to spend our hard earned money not yet again on ourselves and immediate families but on our extended social support system. The act of giving, the parting with our precious dollars, signifies that we care enough about others to give to them too, to not just hoard our money for our own needs and purposes.

    Most of all, giving simply allows us to feel the satisfaction of giving–and perhaps encourages us to do more of it, perhaps in other forms such as with incrased giving to charity, throughout the year.

    I 100% agree about the empty feeling when you know you’ve spent too much, whether on yourself or others. It’s just wasteful, and feels awful. I still struggle with it at Christmastime, too. I think we (those of us who need to) should work on spending less if we need to, but I don’t think the tradition of gift giving, a very long standing tradition in many cultures, can simple be replaced with an “I love you.” Giving has its purpose, too.

    But for it to feel good, it needs to be responsible giving, meaning we don’t spend more than we ought and more than we planned or on things that are useless just to have something to give. I’ve found when I can give responsibly, that empty feeling is nowhere to be found.

    Happy Holidays!

  18. Becky says:

    My family is planning on doing the weekend away idea, too. My brothers and I have just gotten to the age (past college) where we make as much as my parents make and we end up giving them cash in a card and they give us cash in a card. Silly!

  19. Jason says:

    My wife and I struggled with what to get my grandmother this year. We decided that a custom calendar of picutres of my daughter from Shutterfly was a good idea since great-grandma doesn’t get to see her very much (we live in a different state).

    When we received the finished product, we were so thrilled with it that we decided that next year everyone would get gifts like this – simple, personalized, and everyone will love them! (the whole family is always asking for more pictures anyway)

  20. H-Bomb says:

    Oh and one thing we do at my extended family gatherings, that has become ritual, is a game of Rob From Your Relative. Instead of buying gifts for everyone and spending a fortune we all bring 2 $10.00 gifts. We pile them all in the center of the floor, you roll the dice-get a 6 get a gift, get 2 6’s get 2 gifts and roll again. When all the gifts are gone you start stealing from each other. When the timer goes off you get to open what you have in front of you (and if anyone ended the game with nothing they get to steal a present from those who have the most, so no one is left out). There is always that one gift that everyone fights for, and a good gag gift that gets passed around each year as well. This is one of my favorite parts of Christmas, it is affordable and tons of fun. Way better than just exchaning gifts just because you have to. I would prefer to do this every where I went.

  21. Aryn says:

    For me, gifts are not a way I say “I love you.” Instead they’re a way for me to give the person something I know they will enjoy and appreciate, but might not buy for themselves.

  22. Chef says:

    “If Christmas is about saying “I love you” to the important people in your life”

    Christmas is actually the day we celebrate the birth of Christ our savior. I’m all for family time at Christmas and I thoroughly enjoy giving and receiving gifts, but Christmas has way more to do with where I’ll be spending eternity than where I’ll be spending Dec. 25 – Dec. 31.

  23. MVP says:

    We go the frugal-but-thoughtful route every year. Sometimes that means creating homemade gifts, other times, just inexpensive groupings of gifts that reflect the personality of the recipient. This year, I made food item gifts-in-a-jar. While they were lots of fun (if time-consuming) for me and my husband to put together, I still feel pangs of guilt that the gifts aren’t really personalized – most of our loved ones are getting practically identical gift packs. We just pray they enjoy them and don’t see them as cheap – they weren’t at all! In fact, they took a lot of thought, time and money. I spent $65 just to ship them to four sets of far-flung family members last week. Yikes!

  24. Johanna says:

    @m: Right on. I was going to try to post something to that effect, but you said it better than I ever could.

  25. NP says:

    I got of the gift-buying guilt trip a long time ago. What a waste of money to buy knick knacks for everyone–especially junky stuff that will end up cluttering their homes. I have received my share of coffee mugs and summer sausage and many of these go straight to the trash can with the wrapping. I strive to get something consumable for most people (like really nice maple syrup). I give kids money and candy. They can collect all the cash they receive and get something they want that I’d never spend the money on.

    Really, time spent with loved ones is more generous than a gift.

  26. Katie says:

    I’m giving my close friends (and new parents) some onesies for their little ones, as well as a nice “gift certificate” for a night of babysitting so they can go on a date.

    I’ve never been one who has been able to spend much money on Christmas gifts, and yet I always manage to find something that people get enjoyment out of – it makes me very happy and gives me a nice “warm fuzzy” when I see people using the gifts I’ve given them in years past, showing that the gifts I chose (usually cheaper) are still valued and important in their lives.

    I REFUSE to buy gift cards for people, and instead try to couple thoughtfulness with budget and give them something they’ll enjoy that isn’t necessarily the ‘latest and greatest’.

  27. HebsFarm says:

    Thank you Chef. I didn’t want to be the first, or the only one to say it, but if I feel empty when I look under the tree, I look at the manger for awhile, and then – amazing – I start to feel full again.

  28. partgypsy says:

    I agree with the poster that psychologically I do spend money on gifts, but get alot of enjoyment out of it. As it is something important to me, I am just trying to find ways to do it more frugally. If it’s someone I haven’t seen all year but who shares my taste in reading, it might be a book I really enjoyed, and a list of other books I liked. Or getting a frame for a child who loves making art to frame their artwork. For the grandparents, personalized calendars or brag books of the grandkids. Things that help is not waiting until the holiday season if you find the right item, and we are now doing secret santa (only get 1 gift from 1 person, and likewise buy 1 gift for another person).

  29. Jen says:

    I’m glad that Mrs. Micah mentioned the idea of love languages. Gifts are a major love language for me, whereas my dad couldn’t care less. (Whenever we ask him what he wants for Christmas he says, “Nothing.” And he actually means it.) I was serioiusly confused by the difference until I read about the love-language theory!

    To some of us it really is the thought that counts–not the gesture. The price of the gift is far less important than your knowledge of the recipient. I was thrilled the year my mom got me a blender because she’d gotten the idea from something I’d said months ago, rather than asking me for a list as usual. (And it’s a nifty blender.)

  30. Ro says:

    We have scaled back our Christmas this year, but not done away with it completely. My husband derives a great deal of joy from finding something he knows I’ll love, even if, like this year, it’s something small.

  31. Jackie says:

    This Christmas I tried to save my money and do something that I love and I hope they love it which is sewing. So most of my gifts are handmade such scarves and quilts. Hopefully my family will be thankful for the time and thought put into the gifts and not want just expensive, ‘made in china’ items.

  32. Casey says:

    A really great gift to give is a loan to someone in another country who really needs it. It’s a different take on giving, because it’s a loan, but worthwhile nonetheless.

    Check out


  33. bunny says:

    everyone knows that a part-time holiday job can be a great way to make some extra cash for christmas, but what is often overlooked is the discount! many jobs will staff people who only have 10-15 hours available each week. this doesn’t demand a large amount of yr time, but it does get you the benefits of buying their merchandise for anywhere from 20-50% off. i usually try not to buy all my gifts for my immediate family from my employer, but all those items for my friends and such–those are a definite.

    also: a declined credit card doesn’t necessarily mean that credit isn’t available on a card. in my many years of retail experience it just as often (if not more so) means that the account has been flagged. these incidents increase dramatically at this time of year. people are spending more money, more frequently and sometimes in cities they are traveling too.
    i always encourage my customers to call their credit card company when their card is declined.

  34. S. Kling says:

    All aboard Mrs. Micah’s Love Language Express! WoooWoooo!

    Truly, no one expression of love will be appreciated equally by those you share Christmas with. Applying the concepts presented by Dr. Gary Chapman, though, can prevent so much of the emotional distress and confusion surrounding the holidays.

    Perhaps one of the Five Love Languages books is worth a Simple Dollar review? I’m sure Trent and we can appreciate the cost/benefit of love well-expressed versus love lost.

    Finally, thank YOU Trent. You are an inspiration.

    Merry Christmas!

  35. Gina in FL says:

    I agree with your comments about Christmas giving; however, it makes me sad that nowhere in your article did you allude to the REAL meaning of Christmas and why we celebrate in the first place = The Birth of Christ! We have tried to teach our children that this holiday is not about Santa, trees or the amount of presents (although we do participate in all three) but that the focus needs to be on celebrating the miraculous birth of Christ which was God’s gift to us! I wonder how many don’t know the true meaning of Christmas, before the retailers got ahold of it?! Have a Very Merry Christmas!

  36. Stenya says:

    Trent, I understand the paradox you’re feeling – how far can you go before it’s no longer “worth it”? About 10 years ago, I scaled back on Christmas gift-giving dramatically – totally impractical to buy gifts for seven siblings, fifteen nieces/nephews, six parents, two godchildren, plus close friends. Now, every year I buy/make 23 of the same Christmas tree ornament, and send one to each sibling/kid along with several kinds of homemade candy. Since we’re spread out all over the country, it’s kind of cool that we all have the same ornaments on our trees (and that the kids will all have a box full of ornaments when they move out!), and are eating the same goodies on Christmas Eve.

    And I wanted to comment on your idea that you could write a heartfelt note “and include it with a more modest gift.” To me, the note IS the gift. A book or CD or other “small” gift can be purchased anywhere, any time of the year… but to me, the turning of the year is the perfect time to think about the gifts that can’t be bought.

  37. Penny says:

    Trent, I’m impressed with your integrety and your kind heart. I hope you and your family have the most loving and joyful Christmas time. Thanks for all the great reading you have given me for the past few months. I’ve learned so much from you.

  38. Nadine says:

    I’m sure the heartfelt not will be a great Christmas present or Father’s Day present when you are contemplating something for that hard-to-buy-for guy who has everything! My dad is a self-made man who has no need for shirts or socks or trinkets or books or games or really anything I would consider buying for him. Plus he doesn’t like me spending my money on him. So I usually give him sugar-free candy and my time, a rare visit as we are both busy and not living all that close together.

  39. kim says:

    It seems to me that we all must set a budget for gift-giving and then stay in it no matter the pressure to do otherwise.

    I recently started a job and was invited to attend the company Christmas party the next day-with gift exchange. No one explained what that meant, but I overheard whispers of gift cards for this one and who likes a gift card for this store and that coffee shop, I had to decide. First, it’s bad form to skip the company party without a compelling reason and I won’t make one up. Second, having been there only two days by the time of the party, I felt it would be out of line to spend much. So I went to my favorite girly-girl store and bought three elegant (and very inexpensive) Christmas ornaments. They put them in their own beautiful bags with ribbons and a beautiful presentation and I walked out for about 12 bucks.

    Whenever possible, suggest drawing names, especially among the adults. By common consent, my siblings and I rarely do gifts for each other. Sometimes I will see something that I really want them to have and will pick it up, but then I always mail it too late for them to do last-minute reciprocation. It’s kind of fun and totally-guilt free. But we aren’t a family that equates gifts with love.

    For my parents this year I am making them some homemade lefse. Likewise for my sister who lives here in town. I will make a bit extra for a couple of swedish friends. It is inexpensive, but takes time and is something I love.

    Trent, you are a writer, so you may understand this. I do sent heartfelt notes of appreciation, but I also send a small collection of my own short-stories made into a small booklet covered in heavy beautiful Christmas paper and bound with gold elastic cord. This becomes our Christmas “card” for close friends and family. I hear more about that booklet than I ever did about trinkets I would send, no matter how special. I find the cards showing up on display at friends houses. Some have all of them, and it is obvious that they put them away carefully with their Christmas decorations.

    I spend more time on that then any non-writer would guess, but it is one of the most fun projects of my year. (although with the new job I haven’t printed them yet. Yikes!)

  40. sharon says:

    I love Christmas and this year asked my husband not to get me anything, I don’t need more stuff!!! Last year he bought me the most useless gift and it’s still in the box (he hasn’t installed it). He adamantly refused and now I’m annoyed because he’s going to waste money on more crap I don’t need instead of giving me what I want, time spent with him.

    It drives me nuts!!

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