Christmas Gifts That Matter: Buying for People in Tough Times

Every November and December we’re bombarded with gift-giving options. However, such ads generally focus on people who are doing just great, thankyouverymuch. When was the last time you saw a marketing campaign aimed at people who are:

  • Unemployed
  • On fixed incomes
  • In low-paying jobs and/or just getting started in life
  • Setting financial goals (e.g., debt paydown, getting a reliable car)

Does that sound like anyone on your list? If so, consider the bigger picture this holiday season.

It’s tempting – and so easy! – to give another “Doctor Who” T-shirt to your proudly nerdy niece (who has a ton of student debt) or a new IPA to your craft-beer-loving brother (who was unemployed for four of the last six months). This year, though, think about giving gifts that make a difference.

Some of the following categories overlap, which means that some gifts will overlap as well.

Gifts for the recently/currently unemployed…

Make a utility payment. If your brother has mentioned falling behind on the electric or gas bill, offer a chunk of change against it – or, if you’re in a good place financially, pay off the whole thing. And speaking of utilities…

Spring for a phone. Maybe you can add the person to your family phone plan, which can cost as little as $10 per month. Or buy him or her a pay-as-you go cellphone, or purchase some minutes for an existing phone.

Match a Roth IRA. Your brother finally got a replacement job, but is convinced he can’t afford to save for retirement just yet. Tell him that he can’t afford not to save, and then offer this deal: For the next few months (or for as long as you can swing it), you’ll match up to X dollars that he puts into a Roth IRA.

Gift some wheels. If you live in a bike-friendly city and your recipient rides, offer to lend – or give – that bicycle you’re not using enough. Along those lines…

Give four wheels. If you’re in the market for a new car, you might get some trade-in value for your old vehicle. But if at all possible, offer to give it to someone who’s struggling. Not having a monthly car payment is a tremendous gift.

Buy lunch. Your unemployed sister loves McDonald’s fries but is currently eating all her meals at home (and basing lots of them on dried beans). It’ll feel like a real luxury to receive a fast-food gift card to Mickey D’s or any other place she enjoys.

Buy some extras. Your brother and sister-in-law want the best for their child but can’t always keep up. Offer to pay for sports or scouting fees, music lessons, or whatever sounds good.

Gifts for low earners and/or those just getting started in life…

Make a student loan payment. Find out what the monthly installment is and offer the money to cover it. If you’re flush, make more than one payment. A recent study from the Student Loan Report notes that nearly 70% of borrowers would prefer a student loan payment over an equally valued gift, and that nearly 6 in 10 planned to put any holiday cash they receive toward their debt balances.

Lend a deposit. Your baby brother is moving to a new city for a new job. If you can, lend some or all of the deposit he’ll need for utilities and/or an apartment.

Pay some rent. Offer a week’s worth of rent, or more, to a recently divorced sibling. If possible, you can…

Share your space. Let that sibling (or whoever) stay in your spare room or even crash on the couch for a while, to facilitate saving up for a place. To forestall misunderstandings (willful or otherwise), put some specifics in writing: Bro or friend can stay up to X months and will be responsible for X chores/groceries during that time.

Pay insurance. A newly launched relative who’s renting might not have thought about renters insurance, but it’s essential. Not terribly expensive, either; if you can afford about $150 for a gift, get him an annual policy. But even a few months’ worth of coverage is better than nothing. You could also offer to spring for a few months of car insurance.

Cover commuting costs. Give your hard-working but underemployed sister a transit pass or one of those E-Z passes to cover tolls.

Buy personal finance books. Not sexy, but maybe life-altering – you’re giving someone the tools he needs to change his money management. If you’re not sure which ones to buy, check out some Simple Dollar book reviews.

Give the gift of bulk buying. Got a relative or friend with a big family and a low salary? Provide a one-year membership to a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club. Milk, flour, sugar, produce, beans, and other staple foods will be more affordable.

Provide family fun. That low-earning or paying-off-debt family might love an annual pass to a zoo, an aquarium, a museum, or some other fun place. Or cover the parking pass to a popular trailhead in the area.

Cover child care. Go in together with other relatives/friends and pay for a month (or more) of the day care center or family day care. That will give

Gifts for people on fixed incomes…

(Note: This category includes people on disability as well as retirees.)

Pay medical bills. Not all costs may be covered, even if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid. If a relative or friend has a balance, put some money toward it. Or pay it all off, for a very Merry Christmas and a less-stressful New Year.

Buy entertainment. If that fixed income isn’t keeping pace with inflation, the “fun” category of the budget has probably shrunk (or disappeared). Give a movie gift card, or tickets to a play or upcoming special event. Bonus mensch points if you include a ride to and from the entertainment.

Offer your phone. Upgrading your still-in-good-shape unit? Maybe someone on your gift list could use it.

Give some fuel. If your recipient drives, wrap up a gasoline gift card.

Offer yard work. Your grandparents can’t keep up with mowing, shoveling, and cleaning out the gutters, and you don’t have cash for a gift. Promise to do the outdoor chores as needed, all year long. Then keep that promise.

Do some batch cooking. If you’re one of those folks who cooks and freezes a month’s worth of meals in a single afternoon, suggest this deal: You come help me with the cooking and I’ll send you home with some grub for your own freezer. While you’re chopping, sautéing and baking, you’ll have time to catch up on each other’s lives – what many people consider the best gift of all.

Buy the Y. If there’s a YMCA near you, give an annual membership. People who have trouble making ends meet probably can’t afford a health club, and the Y will let them swim, use exercise equipment, and socialize.

Gifts for those with specific financial goals…

This might be the younger brother digging his way out of credit card debt. But it might also be someone who wants to live lean to realize a dream, such as entrepreneurship, at-home parenthood, or early retirement. A bunch of the hacks noted above will work for these folks. So will these:

Tender a standing dinner date. The brother who’s paying down debt might love a weekly invite – especially if he’s sent home with the last two pieces of chicken or a container of your famous chili. The socialization might be as important as the supper, especially if you invite him to share his progress and tell him how proud you are that he’s taking charge of his cash.

Teach a skill. Veggie gardening, couponing, sewing – whatever you do well that will help the recipient stretch the dollars. Or you could…

Offer a skill. Handy folks could help relatives or friends work on that fixer-upper home, change out snow tires, install a washing machine, plant trees, or do whatever needs doing. Those with truly specialized skills could defrag a computer, help them set up an LLC, keep the books, or babysit once a week so the entrepreneur parents could work on their business. Find out what’s needed and see if you can fill that need.

Provide a ride. Does your brother work close to where you do? Invite him to carpool without chipping in for gas.

Give groceries. That could be a gift card to his or her favorite market. Or invite the recipient to accompany you on a trip to Costco or Sam’s Club, and, after checking out, either take $20 less than the food actually cost or refuse reimbursement entirely. Every dollar someone doesn’t have to spend on food is a dollar that could go toward a dream.

Finally, a word about pity

You may feel sorry for a relative or friend who’s had a bad year, or a bad run of years. Don’t let that seep into your giving strategy.

Gift-giving for someone in tough financial straits can be touchy, for two reasons:

  • Some people have a lot of pride and might see a well-intentioned gift as patronizing.
  • Someone who can’t afford to give gifts might be embarrassed to receive one.

You wouldn’t dream of saying, “Gosh, Jane, what a crappy year you’re having, what with losing your job and then having those big medical co-pays when your husband got sick. Everybody feels really sorry for you!”

But that might be how your gift feels to the recipient. Put yourself in her shoes:

“Everyone knows how we’re struggling just to keep the lights on. We’re going to have to go to Toys For Tots if we want anything under the tree for our kid. Why can’t the holidays just be OVER, already?”

Include a brief note with your gift or be ready with verbal sentiments like these:

“I want to practice mindful giving. While a gasoline gift card isn’t the sexiest present ever, I know it’ll be used. Bonus: You won’t have to dust it or wonder where it will go in your house.”

“Nephew: Student loans are a bear, especially right when you’re just starting out. Had some of those myself, which is why I’d like to cover three months’ worth of loan payments. And if you feel a bit odd about this you can always pay it forward, 20 years from now.”

“Hey, Sis, you’ve done an awesome job keeping things on an even keel for the kids after being blindsided with divorce papers. I’m glad you felt you could confide about being behind on the utility bill, and I hope you’ll let my husband and me pay off the balance as our holiday gift to you.”

Give with care and concern, to make a big difference in either the short or long term. That’s much better than a Doctor Who shirt.

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Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

Donna Freedman

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.” A former full-time reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Anchorage Daily News and longtime columnist for MSN Money, Freedman has also written for Get Rich Slowly, Money Talks News, and other publications