Planning for Classy, Low-Cost Holiday Gifts Starts Now – But It’s Easier Than You Think

Let me offer up a little challenge for you.

Make a list of every adult you plan on buying gifts for this holiday season. Your partner, your children, your parents, some of your close friends, extended family members… you get the idea.

Now, go through each of those items and ask yourself how many of those people you’re not actually very excited to get gifts for. Maybe it’s due to some kind of obligation, or it’s a routine you’ve been doing for years, or whatever.

Then, go through the list again and ask yourself which ones for whom you have no idea what on Earth to give that person. Who on your list is very difficult to buy for? Which ones fill you with stress at the thought?

(We’re not including children here, nor are we including any adults you’re excited to give a gift to.)

If you’re anything like me, you probably have a healthy list of people that you don’t want to give gifts to or you’re apprehensive about doing so. Now, consider how much money all of those gifts are going to cost.


The thing is, a lot of those people are probably thinking the same thing about you. They’re apprehensive about giving you a gift. They don’t know what to get you. They’re stressed out about the money. If they’re not already feeling this way, they definitely will be a month from now.

Right now, you have a perfect window of opportunity to make things better for both of you with a simple phone call or text or email. Just suggest to that person that instead of buying each other a gift, you do something different instead.

Try something like this.

“Hey Andy,

I’ve been doing some thinking about holiday gifts. You are really important to me and I want to continue seeing each other during the holidays and exchanging something for the holidays, but money is tight for me.

So, here’s an idea I had…

What kind of idea? Here are a bunch of them.

Make Something for Each Other

“You’re a fairly crafty person, and I have some ideas. Let’s make something for each other!”

Think about the stuff you know how to make or are at least capable of making. There are a lot of things that most people can make, like preserved foods or baked goods or soup mixes. Many people have hobbies that center around making things, like woodworking or scrapbooking or photography.

If you have a friend that you know likes to make things and probably has supplies on hand to make a simple gift (like a batch of cookies), and you’re pretty sure you can make something like a soup kit, or maybe you have some special skill yourself, suggest this to them.

A few years ago, Sarah and I made handmade gifts for virtually everyone in our family and many of our friends. The financial cost of the gifts was pretty low – much lower than our usual gifts – but so many of them ended up used and appreciated. I particularly liked our homemade stationery and our soup kits.

Help Each Other with Holiday Prep

“You’re always so overwhelmed with holiday meals, and I’m always stressed out about getting things ready for the big New Years party. How about, instead of adding another worry about gifts, we help each other prep as our holiday gift? It’s time we can spend together and removes two worries for both of us. I’ll spend the Saturday before Christmas with you and you can come over in the morning on New Years Eve.”

We are almost always overburdened with preparatory tasks during the holiday season and simply having an extra set of hands around during the final day or so would be incredibly invaluable. If nothing else, it would ensure a good night of sleep for both Sarah and myself.

We also have friends who celebrate holidays besides Christmas and some who do who have big end of the year celebrations or other celebrations around that time of the year.

Simply swapping helping hands for the day and calling that a holiday gift is probably going to have more positive impact on both of your lives than anything that could possibly be wrapped up and exchanged. It allows you both to de-stress. It allows you both to spend a bunch of time together. It probably defuses some potential holiday disasters that occur due to too much stress and too little sleep.

It’s a wonderful, meaningful gift and it costs nothing at all.

Write a Letter to Each Other

“Let’s spend some time thinking about what we really appreciate about each other and write each other a letter about it. We don’t often really say ‘I love you’ or talk about what we mean to each other, so this might help.”

This is a great gift between romantic partners, particularly those who have become a bit comfortable in their relationship.

It’s often hard to come up with the right words in the moment to express how much someone means to you. Even something as simple as “I love you” doesn’t always come to one’s lips easily. Give it some time and thought, however, and powerful things can come forth from the heart.

Spending some time writing a truly heartfelt letter, where you have time to think through your feelings for that person and note the many things you appreciate about them, can create something almost life-changing for the recipient. It’s part of the reason why I’m such a huge advocate of thoughtful handwritten thank you notes – receiving something like that is incredibly powerful.

Suggesting this now gives you both time to collect some thoughts, ones that you might not have on the tip of your tongue on a busy day, but that might come through with some reflection and time. That type of reflection not only raises your appreciation of your partner when you spend time reflecting on how much they mean to you, but the resulting letter is a gift that’s deeply meaningful for both of you and essentially free.

Spend a Day Together

“Rather than buying gifts, let’s just spend a day together doing all the stuff we used to do back in the day. Let’s go out to grandpa’s farm a day before the holidays and find that old tree… or maybe just hang out together wrapping gifts.”

If you have a sibling or very close friend that you’ve felt out of touch with lately, simply planning a day together doing something that you both enjoy is a great holiday gift for each other.

Make your shared time the gift, because time is a powerful gift when you’re in the throes of a busy adult life.

Maybe during that day, you might even make something for each other. For example, a friend of mine spent a day with their adult sibling last December and they wound up getting out a box of crayons and a bunch of paper and sat at the table drawing each other a picture. They swapped them and hung them on their fridge as a reminder not only of their day together, but of their relationship. The one my friend has is a crayon picture of the barn that they used to play in at their grandparents when they were little. In my opinion, that was the coolest holiday gift I’ve seen in a long while.

The key is to do something together. If it ends up with you keeping some sort of memento from the day, that’s fantastic, but the key is to spend that time with each other. Time is a real gift, and giving that gift to each other is quite powerful.

Do Holiday Stockings

“Let’s get everyone together and hang up stockings. Then, everyone can go through and just put something really little and fun in each one. At the end of the day, everyone can dump out their stockings.”

If you have a small group of people who exchange gifts with each other but the sum total of the gifts is getting to be overwhelming, consider instead doing stockings instead of big gifts.

On the day of the event, everyone brings a stocking and hangs it somewhere. Throughout the day, people “stuff” the stockings by putting a very small inexpensive fun item in each one. Consumables – like a candy bar or a few homemade cookies – are perfect for this.

Then, at the end of the day, everyone dumps out their stockings and sees what they got.

If people want to pick something individually for each person that’s different and suited to them, that’s fine. If people want to just buy the same little cool thing for everyone, that’s fine, too. I recommend keeping the cost per item nice and low – $5 or less. If people want to go above that, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t expect that others did so.

This is something I’ve actually nudged some of my extended family to do, and it’s something that I would like to see my immediate family transition to when our children are older.

Make Photo Sticks

“Let’s just go through our pictures and fill up a memory stick or an SD card with ones the other one would value. I’d love to have some pictures of Aunt Edna and Grandma, and I have some of Grandpa and you. It’d be a great way for us to digitize some old prints and sort through them and we’d both get something meaningful out of it.”

Again, this is a gift where, rather than investing your time and money to choose a gift that’s probably low in terms of meaning, you simply direct your time rather than your money toward a gift that’s probably high in meaning.

Many of us have tons of photographs and images spread across our smart devices, hard drives, and photo albums that are in disarray. A gift like this gives us a personal reason to organize all of that stuff and do something with it. Digitizing old images and sensibly organizing one’s digital images is a great task, and then selecting from those organized images for pictures that might be meaningful for someone transforms the results of that task into a wonderful gift for someone.

It doesn’t have to be just images, either. For example, one thing I’m considering doing – something that will probably take until next Christmas – is scanning in a bunch of my grandmother’s journals, getting a bunch of dirt cheap memory sticks, and giving digital copies of those journals to all of her grandchildren. It’s a pretty significant project and one that will be deeply meaningful to the recipients, but the actual cost is really low.

Blatant Re-Gift

“We’ve both received stuff for gifts in the past that aren’t really right for us. Let’s just go through the stuff in our closets and re-gift them to each other. It’s a lot better than the stuff sitting in the closet forever.”

I have two close friends who have made it an ongoing practice to “re-gift” to each other the gift they received that was the furthest off the mark the previous Christmas (provided it’s a nonperishable item, of course). It gives them a reason to hang out together and have a good laugh together without having to buy each other a gift.

The amazing part? Sometimes the new recipient of those items actually loves the item, and they’re both happy about it. (Of course, sometimes it’s a disaster, too.)

This is such a fun idea. It gives people a way to take unwanted gifts that they’ve received and pass them along to someone else who may want them without fear of reprisal. It’s a “free” gift and a good way for both of you to clean out your closet a little bit.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a few … shall we say, less than on target gifts in my closet. A couple of these would fit some of my friends fairly well, but the idea of having it be discovered as a “regift” seems bad. Why not just make it openly into a “regift,” for both of us? It saves money and solves a problem while potentially giving us some laughs.

Helping a Mutual Person

“Let’s just spend the day together at Grandma’s fixing things up, getting her groceries, cleaning her house, and doing things she needs to get done, and just having a couple of meals with her, just like we did when we were kids and would go visit her in the summer.”

It can be really difficult to think of a gift for an older relative or friend who seems to already have everything that they need or want. At that point, you have to ask yourself what kind of things everyone needs and wants.

Everyone values time and love and attention. Everyone values a helping hand with things that they find difficult. Those are gifts that you can always give.

Consider spending a day with a loved one, particularly an older loved one. Just call up an older relative – your grandmother, your aunt, or someone like that – and simply say, “Happy holidays! I didn’t know what to get you for the holidays this year, so instead of giving you something you probably don’t want, I’m clearing my schedule to spend a day with you. I’m going to come over, take care of things you need done around the house, sit and talk, make us lunch and dinner, watch a show… the whole day, with you. Let’s figure out a day that works for both of us.”

You can get one of your siblings or other close family members or close friends to join you on that day, too, which can help them with the difficulty of giving a gift.

Final Thoughts

You don’t have to shell out a bunch of money to give someone a deeply meaningful gift this holiday season, but you do have to start thinking about it now rather than later. These gifts usually take thought and time rather than money, and this is the time of year to start moving in that direction.

This type of solution won’t be perfect for everyone on your list, but these ideas might work for enough of your list to make it worthwhile. Along the way, you’ll save a lot of money and holiday gift giving stress and you’ll know that you’re giving something meaningful instead.

Good luck!

More by Trent Hamm:

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.