Updated on 12.03.13

“So, What Do You Want for Christmas?”

Trent Hamm

Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard this question several times from various people who find me on their Christmas gift list this year. I’m guessing they’re all thinking more or less the same thing: what do you get for a guy who doesn’t really want anything? So they ask me, and then I’m left with that difficult question to answer.

Frugal people are often the hardest to buy winning gifts for. Quite often, frugal people don’t want things that don’t have obvious utility or that don’t match their tastes well – it’s just “stuff” that takes up space. At the same time, they don’t often go for the obvious gift stuff, either – they really don’t need another tie or so on.

So what’s a person to do if they’re going to buy a gift for a frugal person? At the same time, what kind of sane answer can I give in response to that question?

Over the last few years, these questions have confronted me face to face many times. After some careful consideration (both for my own purposes and for The Simple Dollar), I’ve come up with a handful of general guidelines that will help in purchasing gifts for any frugal person – or might help a frugal person come up with gift ideas.

Focus on core passions. Get to know the person you’re buying for. What are they passionate about? What do they spend their free time doing? For me, the answers are pretty easy – I read, I write, I cook, and I play games with friends. So, for me, books are a good idea, as are nice notebooks. Good kitchen items are good, as are quality food items (like great cheeses). Board games are also good.

If you don’t know what specific item to get, get a passion-focused gift card or gift certificate. For example, a gift card for me to Barnes and Noble or Williams-Sonoma or Funagain Games wouldn’t be a bad idea. Why? This lets the person indulge in what they’re passionate about without feeling guilty about spending their hard-earned money on something extraneous.

Buy a single quality item instead of several of lower quality. Frugal people value things that are well-made and that will stand the test of time. Get a frugal person one good gift instead of three low-quality ones. Get them one good knife instead of a block of mediocre ones.

Consumables usually work. If you know a frugal person who likes chocolate, get that person a few bars of really good chocolate. If you know a frugal person who likes cheese, get them a chunk of Maytag Blue. If you’re gifting a beer loving frugal person, get a six pack from your local microbrewery – or if the person likes wine, go to a local winemaker.

A high quality food item in line with their tastes is usually quite enjoyed for several reasons. For one, it’s an indulgence they would likely not spend their money on. For another, it’s not yet another item that takes up space in their home because it’s consumed.

Avoid stuff that isn’t obviously useful or isn’t in line with their core values. Frugal people are often utilitarians, which means they don’t see great value in items that don’t fulfill a specific need or a specific use in their life. Avoid the kinds of gifts that rely heavily on aesthetic appeal unless you intimately know their aesthetics. If you miss their aesthetics, you’re just going to give them a gift that frustrates them.

In general, these are good gift-giving strategies for most people. The real core of the message here is to simply put a bit of thought into the gifts you give. “It’s the thought that counts” is often said tritely, but it’s really true: a little thought at gift-giving time goes a long way.

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  1. leslie says:

    I have a question related to this. I will hopefully be making my last car payment in January. However, I would appreciate the extra help and, in a perfect world, would like to ask anyone who intends to buy me a gift, just to give me money towards my car payment.

    I know that some people are weird about just giving money for gifts and even prefer gift cards. Is it rude for me to ask for this as a gift, as it is something I really truly want and would appreciate it?

    Or should I just use this time to ask for items that I would like to buy if I weren’t putting all my extra money into my car payment?

  2. friend says:

    This is a useful post. Another suggestion, if the person is passionate about a cause, you might give a donation in that person’s name. I’m thinking Oxfam or Heifer for world hunger, NPR for classical music, Peace Corps Partnership for worldwide development projects. …

    Donating to a local nonprofit that the recipient cares about is a great idea too. If the person volunteers for a literacy group, you might give a donation in honor of the volunteer. Meaningful, personal, no clutter.

  3. Zella says:

    We’re doing “experience” gifts this year, with a few needs thrown in. Even my non-frugal friends have always enjoyed the “experience” sort of gifts too.

  4. Johanna says:

    “It’s the thought that counts” is like “I don’t mean to be rude” and “No pun intended” – a phrase that is almost always used to mean exactly the opposite of what it says.

  5. Emily says:

    #1 Don’t ask for the money unless it’s someone really close like a parent or sibiling. But – what you could do is gas cards, grocery cards, etc…things you will need and will help you out. Say something like “You know, I’m really trying to get my finances on track – a useful gift card is always appreciated!”

  6. Kevin M says:

    @leslie (#1) – if you get a gift you don’t like, just return it and put the money towards your car note. Congrats on paying it off!

  7. steve says:

    This year I have told all my family not to get me anything. “Plan on using that money to feed me and have the couch ready when I come to visit this Christmas” is how I phrased that. Money is tight for most of my family this year, so by cooperating we get to spend time together which is what we enjoy most anyway!

  8. karyn says:

    I only ask for money from my dad, if he asks what I want. I like giving consumables for all my gifts. I give gourmet food snacks to the older people and things like bubble bath and bathtime finger paints for younger kids. Sometimes I give gift cards to the local bakery for older kids so they can buy their own desserts. I don’t know how excited the kids are at the time, but I hope they’re excited when they get to go to the grocery (if the parent doesn’t use it first!).

  9. Rick says:

    Our family saves a lot by getting some of our gifts used:
    For example computer games – if they are new (or used) it doesn’t change the experience and buying used games can save a lot. If it is an older game you can save 80% getting games that were $50 for only $10! If you sell it later you should be able to get the same amount for it.

    Books are another good example- The information isn’t degraded when someone else reads it, and the price is usually half (or less) especially if it is available via paperback swap.

    When giving we make some of the gifts- for example we make custom calendars with lots of pictures of the kids for our parents. They are appreciated and aren’t too expensive either.

    -Rick Francis

  10. Sierra says:

    One useful strategy my friends employ is group gifts. Instead of everyone showing up at a birthday party or holiday event with a bottle of wine or yet another funky tie, we all chip in for one large item on the person’s wish list – something none of us could afford ourselves.

    I’ve seen people get iPhones, laptop computers, and vacations this way, with no individual paying more than $20 for the gift.

  11. Michelle says:

    I know some people think this is tacky (my MIL included), but I got tired of answering the “what do you want for christmas?” so I started making a “Christmas Idea List”. I keep a word file on the desktop, and whenever I’m doing something and think, “Man, I wish I had…” I add it to the list. Then I send it out to people that buy us gifts. I always send a disclaimer that this is just an idea list, not a “wish list”. That way I’m not caught in the moment and asking for things that I don’t really want or need.

  12. friend says:

    Variation on Michelle’s idea (which does strike me as tacky, sorry) — keep a notebook or word file of ideas of things other people might like. Keep your ears open and you’ll get ideas. Some of my most useful gifts have come to me from people who paid attention, and I am grateful.

  13. Ashley says:

    This is a good and timely post.

    I always purchase with the passion of the recipient in mind. And as I “shop” year round at tag sales and auctions, I do pretty well at getting a bargain.

    My brother gives me the best gift every year: 100 postage stamps. In the past he would send me a variety of sheets of beautiful stamps, but now I only request the boring “Forever” stamps to hedge against a price hike.

  14. Amy says:

    @Sierra – that’s a great idea. I wish I could get something like that started among my friends or family.

    My favorite gift-giving trick is to buy a nicer version of something the recipient uses and loves. My father drinks wine with dinner, so I buy him a special bottle he’d never buy for himself.

    Something else that especially works well for frugal people is ticket to events such as sporting events, plays, concerts – whatever would be in line with their interest.

  15. Maggie says:

    I’m sorry, but bah humbug! I feel like gift buying is a huge minefield. I think of what I feel the person would love, and then think “but if it is so perfect, they already have it”. If I add to that the fact that frugal people are evidently incredibly picky, there is no way I can succeed. If we are all going to sit around exchanging gift cards, why do we bother? (Which is where my extended family seems to be heading, and that is what has me saying bah humbug already!)

  16. Maggie says:

    Sorry Trent, feel free to delete my first meltdown of the season!

  17. Sarah says:

    Can you do a “What to buy for Christmas” for kids? I’m totally stuck and my girls are 9, 7, 5 &3. Help!!

  18. Tradd says:

    I find that when buying gifts for frugal folks, it helps to keep in mind just WHY they’re frugal. Are they frugal out of sheer necessity (ie, do they make sacrifices for one parent to stay home with the kids, is there job loss/health issues, etc.?) or do they do it to be good stewards (ie, they make a comfortable living, but are still frugal?).

    The frugal couple I’m buying for this Christmas are in the first category. They love good coffee and Starbucks, but there’s not much room for that in their budget right now. So I got them a bag of Starbucks coffee as well as a $15 Starbucks gift card (they like going for coffee as a date away from the kids).

  19. Noadi says:

    My family all knows I’m planning to move soon and need certain things. Furniture, kitchenware, etc. I’ve asked for those things (don’t mind used of course, actually I’d prefer a couch I don’t feel bad about my dog being on) or cash to help me buy the things I need.

    Honestly I don’t enjoy gift shopping for adults, it’s just not as much fun unless I come across something really perfect for them. Like I got my mom a mounted monarch butterfly in a shadowbox. She’s a teacher and does a unit every year on butterflies so it was perfect. Stuff like that is rare though, mostly it’s frustrating and I end up making cookies for them instead. I love shopping for kids though, getting them stuff that they can be creative with blocks, legos, playdo, books, art and science kits when they get older. I’m looking forward to when my baby nephew is old enough for the Dangerous Book for Boys.

  20. Patty says:

    Kids are definitely more fun to shop for. My nieces and nephews recieve books from me. Check out library book sales and you’ll find a treasure trove of great books, previously loved. One year I gave my 3 oldest nieces a box of books – there were about 50 or so and at 25cents each – wow! While my brother had to ship them back home (LOL) the kids had plenty to read, I didn’t spend a fortune, and still have many of the books in their personal library.

    Gift cards – I dislike them for adults. Maybe okay for kids, like for itunes or techy stuff. Is their a problem with giving an adult currency? First, I don’t like to be told where to shop, and second or maybe should be first, I don’t like shopping, okay then third, when I do shop, I shop for the best at the least price. I wrote a spot on my blog on this very subject – see the link in my name.

    Trent – great ideas!

  21. Courtney says:

    We decided several years ago to stop exchanging gifts with our extended family. It just seemed ridiculous to be buying (and receiving) so much stuff when we all have more than enough. Instead, everyone puts the money that they would have spent on gifts towards helping someone in need. It’s fun to find out how the money was spent – gifts and necessities for poor families, dog and cat food for the animal shelter, and care packages for our troops are just a few examples. It has made Christmas so much more enjoyable.

  22. Jane says:

    “Frugal people value things that are well-made and that will stand the test of time. Get a frugal person one good gift instead of three low-quality ones. Get them one good knife instead of a block of mediocre ones.”

    I think we can safely assume that most people, frugal or not, prefer quality over junk. Perhaps some aren’t willing to pay for higher quality knives or food, but that doesn’t mean they also wouldn’t appreciate it or prefer it. Overall a strange post. You juxtapose frugal people with some nebulous “others”, who I’m assuming are those you don’t respect for whatever reason.

    What I do agree with is the idea that frugal people are often unable to splurge, so it might be nice to give them something high end. But you have to realize that they still might not use it. I used to give my mother nice things, since she would never buy them for herself. But I found out that she was re-gifting them. For some reason, she just cannot enjoy expensive things. If you buy her a nice candle, she will never burn it. It’s strange.

  23. Bookaunt says:

    Another nice thing about giving consumables – food, event tickets, etc. is that if they are a real hit you can give the same thing next year!

  24. Helen says:

    @maggie, I’m hearin ya – I’m having a grinch attack too. :)

    @jane – no, my mom would rather have five cheap shirts than one good one. For some reason she prefers a ‘bargain’ and would be annoyed at my buying her an expensive brand. I’m sure there are others who feel the same. Not everyone wants gourmet, either – I’m pretty sure my hubby would be as happy with a six-pack of his favorite standard beer than a fancy sampler.

    Overall good ideas. I LOVE LOVE LOVE charity gifts. I know not everyone does and if people are doing it tough, something like a gift card or consumables that will help them out will be valued. However I am always genuinely delighted with a charity donation on my behalf, especially if the person has found out my fave charities (Greenpeace, Medicins Sans Frontiers and Oxfam).

    EXCELLENT advice on the aesthetics. It is SO frustrating when people try to buy you something nice but you find it ugly. You appreciate the gift but you hate the look of it. Very awkward.

    I like to give people ‘something to unwrap’ so I’ll probably opt for consumables or a novel along with a charity donation.

  25. deRuiter says:

    “So what’s a person to do if they’re going to buy a gift for a frugal person? At the same time, what kind of sane answer can I give in response to that question?” An excellent answer is, “How kind of you to ask. I don’t need anything, and times are tight. Lets agree right now NOT to buy each other anything, AND STICK TO THAT? We’ll exchange holiday cards, and holiday wishes, but not spend any money on each other. I’m fortunate to have everything I want and need including your friendship.” I am tired of accompanying shoppers who have a list of names and keep mumbling, “But I need to buy him / her SOMETHING because he / she will buy me SOMETHING.” as they pick up mindless bits of tat which end up in the first spring yard sale. Really folks, if it’s another adult, consider stopping gift giving! Giving what people don’t want (most of what gets given!) damages the environment, keeps you from your financial goals, keeps your recipient from his / her goals because they have to buy you SOMETHING, wastes time, wastes energy, and doesn’t do what you want the gift to do. There is nothing so down as getting a gift you don’t want / need / find appaling / have no room to store, and having to pretend to be greatful. If you insist on giving to an adult, give cash and not some silly plastic gift card which is environmentally unsound, runs out after a year, incurs fees, and ties the person to a store they don’t use. It’s all control, unless you give cash. HAVE A MERRY, NON COMMERCIAL CHRISTMAS! Kids still get stuff!

  26. Caroline says:

    I should pass this on to the fam and the 2 friends I exchange gifts with (I cut everyone else off long ago haha – I mean from the pressure of gift-giving, not my life). I’m a TERRIBLE person to buy for, but I always have been. Too much Virgo I think – too practical.

  27. Sarah says:

    I think most of the time I am tough because I dont really want for much… a few new books have come out that I Would not mind reading..a few new getaway clothes as we are heading to Jamaica for a friends wedding in January…buying for that trip was certainly my gift for that couple whom I think are great enough to spend a whack load on a trip:)

  28. David says:

    I know it may not be politically correct, and I know that you have to be careful to buy the right ones so you’re not eaten up by activation fees and everything else, but I say…

    Send on the giftcards!

    One to Walmart or target is fone for me–i am disciplined enough to only buy with it the things that I truly need.

    Sorry if that is too “Bah Humbug”.

  29. friend says:

    @deRuiter: Amen, preach it, brother!

  30. “The real core of the message here is to simply put a bit of thought into the gifts you give.” I agree with this one 100%. I’m currently designing a necklace I’m going to make for my SIL, I want to do a silver square pendant with a cut-out of a flower, but have been spending hours (no, really, I mean hours) going through all the flowers I know for the personality characteristics I see in her.

    I’ve found that the key thing in gift giving for which you’ve spent a lot of thought-time is to give a note at the same time explaining all of your reasoning, and tying it to something beautiful in them and their characters, so that they know that it was made with great care and thought… it’s amazing how knowing the intention of something can turn if from “enh” to “oh wow I love it!”

    That said, this Christmas has been WAY too expensive! In our 6-sibling family, we agreed to exchange gifts with only 1 other sibling, but that still leaves 2 sets of parents/in-laws, 2 sets of aunts/uncles down for Xmas, 7 children… and then come the birthdays (7 birthdays from November to early January!!). This time of year we are all just broke. And I’m a DINK!

  31. I too used to think wish lists were tacky (I knew someone who pre-emptively sent out a 4-PAGE gift list!!), but I’ve come to believe that it’s rude to expect someone to spend a ton of time trying to figure out what you might possibly want, and often getting it wrong, when you can provide them with some ideas of things you do want but wouldn’t get for yourself. The key is never ever to initiate the exchange! Provide ideas if, and only if, they ask for ideas.

    One thing I really appreciate from other people is an Amazon Wish List, that means that you don’t even have to ask them… and it takes out the greediness factor since a lot of people simply put things they want to buy and may have to save up for on their lists. So it’s not even a begging list, it’s like getting a peek into their head.

    On Amazon, you can look people up by name or email address. It is such a help! I especially appreciate people who put a wide range of price-points on their list, not just the big expensive stuff. Amazon is good b/c they have links to so many companies so they have a huge variety of things on their website, unlike most specialized stores.

  32. Anna says:

    OK, this gives me a chance to get up on my annual soapbox.

    I am very distressed when people ask children “What do you want for Christmas?” and then there is the follow-up question afterward: “What did you get for Christmas?” This creates and reinforces the idea that Christmas is all about getting stuff and satisfying wishes, often extravagant ones—especially when the child hears this over and over again from different people.

    There are more subtle ways to find out a child’s current interests: talking with the child, listening, observing, asking the parents “What does he/she like to do these days?” Then the gift will come as a real surprise, and it won’t suffer from comparison with what was asked for.

    Down from soapbox now. Good post, good comments.

  33. SoCalGal says:

    I do not understand the entire gift exchange thing. Other than a few very special people in our lives it just seems silly and gross. For ninos, I have found that a certificate for one special day all about fun for them is a huge hit. Think back to all the great experiences that you have had in your life & then compare that to material things that you have received. There is no comparison. My husband and I do not exchange gifts. We each make a large donation to a worthy cause, and enjoy a stress-free holiday season.

  34. jreed says:

    I agree with #33. The idea that you want people to labor so they have the money to buy you a game or a book is so immature. Grow up and buy your own. The gift giving part of Christmas is all about children. Charity giving, yes…gifts for children, yes… making some homemade treat, great. A grown man making a Christmas “wish list”? Send him to church.

  35. Susan says:

    One year I gave my two older sisters a Christmas ornament that is small picture frame. I typed up “the” family cookie recipe that we always had each year and put it in frame. It was a true hit.
    One confessed a few years ago she had to get out the ornaments to get the recipe to make her cookies. ha
    I am doing this for my college daughter this year. Family recipes of great-grandma’s stuffing and wedding cake cookies.
    Cute ornament frames are inexpensive too!

  36. Nicole says:

    My husband and I were discussing this. It’s odd the way we have very different relationships with our respective families. I feel like I know my family well enough that I can get them nothing, or a gift certificate to Borders/B&N for my something small and edible for my father. I enjoy getting things for my sister that I think she needs, not what she thinks she needs. (Miss Manners would not approve. But she always does end up using what I get her.) People get me stuff off my Amazon wish list that I spend all year compiling as I see stuff I want but don’t need. My best friend from high school and I sweep in at the end of the buying season and get each other the important stuff other people missed off our Amazon wishlists, a pointless money exchange that completely removes frugal guilt.

    At the other end of the spectrum, my husband spends months agonizing over what presents to get his family. Like Star Trek movies, in odd years he gets it completely right and in even years completley wrong. This year he was really tempted to suggest no gifts because it is so hard. But for him it really IS the thought that counts. Not in the respect of, oh how nice, but that he is forced to think about each family member and their likes and dislikes and how things have changed over the year. It forces telephone conversations, catching up, and gossiping. To sum, Christmas gift giving forces mindfulness and communication. It brings him closer to his family, not because of the gifts themselves but because of the process of figuring them out.

    With that in mind, this year he’s attaching a note to each one explaining how and why he chose the gift. They’re full of memories from childhood, recent conversations, and so on. (This year is an odd year… so far we’re doing pretty well!)

  37. Chris says:

    I asked all of our adult children to not buy gifts for my husband and I this year. Instead I asked them to apply that money to something that will make them more financially secure such as paying down a debt, saving for the grandkids education and etc. That will give me greater joy than anything they could buy me. At work a very wise co-worker did a pre-emptive announcement suggesting that since times are hard instead of giving token gifts to each other we contribute to or work at a local chairty that helps those in need. Everyone agreed we didn’t need more scented lotions or decorative candles. This isn’t a “gave a gift in your name to . . ” Each person is just to do it on thieir own.

  38. Golfing Girl says:

    What fabulous advice–please share this with all my relatives!!
    I try to do this as well–if it can collect dust, I don’t buy it for anyone.

  39. Jessica says:

    I too write down ideas for myself and others for birthdays and Christmas. My brothers harass me if I can’t name something I’d like and tell me how difficult I am to shop for…it’s half in good fun, but it’s tiresome to hear. We’re actually pretty close and live near each other, so it’s not like they don’t have any clue as to what’s going on in my life, and my likes and dislikes. And, I have no problem coming up with gifts for them.

    I do the same for my husband because his parents, my family ask me for ideas, AND his birthday is right after Christmas. So I take note on things he’s mentioned he’d like and pass them along. I do the same with other people as well.

    I don’t email out a list or give suggestions unprompted, but when I start getting the questions, I can remember that I’d like a new set of measuring spoons or the long name of the techy book my husband would like.

    An unprompted “gimmee” list would be tacky, at any age.

  40. Sara says:

    I actually think it’s easier to buy gifts for a frugal person than for a spendthrift. I keep a wish list on amazon.com, and if I can wait for something I need/want instead of buying it right away, I put it on my wish list. Gifts I’ve received from my wish list include a stand mixer, flatware, a skillet, cooking utensils, knives, bakeware, trash cans (including an automatic motion-sensing one that I love but I could never justify buying for myself), towels, a shower curtain, and sneakers.

    Amazon.com now allows you to add items from other web sites to your wish list. My family appreciates my wish list because that makes it easy to find something I actually want. My siblings also use wish lists, either online or distributed via e-mail, and it makes shopping for them a lot easier. My parents, on the other hand, are very hard to shop for because they already have just about everything they need, and they’re pretty wealthy so they don’t hesitate to buy things they want or need that are in my price range.

  41. Vanessa says:

    I think the point about high-quality items is that (truly frugal-not just budget conscious) people understand the difference. I know that ten years ago if I had been given one high-quality knife instead of set of a dozen crappy ones I would have been offended, because I wouldn’t have gotten it. Now older and wiser, I would not only prefer the one knife, but I shop for myself the same way. Of course, I am in debt and not shopping for myself at all for the last few years (and pulling myself deeper in debt as I work my way through vet school). But I have made a personal pact with myself that I will not buy junk anymore. I will live with the junky furniture I already own until I can buy high-quality, well made furniture, one piece at a time. I will use the cheap cookware I have until I can buy the good stuff, one piece at a time. If my family buys me one really good thick soft plush towel for Christmas instead of a whole set of Wal-mart specials, I would be very happy! (But no, I won’t tell them that unless they ask-but I like the idea of an Amazon wish list and I think I will get my kids to start one too!)

  42. Christine says:

    Very good post. I especially like the idea of giving tickets to events … something to enjoy and have as a memory. Another idea: There are about 8 children (extended family) that we buy for. We have been giving Chick-fil-A gift cards! The kids are excited … and the parents are too! (One night they don’t have to cook!)

  43. Wish lists are acceptable in my family. Some of the relatives add wishes that only Santa could possibly provide, so those lists are good for laughs! But what everyone really wants to see is a variety of suggestions in a variety of price ranges.

  44. Ellen says:

    This past Christmas I gave the family of each of my grown children just one gift … Each family received a Roku player to stream Netflix on their living room television.

    The teenage daughter in one family is coming out of her room more often to watch movies with her family.

    One of my grown children refers to the player as the magic box. She loves it.

    This was a win/win for all. Something they all love as with money tight right now .. none can afford cable pay for view. [We all love movies.]And a big win for me as I probably spent less overall [over buying individual gifts and filling stockings]and my shopping was over and done in just a few minutes online.

    I have no idea how I’m going to top this or even match it next year.

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