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Stress-Free Holiday Shopping Tips

Updated on November 8, 2008
Snowy Fir Trees by Robert A. Sloan
Snowy Fir Trees by Robert A. Sloan

Kids love Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, the midwinter holiday. It's celebrated around the world. Sentimentality drips from the airwaves, Christmas music reels out of every speaker. Cities and towns decorate the streets. Store windows put dioramas of old favorite stories in their windows with animatronic Santas and tinsel glittering in many-colored lights. America makes a great big deal out of The Holidays, and the Season is Upon Us.

Adults by and large despise The Holidays. They loathe the idea of tramping out to stores in a mad cattle-rush to try to find the one toy Everybody Wants This Christmas and get it before someone else does. Their budgets explode and the cost of keeping up with the Joneses' children and their ever-greedy pricetag-measuring relations winds up soaking a big proportion of the year's income. Goodbye vacation savings, if you had any. They're going down into Aunt Agatha's gossipy hands and she probably won't like what you got her anyway.

Special holiday meals look so lovely on screen with the big turkey and all the trimmings, but adults that have to prepare them often need to do so with the screaming pressure of parental supervision and family infighting. Adults turn mean over The Holidays in far too many homes, because the cost of the holiday celebration half bankrupts them and most are too responsible not to worry about the bills for the damage that'll come due next January. Not to mention the cost of flying Aunt Agatha out to your house anyway when she'll probably snipe and complain about everything from your housekeeping to your choices in furniture. The Holidays mean Unpaid Overtime in all domestic activity to most adults.

This makes no sense.

I am not going to repeat that tired old chestnut that gets dragged out every year, a sermon heard on the radio between all the ads and Christmas music. "The Holidays Are Too Commercial. Get back to the True Meaning of The Season."

The true meaning of the season is to actually enjoy yourself and have a celebration. While that does mean putting some time and effort into creating a festival, it goes directly against the idea of it if you are not having fun in the process. If you enjoy creating a happy holiday for your kids, the kids will actually enjoy the holiday too and have a good time.

Step one: Use that fabulous technology we're all used to now that it's existed for a few years, record all your television programs. Carefully strip out the commercials before watching them. No, I am not kidding. This actually does a lot in itself to reduce the holiday stresses. A good sentimental story is not improved by five minute interruptions to sell you something you already have and didn't feel like upgrading, or something that's the wrong gender/age/culture for you or your kids, or something at random. The ads don't add anything to these programs.

When possible, rent or download all your holiday movies and programs. But if you can't get them that way, use Tivo or whatever to strip out the commercials. This small bit of drudgery will pay off big time. The good ones get repeat-aired so frequently that having them on file is going to be handy next year and the year after and the year after. Buy your favorites on DVD. Buy them used and get them resurfaced at a place that does it for $3 a disk. Cheap, permanent and ad-free entertainment is going to trim your costs a lot.

Step two: Dig out all of last year's decorations or make homemade ones. You can get grand high quality family time if you pop some popcorn, get some cranberries from the grocery store, a yarn needle and some of that heavy quilting thread. Get the kids stringing those. Hang them indoors and out. Don't buy a whole lot of new decorations. If you have absolutely none, because last year you were brainless enough to throw it all away, then start at a dollar store and look for bargains. Do not get trendy if you're starting from zero.

Taste in holiday decorations is a matter of what you choose, not where you bought it. You might buy one annual fancy ornament. But if you want to do something cool for the holidays, go to eBay or Etsy and choose a beautiful handmade ornament direct from the artist! Instead of paying a giant company for factory work, you're helping to support a small crafter, an independent artist who's actually getting all the proceeds and living on it. Cut out the middleman and buy real art for your special items.

That way the angel on top of your tree that can be kept, treasured, packed and reopened every year from now on is completely unique. Unlike anyone else's. A genuine collectible work of art that you can pass on to one of your kids to keep using year after year. This is how holiday decorations used to be in the old days before the crazy yuppie eighties when everything turned inside out and people thought it was cool to live on credit way beyond their means.

Then set aside a little money for after the holidays, so you can pick up all the cool stuff you chose not to buy for this year on sale at a quarter the cost and have it next year. If there was something you really liked, note what it was and where. Odds are you'll find it again and might get it for dime on the dollar prices. Pack it up and stash it for next year's Holidays.

It's the same holiday every year, folks. It's still going to be Santa and icicles and reindeer and poinsettias. The year's latest version of something nostalgic is going to go on the same tradition.

Now we come to the huge expense: gifts. How big is your list? Seriously, who's on it and why? How do you feel about these people? Who are they, and why do you care? I'm not saying you shouldn't. I'm saying that you should write down that list in a cheap little notebook you bought ten for a dollar at a Back to School sale with about four or five lines after each person -- and use those lines to write down details about who they are, why you care about them enough to send a present and what they like and do.

The most memorable gifts for any occasion are not the things you wish you could buy for yourself. They are the things that person already loves and thinks of as special. It is a far more powerful experience if you send the aspiring writer on your list, who has at this point been emailing you daily to give you her NaNoWriMo word count, a fancy pen set or a little desk plate with her name and Author on it than if you bought her this year's iPod or another Cuisinart. Make some little mention of the novel on the gift card. "For the Author of Love After Midnight."

That's going to break her heart with joy far more than any brand-name thing that ads tell you Everybody Wants.

"Everybody" is not on your list.

The people on your list are all individuals with personalities, passions, likes, dislikes, loves, hates and habits. You know them. They may bug you constantly -- the greatest gift to an unpleasant relative might be one that actually relates to some interest you do not have in common with them at all and wish they would shut up about. No, I am not kidding.

One way to deal with it is to skip shopping entirely. Buy everyone gift cards at the specialty business that relates to their most passionate interest. Aunt Agatha certainly will use a gift card at a nursery if you know nothing about gardening and she won't shut up about her roses. She's got her eye on some sort of tool or seedling that she'd love to get. You'll pay the price of listening to her go on at length about it later, but she's not going to complain it didn't fit or that she got two of them or something like that.

Why not make that part of it easy? Just check off everyone that you're not close to and doing it out of obligation and get them a modest gift card. Of course then they know what you spent.

But don't single them out sending a bigger one to this one and a smaller one to the other. Look at your real budget. Look at your monthly income and monthly expenses. Do a little arithmetic. Subtract December's expenses from December's projected earnings.

Figure out the cost of the grocery trip to do the Holiday Meal. If you've never done one before, phone up an older female friend with kids and ask her what she spends on doing the holiday meal. Get advice from a real expert who is not bossy or pushy, and then plan your budget accordingly. Set that money aside for doing the meal. We'll get to kid involvement in a bit. If you have an invitation to a relative for the Holiday Meal, accept it graciously and don't bother buying all that food. You don't need to host one if it's not your year to cook.

If your family does not live where you do, plan for an intimate family Holiday and budget the meal accordingly. Do this now. It's November, you may even have a November check or two coming -- but you aren't tapping it for this yet.

You're doing The Holidays on a glitter-dipped shoestring.

Work out how much you have to spend on gifts before deciding what to spend on any one person on that list. Yep. An hour or two planning and preparing, maybe a Saturday afternoon, will save you a lot of slush-trudging and standing in line.

People who are out of town and not that emotionally close, ought to get gift certificates. How large will relate to your real finances this December. Be honest about your level of debt and your level of income. Do not go into debt over this. Divide the money you have between the number of people on your list, and if you want, create two priority levels.

One is token gifts for relatives and distant friends that you really can't afford to do something gigantic for every year. A long list is going to have smaller gift certificates per person than a short one, but don't go overboard even on a short list. You don't need to. You are not doing this to have the Great Materialist Display of Wealth and you're not doing this to match parity with what you received. This is about how you feel about them and what your resources really are. Don't puff yourself up.

The paragraph for each telling you where to get those gift certificates will make them a lot more thoughtful.

Then there is your intimate list. Closest friends, parents, inlaws, kids, nieces and nephews, siblings. Oddly enough, your siblings probably will understand if their gift certificates are smaller than the presents you got for your nieces and nephews. They should if they're decent parents. Amazon or eBay are good defaults for people who never let you know what they like or are never satisfied with what you got them.

Kids, on the other hand, usually are. Especially if you pay attention to who they are and what they like, as much as with the grownups. Each of them has favorite things, favorite activities, favorite games and toys and habits. If they're middle class, they probably have way too many toys and not enough time to play.

With your own, you know them as people. You know what they actually play with and what they uncomfortably write thank-you notes for and then leave on the shelf wrapped. You also know the difference between a young doll collector who does leave them wrapped and roars at anyone who moves them to dust them and disturbs her careful arrangement, versus toys that are ignored and neglected.

If you go right past all the hype to the person, you can come up with good presents that they are not expecting that will go right to the heart. Because odds are someone else is going to get them the high-price-tag Latest Craze toy. Is that really your place as an aunt or an uncle? Are they going to get two or three of the PS-X that the crowds are stampeding for because everyone believes that the kids won't have a happy holiday without The Latest Craze?

They're not Everybody.

They're Petey and Betty and Kirsten. They are the individuals they are. It's entirely possible that Kirsten may be happier with a set of 180 gel pens from a discount store and a wirebound black paper notebook than with a $150 doll. The kids make those choices every year and it drives adults who have busted their budget on the $150 doll go out of their brains!

Get them something they will use and use up, or use and keep using. Think about toys that are tools for doing real things.

A good family gift for a friend or family member that's in your town is "A Day Off." Write up and print out a certificate for 24 hours of free time to be taken anytime during the year. You will pay this off throughout the year by coming over on weekends or evenings and taking over their chores or watching their kids while they get to go out to Starbucks or get their hair done or go to a movie with their friends.

This is priceless. This is more valuable to any loved one within driving range than anything you can buy for them. No matter who they are, they never have enough time to do everything they want to get done. They may just go out and clean up their garage while you're watching their kids to get some of their long term chores off their back. But having one extra person around to help with things -- at the time you are needed most -- is more real joy than anything else they could receive.

It also doesn't clutter up the environment with its packaging and take up space in the house or need to be returned for being the wrong size or color. It's just there, a statement of love and affection.

It also will take that gift expense right out of your budget leaving more for the people who are going to get tangible presents. It's entirely possible you have a child who would appreciate that gift too -- especially a teenager or middle school kid. For a teen I would say it's a weekend pass to do anything you want as long as it's legal. Give them a weekend without chores or schedule, to be taken in whole or broken up into chunks of free time to be taken when needed most.

It may play hob with your schedule now and then, but the fact of it being in writing and able to be spent when the kid is overworked and stressed may do a lot for family harmony. Don't suspend their normal rules of behavior -- it's not open license to suddenly cuss and tear the house up and pitch hissy fits demanding you do whatever they want. It's time off from their regularly scheduled chores. Be sure it's weekend time, because school nights have homework.

I have known some academically inclined teens who would gracefully accept that and spend the whole weekend on homework because they'd then be excused from obligatory family time. Do not be surprised if your teen immediately retreats from the family and doesn't say one word to anyone during their time off. It's their time. Give them that break and let them have a while to be themselves and decide for themselves who they want to spend it with.

Now we get to physical gifts and toys for adults and children that you haven't eliminated with gift certificates for labor or specialty stores or Amazon.

Don't pay retail. Don't wait till the last minute. Anything you order online early will arrive in plenty of time with 25-50% off price tag. Don't buy clothing for them, period, unless the receiver has given you detailed, repeated hints about that color, size, style and manufacturer.

People generally do not appreciate other people picking out clothes for them. Children get disappointed at getting clothes instead of toys unless they're actually in deep poverty and have no decent clothes. Kids that already wear decent clothes don't care about clothes. The exception is the fashion-conscious kid who has his or her heart set on a specific item -- but you know that because the kid won't shut up about it.

Don't pay retail and don't tell them where you got it. Here in Lawrence, KS, there's a little shop called Arizona Trading Co. that sells used clothing and it's always full of trendy stuff marked down dime on the dollar that's been used once and abandoned because someone got a little too optimistic about their weight. Your town or city may have such places. Look around.

Try out antique malls, thrift shops, used bookstores, used stores and funny quirky little businesses run by private owners. These are going to give you better deals and more interesting stuff than giant corporations. Used places may even accept some trade-ins, a way to get rid of some of the junk your relatives gave you last year that you wrote thank you notes for but then didn't even unwrap.

Do some early shopping and start at the cheapest interesting places, working your way up. Don't set your heart on finding one perfect thing that you decided in advance. Go look at the eclectic selection in these fun independent shops run by small owners and in the used places. You will find bargains that way that immediately remind you of this person or that.

Set your budget per person. Draw the money from an ATM and put it in your pocket in cash in envelopes labeled with the name of that person (unless you already bought their gift online. You wiped out most of your list with gift certificates, online purchases and labor certificates already). Then shop at these used places and flea markets and interesting shops. Be open to possibilities. A grab bag full of well chosen fun little things can be even more fun than a Great Big Thing to the recipient.

Dollar stores are next on the list. Pick up the trimmings and decorations and order cheap stuff to make decorations online. If you go to Dick Blick or other online art and craft supply places, you can get the same tissue paper, glitter glue and styrofoam doodads as you would in a store. But if you enjoy shopping at craft stores, grab the weekly coupon pamphlet and sort the Clearance basket first.

Bring home lots of crafty things. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, get people into using them and start making decorations. The satin-covered styrofoam Christmas balls are a bit more durable than the glass ones, so save a box or two of glass ones to intersperse and then take the big bag of sequins and some boxes of pearl headed pins to decorate satin ones and make homemade ornaments.

People like making stuff. Kids love projects like that, especially if you let them choose their colors and designs. Reindeer sequins, sleigh and Santa sequins, snowflake sequins in all colors make a good palette. So does a pack of multicolor tissue paper, construction paper, ribbon and colored tape.

If anyone on your list quilts, buy separate yards of dollar fabric in small patterns on thin cloth that looks like it's good for quilting. Pick one of those yards to wrap the whole bundle and tie it with a three for a dollar lace ribbon you picked up at the craft store or craft counter in the discount store. It's a collector thing, quilters always need and love more fabric. The more variety, the better.

Men are used to getting grooming aids. Something about society means that males inevitably get silently told at the holidays that they don't groom themselves well enough or often enough. This is incredibly impersonal. Think about who he is and what he actually dreams about. Listen sometime when he rambles about his dreams and likes.

You know what these men actually do in their off time. If they enjoy sports, look for something interesting that relates to the sport. A bag of personalized golf balls is going to be more pleasure than another grooming aid for a golfer. The latest bird guide may be a good thing for a birder. A tool that he's been muttering about and wishes he had is something to listen for -- look for it either at Sears or on eBay depending on budget.

Men and women are kids inside. What they really want in a gift is something that says playtime. Toys are more exciting than clothes and shoes, unless it's a woman who collects shoes. Even then she'd be happier with a gift certificate since picking out the shoes is part of the fun of that hobby.

A good gift for people who are continually showing off gadgets is to look in one of those catalogs of weird gadgets and pick out something fun that they don't already have. The batteryless flashlight, the Swiss Army Card (it's a credit card shaped Swiss Army knife with a small blade and 13 random other tools in a card shaped plastic holder), the magnifier with a beeper that tells you where it is when you lost it under a pile of stuff -- these are great gifts for the gadget nut. They also sometimes turn up at used and thrift stores because people get them for people who aren't gadget nuts. Test it to make sure it works and wrap it creatively.

Wrapping creatively means ignoring expensive designer paper. Remember that bulk lot of colored tissue paper for making decorations? It's good stuff. Collect the boxes things shipped in. Save packaging. Reuse it. Use poster paint to repaint the outsides of boxes so that they're colorful, and tie bows out of that cheap roll of a dozen colors of paper ribbon you can always find at the dollar store.

Then save all the gift wrapping from all the stuff you got from relatives so that next year it's all there as collage material for next year's gift wrapping and house decorating party.

Make cookies, so the house smells good. Get the supplies out on a table and get everyone in the family working on making the decorations. Be sure to have plenty of tape, push pins and glue for putting them up. If you bought lights last year, test them and get them out.

This is where thrift means taking all that stuff down carefully on the first weekend in January and putting it all away in Sterilite tubs, flattened and organized. Doing that means you don't have to buy it again, especially the lights. A good way to store lights is not to roll them and tie them again or try to fit them back in their cases, but to spiral them around rolls from the inside of paper towels. That way there are no sharp bends where the wire inside might weaken and break.

A lot of those little Italian lights are delicate and just the process of taking them down and putting them away may hurt them. But if you save all the bulbs, you can restore the ones that just lost a bulb or two and won't work with a bit of patience. There is no way around the delicacy of Italian lights without taking your time with it, and they are beautiful. But you can also use the sturdier old fashioned big-bulb ones for indoor-outdoor use and go heavier on tinsel and home-cut tinfoil snowflakes than on lights.

Consider using regular cheap fixtures bought at yard sales with red or green or yellow colored bulbs in them here and there, to add to holiday lighting in a more durable way. Extra lamps do need to be stored but it's a dramatic effect.

Last, think about doing some homemade gifts for the people you love. Look at the hobbies you really do and ask yourself what they think of them. Home-knitted scarves are great -- it helps to ask the recipient to choose the colors. Home made leather belts are awesome -- let the recipient choose the stamp pattern you put on it. They will see you working on it anyway, so letting them choose something about it says that you're really giving them your time, your love and your attention. You lose the surprise value, but you gain a deep appreciation.

Last, think about sending e-cards rather than physical cards to everyone on your cards list. They're cheap or free from many places online. You can get creative with the writing and graphic choices, you're not polluting and using up a lot of paper, but if they do like to hang cards they got on the wall they can always print it out.

Otherwise, look for bargains at thrift shops. People honestly don't go checking the price on the backs of holiday cards unless they are very nasty sorts. Look for boxes of cards the week after Christmas for next year and snap up enough for your entire list. Address them throughout the year and just store the written cards in a box. If you spread out the labor as well as your budget, you won't stress... and will have time for that fun crafts-party event and enjoying the meal.

The holiday meal is a production. One person should be in charge. If you have an interfering relative who tries to take charge, smile sweetly and ask if they'd like to take over or chase them out of the kitchen. Do that your way and delegate entire dishes to other people in the family. If everyone is in on it and everything that can be prepared a day or two early gets prepared early, it comes off smooth with a lot less fighting.

Remember that cooking is a performance art. It's not a time to experiment and try something difficult. Holiday meals that are memorable have everyone's familiar favorites on them. Most of those are pretty simple things like a roast turkey or a pumpkin pie. If you enjoy making new exotic dishes, do a new exotic side dish or get generous and prepare the favorites of everyone there -- and if you keep it simple it won't be as much work. Experimentation is a good thing for off season times, unless you are such a skilled chef that your family is delighted every time you come up with one of your experiments.

Accept feedback honestly and rely on it for what to do on the holiday -- do the foods they raved about rather than something they never heard of. Holidays are about nostalgia and stress of trying to interpret complex instructions for the first time while being nagged is a good way to crash your kitchen time. Your kids are about to learn the term Sous-Chef. Rope them in to doing the prep work and getting it clean before you start.

This chore can be more fun if you let each of them choose one of the dishes for the meal, organize it and prepare it. Make those choices the week before the shopping, so that each kid researches what's needed for their dish. Small kids may be actually doing something as simple as buying pumpkin pie filling and a crust, combining and putting in oven for the amount of time written on the instructions. Most simple holiday foods come with basic instruction on the packaging.

I hope some of these tips help. If your family is hard to get along with and nobody likes helping, then back off and don't do a big production. Just keep it very simple and chase everyone out of the kitchen. Those who want to feast can either help, or accept that you're not going to create the five star feast of the century ala fancy hotel. Be real with everyone and set boundaries.

It's possible to pay attention to favorites even by keeping it simple. A can of pitted black olives is usually a favorite, or someone's favorite pickles. Opening a can and putting it in a bowl is not massive labor but may get more raves than doing elaborate cooking. Bizarre but true. Find out where your family's real tastes and habits are and don't overelaborate anything they're not having fun with. Save the intensity for the activities they enjoy and then have fun like you're a kid too.

The whole point of having holidays is to celebrate and have a good time. The stores put on that big show -- so pick a night and take everyone out walking through the retail district to look at the displays. Stop at a dollar store for a small treat for the kids and budget a hot chocolate or cider from a vendor or some chestnuts. Sing songs. This is what my grandparents did, and it sticks more than any of the big-box fancy-package toys.

Then drive around the neighborhood on the week of the holiday when all the house decorations are up, looking at the lights. It's free and it's fun. Sing songs in the car. Hang out and get into it for what it is. People are doing this to enjoy themselves.

Every year while millions of them are shoving and screaming in line to get into those stores, others are out making that drive having made homemade gifts or homemade cars and gotten genuinely sentimental about it. A big Yuletide does not take a fortune. What it really takes is sorting out what is the fun stuff and what are the stresses. Then do all the fun stuff and cut the stress stuff down to minimal to make it possible.


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    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thank you! Much appreciated. Nice photo in your avatar too! Robert

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I really loved this article too, it shows how much you put into everything, heart and soul. You are one terrific person, and artist. But person first! :) Rose

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Yep! That is something that always happens when everyone is involved in creating a holiday. People don't want to sit around being bored while someone else is stressed and harassed and doing everything. The holidays are really about spending time with your loved ones, and the whole real point of decorations and feasting is to get everyone together anticipating the celebration.

      Good luck finding pecans on sale! You're making me miss the South, where they were usually cheaper and easier to get than walnuts. I am allergic to pepper, but your idea sounds good with a little ginger substituted for the chipotle pepper.

      I just did another Hub on drawing a good portrait as a gift when you don't know how -- let me know what you think of that one.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Oh I love cheese logs! I just saw an interesting recipe for spiced pecans using chipotle pepper, orange rind, and brown sugar--I thought that would be a pretty and delicious addition if I see a good deal on pecans.

      I'm so lucky with my kids. They are all grown and we are all close. They understand that money is going to be tighter and tighter for everyone so we started scaling back a few years ago, and weirdly, it's been more fun, not less. I like the idea of this pot luck becoming a tradition. It does send a more democratic message than grandma as 'maid for a day'! lol!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks for a comment that adds a couple more great ideas to the article! Doing a holiday pot luck is a chance for everyone to show off, and there's even more goodies. You're on your way to a family tradition if this is the second time you're doing it -- and your grandkids will remember this as how big holiday feasts are put together.

      With more memories of happy adults hugging or talking and smiling than of stress and terror and wondering when they're going to fight again and whether they'll ever see Grandma again.

      Your homemade preserves and goodies food baskets sound great. They're fancy. That is one type of gift that people enjoy even when it comes from someone who doesn't know them. But you've given it better quality and variety doing it yourself. I don't recall ever getting chutney in one that I got! Cheese logs are fun to make and cheaper than if you buy them.

      I know this because I was addicted to the dang things and used to make a giant one for myself when I lived in New Orleans so that I'd have enough for my guests *and* enough for me when I started getting at it.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Great ideas! Last year, my eldest daughter had Christmas at her house. Her husband bought and cooked a prime rib roast and she bought a ham, and then each of the rest of us brought a dish to share. We used paper plates. It was quite a feast and no one had to be exhausted at the end of the day--plus, my son-in-law was so proud he wants to do it again this year, and I'm all for it.

      Before that, one of us always did all the cooking and fell over in a heap at the end of the day.

      This year, I've been making little things all year. My last endeavor was green tomato chutney using up the green tomatoes from our garden in October. My plan is to assemble all these smallish treats in gift baskets and give one to each of my kids and in-laws, then also give them a gift a piece that is more personalized. I'll let you know how it goes, but I'm really excited about it.

      Thanks for this very useful and encouraging hub, Robert, and just in time too!


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    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)