How to Prepare for Christmas on a tight budget
The Two Big Tips to Prepare for Gift-Giving
When the holidays roll around, many people break into a sweat over the impending collision between their pocket-book and their gift-list. With the recent economic downturn, this sweat could turn into a full-blown panic attack! Here are two important ideas that will make it easier to start preparing for the holiday gift-giving season.
First: Prioritize your List
When you take last year's list out, look at it with a critical eye. Have you lost touch with any of the old friends on the list? Perhaps it's time to downgrade to a simple greeting card. Have you made any new friends? Go ahead and add them--you can always change your mind.
At this point, it's time to organize the list into three major Groups, and perhaps sub-divide it further to help you make decisions about how to spend what money you do have. The three Groups are:
1. Closest family--your wife or husband, your children; whomever it is you feel closest to. If you have a large, close-knit extended family, it's likely that everyone is feeling the same concern about buying presents for so many people, so don't be afraid to shuffle even your favorite Aunt down the list just a little.
2. Family you keep in touch with, and close friends.
3. Acquaintances and distant family, and professional contacts.
Expend your greatest resources on Group 1, your closest family--these are the people you'll be watching on Christmas morning, after all! While putting something home-made under the tree might make everyone in this group happy, if you have to spend money to get the "perfect" gift, put your focus and your wallet here. (No one ever reached heaven and said "Gosh, I wish I'd spent more time at the office!" Likewise, you don't want to look back and see that you bought your boss an expensive desk-set but your wife had to make due with a pair of slippers.)
As a single mother, my daughter is the only person on my Group-1 "Christmas List." I designate $40 to $100 to get her a gift, and if I need to I save that up beforehand. However, in past years I've sewn her bunny-rabbits and pajamas and had a child who was just as happy as when I purchased her presents at the store.
Within your closest family, you may designate more or less effort based on the person's temperment. Toddlers are easy to please. My two-year old daughter was thrilled with her rubber snake and flashlight for Christmas! What 2 year-old needs more than a rubber snake and a flashlight?
You still feel that Group 2 deserves your special attention and an expression of your love--but it's a good time to shift down to the gifts suggested below in "Who Needs a Budget with Gifts Like These!" If money is tight, you'll hope that your friends and family will understand--but hopefully it won't end up that way, with a little forethought and creativity.
Group 3 includes the people you need to keep in touch with or acknowledge, but there's nothing wrong with sending a card! Cards with pictures of your children tucked inside can be especially valued, and you need not go out and buy $4 cards from Hallmark. Dollar Stores often have inexpensive cards, or you and the kids can get out some old magazines and create some collage-cards of your own. Some friends and family, especially those distant acquaintances who are under the age of 30, will be just fine with an email or e-card.
Second: It IS the Thought that Counts--So "Spend" Some Thoughts!
When I hear "It's the thought that counts" I usually notice that the gift in question is one that actually shows very little thought. Really, I don't want the latest Daniel Steele book in hardback ... anyone who knows me would be aware of this. On the other hand, when my step-father gave me my first power-drill I jumped up and down for joy! (Be aware of this principle when considering gifts of food--someone who is trying to lose weight might not appreciate being given fat- and sugar-laden foods.)
Nothing makes someone feel better than knowing that you care enough about them to notice what they like and dislike, what they need, and what they use on a daily basis. If your craft-loving friend is constantly misplacing her needles and safety-pins, a magnetic pin-holder may be an inexpensive gift, but it shows her that you cared enough about her to want to help her out with her problem. A friend of mine decorated her office with a nautical theme--I purchased some rope and learned how to make a decorative knot called an "ocean plat." It hangs in her office, neatly framed and much appreciated.
Be observant--again, this is an expense of time, not money. Get to know the habits, needs, and hobbies of the person you're giving a gift to, and see if you can come up with an idea that fits into their lifestyle.
Who Needs a Budget With Gifts Like These?
The best gift is one that suits the reciever; not one that makes you wince when you look at your credit-card receipt the following month. Using one of the following six ideas, you can create gifts that go over so well, no one will ever notice that you didn't spend "money" on them! In fact, in our time-starved, money-hungry society, you may find that people value your sacrifice of time in the creation of a gift a great deal more than the money you might have spent.
Treats for the Christmas Sweet-Tooth
Able to follow a recipe? Gifts of special treats are excellent replacements for purchased gifts. English Toffee, Pecan Crispies, or Snickerdoodles are some examples of treats that are easy and inexpensive to make. These treats can be stored in the fridge or freezer a few weeks in advance when time will be tight closer to the holidays.
When giving food, one secret to making it into a truly special gift for the recipient is taking time with the packaging. This is not a case of judging a book by it's cover--it's a case of dressing an attractive sentiment in an equally attractive exterior! Saving money yet again, keep an eye out for a good delivery container when you're at the grocery store; the packaging of the foods you buy in the store every day may easily recycle as your gift-box.
One year I bought a giant-sized box of Goldfish crackers packed in a carton (shaped like a milk-carton but much larger). I dumped the contents into a Ziplock for my daughter to eat later, and wiped the interior free of crumbs. Before filling the box-carton, I glued fancy Christmas paper to the sides and wrapped enough paper toward the inside to cover the "ripped" area where I'd opened the container. I closed the paper-covered box-top and punched three holes in a row, horizontally along the top. Using a plastic bag inside the carton to assure air-tightness, I filled it with Pecan Crispy cookies and then tied holiday ribbon through the hole-punched holes to securely close the decorated carton. My very status-conscious stepsister received this present as if I'd spent significant money for it at the store, even though it was clear that it was home-made.
Candy keeps well over time if kept cool (the freezer may change the color of chocolate or toffee--in that case, the refrigerator might be a better place). Cookies do have the potential to go stale, but won't generally go "bad" because the sugar content is so high that it actually deters bacterial growth almost as much as salt does. Allowing them to cool completely after baking, sealing cookies in plastic and storing in the freezer will keep them fresh. I have found that the 1-week transit through the mail hasn't affected the taste or freshness of my gifts at all when they're prepared this way.
Can't cook? Buy or find a nice container--preferrably see-through (perhaps a giant pickle-jar?)--and place within it all the non-perishable ingredients to make chocolate-chip cookies, or a delicious soup, or breakfast-muffins. Attach a nice gift-tag, or wrap the lid in Christmas fabric, and be sure to include the complete recipe and directions so they can follow through with your gift!
One caveat--make sure you don't give sweets to a diabetic. On the other hand, if you find a recipe for diabetic-safe pumpkin pie, don't be surprised if your gift is twice as valuable!
Pictures and Memories
People often overlook expense in favor of sentiment. What grandfather can resist wearing a sweatshirt with his new grand-baby's foot-prints all over the back in acrylic art-paint? "My grand-son walks all over me!" One sweatshirt + one baby + inexpensive acrylic craft paint = a true treasure! Likewise, school photographs of your children in frames that match the decor of the recipient are often "enough" of a gift, depending on their relationship to you and your children.
What else might be meaningful to the recipient of your gift? Can you find old photographs of parents, siblings, or places you went on vacation with your family? Restoring or enlarging these photographs and framing them may stimulate good memories and make that gift something very special. Can you put an old treasured photo in a new frame, or somehow give an old family treasure a new, safer, more eye-catching home? I was thrilled when my daughter bought me a stand for the Native American peace-pipe I had made many years before.
Many people are excellent at different types of crafts--others may be afraid to give it a try. Not everyone has the magic touch with crafts such as sewing, painting wooden tree-houses, or doing beadwork. But unless your High School art teacher forbade you to touch another paint-brush for the rest of your life, you may be able to make a little money go a long way by making gifts for your friends and family. A simple visit to your local crafts store may give you ideas--on several occasions I've walked away without buying a single thing, after seeing that I could make some of the items in the shop with things I already had at hand, such as making a pine-cone man using hot-glue, the pine-cones under my neighbor's tree, some googly-eyes from my button box, and holiday ribbon left over from the year before.
If you're able to sew, a simple gift that is easy to make in quantity is fleece hats. I bought a pattern one year that contained 5 different styles, spent $10 on small pieces of different types of polar-fleece, and was able to make fun, warm hats for 10 different people on my gift-list! Slippers or socks made of fleece are also an easy project.
If you're not embarrassed to have someone figure out that money is tight, gift-cards with the offer of your skills and services are a good way to go. Willing to cook a candle-light dinner for two for your best friends while your spouse watches their kids? Can you paint walls for a friend who's remodeling? Know how to wire some new light-fixtures, or plant a tree? Evaluate what you have to offer and see if it matches the needs of anyone on your gift-list.
Thrift Stores and Goodwill
Especially when buying for children, used-item stores can be a great place to find like-new gifts. Yes, you may have to sift through 15 battered and ugly stuffed animals before you find that one sparkling teddy-bear, but you know when you see it that your niece will fall in love with it instantly. Likewise, children grow so quickly that the clothing racks for little children and babies are often filled with outfits that have been worn only a few times.
If you are a crafter, thrift stores are also a good place to pick up supplies. Yes, that odd glass vase was an eyesore in it's former life ... but once you fill it with sand-sculpture and seal it shut, it's going to look like a work of art!
To be honest, the thought of re-gifting--giving away things that were presents to you at one point but which didn't tickle your fancy--is a strange idea to me. If I didn't want the pink elephant mouse-pad, why would anyone else? But on the other hand, I DO have a friend who loves elephants and the color pink. It's a perfect match! Those wine-glasses I received when I moved into my first house made a perfect gift for a friend who drinks wine--which I do not.
But be careful about re-gifting within the same social circle, where one friend might notice that her gift of the previous year is now sitting in a different friend's home. The same goes with family members. Re-gifting can really go awry when you can't remember who gave you the gift! The definition of a holiday gift-disaster is giving a serving dish you received from Aunt Edna back to ... Aunt Edna. If you know you're going to re-gift, tape a small tag to the gift when you receive it, making note of who gave it to you and when, and make sure that you re-direct it as far away from the original source as possible.