How to stop buying so many Christmas gifts

How to stop buying so many Christmas gifts


Every time the holiday season rolls around, I count my blessings that I have a very short list of Christmas gifts to buy.

This hasn’t always been the case though. The shift towards buying fewer gifts is something that has evolved over time and, in some cases, involved a bit of trial and error.

But I have to say, it’s been totally worth it. Not only is it a huge relief to avoid the anxiety-inducing annual shopping frenzy, it’s also a much-needed break for my bank account. Plus, it’s nice to know I’m creating less waste.

And I’m not alone in wanting a more low-key Christmas gifting routine.

According to a recent poll, 52% of Canadians would like to give and receive fewer gifts during the holidays. In addition, 31% said they feel like they have to buy holiday gifts for too many people and 24% said gift giving in their family is out of control.

So why do we do this to ourselves?

Well, it’s not easy to break out of the gift-giving cycle. For starters, most people don’t like change. And since giving is a two-way street, you can’t change these habits on your own – you need to get others on board first.

Then add all the expectations and traditions around the holidays and the fact that no one wants to be seen as cheap, stingy or Grinch-like, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for your shopping list to continually grow longer.

Here are four approaches to buying fewer gifts that I have experience with, plus some advice on how to implement them.

Christmas gifts - Cold turkey

1. Go cold turkey

Best suited for: distant relatives, acquaintances

The simplest option is to go cold turkey (like your Christmas dinner leftovers) and just stop giving gifts. I recommend this approach for more distant relatives and acquaintances – particularly if you’re mailing gifts to each other, which adds extra stress and cost. For example, my parents used to mail gifts to my cousins in Victoria (and vice-versa). As we got older and it became harder to buy the “right” gifts (you know how teenagers can be), they decided to stop.

I don’t, however, recommend this approach for closer friends and family. My immediate family decided to go cold turkey one year (before the arrival of my niece), but we ended up finding it really strange to have absolutely no gifts on Christmas Day. In that case, it may make more sense to replace your usual gift giving with a new tradition, like one of the next three options, rather than cut it out completely.

Christmas gifts - gift exchange

2. Do a gift exchange

Best suited for: family, friends

Gift exchanges are great because they reduce the number of gifts without completely removing the gift aspect of Christmas. Two common types of gift exchange are Secret Santa and White Elephant:

  • Secret Santa: Each person in your group is randomly assigned a fellow group member to buy a gift for. The assignments are generally kept secret, and the identity of the gift giver may or may not be revealed when the gifts are opened (a third option is to guess who gave each gift).
  • White Elephant: You choose the “tone” of the exchange – like whether you’re aiming for good or funny gifts. Each participant supplies one wrapped gift and everyone takes turns opening a gift from the pile. People can choose to open a wrapped gift or “steal” someone else’s already unwrapped gift (see full rules).

I’ve been doing a Secret Santa gift exchange with the adult members of my immediate family for years now. We tried White Elephant one year, but found it too impersonal. Here are a few details on how we do it:

  • The gift exchange is for the adults only – we do gifts separately for my niece.
  • We set a price range for gifts, which can be adjusted each year based on budgets.
  • We started off drawing names out of a hat at our Thanksgiving dinner in October, which gave everyone plenty of time to shop. One year we couldn’t all make it to Thanksgiving dinner, so we did the draw online. We’re currently using Secret Santa Organizer, a free online Secret Santa gift exchange organizer, which assigns everyone a name by email. It also lets you set up exclusions, so that couples won’t get each other, for example.
  • We have a shared document in Google Docs where we all write down gift ideas for ourselves to help out our Secret Santa.

While the White Elephant-style exchange didn’t work for my family, it has worked well with friends. For 10+ years, one of my friends hosted a Christmas Tacky Gift Exchange. The event focused on reconnecting and spending time together, rather than giving gifts. And our attempts to bring the tackiest gift possible made for many hilarious memories.

Christmas gifts - Plan an experience

3. Plan an experience

Best suited for: friends, colleagues, kids

This approach is ideal for groups of friends or colleagues. Instead of buying each other gifts, plan a fun – maybe even slightly indulgent – activity or event. Have dinner at a nice restaurant, see a show or maybe even take a short trip. You can focus on spending time together and spend your money on the activity, rather than getting a gift for each person.

Planning an experience can also work well for kids. Toys fall in and out of favour and may end up in the donation bin next year, whereas experiencing something together will create much more lasting memories. This can work within different budgets as well, from something as simple as going ice skating or swimming to attending the latest Cirque show. You could also consider giving (rather than planning) an experience as well, such as contributing towards music lessons, art classes or sports teams.

I’ve tried to stop buying “things” for my niece and plan experiences instead. For example, we’ve gone to see shows at the Stanley Theatre as well as Cirque du Soleil. While it’s not always cheaper (yes, I do splurge a bit), it is definitely less stressful than trying to find the perfect gift. And the best part is that we get to spend time together doing something special that we’re both going to remember.

Christmas gifts - charitable

4. Do something charitable

Best suited for: family, friends, colleagues

The idea here is to spend time together while doing something for others. This may involve donating your time or money, or both. Here are a few ideas:

At work, my department does a Secret Santa gift exchange with a charitable spin on it. We each choose a name from a hat and instead of buying them a gift, we buy a toy ($15 or less) that reflects the person. At our holiday get-together, we each get to unwrap one of the toys and the group has to determine who the gift was for, which ends up being quite funny. And the best part: the toys are all donated to charity.

Tips to get started

  • Start early. Regardless of which approach you choose, I recommend you bring up the idea early – i.e., bring it up this year as an idea for next year, so people have to time to get used to it and don’t feel rushed to make a decision. Also, going through another stressful gift-giving season might make them more open to the idea for next year.
  • Focus on one group. If the thought of trying to change things up feels overwhelming, focus on one group first. Changing how your immediate family does things can often be the most challenging, so maybe start with a group of friends.
  • Take baby steps. Don’t expect things to change overnight or even over one holiday season. If your eventual goal is to go cold turkey on gift giving, try taking smaller steps in that direction like introducing a gift exchange first.
  • Be sensitive. Not everyone is going to have the same vision as you, so be sensitive to those who don’t want to let go of certain traditions.
  • Check in later. If people are initially resistant to a new gift arrangement you’re proposing, don’t give up right away. Sometimes people need time for an idea to sink in. Check back in with them again in a year or two to see if they’ve warmed up to the idea at all.
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