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Does your holiday spending often get out of control? Take your power back with this no-frills guide to holiday gift giving.

Last time we were together, we talked about not getting carried away in the excitement of Black Friday sales. Today we’re going to talk about your broader holiday gift giving plan.

Exchanging gifts can strengthen your bond with others. It says, “You made my list. I care about you. I took the time to come up with something to please and excite you.” The gift-giver shares in that moment of joy when the gift is opened.

Gift giving is tied up in relationship and tradition. No other time is that more apparent than Christmas.

Because of this, when a list of names is our only plan, we can get caught up in emotional spending and wind up surprised by the final tab.

But limiting our spending on loved ones feels ungenerous. We don’t want to be cheap!

Seasonal spending is supported by holiday stories. Not joining in makes us like Scrooge. The song has twelve days of Christmas gifts. Good children get gifts from Santa and a stocking full of toys.

Marketers love that these stories are already planted, making it easy to convince shoppers they should give in to the free-for-all. But without some self-preservation, Christmas spending can swallow you whole financially. So, what to do?

For starters, consider your relationships and spending habits.

Holiday Gift Giving: How to Avoid OverspendingThe closer we are with the recipient, the more time and money we tend to put into choosing a gift. Spending on family is often fraught with emotion. Conversations about Christmas spending with parents and grandparents can be uncomfortable.

You may use Christmas gifts to prove to your dad how successful you’ve become. Maybe your parents lavish you with gifts and you feel like you have to reciprocate or seem ungrateful. Maybe you are trying to one-up your brother’s gift.

When you are coming up with a list of who you will buy for, consider the roles that have played out in the past. Is there a story that explains why you spent so much on your sister last year—maybe because you knew she would like something and she couldn’t afford it. But could you?

We like to rescue, to play the big shot, to show that we can give as well as we get. But soon it’s become a very expensive competition. And usually Christmas gifts are not things we need.

Good & Bad Reasons for Holiday Gift Giving

Identify what your gifts are trying to prove. Then, consider rationally if your spending is really moving the needle on your relationship with this person. Does the other person even recognize the gesture as intended, or is it all in your head?

One study found that people don’t appreciate gifts when they feel that the giver is doing it to prove a point or self-serve. Are you spending money to prove your success, and only coming across as a show off? Or maybe you are spending to match an extravagance coming from an older relative who has the money to spend. They may feel like their generosity is undermined when you try to match their gesture.

And yet another study found that most people appreciate a less-expensive, sentimental gift that shows your bond than a more expensive, impersonal gift, like a gift card. But most gift-givers shy away from the sentimental because they aren’t sure how it will be received. Or they add the gift card just to make sure the bases are covered.

You may purchase expensive presents for your parents, who don’t really need anything, to prove how far you have come. But they may be most delighted by an updated family picture or something silly the grandkids picked out by themselves.

One of the hallmarks of wealth is that you want for little. And often the people with real wealth are frugal. Yet when you are struggling with money, it can feel important to spend on others to prove your financial stability. Do you fall in this category?

But She Started It…

One of the most important things you can do to stop a ballooning holiday list is to set expectations early. You know from past years which people you overspend on. Maybe it has snowballed from year-to-year as you each try to top last year and no one knows how to pull the plug.

If you have felt the after-holiday spending burn, chances are you aren’t the only one. In many cases, just bringing it up will be a huge relief to the other party.

Find a relaxed time to discuss what the plan is this year—probably not at the dinner table with a crowd at Thanksgiving. Suggest a dollar limit, or that you and your siblings only buy gifts for each other’s kids this year. For a large family gathering or friend group, how about a white elephant gift exchange where each person can only spend $20.

Holiday Gift Giving: It’s Not Just About the Money!

If it’s too uncomfortable, you don’t have to give money as the reason.

Tell them that your house is bursting at the seams with too much stuff. Christmas waste is a real environmental issue, after all. Or you can say that you want to focus on the holiday and not materialism this year. Perhaps you don’t like the message that all that holiday excess sends to your kids. Alternatively, maybe you are choosing to divert your spending to someone else who really needs it by sponsoring a family this year.

So many good reasons to cut back on holiday gift giving.

Acknowledge that some will be more receptive than others, and that’s ok. Maybe you come to an agreement with your sister, but your mom says she’s going to spend on the kids, no matter what. We all have our own feelings and reasons for gifting.

While you want to be transparent about your plan, you cannot control how others spend their money. Just as they should not make demands on your spending. If spending is causing you financial hardship, no one has the right to say that their tradition requires you to spend lavishly on them.

But having the conversation is a win, and you may be surprised by the reactions you get.

Maybe they feel the same way but were too embarrassed to bring it up. Any arrangements you can make will help with your total spend, and it’s only fair to let others know your plan if you are cutting way back instead of surprising the family on Christmas day.

It’s Ok To Buy Holiday Gifts & Presents

Of course you are still going to enjoy and give at Christmas. Along with these conversations, come up with a realistic budget for your holiday shopping and stick to it. Christmas should not be an emergency fund expense.

If you haven’t already set the money aside this year, determine that number now and divide the total by the number of weeks to the end of the year. For example, if you are going to spend $800 total, starting Nov 7, start setting aside $100 a week until the end of the year. The earlier you start, the better.

Spread Love – Not Stuff!

There are many ways to lighten the spending and still spread the cheer. “Stuff” (material items) is what usually comes to mind when you think about holiday gift giving. But great holiday gifts don’t always require buying a material item from a big box store.

Homemade gifts, such as candles or baked goods, framed pictures, and handwritten cards with personal news are always welcome.

Instead of exchanging gifts, suggest that a friend join you for coffee or lunch and catch up.

Making a charitable gift is a way to spend money on someone who needs it that may also help you at tax time.

Donating your time to a cause you support costs you nothing and can really make a difference to someone else. And nothing will put you more in the spirit than working alongside others for the greater good.

If you know someone who has lost a loved one this year, reach out. Spend time with them. The holidays have a way of giving center stage to what we have lost, and your plate of cookies and small talk may be a light in their week.

Holiday Gift Giving: In Conclusion

Maybe the holidays are a dark time for you. This has been a hard year for those with mental health issues because of the isolation, and holidays can be lonely in the best of times. There is an expectation that everything is supposed to be Hallmark movie perfect at Christmas. People start to assess their romantic lives and friendships and feel like they are lacking. Social media can make us feel worse when we see everyone’s pictures of their perfect homes and laughing families around the fire pit.

Know that you are not the only one feeling this way. There are things you can do to combat these feelings. Send a handwritten card or reach out to a friend you haven’t spoken to in awhile on the phone. Get outdoors. Find an online group where you can find communities of others that share these feelings. And while you’re doing it, don’t forget to keep an eye on your spending!

Tammy Lally

I BELIEVE MONEY IS NOT YOUR WORTH. Tammy Lally is an author, speaker, and Certified Money Coach (CMC). She helps others master their finances by first conquering their emotions around money, then by creating a comprehensive financial plan. She brings decades of experience and endless love to her bulletproof process for money mastery. She is the author of the book Money Detox, and her TED talk on Money Shame has over 2 million views.

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