8 Strategies To End Gift-Giving Madness

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
It’s right around now, in the final 10 days before Christmas, that the holiday gift-giving panic sets in. If you’re like me, you meant to shop earlier, but life got in the way. Now, you find yourself with a half-formed list of ideas for your loved ones and zero time to track the items down. Don’t worry: There’s still time to reboot your strategy. A self-imposed set of rules can make your shopping a lot less stressful, and if you suspect your family members may be settling into an equivalent panic, you might be able to band together to dodge the madness this year.

Over the years, my own family has experimented with different ways to restrain the holiday excess. Motivated by frugality, earth-consciousness, and a war on clutter, our first attempt at breaking the gift-giving tradition was to limit each family member to just one gift (of course, everyone cheated in little ways, tucking small gifts into boxes with the “one” gift or buying a set of things as “one” item). We’ve experimented with other ways of curbing the tide of stuff — some more successful than others — and along the way, I’ve learned that communicating with your family is key. While it may be too late for your clan this year, you can certainly raise the idea now for next, and you can set rules for yourself as practice.

Ahead, eight creative ways to keep Christmas craziness in check.
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If You’re Feeling Broke… Try A Price Cap
If your biggest concern is the cost of holiday gifts, suggest a price cap on either each item or the total amount you might spend on a person. (This can be especially helpful for couples beginning to navigate their partner’s family’s traditions.) However, no one wants to admit that they’re thinking about money when they select gifts, and your family may find it crass of you to suggest a dollar restriction. If you’re too afraid to mention it, you can still privately set a budget, which can help guide your choices.

A price cap is also something that can be done in combination with one of the other tactics ahead; for example, if your brood decided to go for a white elephant exchange, you might offer a maximum price for the items in the exchange. Likewise, if you wanted to try the Four Gift Rule, you could put a ceiling on the total spending for each person.
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If You Just Want To Reign In The Madness… Try The 4-Gift Rule
A simple solution to reducing your fam’s holiday consumption is to limit the quantity of presents you give each person (duh!) — and a structured limitation is even better. Many parents love the “four-gift rule” for averting what could be an avalanche of gifts (it works at birthdays, too). In this system, each person (or child) receives four presents that fall into the categories of one she wants, one she needs, one to wear, and one to read, which are conveniently broad enough that there is some room for creativity, but specific enough to help the giver make decisions. Plus, the buyer can be as frugal (or as extravagant) as she chooses.
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If you Want shopping To Be Less Stressful… Try A Kids-Only Christmas
Once the youngest generation grows to be more than a child or two, many families decide to forgo grown-up gifts and only give presents to children. This particular philosophy reduces holiday anxiety for a number of reasons. For one, you have fewer people to worry about. Second, shopping for children is actually fun — you don’t feel the pressure that you do trying to find the perfect present for an adult who already has everything he needs. Finally, children’s elation upon tearing into wrapping paper is really what the whole gift-giving tradition is all about.
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If You Want Christmas Morning To Be Full Of Joy… Try A Secret Santa
While more familiar as an office holiday tradition, a Secret Santa exchange is a fun way to reduce the number of gifts that you need to purchase for your family each year without spoiling the giving-and-getting fun. Guessing the giver for each gift makes for great fun on the big day, and it forces everyone focus more on each offering than in the usual get-‘em-open frenzy.
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If You’re Stumped For What To Get… Try A Theme
If your main struggle with gift giving is actually thinking of something to get your relatives (dads and uncles, we’re looking at you), then a themed exchange may be a good solution. In this style of gift exchange, everyone gives items in one genre, like books, clothes, food gifts — whatever suits your family. The beauty of picking a theme is you set limitations that actually make it easier to think of the perfect gift for each person. Another plus is that you can decide to gift in a theme without having to convince your family members to participate. Instead, you can simply say, “I wanted to give you all a great read this year,” and show up with a sack full of books.
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If You’re Opposed To The Consumerist Nature Of The Holidays… Try Conscious Gift Giving
If you would rather make donations to charity than your family, but don’t feel like you can show up for the holidays empty-handed, use your gift giving dollars to make a positive impact this year: Purchase earth-friendly and/or independently made goods. You can rally your family to do the same or simply do it on your own. Some might choose to limit themselves to handmade (made by the giver or an artisan) and second-hand items. You might decide that you’re going to buy everything in your hometown instead of online to support local small businesses. Whatever you choose, you may just feel a little more holiday cheer if you imbue your gifts with a charitable purpose.
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If You Can’t Stand Any More Stuff… Try Experiences Over Things
An ever-growing body of psychological research suggests that experiences bring people more happiness than possessions do. Plus, experiences don’t take up space in our homes and eventually end up in a landfill. Consider gifting your loved ones museum memberships, concert tickets, a fabulous lunch, or even babysitting services. Clutter-phobes can proactively request experiences over gifts if asked what they’d like this year.
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If You’re Just Over Gifts… Try No Gifts
If you and your clan have never been passionate gift-givers and lean toward a more minimalist holiday, consider giving up the whole tradition. For some families, the no-gift Christmas could feel a little too Grinch-like, but a gift-free holiday could work especially well, if a family decided instead to spend their money on a trip together. If you’d like to give it a try, the blogger behind Miss Minimalist offers a certificate that reads, “I appreciate your generous spirit, but just wanted to let you know that I have all the things I could possibly want. This year, I’d like to try something special: a stuff-free holiday. Therefore, I’m issuing you this ‘One Less Gift’ Certificate.” Give it a try: You may be surprised just how relieved your family members are to hear your request — and that they share your sentiments.