There are many wonderful parts of growing your family when you get married, but I have never found holiday gift shopping to be one of those parts. Since I got married/became a for-real grownup in my family, holiday shopping went from a lighthearted and enjoyable task to an endless financial and logistical slog. How many people do I need to buy something for again? And how on Earth do I find something to buy that fits the trifecta of 1) making people feel loved, 2) not costing a fortune, and 3) not causing waste. (Because there’s nothing like giving people lumpy sweaters they’ll never wear and books they’ll never read to stock the shelves of the local thrift store.)
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on when you ask me), I’ve been dealing with this married family gift list problem for almost a decade, and over the past few years, I’ve finally figured out some tricks. I figured I’d share them here, with the hopes that the rest of you all have more and better tricks, and we can swap strategies and make the impending holiday shopping feel a little bit more like the joyful lark it once was, many family members ago.
1. The handmade gift: For years I shied away from handmade gifts, because the idea that I was going to sit around and knit everyone a tea cozy seemed unrealistic, and most of the handmade gift ideas I saw online were either complex and time consuming or cutesy and ultimately wasteful. But last year, I finally gave in and decided that a thoughtful handmade gift was the best way to cover alllllll the people that we love. For our first go round, we mixed Epsom salts with fancy bath herbs from one of Oakland’s magick stores, and had the kids hand make cute tags for each one. They were cheap (yay Epsom salts), and ultimately they were very functional (I enjoyed the hell out of the leftovers, I can tell you).
2. The experience gift: I’ve recently decided that the best way to feel like I’m on vacation on any random weekend day is to go to a museum. After all, whenever I travel halfway around the world, I go to a museum, but I rarely go to the ones in my own backyard. But I’ve also realized that taking a family of four to a museum can be prohibitively expensive ($125 for my kids running around for two hours and then getting overwhelmed and needing to leave? No thank you). This has really sold me on the idea of asking for and receiving experience gifts. Museum memberships, concert tickets, OpenTable gift certificates? All of those bring me so much more joy than a slightly weird pair of shoes.
3. The photo gift: The year of our wedding, everyone got photo gifts. Parent albums? Holiday cards? Photos in frames? Anything we could stick a photo on, we did. And those gifts had far more longevity than anything else we’ve ever given. In the years since, we’ve continued to lean into photo gifts, sticking pictures of our kids and other loved ones into frames (though mugs, coasters, notebooks, and calendars all seem to be equally big hits). But the simplest and most consistent thing I’ve done is a photo holiday card. Over the last two years, I switched up the way I handled our cards and started using Minted’s photo layout features on the inside of the card. (Can I cram six photos inside one card? Yes I can!) A huge chunk of our holiday budget goes to sending those cards to our giant list of family and friends all over the world, and I have gotten more unexpected heartfelt thank yous about those photos than anything else I’ve ever sent in my life. Turns out they’re totally worth both the time and money.
4. The big adult gift: I’ve written over the years about our quest to go a little more minimal with the holidays and make them more about time together than stuff. As part of that goal, David and I have moved to a model where we give each other one large gift—something expensive enough that we wouldn’t necessarily buy it for ourselves on a whim, but something we’ll really enjoy over many years. I’ve asked for bags, shoes, or things for the house. I honestly can’t remember what he’s asked for, but I’m guessing electronics. Regardless, it makes us both feel loved, and gives us something we love that we might not otherwise get. (With WAY less shopping and wrapping.)
5. The (many) tiny kid gifts: For kids, however, we’ve given in to how-kids-really-are versus how-we-wish-they-were, and we’ve gone the opposite direction. For Hanukah in our house, we’ve started the tradition of the grab bag. We create a bag for each kid with eight tiny toys in them (in our house our kids are close enough in age that the toys are identical in both bags to minimize arguments and promote the feeling of being on a team). We try to make them slightly higher quality toys than they might get in a junky gift bag at a party (think metal wind up robots), but the gifts are small and inexpensive, and they ADORE them in a way they never seem to care about the big tasteful gifts I want to give them. (I’m going to be shopping for those toys from this magic jackpot this year.)
6. The gift card gift: And finally, for the many folks that help make our lives more livable—teachers, childcare workers, our housekeeper, etc.—for those folks we give gift cards. Namely Amazon or Target gift cards, which don’t have the fees of Visa gift cards, but function basically like cash at this point. (What can’t you get from Amazon, exactly?) For those people who help us all year round, we want to let them buy whatever they or their families want or need, without imposing our idea for what they might want on them.
Applying these strategies has made holiday gift giving feel manageable. I know where my budgeting priorities are (photo gift cards for a ton of people, funnily enough). And I know where I don’t want to spend money (fancy expensive gifts for the kids that will be forgotten in seconds). This also lets me give a lot of people the same thing (sometimes homemade) and then focus my fun gift shopping on a handful of people whose taste I know well enough that I can really nail the gift… which is the whole point.
Now if only I could get someone to mail all those packages for me…
How about you? What gifts are you giving this year? What tips and tricks do you have for managing spending and giving at the holidays? And what do you really, really want for yourself this year?