Gift giving on a budget

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Don’t do it this year. Not this year. For once, exit the holidays without debt and the guilt that comes with it.It's not easy to buck tradition and learn to practice gift giving on a budget. But you can start by letting go of these old ideas.

I have to give an equal (or better) gift to everyone who gives a gift to me.

Why? Because you feel guilty if you don’t? Because you think the gift giver is only giving you a gift to get one in return? Guilt is not a valid reason for incurring more debt and anyone who only gives to receive is not a valid reason for anything in your life.

It’s tradition. Everyone in my family exchanges gifts.

What if you can’t afford the tradition? Do you really think your dad wants a mustache coffee mug from you more than he wants you to be able to pay your internet bill?

I don’t want everyone knowing that I can’t afford gifts so I’ll just put them on my credit card.

You’re willing to pay 12% APR on your pride going into the New Year? Be proud of yourself for saying, "I have a specific financial plan this year and I’m sticking to it even through the holidays."

But I love giving gifts... that I can't afford.

Think ahead to January. Will that nice feeling of giving the cashmere scarf to your landlady, hold up when you can’t actually give her the rent?

My kids need stuff.

Kids need food, shelter, clothes, school and love. They want twenty toys and a $300 phone. Hell, I want those things, but I’d rather be able to pay my heating bill. It’s okay for our kids to know that we live on a budget. It’s okay that we can’t give them everything they want. Ultimately, they’ll be better equipped to handle life because of the things we can’t give them.There are dozens of ways you can show your affection and appreciation and celebration this holiday season that do not involve hurting your finances.Here are some ideas for low cost or no cost gifts:

1. It’s the thought that counts.

So share your thoughts. Who doesn’t appreciate being appreciated? I would take a note telling me how great I am over a box of chocolates every single time. Some might even say that expressing appreciation and love is the whole point of the holidays.

2.Give an experience instead of a gift.

A couple I know have a pact to give each other cool experiences (like adventures, classes, concerts) instead of objects. I love the idea of making a memory with people you care about instead of giving them stuff. Invite some friends to go ice skating and pay their $5 skate rental. Or have them over for coffee, cookies and A Christmas Story (or a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity if no kids are involved).And remember, there’s also Dollar Store Holiday.

3. Make donations in lieu of gifts.

Rather than buy ten work gifts, find a charity that relates to your line of work and make a donation on behalf of your co-workers. You can give to the greater good and still save over what you would pay for individual gifts.

4. Take donations.

Instead of spending $15 on a white elephant gift exchange where everyone may or may not end up with something useful, have everybody bring a kid’s book to donate. If you need a game to occupy the time, have everyone guess who brought which book and give a prize for the person who gets the most right. Instead of gift exchanges between groups of your close friends, adopt a family together (just search "adopt a family for the holidays" and all kinds of national and local charities pop up) and have each friend bring one of the items that the family has requested.

5. Give the gift of time.

One of the best gifts we received for our baby shower was a four hour babysitting voucher from a friend. If you are at all a capable babysitter, any parent will love to have an offer of a night out. Volunteer an hour of your time at a local charity in honor of a friend. Gift an hour of your time to help your un-tech savvy friend (hint hint) figure out how to sync all her Apple devices or program her remote. Or gift an hour of organizing, or helping make a slide show, or putting together the swing set your friends got for their kid. People who love you would much rather have YOUR gift than A gift.

6. Your children’s teacher will appreciate a $5 gift card to a local coffee shop or bakery.

Seriously. Please give me a $5 gift card for coffee. It’s not about the amount.

7. Buy in bulk.

There are always people you forget or suddenly have a rush of love for and wish you had thought to get them something. Keep some low cost things on hand for these occasions. In my article on how to avoid holiday stress I suggest buying a case of wine when it’s on sale at your grocery store. You can buy several $5 gift cards to Starbucks or $10 to iTunes (you can even email them) or, better yet, get gift cards to a locally owned eatery. If you are a member of Costco, they have a big bag of little bags of gourmet popcorn for about half the cost it is in the grocery store.Or you can just declare a moratorium on gift giving this year. Tell your friends and family that you don’t need anything from them and that you are giving love this season. Ask them to please respect your request to not exchange gifts this year. Tell them that you are just fine financially and determined to stay that way by following a budget. Chances are pretty good at least some of your friends and family could also benefit financially from not giving you a gift this year.You can do it. I can do it. We can resist the urge to spend money we don’t have this holiday season. We can let go of the idea that we have to give things to show our appreciation. We can remember that just because something is on sale doesn’t mean we can afford it. We can release the guilt. We can be vocal and proud of sticking to our budget. We can focus on what really matters. We can head into the New Year with no additional credit card debt and with enough money to pay our bills.Good luck and Happy Holidays!