How to avoid buying people holiday gifts

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As far as financial fears go, holiday debt hangover ranks high on my personal list, right up there with unknowingly dinging my credit or a long-lost twin stealing my identity and draining my bank account.

To avoid falling into the red due to holiday spending, I scrimp as much as possible. Last year, I saved by inadvertently breaking the rules. I committed a holiday faux pas at my cousin’s annual Christmas gathering. We had agreed to buy presents for the kids in the family, and to do a Secret Santa among the adults, or so I thought. It turned out everyone agreed to do a Secret Santa on top of the usual gift exchange. Whoopsies.

After explaining and profusely apologizing, my family was cool with it. It got me thinking: Is skipping holiday gift-giving the worst thing to do ever?

Here are some ways you can forgo the present-swapping altogether:

Shrug it off

My friend Marie, who is in her 80s and a fellow Zen Buddhist, stopped giving holiday gifts to her family years ago.

“Just don’t do it," she said. "Dare to be different.”

My other friend Andrew doesn’t give gifts either. Last year when it was his turn to pass out presents, he just said he didn’t bring anything. While he got some disapproving looks from his folks, he learned to shrug it off.

This is easier said than done. Even if you can ignore end-of-year deals, it’s the social expectation that tugs. Your loved ones may think you’ve turned on them, or something is wrong. But try it out. Even if you don’t get a stamp of approval, it might not be as bad as you think.

Make a pact

If simply shrugging it off isn’t your style—I know it’s not mine—make a pact beforehand. You could craft an email saying you want everyone to have a simpler, less stressful holiday, so you won’t exchange gifts this year. Make sure you’re on the same page, whether discussing in person or online. You probably have friends and family who feel similarly, but may be afraid to speak up.

Athena Lent and her longtime boyfriend Harlan agreed to skip gift-giving all year long. She was in the middle of cancer treatment last winter when they realized their anniversary, Valentine’s Day and Harlan’s birthday fell within a three-week window. Lent asked if they could forgo gifts—including Christmas—that year and take a trip when she was feeling better.

“Be honest with your partner, yet tactful,” said Lent, author of Money Smart Latina. She estimates saving about $300 on holiday gifts alone. “If you partner wants to still exchange gifts, maybe decide on one small item or do it for special occasions that aren't tied to consumer holidays.”

But what about the children? Try nixing gift-giving just among the adults and only buy the kids in your family a gift.

“As Christmas seemed more like a holiday for kids, my siblings and I agreed not to purchase gifts for each other, just for the children,” said Faith Sams of Prosperity and Participation. “This is a conversation that someone can bring up once kids start coming into the world.”

Issue IOUs

Remember those cute little coupon books you gave your parents to exchange for chores around the house? If you’d rather offer your time to save your budget, bring IOUs back this holiday season.

“There's nothing wrong with not buying a gift,” said Philip Taylor of personal finance blog PT Money. “But you can still give something: a few kind words in a card, a promise for a future experience or date, a service offering such as cooking a meal, doing random chores around the house or handiwork.”

Stick to your guns

It's not the easiest thing to do, but don’t cave in to social pressure.

“Gently let your family know that you've decided to embrace a less consumer-driven holiday,” said Jessi Fearon, a personal finance coach and writer. “Stick to your plan, thank them gratefully for the gift, but don't run out and buy them something just because you feel guilty.”

This is something I’m prone to. In the past I've bought extra gifts in case I forgot someone on my list. Here’s the thing: If you make it known you won't buy gifts, it’s not on you if someone else wants to get you something.

Enjoying a no-gift holiday isn’t easy, but it’s doable. By setting expectations beforehand, coming to an agreement and finding clever alternatives, you’ll skip the stress of chasing after those year-end deals and start your new year budget in a solid place. Bring out the party hats, because that definitely calls for a celebration.

Image: JackF