Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Gift-Giving: How Can I Stop Overspending

Dear Dr. Ford:

I am a comfortably off but middle-class woman who has been on a fixed income since I took forced early retirement in my late 50s. I have three children, five siblings, and a spouse who is in his 60s and is also retired. We live in a quiet and modest suburb and are making it, but without much left over to spare. I still have to pay for medical insurance and a lot of living expenses that don’t go away just because you are older.

Though I always enjoy the Christmas season, and have been happy to be generous, I am now realizing that my giving plan has to change, and it’s causing me to feel anxious instead of happy.

Specifically, I am worried about the expectations and wishes of my family. Part of this is my fault, since I have established a pattern of fairly bountiful and lavish celebrations, and now that’s what everyone expects.

I don’t want to disappoint others and let them down. Our family has always had such a good time being together at Christmas, and I don’t want things to change, though I see that they must.

What should I do?



Dear Marilyn:

Yours is a common dilemma, since so much about Christmas and holidays seems to be tied to “tradition,” which, by nature, is built on sameness and repetition. Your challenge is how to preserve the good feelings and general spirit of the season within the context of your new financial constraints.

Much of the activity surrounding Christmas is geared to the excitement of children, and at first the idea of trees, lights, special food, and Santa Claus, (especially) creates a lot of that feeling automatically. And all parents delight in seeing the excitement kids feel when opening their gifts. But as they age and stop believing in the magic, more and more of the excitement rests on the opening of the presents. It can be a challenge each year to find gifts that will both delight and surprise everyone.

But you said something crucial in your letter: Your family loves getting together, and if you asked them, I’m sure they would say that this is the core of the holiday spirit.

I would suggest that you attempt to introduce more “togetherness” activities, if possible. In addition to church and caroling, perhaps you can organize an ice-skating trip or a family hike. Many cities, like New York and Washington, D.C. now have beautiful “winter lights” shows at the local zoo. Check out your local paper or look on the Internet for ideas in your area.

On the gift-giving side, there are creative ways to give gifts that are meaningful but not costly. Suggestions include:
Give the gift of time: An example is a formal babysitting offer to daughter, perhaps even with coupons that you can make and decorate.

An able-bodied husband can offer a widowed older woman who is a close friend a gift of mowing the lawn for a year.

You could give the gift of catering a first party for a son or daughter with a first apartment who would like to be able to give a party.

Research shows that people often like “experience” gifts better than material ones. So perhaps you could offer a museum membership, theater tickets, concerts, a lecture or film series at local college, or a cooking class with all three grown children and partners. People are catching on to this, and it is not unusual for brides to ask for the gift of a meal at a restaurant during the honeymoon as a wedding present. If your son is a movie lover, a subscription to Netflix or some other streaming service is an idea. There are also sports networks that offer streaming services.

It has been found that “time” is what many people have too little of, and that a present of a time-saving device or trick can bring more happiness than a material wealth. The New York Times reports that Harvard researchers found that spending money on convenience items and time-saving services helps lower stress and makes us happier.

In two surveys of more than 6,000 people in the United States, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands, the researchers found that when people spent money to save time, (such as ordering takeout food, taking a cab, hiring household help or paying someone to run an errand) they were happier than those who didn’t . . . in another experiment, Canadians were given $80 over two weekends and told to spend it on material items or time-saving purchases. The time-savers had less time-related stress and a bigger increase in well-being.

The baby-sitting gift would do this; so would an offer to clean someone’s house, or to hire a one-time service to do it. Sometimes the best gifts are things people feel are self-indulgent and wouldn’t give to themselves. Offering to hire someone to wash your married daughter’s windows could add an unexpected boost of sunshine into her home during the winter months, for example. With apps like Home Advisor it has become easier to find competitive prices. Or you can hire an eager teenager to help with household tasks. I once gave my sister the gift of computer coaching from my teenage daughter, both providing a service to my sister and some needed cash for my child.

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