Frugal Holidays: simple gift giving

simple christmas repinned to my holiday board from Jordan Ferney, original image from Jenny Hass blog


Every Christmas, I think: “This is the year I’m *finally* going to make the holiday season extra special.”

I think of all the things I can make, the traditions I want to start with the kids, the cookies & festive foods I will prepare. I get a little (a lot?) carried away with ambitious daydreams of hand crafting everything– the garlands I’m going to hang from every doorway, the wrapping paper (with homemade bows, of course), the frosted sugar cookies & peppermint fudge I’ll give to neighbors & friends, down to each perfectly executed DIY gift I’ll give. My holiday aspirations resemble something along the lines of Martha Stewart on steroids. It’s unrealistic, but I can’t help myself. I’m an optimist at heart, which makes me ever so slightly impractical (or crazy, either one).

We had a tradition for a few years where we invited 9 or 10 families, one at a time, over the course of December to our house for dinner. I made the same dinner each time to keep it simple (spaghetti, salad, breadsticks) & after dinner we had a little Christmas message & then everyone (including adults) made snowflakes that we put on our tree. It was a lot of work, but doing that made the season especially memorable. The idea was that though we didn’t have much money, our gift to our friends could be a warm meal, good company, & a little message.

A few years ago I (with Joseph’s help–isn’t that sexy?) made jean quilts for each one of my kids. I personalized each one with quilt blocks that matched each child’s likes–Hyrum, army camouflage; Asher, Cars (the movie); Amalia, Disney princesses. Again, a lot of work, but seeing the kid’s light up when they opened an extra special handmade gift made it so worth it.

This year, with a tight budget & a renewed commitment to simplicity & focus on the Christian message of the holiday season, I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts & what we’ll do for our kids. I love the Quaker hymn, “Simple Gifts” (Jewel rocks it, here). I want this year to be simple, meaningful.

In years past, Christmas has been a time to buy toys for the kids.

We decided awhile ago that we always wanted Christmas to be magical & exciting–and part of that, especially for kids, is the gift giving. I know some people have completely abandoned gift-giving because it’s “not what Christmas is about” or “it only supports commercialism.” I agree that commercial mania can distract many from the spirit of the holidays, but gift giving does not have to be a reckless pursuit of more, a ritualistic worship of consumerism. The honest act of giving a gift is selfless, thoughtful. At the heart it’s quite simple.

We figured there were going to be things that are kids needed and wanted, so instead of just buying them any old time, we’d save it for Christmas and/or birthdays.

So for a few years, the kids received a lot of Usborne books (one of my favorite “splurges” on the kids), & solid/durable toys (like a wooden kitchen set), a doll house for the girls, & other things that we figured would provide a good foundation for these kids & any future kids we might have. And Christmas is always a good time to give practical gifts that they’ll need anyway–pajamas, socks/underwear (I know, kinda boring, but when they’re wrapped up in pretty paper it’s fun.), new “Sunday best” clothes.

Because of this, at this point we have plenty of toys & books. The boys are mostly into legos, army men, guns, & books now. And the girls have plenty of dolls, art supplies, blocks, books, dress up clothes.

When I saw this on pinterest, I thought, why not try this out this year?

four gift rule repinned to my holiday board from Sarah Majors


I love giving gifts (it’s one of the great joys of life, I think), and I hope to never shun the idea or concept of gift giving–after all a gift doesn’t have to be something purchased–it’s about the thought behind the gift.

In order to give a really great gift you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes & think–what do they need? What would they really like? What can I offer to make them just a bit happier?

I think it can be a beautiful practice of getting outside yourself & thinking, in a meaningful way, about others. Which, in my opinion, is the essence of the Christmas message & spirit.

What are your thoughts on gift-giving? Do you like to give/receive gifts? What do you think about the four gift rule–is that something you could see yourself doing? 

Frugal Holidays Part 2: why decluttering before the holidays is essential
Frugal Holidays Part 3: easy DIY washi tape Christmas cards
Frugal Holidays Part 4: 5 of our fave Christmas traditions
Frugal Holidays Part 5: DIY clay baked ornaments

Coming up on next week’s Frugal Tuesdays post: Part 2–why decluttering is essential before the holidays. Please share any memorable frugal gifts you’ve given or received (doesn’t have to be necessarily handmade or DIY) in the comments below or send me an email, & I’ll include your ideas/thoughts in next week’s post.


  1. Traci
    on October 5, 2015 at 9:28 pm said:

    we have always done 3 gifts for our children at Xmas:
    A want, a need and a surprise.
    We also do a Xmas family project every year that we all
    Choose and participate, no matter the kids ages.

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  4. candice
    on November 15, 2013 at 6:25 pm said:

    I love Christmas and birthdays!! I love giving my kids presents. I also really love presentation. I only give each child a few small things, but they are all chosen with care and then i go all out with the wrapping.!! They get so excited!! It’s great!

  5. Kelly
    on November 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm said:

    I have taught my 2 boys the pleasure of receiving & givng an experience gift rather then a toy or thing. They love getting certificates to the movies, mini golf, an amusement park, skiing lift tickets. Kids learn from their parents, so if you enjoy having less stuff around the house, they will too.

  6. Emma
    on November 13, 2013 at 4:31 am said:

    I love this idea! I don’t have kids but I for one always love getting practical things. We still do gifts at Christmas and I love both giving and receiving (!) but just for immediate family. We established the rule that when we reached 18 we were going to stop presents from cousins, aunt & uncles etc.

  7. Kristen
    on November 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm said:

    This post has me all excited! I just finished wrapping several Christmas presents. I LOVE giving gifts too! I am on the lookout for ideas and special things all year long to give as little gifts. I think it’s so much fun to think about those questions you wrote: “What do they need? What would they really like? What can I offer to make them just a bit happier?” What would make them feel special, loved, like they know they are in our thoughts? I enjoy the spirit of giving, the sites, sounds and smells of Christmas. I love curling up with a hot cup of tea in our dark living room with only the Christmas lights on thinking about my little family and the reason for the season. We like to give our girls 3 gifts each to represent the 3 gifts that Baby Jesus received when he was born. 🙂

  8. Laura
    on November 12, 2013 at 3:49 pm said:

    I really love this idea- and we’re trying to add a service element this year too. It’s really about family for us – not stuff!

  9. luminousvegans
    on November 12, 2013 at 1:53 pm said:

    I love the “1 thing they read” option. I can think of no better gifts that DIY stuff and/or books! Preferably used books 🙂 I am soooo terrible at planning appropriately for gifts. I don’t have any kids but I do have a lot of nephews and nieces. I always want to knit them stuff for gifts but ultimately run out of time and just end up buying them some small toy or book. Then I mail the intended knitted item later 😛

  10. Melissa
    on November 12, 2013 at 1:39 pm said:

    I love love LOVE the 4 gift idea!!
    Christmas isn’t about quantity…

  11. Lindsay
    on November 12, 2013 at 1:23 pm said:

    I love the idea for four gifts, and I think we will try this. I have always had high hopes for keeping things simple but then either me or my husband get a bit carried away and there is just too much excess.

    We have a couple of gift traditions. We have given our kids an ornament each year. Their first is a special engraved “Baby’s first Christmas” with their name and birthdate. The others are ornaments of things they are interested in or some special place we went or just something cute. I have loved this because our tree is filled with special ornaments and when they start their own families I will give them their collection. The other tradition similar to that is we give them each a Christmas book on Christmas Eve. We store them in a tub for the rest of the year. They love when it’s decorating time and we get the books out again. We have skipped each of these traditions one year each because we have five kids now and it was a bit much, but maybe every other year for the ornaments will work.

    Also, our extended family is large and we have a book exchange for the gift exchange. It is great because it is a little easier and more frugal to buy a book instead of a toy or something else.

  12. Joy | Frock Files
    on November 12, 2013 at 12:52 pm said:

    I grew up in a family that gave a few thoughtful gifts. That’s the way that I give gifts too — so you can imagine my confusion about marrying into a family that gives an abundance of gifts on Christmas day – many of them being useful things, but not particularly thought-filled ones. Maybe it’s just the way I grew up, but I would really rather receive ONE thing that lets me know the other person was truly thinking about conversations we’d had or some special thing we have in common rather than a plethora of “stuff”. I think the four gift guidelines definitely help with that.

  13. April
    on November 12, 2013 at 12:35 pm said:

    I wanted to share my thoughts on stockings-I usually fill at least half the stocking w/ things they need but in a fun way. So they get character shampoo, character toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. We are low on playdough and water colors paints this year so they will be getting those in the stocking. My daughter needs a new thermos for her lunch box; she’ll get that. After all those “funner essentials” then I fill w/ small toys and treats. The treats are things that are special but not junk-like individual packs of pretzels and crackers, fruit snacks, etc. The toys are ALWAYS toys that I intend to be played with and used-not just junk that will break and be tossed in a day or two. Small toy animals, glow sticks, hair bows, nail polish, etc. So essentially the stocking is quite fun for them but still nearly 100% useful.

  14. Joya
    on November 12, 2013 at 11:32 am said:

    Oh, I love this! Beautiful memories – yes! Nothing can replace those!

  15. Stephanie Draper
    on November 12, 2013 at 11:23 am said:

    We have always done limited gifts. They get pjs (slippers this year) on Christmas Eve, a Santa gift (which is always their nicest) and then 3 gifts from mom and dad (usually a smaller toy, a book, and then the other just depends on the year – this year we are doing church dresses for the girls and a tie for Caleb). Stockings are never stuffed with ridiculous breakable toys or crazy expensive items. They usually get a toothbrush, a treat, and a couple of things from the dollar spot that I know will get used (love the crayola board books at target, or a coloring books, usually a package of crayons from my 50 cent stock up when school starts).I really like it this way. This year it is taking a lot more thought because the kids are more specific about things they like and we are trying to keep the budget super tight. Sadie us by far the hardest to shop for.. But I figures out when she was 3 that practical gifts, even if they are toys, won’t do for her, so we really try to think outside of the box for her Santa gift. We are also purging this year. The kids are going to be picking out 20 toys each over the next couple of weeks. SMALL sets can count as one, luckily we don’t have many sets of things out. I will keep legos and Lincoln logs and board games hidden away only to get out specifically and then be put away, so those won’t count. And we may dwindle the number, but Justin was concerned, lol, so we will try 20 first. Anyway, tangent…

  16. Adina | Gluten Free Travelette
    on November 12, 2013 at 11:07 am said:

    I love that four things idea! This entire year we’ve only been doing handmade or re-gifted gifts to keep our spending extra low. It’s been fun to try and come up with things made with materials or items we already have around the house.

  17. Laurie
    on November 12, 2013 at 10:08 am said:

    What I hope for every Christmas is exemplified in this passage from “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison: “I did not want to have anything to own, or to possess any object. I wanted rather to feel something on Christmas day….’I want to sit on the low stool in Big Mama’s kitchen with my lap full of lilacs and listen to Big Papa play his violin for me alone.’ The lowness of the stool made for my body, the security and warmth of Big Mama’s kitchen, the smell of the lilacs, the sound of the music, and, since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of a peach, perhaps, afterward.”

    “How beautiful!” I thought when I read that years ago. “That’s what Christmas should be”….but it’s REALLY hard to achieve: giving or receiving an experience…..maybe this is why I have something of a love-hate relationship with Christmas now. I’m glad I didn’t have such high expectations until after I was an adult!

    • Janae Wise
      on November 12, 2013 at 10:50 am said:

      I love the idea of giving experiences. Beautiful memories, experiences–what better gift than that? Thanks for sharing Morrison’s words–I’ve yet to dig into her stuff (do you have a favorite?).

      • Laurie
        on November 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm said:

        I think “The Bluest Eye” is the only book by Toni Morrison I’ve read so far. It’s a wonderful novel and beautifully written, but it’s also heartbreakingly sad. I would definitely recommend it, but I think you have to be in the right headspace for it.