Budgeting Hack: Gift Calendars

I do it all the time. I figure I’m right on track with my budget. I’m so proud of my budgeting prowess. Until…my friend’s birthday comes and goes. Then an anniversary, Mother’s Day, a few more birthdays, more holidays yet, and of course – the ever-present Christmas. When I’m left to pick up the pieces at the end of the year, I wonder what happened to my excellent budget. That is, until this year: I started keeping a gift calendar.


Planning out gift giving occasions on the calendar not only helps to create an accurate budget, but it is also a great way to organize yourself. Until recently, the birthdays of my friends and family were either committed to (my rather shady) memory, or scribbled on a piece of paper I inevitably forgot to reference in time. And missing a birthday or (gasp) an anniversary is rarely a good thing.



The premise is easy. Simply sit down with the following:

  • Monthly Calendar
  • Pen/Pencil/Markers
  • Your Budgeting notebook/spreadsheet



Brainstorm all the gift-giving occasions you can think of. Be sure to include all the standard holidays, for example:

  • Valentine’s Day
  • Easter
  • Mother’s Day
  • Father’s Day
  • National Holidays
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas


Then concentrate on birthdays:

  • Mum
  • Dad
  • Kids
  • Siblings
  • Other Relatives
  • Friends



Mark these gift-giving occasions on your calendar, and write them in your budgeting notebook or spreadsheet, leaving space to fill in specific gift suggestions and price tags. Your gift suggestions and price tags will likely be a work-in-progress throughout the year. But for initial budgeting purposes, fill in amounts that are reasonable estimates given the occasion.


This exercise is not an invitation to find more opportunities than normal to buy stuff and stress your budget! So if you wouldn’t normally give your friend a birthday present, don’t put it in the gift calendar budget. It will still be nice to remember the occasion now that it is marked on the calendar. However if you know that a celebrative evening could entail a night on the town, you may want to include this expense in your gift-giving budget if it is not worked in somewhere else.


As another example, if on Thanksgiving you don’t tend to give gifts, consider the expense you might bear bringing a nice bottle of wine over to a Thanksgiving dinner, or even hosting the dinner itself. What about decorations? If there is an expense associated with that holiday that makes sense to incorporate into your gift calendar budget, then do so.


Even with this level of planning, your budget can still go completely awry with unexpected gifts. So, while you are brainstorming, build a contingency into the budget for those gift-giving occasions you can’t anticipate, for example:

  • Birthday gifts for parties your child attends
  • Office pools for retirements, maternity leave, etc
  • Gifts for new friends (birthdays, baby showers, etc)
  • Wedding & Engagement gifts
  • Condolence & Get Well gifts


Since you can’t accurately anticipate the cost of these unexpected gifts, it is best to air on the side of caution. Better to overestimate a budget and come in under than it is to underestimate and have a nasty surprise.



Gift calendar budgeting is an activity the whole family can participate in. Kids will enjoy coloring each day of celebration in the calendar, and teenagers can help with budgeting and gift selection as part of their own financial education.


Using a Gift Calendar is also a great way to schedule out your year. With these events clearly laid out, you can avoid unwittingly scheduling in conflicts – or at least forgetting to call on the big day. And with a decent budget in place to help you stay on track, you can use your gift calendar to proudly eliminate one of the biggest budgeting pitfalls.




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Guest's picture

OMG! If i'll make such a calendar i think i will have a heart attack :) I have so many relatives friends and so many birthdays. The worst month is March when i have to buy 7 birthday presents plus gifts related to Woman's Day.

Guest's picture

Our busiest month is September. Starting with my birthday at the end of August, there are eight family birthdays and three good friend's birthdays.

When we have kids, my husband and I are going to shoot for ... May or something. Anything but September. :)

Guest's picture

And if you are computer savvy, you can make a calendar as a gift for family. In each month, enter the family's birthday/anniversary/etc. dates and a photo of family members on each page.

Guest's picture

This is a great way to budget for gifts. I usually treat them as "unexpected spending."

After reading this I think I may have to take logic into concern and actually plan for them :)

Good idea, very logically sound!

Guest's picture

Thanks for the great post! I have doing some thinking on my budget lately and find that this category is the one that always gets out of whack by a large margin.

Up until this point I have budgeted a certain number and then tried to force my gifting into that budgeted number - obviously without success.

My problem might be that we actually spend too much on gifts, since I have a pretty good handle on the number of gift that we give each year.

How much should we budget on average for each gift? $20? $25? $50? I tend to try to go lower, but do not want to come off as tightwad or miser. Unfortunately, there are so many gifts out there that we feel obligated to give that it does get out of control.

Guest's picture

Luke, that totally differs from family to family and friend group to friend group.

I come from a cheapskate family and we usually give $25-and-under gifts, with regifting encouraged and books or music we already enjoyed and recommend considered a perfect gift - and that limit is true for birthdays, Christmas, and other holidays (mother's day, father's day, wedding presents for friends & distant family)

My boyfriend's family spends >$50/person at Christmas but no more than $15 at birthdays, and the year I did the gift buying I dismayed everyone by being too cheap at Christmas and too extravagant at birthdays. So now he's in charge of gifts for his family.

And friend groups vary widely too - we have different circles of friends with expectations from $0 to $50 "sponsor the birthday guy for dinner" gifts.

You just have to observe what other people do & judge for yourself.

Guest's picture

I have been suggesting the same as the 2nd commentor, to my neice who has three daughters. The recession has had quite a impact on her family. Calendars with pictures of her family for the months, would be more than enough for all the grandparents of the girls
I have a calendar with the names on each date, of when their birthday is, otherwise I have been known to space it out. And I have a book, Avon put out years ago, that has the months, with day numbered lines, to put people's names on.
And on one of the blog's it suggested a gift closet, but I don't have one with room. So I have a good size container, as my gift place, to put finds that I pick up throughout the year. Like right after the holiday sales, for name ornaments, or things like that.
Or I run into clearance sales(my boyfriend just gave them a name,"Clarence"..there's Clarence!)at different places.

Guest's picture

That is so true. I never put much thought into planning for gifts, yet they really are so important! My wife and I have set a fund apart where the unexpected expenses can come out of and we put money into it each month. It has been nice to have this! I loved your calendar idea also.

Fred Lee's picture

But what a great idea. It's amazing how a little planning can go a long way in terms of saving money, because when it boils down to the last minute, you always spend more than you had hoped you would. Then again, this could be way too much organization than I am capable of. Thanks for the tips.

Guest's picture

At the beginning of this year, my husband and I sat down and discussed our financial plan for 2011. We outlayed all of our important purchases, including gifts for family and friends, travel expenses, our debt payoff plan, and health care fees (co-pays, etc.).

We discussed how much we wanted to save, how much we could afford to spend on gifts and travel, and so on.

Five months, two holidays, one anniversary, and two birthdays later, we're ahead on our debt-pay off plan, we haven't blown our budget on gifts, and we're on track with our savings for the travel that we are planning on doing this August and November.

Long story short, gift calendars (and financial calendars in general) are a *great* idea. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Megan - Great plan! I'm glad the gift calendar idea helped. It's so helpful to truly plan these expenses out in advance; the fewer financial surprises we face, the better we can manage them! :-)
Yours is also a great case for doing regular financial reviews (for example, semi-annually). It's a great barometer for how you're doing and making sure you're on track.