Gift Giving Hacks That Will Save Your Money and Your Sanity


The holidays are fast approaching. This knowledge tends to stress me out for two reasons:

  1. Every major bill of mine is due between now and February. My property taxes. My insurance. Every ding dang subscription including Skype. I have no money extra money to buy gifts.
  2. Every single one of my part-time jobs have end-of-the-year deadlines. I have no free time to go shopping.

I lucked out for a long time. My immediate family doesn’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, and my extended family that does celebrate Christmas agreed to stop exchanging Christmas gifts a decade ago. I only had to figure out gifts for a few close friends and neighbors. Giving handmade and/or carefully selected holiday gifts was easy. (See also: 25 Gifts You Can Make Today)

Unfortunately, I married into a stereotypically gigantic Catholic family. My husband is the youngest of six children. Suddenly gift-giving got really complicated. I needed to get organized. Here’s a list of gift hacks that save my money and my sanity. (See also: 25 Gifts That Save Money)

Keep a Gift Diary

Yeah, yeah. Keeping all your gift-giving straight sounds like a Rich Person Problem. But you know, gift registries exist for reason. And that reason is avoiding embarrassment. Every year I hear some nightmare regifting story that usually involves a couple bringing a gift bottle of wine to a white elephant party…hosted by the person who gave them the wine in the first place. And although everyone has found that elusive one-size-fits-most gift that can be purchased in bulk, the awesomeness of many gifts fades with repetition. For example, a gift diary would have prevented my friend from giving me the exact same book two years in a row. Is my house so bad that I needed not one but two copies of the Martha Stewart Housekeeping book? Sadly, I unwrapped the second copy in front of her, and I’m sure the expression on my face, as I stumbled through a thank you, was not one of joy but of confusion. Awkward. At any rate, guess what she’s getting for Christmas this year? (See also: A Guide to Regifting)

Keep a Gift Drawer

Throughout the year, I sew and knit small handmade gifts like hats, gloves, and scarves and stick them in my Gift Drawer. (Fancier people commonly refer to a similar space in their home as a Gift Closet). I also collect small vintage items as future presents from garage sales and swap meets. The small drawer size ensures that my house does not become a storage shed for things I'm not personally using. A potential gift has to fit in the drawer, or it doesn’t get to come home with me.

Pre-Shop for Next Christmas This Christmas

My friend Ellen is the master of this shopping technique. Ellen lives far from her large family. Rather than pay a week’s salary in shipping costs or schlep all her gifts home with her on the plane, Ellen does all her family gift buying for the following year while she’s home for the holidays at after-Christmas sales. After buying next year’s gifts at a steep post-holiday discount, Ellen sneaks her purchases home and, while everyone else is fast asleep, she wraps and addresses everything in one fell swoop with paper and gift cards she also purchased on sale. She then shoves the wrapped-and-ready gifts under the bed (aka. the Gift Under the Bed Storage Space) in the guestroom, where they wait for her arrival next year.

Arbitrage Your Stuff

Throughout the year I trade in my old books for store credit at my local used bookstore. In November I usually have about $100 in trade saved up that I use to "buy" gifts for my favorite readers. Or sometimes, I just give my trade credit as a gift card to a fellow fan of the bookstore. For people who live in areas that don’t have used book, record, or clothing stores, this idea can be easily replicated by selling your stuff online, and keeping your Amazon or PayPal account as your gift slush fund. Your house stays tidy, and you have a painless way of saving money for the holidays. Be sure to keep store credit receipts or gift cards either in your wallet for easy access or in your Gift Drawer or your gift diary. Also, pay attention to the fine print on store credit. Some places impose annoying “use it or lose it” deadlines. Unintentional book donations due to lost or expired store credit receipts hurt like a paper cut. (See also: 10 Gift Ideas That Cost Almost Nothing)

Gifts in a Jar

I'm a beekeeper, and I make award-winning preserves. Honey and jam are both great gifts. Since I'm already storing my surplus jams and pickles in the kitchen pantry, I'm not creating a storage problem in my house. Besides, space can be made at any time in the Gift Pantry by snacking. (See also: 15 Delicious Gifts You Can Bake)

The Gift of Time

Instead of buying birthday presents for friends, I generally prefer to either bake them their favorite cake or take them to lunch. Either way, I get to enjoy the present too. For people on a money diet, give friends coupons for babysitting, a cleaned bathroom, a ride to the airport, etc...

Buy the Entire Collection, but Gift One Piece at a Time

My maternal grandmother perfected this technique, which works especially well for people with kids. Like a lot of kids, I had a rock collection. Because Grandma did not have the wonder that is the internet, and she didn't have time to go to a gem and rock convention every time she wanted to give me a gift, she bought thirty different "collectible" rocks during one visit to the Natural History Museum gift shop. For the next few years, she doled out the rock samples to me, one at a time, for every gift-giving occasion. The rocks were also individually labeled and packaged in a clear plastic display cases, so she didn't even have hunt around for gift boxes. She had the pleasure of finding the perfect (thirty) gifts, and the pleasure of watching me gleefully add each rock to my collection, with the convenience of one-stop, one-time shopping.

Don’t Buy Wrapping Paper or Gift Bags

In addition to being an expensive, single-use item, most wrapping paper isn’t recyclable. Instead of buying wrapping paper, I reuse brown craft paper, maps, photographs from old magazines or calendars. I also like to use things such as cereal boxes as wrap jewelry, cashmere sweaters, or other fancy presents. (It's like a white elephant gift in reverse). Reused wrapping is way cheaper and saves time because I don't have to leave the house to find it. (See also: 10 Cheap Gift Wrapping Ideas)

Make the Wrapping Part of the Gift

I like using vintage pillowcases and scarves as wrapping for things. For a recent gift, I packed a baby sweater into a Tupperware storage container instead of using a box and wrapping.

Do you have a favorite gift hack? Please share your genius in the comments section! 

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Guest's picture

For wrapping paper I always used the comics from the Sunday paper, they're bright and colorful and still a good read on a gift!

Guest's picture

I sure hope your friend Ellen wasn't buying food gifts and storing those under the bed in the guest bedroom LOL!

When my kids were little and got invited to dozens of classmates' birthday parties, I almost always wrapped the gift in the Sunday comics. Dressed up with primary-colored curling ribbon with an ornate (handmade) bow, it looked just as festive as any gift wrapped in store-bought paper.

Also, we celebrate Hanukkah, and when the kids were young and each (3 kids) got 1 gift per night, I had a "gift-wrap making" activity on Thanksgiving weekend - I'd buy a roll of plain white newsprint and set it out on a big table with markers, Hanukkah stickers, rubber stamps and inkpads, and they'd go at it. It was fun when they opened a gift a few weeks later, excited over which part of the gift wrap they got, who made the decorations (the hand-drawn ones were the funniest), etc.

Now my best hack is the post-holiday sales too.

Guest's picture

I love the collection purchase. Brilliant! I'm also someone who wants to both avoid the stress of holiday shopping in December and keep my costs low. You covered most of my hacks, although Thanksgiving week is usually the biggest hack of them all for me, because I go to the sales at the major drugstores and get most of the stocking stuffers there -- Hot Wheels cars, candy, trail mix, nail polish, etc. And those are just the items that are free!