How to Give Thoughtful Gifts on a Scrooge-Like Budget

Photo: Jacob Enos

You don’t want to spend too much money on Christmas presents. But you don’t want to act Scrooge-like or look cheap. If you have more than a few people on your gift list (and some of those are far-flung relatives), then showing generosity and staying within your budget can be hard.

In Christmases past, I have given presents to my husband and our two children plus seven sets of siblings and in-laws along with nine nieces and nephews (a grand total of 26 people). The skills and patience required to pull off this feat often exceeded my capacity. Because we lived in different cities than all of our relatives, we weren't attuned to their day-to-day lives. Plus, the obvious approach of asking for a wish list didn't always give me the information that I needed, either because the intended recipient couldn't think of anything or because suggestions were difficult to find or out of my price range. Plus just asking for a recommendation seemed business-like and not in keeping with the holiday spirit. (See also: Buying Gifts for a Family With Many Children)

Discover Interesting Stuff About Your Family Members

Finally, I learned that a few strategic conversations and a dash of creative thinking can help transform the holiday season from financially stretched and stressful to modest and merry. This approach has also helped me to learn even more about family members than the usual facts surrounding college majors and professional titles.

Probing for certain information will allow you to find or make something that is within your price range. Start a conversation that gives you insight into new-found and long-time interests, recently discovered and ongoing needs, career goals, and personal plans of your family members. If you won’t be talking with these folks soon, send an email or Facebook message asking a few questions about what is going on in their lives. You can make general chit-chat with family members or let them know that you are asking questions to help with your holiday shopping.

Use Your Bargain-Hunting Skills to Find a Great Gift

Responses to your questions will point the way to the right selection with moderate effort at minimal cost. Choose items among your favorite gift genres (that is, a book if you enjoy giving books, clothing and accessories if you like fashion, food if you are a great cook) as you will know how to snag bargains in categories that you shop for regularly.

Personalize Your Gift-Giving Approach Based on Ages and Life Stages

Exploring interests and selecting gifts for children, teens, and adults of all ages can be challenging. Adapt your conversation starters to the age, life stage, and temperament of the gift recipient. Consider these approaches:


Watching children open presents is a blast, but the work involved in finding the right gift can be overwhelming. Instead of researching what’s trendy and what’s taboo, have a conversation with parents about their children.

To learn more about the children on your gift lists, ask questions like these:

  • Does she play with ________ (fill in the blank with possibilities, such as Legos, Barbie, Star Wars, Hello Kitty, etc.)?
  • What books does he like to read or look at?
  • Does she like art?
  • What activities is he involved in?

Depending on the responses, gift possibilities may be a book in a favorite series like Biscuit’s Day at the Farm or Diary of a Wimpy Kid 6: Cabin Fever; small toys like a Hello Kitty Windup Toy or a Star Wars action figure; or accessories for themed toys, artwork, sports, etc., such as a LEGO Building Plate, gown for Barbie, washable markers, easel pad, or compass for a scout. When buying gifts, consider safety issues, abide by age guidelines printed on packaging, and avoid trinkets in favor of sturdier items.

Teens and Tweens

Finding gifts for teenagers and tweens is especially treacherous. Similar to the challenge with children, keeping up with teen trends is difficult. Plus, many in this age group tend to be unrealistic in their expectations and uncommunicative about their interests. They are not necessarily spoiled or dejected; they may not be able to judge what is an appropriate request and tend to be fuzzy on what adults in their lives may already know about them.

To find a gift that doesn’t involve expensive computer games, ask these types of questions:

  • What book or book series are you reading?
  • What are your favorite college teams or professional teams?
  • What activities are you involved in at school, volunteer agency, etc.?
  • Are you playing any sports?
  • Do you have any major projects or big trips scheduled for next year?
  • Hey, I noticed that you like ____ (fill in the blank with a favorite television show, movie, store, etc.) on your Facebook page; can you tell me about that?

Books are among my favorite gift genres, so I like to buy the next book in a series (for example, Inheritance, the latest and last book in the Inheritance Cycle was published in time for holiday gift giving). Or, you might pick up a biography about a favorite historical or sports figure, a compilation of stories about accomplished teens, a book relating to career goals, or a guide to navigating middle-school issues.

For teens who have enough to read already, pick up gear or supplies for a hobby, athletic endeavor, scout project, volunteer activity, etc. or something that they will need as they mature. A wallet to hold a driver's license and charge card, an extra-durable key chain to keep up with house keys, or a multi-use tool to perform minor repairs may be valued both today and years from now. Apparel of favorite sports teams, like t-shirts or gym shorts, may be suitable for some and especially appreciated by parents of growing teens and ‘tweens.


Finding the right gift for a sibling, in-law, niece, nephew, etc. starts with considering the life stage of the recipient. Those who are in college and getting established in a new job will often have different needs from those who are settled in their homes. Either way, learning about their lifestyles, interests, and plans for the upcoming year — whether applying for graduate school, getting ready to start a new job, preparing for a family addition, or training for a marathon — can help influence your gift selection.

Ask these types of questions to kick off a chat:

  • What are your plans for next year?
  • What are you reading? Who are your favorite authors? What topics interest you?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What types of fitness activities do you participate in? What events are you getting ready for?
  • Are you planning a trip next year? Where are you going? When? What will you do there?
  • Are you going to learn anything new next year?
  • I saw on Facebook that you are ______ (fill in the blank with interests); can you tell me more about that?

Adults who are on the move could use some practical travel gear, suitable for adventure travel, treks to and from college and their hometowns, work-related trips, or moves for a new job. Traditional moving or travel items, like storage bins and duffel bags, may also be appreciated. Mostly, you want to avoid items that are difficult to lug from place to place. And, as much as I would like to suggest items that can be had for a bargain, gift cards and cash are especially well-suited for those who are in transitional stages. To control your spending, pair a $5 or $10 gift card (or cash) with an inexpensive but highly practical item acquired at your local thrift shop.

Those who are more settled may enjoy something that suits their reading preferences. The latest book for a favorite author is a great choice though somewhat expensive; alternatively, find a title published earlier in the author’s career, after you've checked to make sure that the recipient has not read the selection. Books from your local used bookstore,, thrift shop,, etc. show thoughtfulness and protect your pocketbook.

Inexpensive accessories, consumables, or supplies for hobbies, fitness activities, and upcoming trips are great selections. These gifts can show others that you are thinking about them and have a genuine interest in their lives. 

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Guest's picture

Great tips! One thing that has helped me cut holiday gift expenses is shopping year round. So many times you can find clearance items during odd times of the year. But when the holidays roll around you can't find them. I start shopping in January and keep a list of what I've bought for everyone. I get winter clothes at the start of summer and christmas themed stuff during end of year clearance. It really helps!

Julie Rains's picture

I have also bought things on sale and then forgotten about them; in some cases, the item was no longer relevant to the intended when the holidays came so certain items seem to work better than others (classic things that nearly anyone could use, like the themed stuff you mention). Great idea to keep a list...I would need to put on my computer so as not to misplace the list.

Guest's picture

Over the past year or so I've discovered that Amazon will inform you of price changes of anything in your cart, including in the "save for later" portion. So, when I find something that would make a great gift for someone, I put it in my cart. Then I can easily keep an eye on the price and try to buy when it's at its lowest. This work especially well this time of year on toys and DVDs that regularly go on sale. It also helps to have Amazon Prime so that I can jump on the deals without having to order $25 worth of stuff to get free shipping.

Meg Favreau's picture

I love that tip!