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3 meaningful, affordable, and unusual ways to give this holiday season

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If you have lots of family members and friends to shop for but limited disposable income, gift-giving during the holidays can be a challenge. In 2018, Americans anticipated spending an average of $506 on gifts for family members alone, according to the National Retail Federation's annual consumer spending survey.

But gift-giving doesn't have to come with a hefty price tag. Stephanie Jones, author of "The Giving Challenge: 40 Days to a More Generous Life," made gift-giving part of her regular routine in 2011, when she challenged herself to give a gift every day for a year. She has since realized that people tend to overthink presents.

"Gifts don't have to cost a lot of time or even money, and I think gifts are more about listening and understanding the person and buying something that fits them, as opposed to just buying a random gift card," says Jones. "If you get a gift for somebody that shows that you pay attention to what they like and who they are, that goes a long way."

Here are a few gift-giving alternatives that are still meaningful but can save you time and money.

1. Host a gift exchange

A Secret Santa gift exchange, where everyone draws a name from a hat and purchases one gift for the person they picked, can keep costs low among friends or coworkers. This can be a money-saving strategy if you have a big family, since every family member is responsible for giving just one gift.

Leah Ingram, a freelance writer, lifestyle and money-saving expert at Leahingram.com, says that gift exchanges require some advanced planning. Start by setting ground rules, like defining a realistic spending budget that works for everyone, and setting boundaries for gag gifts, so that everyone has clear expectations.

Ingram also warns that if you're hosting an exchange at work, you should check with your company's human resources department about guidelines for gift giving among coworkers.

If you get a gift for somebody that shows that you pay attention to what they like and who they are, that goes a long way.
Stephanie Jones
Author, "The Giving Challenge: 40 Days to a More Generous Life"

Simple but thoughtful is the way to go for gift exchanges. Whether it's a framed family photo, an affordable experience like an online styling session, or college gear from the recipient's alma mater, small details show that you've put thought into the gift.

Constraints can bring out your creativity, too: A small budget can actually help you think outside the box.

And, when in doubt, Ingram suggests gifting food, such as a decorative tin filled with homemade cookies: "If you're trying to spend as little as possible but make it seem like you spent more, giving the gift of food is always a safe bet."

2. Donate to charity with your family

Jones, who has been documenting her gift-giving journey on her blog, says that the holidays are a great time to give to those less fortunate. Shifting the focus to what you can do together for others could even help strengthen bonds within your family.

"A lot of times, people really aren't intentional with gift-giving and they'll buy stuff just to buy it, even though their money could go a lot further by doing something else," says Jones. "Sometimes it's about taking the gift-giving outside of your family to help somebody in need."

Instead of buying and giving gifts to one another, Jones recommends getting together as a family or a group and pitching charities that each person is passionate about, then selecting one to make a donation to. The amount you give will depend on individual budgets but giving as little as $5 can make a huge impact for a particular cause. Or consider volunteering as a group at a local shelter.

3. Give your time

Your time is a valuable gift and giving it can also be more meaningful than shelling out cash on an item your loved one doesn't really need.

Make time to enjoy a group activity with loved ones, or try offering to babysit or clean for one of your family members as a way to lighten their load.

Jones emphasized that the holidays are about spending time with the people in your life, which is a gift in and of itself. It's also a way to strengthen and invest in relationships you value.

"What better way to get to know your coworkers than [...] sharing a bite or volunteering together," says Jones. "When you think outside of traditional gift-giving, it moves around a lot of expectations, and it also builds stronger teams, that's how you get to know people."

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