When DIY Holiday Gift Giving Goes Wrong

"While capping how much my friends and I spend can help us stay on budget, if we all end up with gifts we can’t use, it’s still a waste of money."

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As a naturally frugal person, I’m always looking for ways to cut costs without sacrificing my social life. That usually leads to me dreaming up a budget-friendly idea, then recruiting my friends and family to participate. Sometimes it goes well, and we’re all happy—other times, not so much.

It started when my friends and I were broke college students, and I challenged everyone to attend our Halloween party with a $5 costume from Goodwill. The best one would win a free McDonald’s meal. On the night of the party, we had such a great time talking about our costumes and how much we spent. I went as Bob Ross, complete with the big afro, painter’s smock and a painting I carried around all night.

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Other friends came as an old lady, tourist, watch salesman, princess and 80s stockbroker. We realized later on that my friend’s princess costume was actually a Chanel dress—so obviously we gave her the prize because of that killer bargain.

Given the success of that first party, I challenged the same group of friends a few years later to a holiday gift exchange, where we’d only spend $5 (per person) at Goodwill again. I decided my gift would be sewing decorative pillows. The stuffing and fabric cost $10, or just $2 per friend. Not bad, I thought, convinced I totally had this frugal thing down.

In hindsight, I should have thought through my idea more—it would have been helpful, for example, if I actually knew how to sew. Instead, I managed to sew the fabric the wrong way, and the finished pieces were so crooked I couldn’t salvage them. Every single “pillow” got tossed. Feeling frustrated, I cheated and purchased items from the dollar store. Not only did that technically put me over budget (since I essentially bought two gifts per person), but it violated the point of a thoughtful, DIY exchange.

Mine wasn’t the only fail. One friend baked cookies and put them on plates she bought from Goodwill. As we all gobbled them up, another friend laughed and remarked how those were the plates his mom had recently donated. Another friend bought shirts for each of us—in all the wrong sizes. I’d later learn that my friends were disappointed I cheated at my own game, and thought it would have been better if we’d had the freedom to shop anywhere.

That doesn’t make the experience a total bust in my mind, but it did make me consider how to improve any future frugal exchanges. For one, I’ll make sure I actually have the skills to pull off any gifts I decide to make. I’ll also give my friends an “out” if they’re not sold on my strict rules, and get their input early on, so we all have the chance to give a gift we feel good about.

After all, while capping how much my friends and I spend can help us stay on budget, if we all end up with gifts we can’t use, it’s still a waste of money.

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