How To

How to Cut Your Holiday Gift Bill

I love Christmas, but I hate the shopping that is associated with it. That’s because when I look at my bank statement in January, I always realize that I shopped for too many people and spent money on many gifts that didn’t even get used.  This year will be different though, because I am cutting back on holiday gift giving but planning to do it in a way that won’t make me look like the Grinch.

Make a list, check it twice.

To pare down the number of people to shop for, one always needs a starting point. The best one is a list. I’m scrutinizing the people I’ve shopped for in the past and how much I spent on them. Obviously, parents and in-laws, spouse and a select group of friends have a permanent place on the list. Do I really need to shop for gifts for the next-door neighbor, the old college roommate, and co-workers? It’s not that they don’t mean anything to me, it’s simply that our relationship does not justify spending a lot of money and time in the mall, at least not during this lean economic time.

Making a list of the people I’m buying presents for makes it easier to create a holiday budget, attach a maximum purchase amount per person, and avoid the bank statement shock in January.

Let them down easy – and in advance.

For those who don’t make it onto the list, I’m going to let them know in advance. Not by coming out and telling them directly, but by contacting them early, so they have the opportunity to also strike me from their shopping lists if they need to.

I’ve got two strategies for doing this: First, I’m sending out Christmas cards straightaway to my friends, family and acquaintances that live multiple states away, wishing them a happy holiday season. On each card I’m writing a nice, long message with an update of my 2011 highlights and a heart-felt wish that they have a great 2012. It will take a chunk of a weekend to do this, but I think that spending the time putting ink to paper is equivalent to the money I’d be spending on a gift. Plus, in this age of text messages and e-mails, I think getting a snail-mail card with an actual handwritten message is truly a gift in and of itself.

Second, for those list-stricken friends and family living nearby, I’ve sent out evites to a “cookie exchange” party that I’m hosing. The idea: Bring a batch of treats to my house and leave with a little sample of goodiess that everyone else bought. I’ll bake my own batch, supply some mulled wine and egg nog, and play host. Everyone eats, mingles, and leaves with good cheer and baked goodies. A fun time at a festive party, with great goody bags at the end, is an inexpensive way to gift guests.

Change up the gift-giving.

Gifting everyone you know with glitzy, glittery trinkets is so last decade. Now, the trend is to cut down on the clutter and the spending. Another way I’ve decided to cut back on my holiday bill is by changing up the type of gifts I give.

Instead of gift cards for the kids and bottles of the wine for the adults, I’m making homemade treats.  After a year of taking classes, I have learned to make my own chocolate truffles and mosaics. The kids are going to reap the benefits of my sweets and the grownups are going to be getting my attempts at mosaic coasters, candleholders. Don’t tell anyone, but my mom  is getting a mosaic-topped patio table that I think would be perfect for her gazebo this spring.  I believe that personalizing a homemade gift makes it more special to the recipient and less likely to be considered clutter.

This year, I’m also giving the gift of time. For example, for my frazzled friend with twins in their terrible twos, I’ve created a gift certificate entitling her to two nights of babysitting so she can go out with her husband. For another friend trying to do freelance work while looking for her next job, I’m offering my writing and editing services to help her create good copy for her new website and a revamped resume for the job hunt. For the frazzled spouse who doesn’t feel like cooking after a busy week on the job, it’s a redeem-whenever-you-like gift certificate for a nice, home-cooked dinner. You don’t have to break the bank to exchange gifts worth their weight in cash.

Start shopping.

Not for this year, but for Christmas 2012. My New Year’s resolution: I intend to listen more closely to the wants and needs of my loved ones and put gift ideas on my Christmas gift list draft. I’ll be on the  the lookout for bargains and special gifts all next year and hopefully, 12 months from today, I’ll have the bulk of my gifts bought and wrapped. There are two advantages to this strategy: I can shop all of the post-holiday and end-of-season sales, when items have drastic markdowns, and I can save my sanity by totally avoiding Black Friday, overstuffed malls and overpriced gifts.

Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes about small business and personal finance.