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Creative Giving: Spend Less While Giving More

The rapidly-approaching holiday season is a great opportunity to go overboard with spending. The stress of deciding what to give and the cost to give it can often turn the season of joy into a season of debt. But what if I told you that this year could not only be different, but better? If you want to spend less, but don’t know how to do it successfully, here are some ideas to help you stay well under budget while adding a creative twist to traditional holiday gift-giving.

Although you may not want to think about it while the leaves are turning, giving yourself time to plan, organize, and act in a paced and thoughtful manner is sure to leave you feeling in control of the holiday crunch, instead of at its mercy. What’s the key? Two words: start now.

Know your numbers
Be practical about what you might spend, and compare it to what you might save. First, make a list of people you plan to give gifts to this year. Then make two columns on a piece of paper. Title the left column Purchased Gifts and the right column Gift Alternatives. List up to five purchased items and five alternative gifts for each person. For example:

Purchased Gifts Gift Alternatives
microwave ($100)
set of drinking glasses ($25)
sweater ($40)
facial ($50)
-help re-plant the garden ($25 materials)
-make gourmet dinner one night ($20)
-a day of babysitting (no cost)
-clean her house (no cost)
-wash/wax her car (no cost)

Circle the most expensive and the least expensive item in each column for each person. Total the items. What you’re comparing is what you can expect to spend at the mall or, with a bit more effort and perhaps more thought, you can choose something from the right-hand column for very little or no expense.

10 Gift Alternatives
I’m not suggesting you never purchase another gift. But after applying a little thought and creativity, you’ll discover that often the best gift you can give is the time and effort you spend to improve someone’s comfort and joy. If you’re struggling with Gift Alternatives, look to any one of these 10 tried and true ideas:

  1. Give services. Anyone can always use some type of service. What to give? Listen for what they need: organize their office; babysit their kids; run their errands for them for a month; offer airport pick-up and drop-off. You get the idea.
  2. Inventory your own skills. Offer your skills as a gift. Do you play an instrument? Are you good golfer? Can you do basic plumbing? A friend of mine is a master scrapbooker who shares this skill each year with her grandmother, creating high-quality memory books while sharing a trip down memory lane.
  3. Take what’s there and make it better. Look around and see what could use a new look: paint a room in someone’s favorite color; refurbish a cherished table; frame your child’s art, making it a real showpiece rather than just pinning it to the refrigerator.
  4. Start a tradition. Friends of mine take a day to volunteer at a shelter then come together over a shared meal to talk about their experiences. Clean a part of a highway; make a connection with someone at a senior center; or be a foster parent to a humane society animal.
  5. Re-gift what you aren’t using. Say what you will about re-gifting, but the reality is if you’re not using it, it’s taking up space in your life and is waiting to be revived in someone else’s. Look around to see what you’re not using: your espresso maker, your foot massager still in the box, even sentimental items like old jewelry or embroidered cloth napkins that you’ll never use make great gifts for someone else.
  6. Think collectively. Decide as a family that you’ll forego giving material gifts and instead plan a family outing, mini-vacation, or volunteer activity together. Or pool the money you would have spent on gifts to long-distance relatives and instead bring relatives into your living room for the holidays.
  7. Give the practical. Gift cards or certificates, even for places that the person frequents, are fine in my book. I am always happy to go to my favorite places whose products I already like, knowing I have a little extra cash to spend there.
  8. Pool your resources. A modern day version of barn-raising, chip in your time, effort, know-how or even an affordable monetary amount with a few people to give something of better quality or value than you could do on your own.
  9. Shrink the distance. Long-distance grandparents listen up. Videotape yourself reading stories or singing songs. Send your video to your grandchildren, who will see you reading and singing to them by popping you into the VCR.
  10. Make it last. Plan and promise a monthly gift of service or skill once a month for a year. That way, they’ll be regularly reminded of your gift till the next holiday season.
  11. Remember, time is more valuable than material goods. When you give of yourself, your time, and your talents, you can’t go wrong. Think of what would help simplify someone’s life. Think about the gift of support. That will be the gift that keeps on giving, long after the holiday lights and decorations have been taken down.

    Mim King is a Professional Organizing Consultant and Daily Money Manager living in Lexington, KY with an office in San Francisco. She can be reached locally at (859) 313-5050 or She’s never paid full price for anything.

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