The Art of Meaningful and Inexpensive Gift Giving

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The following post is by MPFJ staff writer Travis. Travis is a customer blogger for CareOne Debt Relief Services, and also appears weekly at Enemy of Debt.  Travis candidly shares his personal journey to pay off $109,000 of credit card debt and the tips he’s learned along the way. As a father and husband, he provides a unique perspective on balancing debt, finances, and family.

We were having trouble coordinating a date for a small Christmas family gathering with my wife’s immediate family.  We didn’t even know if it was even going to happen until some previous commitments changed, and suddenly, the weekend before Christmas was open.   It was to be a very small, informal gathering, allowing us to spend time with each other during the Holidays.   Because it had come together so quickly, there hadn’t been any mention of exchanging gifts until literally the day before the event.  This sparked a frenzy of phone calls between all involved requesting gift ideas.   With the limited time remaining, everyone’s answer was the same:

A gift card to iTunes, favorite clothing store, restaurant, etc.
We had a great time talking, playing games, and catching up.   My brother-in-law had been out of town for several months attending National Guard officer training, and I had missed our usual back and forth bantering during football season.   Spending time with him and the other family members would have been enough, but we did have gifts to exchange.  We opened our gift cards, acted surprised, and thanked one another. 
I couldn’t help but think that all we had done is exchange money with each other.
It was the definition of exchanging gifts just for sake of exchanging gifts, and quite frankly, it turned out to be rather expensive.  Buying a gift card of a meaningful value for several people (6 in this case) adds up.  We did receive almost the exact same value of gift cards in return, but they are to specific stores which is not the same as cash in your checking account. 
If we’re going to exchange gifts with loved ones, I sincerely believe that a Christmas list is not needed.  The amount of money isn’t important, but there certainly should be creativity and an element of surprise involved.
Let me explain what I mean.
I never ask my wife what she wants for Christmas (or anniversary, or birthday).  As her husband, nobody spends more time with her or knows her likes and dislikes better than I do.  It should be easy for me to come up with a meaningful gift for her without asking.  The best part of buying someone a gift is to have them completely unaware of what you are doing.   My normal mode of operation is to consciously listen for her to say phrases similar to, “Oooh, I’d like one of those.” 
I remember walking through a department store earlier this year when she pointed at an electric throw blanket and asked if I remembered the one that had stopped working a few years prior.  I chuckled and recounted how we would watch the Minnesota Vikings  football game, then she would curl up in a ball under her electric blanket and take a nap.  During a separate shopping trip, she found a memory foam pillow that she had fallen in love with, looked at me and said very irritably, “I sure could use a new pillow.  How old ARE ours anyway?”
The two things instantly collided in my mind into Christmas present perfection.
What could be a better present combination for my nap loving wife than a new pillow and an electric throw blanket?  The blanket was something she wanted, and the pillow was something she needed.  However, she had expressed interest in them far enough in advance to the holidays such that she was completely surprised that they were given as gifts. Add some stocking stuffers in the form of a bag of Lindor Milk Chocolate Truffles (favorite treat) and a new paddle brush (my daughter and her have been sharing one) and I had completed Christmas shopping for my wife.
The grand total for my wife’s gifts was $68. It’s may not have been overly romantic, exciting, or expensive,  but she loved them.  How do I know?
The entire time I’ve been writing this post, she’s been on the couch with her new pillow and blanket.  Taking a nap.
How about you? Did you have any gift exchanges that you could have done without this year?  How do you decide what to buy for your significant other and how much did you spend this year?

    ***Photo courtesy of Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti /


    1. I've pondered this before as well. In my experience, it's easy for me to think of good gifts for people that I spend a lot of time with. However, when it comes to figuring out gifts for my family members who live half way around the country, gift cards sometimes seem like a better option.
      My recent post The Art of Meaningful and Inexpensive Gift Giving

      • That's my point, though really Jacob – let's say you buy someone across the country a $30 gift card, and they do the same for you. There doesn't seem to be much of a point. I'm starting to come to the conclusion that gift giving should be reserved for only those in your most inner circles. If I can't determine a great gift to get someone, then maybe they fall into the group of people that you just want to spend time with during the holidays.
        My recent post I Love You Like a Blogger Roundup – 12/28 – It’s My Birthday!

    2. Pauline @ Reach Financial Independence says:

      I hate feeling obligated to give gifts, and with such a short notice gathering, I would have either offered a secret santa or ask people to contribute with food and no gifts. You are right, if the gift is carefully chosen, it doesn't have to be expensive. I made an agenda with pictures of us for my BF last year, it took time and effort but he used it every day and loved it. I spent $25 or less. But I would feel bad if there was an obvious big price difference between what I give and what I get.
      My recent post Friday recap, a lost turkey and a Christmas miracle

      • Completely agree! Let me give an example of one of the BEST presents I got this year….or really ever for that matter. My brother and sister-in-law live on the other end of the state. We see each other only a few times a year. We do talk fairly often, and for Christmas (as part of a secret santa exchange) my sister-in-law gave me a poster she made herself of an awesome saying that I love (and had it framed). Wasn't very expensive, but I LOVED it, and was completely surprised. I hung it on the most prominent wall in my house almost immediately. Not only did I love it, but my reaction and hug I threw on her put a huge smile on her face as well.

        It embodied everything I think gift giving should be!
        My recent post I Love You Like a Blogger Roundup – 12/28 – It’s My Birthday!

    3. I have been thinking about this topic a lot this holiday season. There really is an Art to giving meaningful and inexpensive gifts. Gift cards are actually something I really enjoy getting (as long as they are for vendors that I would have spent my money at anyways). My favorite are gift cards for dinner and a movie, since you are gifting an experience instead of a material item.
      This is year two of me partaking in my partner's family's holiday traditions, which involves A LOT of gifts. As far as my partner- I know her really well (almost a decade), so I didn't need a list. It gets difficult when you are shopping for those people who you are still getting to know. This year I decided to create a photo book of a family vacation my partner's parents took this summer, for them. They loved it and it happened to be a pretty inexpensive gift. Although I feel like I am still getting to know my partner's family so I tried to make things easier for them by making a Pinterest page of my wishlist items. It always saddens me when someone gifts me a present (big or small) that I probably won't use or could have done without. I would rather they save their money and use it on something they would enjoy themselves. Gifts that are not utilized is a huge pet peeve of mine as both the gifter or the receiver. The Pinterest Page idea helped a little, since they hadn't used the site before they had some technical difficulties understanding how it worked, but they did get a better understanding of what my personal style is and the sorts of things I like.
      There is a blatant gap in the amount of money that my partner's parents spend on their Holiday season and how much I can afford to spend ( which isn't much in comparison). There isn't an assumption that we spend as much as they do on their gifts, but I do feel bad that someone is spending so much money on me for no reason at all and I cannot reciprocate the gesture (especially for a holiday I don't even celebrate!).
      My recent post I Love Getting Snail Mail

    4. I understand the feeling of having a gap in the amount of money spent on gifts….when my wife and I were early in our marriage my mother-in-law would give us very nice gifts, and we couldn't reciprocate (she stills gets us very nice things.). There's a fine line, though, between giving gifts just because that's what you do during the holidays, and there being a deeper reason for the gift. In my the case of our last minute gathering, it felt like just exchanging for the sake of exchanging and money that didn't need to be spent. Whereas my mother-in-laws previously given (really nice) gifts seemed to fall more along the lines of her truly wanting to let us know how much she loved and appreciated us – like what I described in this previous post:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective and experiences, Slofia!
      My recent post I Love You Like a Blogger Roundup – 12/28 – It’s My Birthday!

    5. ” I couldn't help but think that all we had done is exchange money with each other.”

      Hmm, that's true. Gift cards also basically make it abundantly clear what you've spent, and thus, how much you 'value' that person (via how much you're willing to spend on them).

      I personally don't care much for gift exchanges – there's not a lot I really want, apart from cold hard cash to go toward our wedding and honeymoon costs this year – but my fiance does, so I want to make a bigger effort in 2013 for his sake.

      • I think that the “there's not a lot I really want” becomes more common as we get older and are able to buy the things we want ourselves. When we're kids (and even young adults starting out) we get gifts from parents and others that we can use and need – they make us “better off” than we were before. At the place I'm at in my life now, that isn't the case – gift exchanges should be more of a fun activity where we surprise each other with ideas and gifts that re-enforce that we know each other as people and love each other. Neither person is ” better off” for having received a gift (the cost is relatively equal).

        You're in a different circumstance planning a wedding. I remember preparing for my wedding, and also being appreciative of gifts that could be used to pay for wedding expenses – and if there are people in your circle of family and friends that want to help you out with that, then that's awfully nice of them!

        Thanks for your perspective, eemusings!
        My recent post It’s Never Too Late to Take Control Of Your Life!

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