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Control Your Holiday Spending

Save money with these creative gift-exchange ideas

Given that Christmas has ballooned into a nearly $400 billion spending spree here in the United States, I sometimes think that Ebenezer Scrooge should have stuck to his guns and ignored those three spirits who visited him on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus being crushed by holiday gifts.

Getty Images

Creative gift-exchanging ideas can make your holiday less materialistic and more enjoyable.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, the average American adult expects to spend about $720 — on gifts alone — this holiday season. At the very least, with the economy still off-kilter from too many eggnogs, a little temperance seems to be in order this gift-giving season. Who knows? A simpler, less materialistic holiday might just be a more memorable and enjoyable one, too.

So how do you handle that potentially awkward conversation with family and friends? You know — the one where you broach the subject of maybe cutting back on giving presents, or even entirely forgoing the gift exchange this year?

The important thing is to have the talk and to have it early. Waiting until everyone is happy and relaxed after a massive Thanksgiving feast might be the perfect time to bring it up, but by then, your family members might have already started their holiday shopping.

With friends and relatives you don't often see, a thoughtful letter or email suggesting that maybe it's time to take a different approach to gift-giving is perfectly acceptable, according to Peggy Post. She's the great-granddaughter-in-law of etiquette queen Emily Post and a director at the Emily Post Institute.

Many families put a cap on holiday spending by setting and sticking to a maximum amount per gift or by giving presents only to children under a certain age. In addition to a strict $20 spending cap, members of our extended family stop giving nieces and nephews Christmas presents once they turn 18. At that age, youngsters become part of the "Secret Santa" plan for adults. That's our arrangement: We all draw names ahead of time and buy a gift for one other adult family member, so that we all have something to open.

If you've fallen into the habit of exchanging gifts with adult friends and colleagues and find that it's adding up, why not agree that it's a habit in need of breaking? What about just exchanging holiday cards instead?

Here are some other creative gift-exchange ideas that let you stretch the fun and the dollars:

  • The Dollar-Store Gift Exchange: If it's truly the thought that counts, then set a spending limit of a single sawbuck and see how creative everyone can get at the dollar store.
  • The Regift Exchange: Agree to wrap up something you already own and don't need (that's still in the box or in mint condition), and give it to someone who will appreciate it. Remember: It's only regifting if you believe it's regifting.
  • The Handmade Gift Exchange: The giver has to make each present, be it a birdhouse, a fruitcake, a poem, or a pair of slippers.
  • The Old-Photo Gift Exchange: What more cherished—and inexpensive—gift could there be than an old family photo? Get up there in the attic and see what you can find! To boot, you could probably find a suitable frame at the Dollar Store, an outlet, or a thrift store.
  • The Charity Gift Exchange: Don't you already have everything you need? Many are not as fortunate, so agree to make a contribution to a charity rather than trading gifts.
  • The Tackiest Gift Exchange: Keep it cheap and fun by seeing who can give the tackiest gift for under $5.
  • The Gift-of-Time Exchange: Exchange gift cards for your time. Recipients redeem them, and have you do anything from washing their car to giving them a massage or volunteering your time for a charity of their choice.
  • The Baked-Goods Gift Exchange: Those cookies don't qualify unless you baked them yourself.
  • The Talent-Show Gift Exchange: Give the pleasure of free entertainment by performing your special talent before a gathering of family or friends. Have a Christmas concert! Did you know that I can recite "The Night Before Christmas" while standing on my head?

See how enjoyable a "cheap" Christmas can be? Don't be shy about proposing a "gift-lite" holiday season to your family and friends this year. You might find that for you, what Dr. Seuss wrote in How the Grinch Stole Christmas rings true:

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
'Maybe Christmas,'  he thought, 'doesn't come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!'

Jeff Yeager is the author of Don't Throw That Away!, The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is; you can friend him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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