Last Updated on January 3, 2024 by Sarah McCubbin
Do you have gift giving anxiety? Do the holidays stress you out because you don’t know what to give or are afraid of giving a “bad” gift? Maybe you are ready to have a holiday without all that pressure and you don’t know where to start. There are simple steps you can take to give better gifts and enjoy people more in the process.
Coming from a very large family, I have seen people face gift-giving from a lot of different angles. Some people love to give gifts and others are stressed out. Some people have a lot of money and others have little. Some are minimalists and others like lots of fun gadgets. Everyone approaches giving gifts with different resources and perspectives.
On top of that, the holiday season is emotionally loaded for many people. In a season of happiness and joy, they struggle with loss, hurt, or depression.
So how can we give good gifts when we might be struggling with finances, or hard emotions, or just have a lot of people to think about?
I absolutely love Christmas. But I can appreciate why many people do not.
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A few weeks ago, I was at a restaurant with a few women and the topic of Christmas came up. I explained that I was really struggling because I love Christmas, but have limited finances this year. Trying to juggle giving gifts with the weight of expectations and limited finances was causing me to feel a lot of pressure. I love to give gifts…it is enjoyable for me…and not feeling the freedom to do that just felt out of alignment.
Another woman at the table opened up and said, “I’m glad you love Christmas. I don’t. I absolutely hate it because I have no one to give to.” She explained that her extended family didn’t really see each other and didn’t buy gifts for each other. Her gift-giving was completed with her small family unit and a couple of extra people. She had a lot more finances than I have…but not as many people.
And we were both struggling.
Since I know I’m not the only one to wrestle with gift giving anxiety and stress, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the topic in case it helps someone else.
1. A Gift to Give Means You Have People to Give to…Relationships Are the Gift
If you have a person you want to give a gift to, STOP. You have a person. That is a really big deal. One person. That person may be a family member or a friend, a teacher, or a co-worker. But the fact that you have a person that you care about enough to give a gift is worth celebrating all by itself.
The world is full of lonely people. If you have one person, celebrate. Relationships are the true gift and the tokens we exchange are just that…tokens. They can never capture a relationship’s value or worth. Whether you spend $1 or $1000, the amount cannot value a person or your relationship with them.
2. Don’t Let Gifts Take Center Stage
As you navigate the holiday season, let gifts be a part of the celebration, but not the main event. We celebrate Jesus in our home and all of December is filled with reminders of our relationship with God and others. We celebrate Advent with our kids and make fun food to share with others. We spend time with people and try to stay warm around a crackling fire.
There will be gifts but they are not the focus of our holiday.
3. Remember The Worst Gifts Make the Best Memories
Years ago, when our oldest kids were in junior high, we started exchanging names. We have 9 kids and we didn’t want them to feel pressured to go buy a gift for every sibling. We didn’t want to fill our house with things from Dollar stores (not that there is anything wrong with that) if they could pool their resources and buy one gift for a sibling that was a little bit nicer. At the time we started, I think we told them they should spend no more than $15 or $20.
That has obvious limitations. Well, our son Abel was about 8 at the time and he drew Sadie’s name in the gift exchange. She was about 13 or 14. I took him to Target to pick out her gift. We wandered the store and he finally knew what he wanted to buy her. He picked out her present…despite my hesitations and took it home.
On Christmas morning, I was nervous. When you have less packages, they tend to mean more. And when Sadie opened the small package from Abel, everyone laughed. His 8-year-old self had picked out the finest Wonder Woman Fidget Spinner…just what every 13-year-old girl wants.
It was a terrible pick honestly. He bought a gift he liked…not one for her. But it was the best gift too because it’s the only gift we remember from that Christmas!
Now every Christmas when names are drawn, the siblings remind each other that they don’t want a fidget spinner!
When the pressure is on to buy a gift…remember…the worst gifts make the best memories. So whether your person loves your gift or hates it, you can laugh about it later if you keep your humor!
4. Don’t Compete With Gift Giving
When finances are tight, it’s easy to look at what you have to spend and become critical of yourself or others. Some people in our family have a lot of money and others have less. If I try to compete with the deep pockets, I won’t enjoy giving or receiving gifts because both become a reminder that I am not enough somehow.
Plenty of Money
When your identity is found in the things you own or the things you give, it will never be secure. There will always be someone who has nicer things or who can give nicer gifts. If you are the giver with deep pockets, that is amazing. We have several people in our family like this and their generosity is astounding. You are a blessing when you give from your abundance.
Give what you have and let it be enough. You are enough. You are a gift to the people around you…whether you have 2 nickels or deep pockets. It’s not a competition when you are enough.
5. A Good or Bad Gift Doesn’t Signify a Good or Bad Relationship
The pressure to give a “good” gift can come from a lot of places. But if I stop and think about it, for me it often comes from a place of really loving and appreciating people and having a strong desire to do something really nice for them….but being limited in my ability to do that.
What if wanting to give a good gift is a really good thing?
What if wanting to love people well is a good thing?
It is right?
But here is the thing, whether we actually do get a great gift or not doesn’t signify anything about the relationship. Someone could totally bomb and accidentally give a bad gift….or just a really boring gift. In the scheme of things….it doesn’t actually matter. The relationship is the real gift. The gift being exchanged is just a token to celebrate it.
The amount of money spent has no correlation to how you value the relationship.
6. Give a Memory…not a Gift
One of my favorite things to do when finances or tight…or even when they are not is to give a memory not a gift. If you have known a person for any length of time, you have shared memories. It could be horrible camping vacations or memories of house projects gone awry. It could be embarrassing school memories or shared history as teens in the 80s. Whatever it is…you have these memories together.
A great way to give an inexpensive gift is to capture the memory.
- Print off an old photo to glue on a blank card.
- Buy nostalgic candy or treats that you enjoyed as kids.
- Get them a few mp3’s of your favorite memorable songs.
In your card, share the memory that spurred the gift and thank them for something that you love about them. Watch how they receive the gift and the laughter that ensues. The candy isn’t the gift. The mp3 or trinket isn’t the gift…the opportunity to relive the memory together is the gift.
7. When in Doubt, Think Consumable
Do you struggle with gift-giving but still have money to spend? If that is the case, one of my favorite ways to give gifts is something consumable that they can use or something that doesn’t take up a lot of space.
Here are consumable gift ideas:
Nostalgic Food or Candy – Are there foods that have specific memories for you or your person? Give the gift of food. Weird? Not really. My mom used to wrap up our favorite cereal for us as kids. It bought her 20 minutes on Christmas while we enjoyed its sugary goodness. I have continued this tradition with my kids…and they love it!
Whether you give favorite snacks, food items from a country you visited, or childhood favorites, all of these recollect memories which is the bigger gift.
Subscription Boxes (you can give a subscription or just order a single box to wrap) I love subscription boxes. I really love them as one-time gifts as an economical creative option. CrateJoy has curated subscription boxes for every interest which makes giving a consumable gift so easy!
Unique Ornaments – these don’t take up any space during 11 months of the year and someone can enjoy it every year for a whole month and the memories attached. These can be handmade from almost anything so they can be very expensive to give as well!
“Fun” Versions of practical things – socks, toiletries, dishtowels. Of course its better if you know they need the thing you are buying…but fun makes the mundane better every time.
Favorite Beverages -coffee, alcohol, unique sodas. These are great because you can get a single bottle of something unique for a few dollars (depending on the item. ) Pair it with a card with a fun memory and you have a great inexpensive gift.
8. Turn Your Gift Into an Experience
We hear a lot about experience gifts at Christmas time. Most of us understand that to mean that instead of giving a gift we go do something. Maybe we give tickets to a play or concert. Or maybe we buy a pass so that our family can go do something together. And those are great gifts.
However, you can also turn a gift into an experience and that’s what I’d like to talk about. Making a gift an experience is when you take your gift…even a simple gift and add an activity to it. Maybe you create a scavenger hunt to find the gift. Maybe you wrap the gift in many layers so the receiver has to inconveniently unwrap many layers to find their gift.
The inconvenience turns the gift opening into an experience and makes a great memory in the process!
One year my brother decided to do a scavenger hunt for my younger sister. He was in his early 20s and she was quite a bit younger an elementary school or junior high. He was always trying to find ways to “annoy her” so he planned ahead for this gift. He buried his gift 3 months before Christmas in a 5 gallon bucket (while the ground was still soft.)
On Christmas morning, she unwrapped a clue…not a gift. That of course led to many other clues…which led to a shovel and a clue that she needed to dig in the now frozen ground. After 20 minutes of digging and a lot of frustration…she had her present…a dirty white bucket filled with $75 in pennies!
It was such a grand adventure that it created a bit of Christmas lore. In fact, it was so memorable that about 10 years later she returned the favor and gave him a scavenger hunt for Christmas with similar features. He had to find a 5-gallon bucket that she had buried months earlier with some gifts inside of it. Obviously, these kinds of gifts are about far more than the gift inside. It’s about the experience.
Not every experience requires a lot of planning. I have created a simple scavenger hunt many times to get my kids or nieces and nephews running around looking for things!
9. For a “Nice” White Elephant Gift Exchange, Consider a Neutral or Consumable Gift
When someone suggests doing a “nice white elephant” I kind of cringe. For me personally, this does not check any of my boxes as far as the kind of gift I like to give. However, I understand why many people do like nice white elephants.
A nice white elephant is a gift that you get you bring to a gathering and it’s not some old junk, right? Sometimes it has a dollar amount you spend. Maybe you have a $25 limit or a $50 limit and you are supposed to bring a gift that is exchanged white elephants style. So you’re buying a gift without any of the usual social markers. You don’t know who’s getting this gift. You can’t observe that person and see what they like or don’t like. It’s really just a shot in the dark.
Because you are not buying for a specific person, it is a good idea to buy something that is either neutral or consumable….or perhaps a funny spin on a consumable gift to add humor to the mix.
A consumable gift is going to be something that many people would appreciate and find a use for. That might mean putting together a consumable movie night-type basket. Or maybe it means finding something that a lot of people in your group would like. For example, if you are part of a book club, then obviously book-related gifts would be appropriate. Or if your white elephant is for a church group, then perhaps other faith-based gifts might be appropriate.
Choosing gifts that our neutral or consumable can make your gift appealing to a wide variety of people. If you are doing a “nice white elephant,” no one wants to go home with useless stuff!
10. Giving Handmade Gifts Will Help You Appreciate Other Gifts More
I personally absolutely love handmade gifts because they’re always unique. My brother-in-law and sister give custom t-shirts to our family every year. They make t-shirts for all 35 family members that he designs and we wear them all year long. I think most of their wardrobe is made up of these family Christmas shirts because they have been doing this for years! It’s really fun whenever family gets together to see how many of us are wearing these custom shirts.
A handmade gift that someone put effort into is really special and it builds memories. I like to give handmade gifts as well and I’ve found that giving handmade gifts helps me appreciate the effort that somebody else is going to when they give gifts to me. I think gratitude can be developed when we understand the heart behind someone’s gift and not just the gift itself.
Great homemade gifts include:
- Homemade Foods or Baked Goods
- Homemade extracts (vanilla extract is amazing)
- Christmas ornaments
- Custom woodworking pieces
- Matted photography (portraits, candids or landscapes)
- Set of handmade notecards
- Coupons for a future service.
11. A Picture is Worth 1000 Words
The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to gift giving, I think that’s absolutely true. Whether you have a lot of money or a little when you use pictures as part of your gift, you are creating a way for the giver and the receiver to remember good memories.
Even if you’re going through a hard time, using pictures from good times can create unity and connection.
Picture Gift Ideas
- Handmade card with a photo on the front (print out a photo and add to a blank card or folded cardstock.
- Photo books
- Photo magnets
- Framed photo
- Photo shirts
- Photo ornaments
- Photo calendar
12. Give the Gift of Words
Over the years I’ve come to realize that no matter how much I spend or no matter what I do, the gift cannot capture what I’m actually trying to say. The gift cannot say I love you. The gift cannot say what I appreciate.
Write a note with your gift to express what that other person actually means to you. Instead of spending all the effort on giving the gift, spend time writing out words. I find that it’s helpful to write these up in a notebook or on blank paper so I don’t feel the pressure to get the words out perfectly and can cross out and edit before writing up my final note.
The gift of words can be short…but they should focus on what you love and appreciate about another person.
13. Give What YOU Enjoy Giving
I think that it’s important to give what you enjoy giving. This year. My family did a little bit of processing on how each person liked to give gifts and what we found was that everyone had a little bit different way they wanted to give gifts. Some wanted to give homemade gifts. Someone wanted to give gifts to everyone and some didn’t. Someone wanted to create a really special holiday day by providing food or an experience.
All of those were great gifts and all of them reflect the giver as well as their love for the people they were giving to. So as you give gifts, consider how you like to give them. It doesn’t mean you give something that only you would like but you give in a way that fits you. In that case, feel free to give a handmade gift. Or feel free to give a gift card. Or feel free to do an experience with or for that person. Give a gift in a way that you enjoy giving and don’t feel pressured to give gifts in a way that’s outside your wheelhouse.
14. Have a Broader Definition of Gifts
It is interesting when you talk to people to find out what they love or don’t love about gift giving. Some love the gifts…some love the giving. Others enjoy creating memorable experiences or spending time together.
Talk to your people and find out what is meaningful. Here are some questions you can ask about gift-giving.
- What is your love language? (gifts, acts of service, quality time, physical touch or words of affirmation)
- Do you enjoy giving gifts?
- What about gift giving is stressful to you?
- If you could have your perfect Christmas (or whatever holiday), what would that look like for you?
- If you could remove one part of the holidays, what would it be?
- What is your favorite holiday memory from childhood?
Once you have had good conversations with your friends and family about gifts, it is so much easier to say, “What if we change the gift giving this year?” Then modify it to encapsulate the ideas that people shared.
When you open the door to talk about gifts a different way, you might be surprised to find out how other people a feeling similar stress as you are.
15. Give Better Gifts To Kids
With nine kids in our family, we have had to balance out gift-giving over the years. Obviously, with a limited budget, big-ticket items are not always possible. Thankfully our older kids all have jobs, so they don’t need us to give them all the expensive gadgets.
Nonetheless…kids are kids. They love presents. There are things we can do that help us give better gifts to kids both our own and other people’s kids.
Set Expectations in Gifts for Kids
With our own kids, we try to set expectations. Obviously from year to year finances might change or when we were foster parents the size of our family would change from year to year. With those changes, we wanted to let our kids know ahead of time what the plan was. This allowed them to adjust their expectations.
As they became older, it also allowed them to kind of get in on the gift giving.
One of the most special things for me is a parent has been to see my children become givers and to get really excited about giving good gifts to others. As they have expectations put out before them, then they can kind of balance that out in their own mind.
Make a Plan for Giving Gifts
With kids, it helps to make a plan. If you want them to be able to give a gift then there are a couple of ways you can do that.
- They can spend their own money.
- You can give them a budget to spend on others. Often the Dollar Tree has small gifts that they can buy and that work well as gifts for others. Or they can make food and that is also a wonderful gift.
- Another idea is to take your gift giving budget that you have as a parent and let your children help decide what to buy for their siblings. That way they’re helping to direct the funds and they have more money at their fingertips than they might have if they’re spending their own money or just having a small budget to spend on little gifts.
Creating Strong Traditions Is More Important Than Gifts
Kids love tradition. They have an almost magical expectation of what’s coming. Their imaginations fill in the gaps and they can get so excited. Sometimes we think that we have to buy that. But traditions are simple things that just build memories.
Our traditions include things like:
- Wrapping Up Old Christmas Books (and Unwrapping them During Advent)
- Reading the Bible and Lighting Candles During Advent
- Making Traditional Special Foods (We love beef jerky, German Stollen and Sauerkraut Balls!)
- Making Ornaments
- Keeping a Pot of Water Simmering With Cinnamon Sticks and Cloves (Christmas in the Air!)
- Reading Stories
- Retelling Stories
- Unwrapping their Favorite Cereal for Christmas
- and more!
Give Gifts that Meet a Need
One of the common topics that come up around buying children gifts is a relative (usually a grandparent) who wants to give a child a lot of gifts because they enjoy seeing them open them. I get that actually…I love watching kids open gifts! Of course on the receiving end are parents wondering what to do with this new truckload of toys and goods. This can create gift giving anxiety as well as gift-receiving anxiety!
If you are fortunate enough to have money to spend and are able to bless others this way, consider a balanced approach. Ask if there are needs or wants that you can pay for that maybe can’t be wrapped. That’s not exciting…so go ahead and wrap something up with a “note” about what you are giving. Instead of just giving toys, consider giving them things they can look forward to in the months ahead…maybe instrument or dance lessons or a trip to see a play or out to the movies.
Use your money creatively to meet needs and wants and it will truly be a blessing.
16. Inexpensive Gift Giving Challenges
Since finances are one area, many people feel stress when it comes to giving gifts, I thought I’d share a few challenges that help you get creative about gift giving.
1. Exchange names with your family but put a challenge in place to spend as little as possible or spend less than $5 or 10. Something like that encourages people to be creative instead of just spending more money. In order for this challenge to work well, it’s helpful to give people a lot of time. You may want to exchange names for Christmas in January right after the previous holiday to give people a whole year of opportunity to be creative….or at the very least exchange names a couple of months ahead of time! This challenge is more difficult if you wait to exchange names until a few weeks before the holidays.
2. Choose not to exchange gifts with your family or group and instead go do something together. Maybe you go bowling or you go ice skating or you go for a hike and then enjoy a meal together.
3. Give something you already have from your own home that you think another person would enjoy. In my house. I could easily put together gifts from things they already have without spending more money. I could put together a gift of house plants or homemade canned food or frozen meals or small scrapbooks of pictures.
Most people have something that they have already or that they do that they could easily translate into a gift. Don’t underestimate how valuable it is to just give something of yourself. And of course, give words with your gift.
4. Instead of giving a gift to each person, give family gifts. Maybe that means a basket? Or maybe that means a board game to each family in your immediate circle. It doesn’t have to be individual to be special.
5. Think of gift-giving as a lifestyle. That means you don’t necessarily need to give your gifts at Christmas. Maybe you find inexpensive things for people throughout the year and you just love to celebrate them then. That’s awesome. Give people your gift your thought your love throughout the year and don’t just feel the pressure to love people well at Christmas.
6. Instead of regular gift giving, do a traditional “white elephant” gift exchange. A traditional white elephant involves giving something you already have that is used but still useful…not buying something new to give. These can be so funny! To make it more interesting, you can give your white elephant gift exchange a theme every year…or the white elephant could include a funny picture of the giver, a favorite snack or a $5 gift card with it.
Be a Good Gift Receiver!
This deserves it own post, but I want to mention it here. Part of gift giving anxiety can come from the stress of trying to balance out your gift against one you will potentially receive. If you are thinking, “I know they will give me a big gift so I have to give a big one back,” then you are setting yourself up for a competition. That’s not fun.
As you step into the holiday, take some time to think about the attitude that you have when you receive gifts. If someone gives you something small or underwhelming, do you feel gratitude and appreciation…or something else?
When we were growing up, my grandpa didn’t have a lot of money. But every Christmas he wanted to give each of his children’s family’s a gift. So on Christmas morning, he would stop over and like clockwork, he would bring a little cardboard box. Inside would be a bag of oranges, a bag of apples and jars of jelly with bows on top. He would also send boxes of cherry cordials. He bought everything at Aldi. Nothing was usually wrapped. It was festooned with a few bows.
As a child, his gift seemed lame. I mean…I wanted something for me. But as I got older, I began to appreciate these gifts more. He gave what he had from a heart of love. He is in heaven now, but every year we buy cherry cordials and talk about grandpa. They aren’t my favorite candy but they have a favorite memory that I want to share with my kids.
Talk about receiving gifts with your children. Talk about it with your family and friends. Have the conversation about how much you appreciate and love them and keep that in the front of your mind when the gifts aren’t perfect.
Focusing on Relationships Prevents Gift Giving Anxiety
If we keep our focus in the right place, giving gifts can be fun and enjoyable. When we actively think about and appreciate the people we are giving to, it helps us keep our focus in the right place.
When we give gifts that also create good memories, we are giving a gift to our future selves to reflect back on.
Sarah McCubbin, founder of Ten Minute Momentum, is dedicated to helping parents confidently parent their kids by teaching life skills, social skills and leadership skills. As a child she was the kid that never quite fit in and is on a mission to help others understand the building blocks we all need to be successful adults. She lives in Ohio with her husband Mike, and 9 kids ranging in age from 5 to 21 where they use homeschool, private school and public schools for their kids education!