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Holiday Gifts that Don’t Cost a Thing

Holiday Gifts that Don't Cost a ThingMoney can’t buy you love. Yet that doesn’t stop many of us from trying. In our hearts we know very well that pricey presents don’t make the perfect holiday. (There’s no such thing, anyway.)

Still, many of us get sucked into the holiday spending spree.

“When we are pressured to match a transaction of cash and heart-felt emotion, it feels like we can never spend enough,” said Mara Glatzel, MSW, a coach who helps women cultivate the lives they deserve.

Gift-giving is a loaded topic with many layers. For instance, it sparks comparison-making and fears about not being good enough, according to Ashley Eder, LPC, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo. “It’s natural that some people turn to high-value items to soothe their fears about gift exchange,” she said.

People also think that pricey presents will perk up a relationship or solve specific problems. “People turn to interesting gifts to distract from other painful things about the holidays, hoping that giving someone a nice gift will make up for gaps in the relationship,” Eder said.

Consider the reasons you’d like to give your loved one a costly gift. “Look honestly at your triggers around self-esteem and worthiness in a relationship,” she said.

Holiday Gift Ideas

“Great gifts that don’t cost any money are experiential, such as things that you can do together, experience together, or something that you can do for someone else,” Glatzel said. Here are a few ideas.

1. Set a date. If it’s someone you don’t get to see often, set a time to get together. Eder suggested everything from taking your dogs on a hike to catching up over coffee. And if a face-to-face isn’t possible, schedule a “holiday phone call, where you both make sure you have uninterrupted time and adequate phone batteries.”

Whatever you do, just be sure to follow through or remind your loved one to take you up on your gift, Glatzel said. “The real value is in the follow-through of holiday promises,” she said.

2. Be charitable. “Do some community service or volunteer work in that person’s name,” Eder said. Or plan to spend the day volunteering together. Pick your favorite charity, or donate your time to a different organization each year.

3. Get creative. Create a poem, painting or an original song for your loved one, said Julie Hanks, LCSW, a therapist and blogger at Psych Central. You can ignite your inspiration by checking out, where Samantha Reynolds pens a poem a day. She even has a tool that instantly creates a poem for you after you answer a few questions.

Digital gifts are another option, such as creating photo collages for each person in your family. Every year one of Hanks’s sisters creates a personalized photo set on Flickr as her holiday gift.

4. Write a letter. “Handwritten letters are becoming rare,” Hanks said. But they’re a beautiful way to express your feelings for a loved one. She suggested writing down your favorite memories or expressing gratitude for your relationship.

5. Agree not to exchange gifts. Many of your friends and family will probably be relieved to hear you’d rather skip gift-giving this year. But you can still give them a sweet handwritten note, Eder said. (Or get creative with any of the above ideas.)

6. Do a holiday swap. If you’d still like to exchange gifts, Glatzel suggested setting a price point and tossing names in a hat for each person to pick out. “This can be such a fun way to enjoy a holiday all together without enormous stress to buy everyone at the shindig an expensive gift,” she said.

Gifts for Kids

“Kids are great at asking for more than is feasible or reasonable to spend,” Eder said. But that just opens the door to an important discussion, she said. Be compassionate, and avoid getting defensive, she said.

Acknowledge their disappointment and talk about what it’s like not to have what their classmates have, she said. “See this as a chance to relate to your child about feeling left out or uncool, not about your salary or generosity.”

Model moderation and budgeting, she said. “You might come up with a plan together for your child to save for the things you won’t be buying this time.”

So when you’re shopping this year, consider why you’re reaching for gifts that bust your budget. Pricey gifts don’t improve relationships – at least not for long. And, as Eder said, “If you feel like you have to get someone a gift you cannot afford in order to maintain the relationship, it might not be a relationship you want to keep.”

Sharing experiences, giving to charity and crafting handmade gifts are often the sweetest – and most rewarding — gestures, anyway.

What are your favorite gifts to make? What are your favorite experiences to have?

Volunteering photo available from Shutterstock

Holiday Gifts that Don’t Cost a Thing

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Holiday Gifts that Don’t Cost a Thing. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 29 Nov 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.