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Focus on Meaning, Not Money: Christmas on a Budget

Giving Meaningful Gifts

The spirit of giving doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Non-material gifts can be thoughtful and personal.

Limit purchased gifts to the young children of the family. Children under age two often are just as interested in the bows and wrapping paper as whatever came in the box. The three- to eight-year-olds often look for something from Santa. Preteens and teens are harder since one CD can cost over $20, but we can still cut down without cutting out.

Encourage teens to think about creating gifts that have meaning for family and friends. They can burn a CD, give a “gift certificate” for help with some chore, write a poem, make some art, or bake a batch of favorite cookies.

If it doesn’t feel like Christmas without some presents, consider having the adults and maybe the older kids in the extended family choose a name out of a hat at Thanksgiving so each will have one nice present under the tree. In one family I know, one of the computer-savvy aunts keeps a spreadsheet so people get a different “Santa” each year.

Think about buying one family gift instead of something for each person. Big-ticket items like video games and new electronics don’t have to be entirely off the list if they can be shared. Small-ticket items like a new board game or jigsaw puzzle can provide entertainment for Christmas day.

Help kids make homemade gifts to give to relatives. Most of us older folk have more stuff than we will ever need but something made by a child is special. My office is adorned with lopsided clay pots, handprints in plaster, a pencil can decorated with cutouts, and picture frames made out of popsicle sticks. I wouldn’t trade any of them in for expensive trinkets.

Give the gift of time to friends. Rather than exchanging material objects this year, slip a note into a card that promises a breakfast together or a visit to a local attraction or help with a project your friend has been putting off.

Get creative with wrapping. Gift wrap is expensive and is quickly tossed away on Christmas morning (unless you have a relative like mine who saves every bow and rescues paper that she irons for reuse.) Consider decorating kraft paper instead. Or how about using fabric remnants or even pillow cases with a bow?

Cards? Make your own. Send electronic greetings. Or start a “round robin” letter among people who know and care about each other.


Food prices have been steadily rising. It may be time to rethink holiday meals too.

If you’re the host family for the big family dinner, do encourage people to bring something to share.

Have a dessert or appetizer party instead of a whole meal. When our kids were small, we invited all the neighborhood families for an annual birthday party for baby Jesus. We’d make a big cake, load it with as many candles as would fit, and all sing “Happy Birthday.” Cake and punch was enough to make it a party.

Christmas doesn’t have to be financially stressful to be successful.

I’m not so naïve to think that kids who have been brought up with mega-Christmas will be happy with a peppermint stick and a stack of pancakes. But Grandma’s stories remind us that Christmas doesn’t have to be about elaborate decorations, piles of presents, or gourmet meals. Christmas doesn’t have to be about racking up more credit card debt in order to make everyone happy. Some careful family discussion can get everyone on board to cut back at least a little and maybe a lot. By focusing on meaning instead of on money, we can redefine the season in a way that is satisfying for all.

Focus on Meaning, Not Money: Christmas on a Budget

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Focus on Meaning, Not Money: Christmas on a Budget. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 15, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.