How to Get the Buy-in for a Gift-Free Christmas

I have wonderful memories of Christmas growing up.

My family spent weeks preparing, shopping, and leaving no corner of the home undecorated. Holiday tins were carefully lined along our window sills and dozens of cookies were baked.

We always looked forward to Christmas morning. Many times, I opened gifts I had been eyeing for months, and it was always evident my sister and I were very, very lucky.

As I've grown older, I still appreciate the holiday season — strands of lights outlining homes, festive cocktails and, yes, the incessant Christmas music.

It's a time of reconnecting with friends and family back home near Boston. I look forward to winding down, reflecting, and celebrating this special time every year.

However, over the past few years I've developed a distaste for the excessive amounts of spending that is expected. Between traveling home and gifts for family members, I've found myself dropping close to $1,000 for the holiday. $1000!

And it turns out I'm not alone.

Last year, the average American spent $882 on the holidays.

Everywhere we look, we're inundated by budgeting pointers, flash sales, and holiday gift guides. But what if none of it mattered?

Last summer, I fantasized about a gift-free Christmas — no rush shipping, fussing with wrapping paper, attempting to curl ribbon, or anything under the tree other than dry pine needles.

I finally dropped that bomb on my family during a vacation in Santa Fe. There wasn't immediate approval, but the consensus changed once I focused on a few key things. Here's how I got the buy-in for a gift-free Christmas from my family.

Highlight experiences rather than material things

Celebrating my mother's 60th birthday together in Santa Fe was amazing.

We loved exploring the art galleries, exploring the farmers' market, cooking a meal with local ingredients, gazing at stars through a massive telescope, driving out into the desert, and watching the sunset across the mountains every evening.

There is no gift that could possibly replace that time together.

When we discussed the option of saving for a future family trip instead of buying Christmas gifts, the decision was easy.

Plan an alternative Christmas morning

My father worried about eliminating the ritual of opening gifts on Christmas morning. Because it's exactly how he had celebrated the holiday for 62 years. But once we talked about planning a several course brunch, his uneasiness went away.

Once Christmas morning arrived, we were so distracted by delicious breakfast foods we barely thought about presents. It was the slow, peaceful morning we all craved in an otherwise hectic holiday season.

Focus on what really matters

Because we live in different places, spending time together around the holidays has become especially important. My sister and I typically visit for a couple of weeks.

Now that my sister and I are both self-employed and my father is retired, it's more important than ever to be intentional with our spending. We realized exchanging gifts just wasn't a priority.

The gift-free Christmas exceptions

I know what you're thinking. I'm a total Grinch, right?

Here are a few exceptions to my gift-free Christmas rules:

  • Children If you have them or you are related to them, the gift-free Christmas is going to be an incredibly hard sell. But watching children open gifts at Christmas is pretty incredible, so it's probably not worth skipping.
  • Holiday parties I don't feel comfortable showing up empty handed to any party and a holiday gathering is no exception. I typically arrive with at least a bottle of wine or some tasty snacks.
  • Yankee Swaps Yankee Swaps are the South's version of Dirty Santa. If you're attending, you are required to bring a gift. But luckily, the spending limits are usually pretty low.

Even if a gift-free Christmas isn't right for your family, it may be worth looking at how much spending is really necessary. Many times I found myself trying to match another person's gifts, even when it exceeded my personal budget. By reeling in our holiday spending, we set ourselves up for a strong financial start to the New Year.

Readers: Would you be willing to try a gift-free Christmas?

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Discussions — 15 Responses

  • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life November 3, 2016 on 9:57 am

    I’ve been jonesing for a gift free Christmas for a few years, a total aboutface from my stance in many previous years when I really enjoyed the gifting game. It’s unlikely to happen soon, though, we’ve got a bunch of kids in the family and while for me that’s a more compelling reason to stop gift giving (or limit it to one per child) to start teaching the next generation about materialism, everyone else still wants to exchange gifts for the adults too. I’m puzzled by that last bit. We’re adults, we really don’t need gifts from other people when we don’t know each other well enough to buy without a wish list.

    • Kate Dore Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life November 20, 2016 on 2:58 pm

      I’m with you! Maybe once there are fewer children, you’ll be able to convince the family?

  • Brian @ Debt Discipline November 3, 2016 on 11:06 am

    I think this is a great idea given your personal situation. Spending extended time with your parents and sister should be the priority. Being a family of five, with three teenagers it would be difficult to go gift-free. We have however dialed back the expectations over the years. We do want to make the time together the centerpiece and not the gifts we exchange.

    • Kate Dore Brian @ Debt Discipline November 20, 2016 on 2:58 pm

      Nice, Brian! I don’t think I would have agreed as a teenager, either.

  • Latoya | Life and a Budget November 4, 2016 on 9:46 am

    Heck yeah! I’m convinced that the amounts we spend on Christmas gifts, we could actually afford to spend A LOT of quality time together. The problem is that many families don’t spend as much time together any more. This is something worth talking about and you might have inspired my next little rant on LAAB, lol:) Thanks for sharing this!

    • Kate Dore Latoya | Life and a Budget November 20, 2016 on 2:59 pm

      Awesome, Latoya. I’ll check that out!

  • NZ Muse November 6, 2016 on 7:04 pm

    My family didn’t really do any kinds of gifts (birthday, Christmas, Mother’s/Father’s day etc) growing up. It sucked! But now as an adult I actually appreciate this and I’m kinda glad. On his side, well, he’s been unemployed/underemployed over far too many Christmases and we’ve basically used that as kind of an excuse not to do much on gifting in his family.

    • Kate Dore NZ Muse November 20, 2016 on 3:00 pm

      That’s interesting how your perspective has changed. I’m anticipating a few more years of transition for all of us, so I don’t see gifts returning in the near future.

  • Our Next Life November 7, 2016 on 1:28 pm

    It’s so great your family is doing this! We did a no-spend Christmas last year for the first time, and it was awesome. It helped that we had gradually evolved to less and less gift giving among the adults, and had gotten to a place where everyone only bought for one other person. I think my asking for boring stuff like microfiber cleaning rags and a new water bottle helped stifle the joy of even that approach (ha!) and so when I suggested no-spend on a trial basis, people were game. Of course, this year is another story… still TBD if the family is game to do it again. But even if we revert back to the exchange, it’s still only buying for one plus small things for the kids, which is still a HUGE improvement.

    • Kate Dore Our Next Life November 20, 2016 on 3:02 pm

      Sounds like a nice transition! I wouldn’t mind buying a gift for a family member’s kid, but it seems unnecessary among the adults.

  • Michelle Schroeder-Gardner November 8, 2016 on 12:04 am

    Me and Wes hardly ever give each other Christmas gifts. We’re odd like that, haha. I do like Christmas, though!

    • Kate Dore Michelle Schroeder-Gardner November 20, 2016 on 3:03 pm

      Brandon and I are the same! We’ve stopped giving birthday, Valentine’s Day, anniversary, or holiday gifts. I enjoy being treated to a nice dinner once in a while, though.

  • Sarah November 12, 2016 on 5:09 pm

    I’ve spent 5 years telling family members they don’t still have to keep buying my Christmas gifts. An agreement was made by the older ones that the younger ones (i.e. my generation) shouldn’t buy gifts for them… but they still insist on giving to me. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but I just don’t need more stuff. My dad is brill, and will happily buy boring necessities that go on my list, where others screw their noses up at useful suggestions.

    The arrangements with my friends is perfect, no gift giving- only a celebratory meal or evening of drinks together.

    • Kate Dore Sarah November 20, 2016 on 3:04 pm

      That’s funny about practical gifts, Sarah! I enjoy holiday gatherings with friends, without the gifts, too!

  • Millennial Money November 21, 2016 on 8:22 pm

    This idea has the potential to really change the focus of Christmas to something other than gifts. It might be good to have a Christmas where the gifts are all personally made rather than bought from a store. Either way, very interesting idea.


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