Tell Santa to Lighten Up This Year
We downsized holiday gifts and spending, and it made my life so much easier
One December when my kids were small, I decided we would have a blow-out Christmas like you see in a Hallmark movie. I made sure each of my two sons had a dozen or more beautifully wrapped gifts under the tree.
I was sure they would be thrilled by this abundance, which had not only stretched my budget but required multiple trips to crowded stores, standing in long lines.
This broad display of generosity was the polar opposite of how my own family — my mom, dad and me — had experienced the holiday.
To my amazement, on the big day they both lost interest in opening gifts halfway through. The anticipation of it all had trumped reality. They ran off to play while several presents sat unopened. I later set aside the toys that hadn't been played with and weeks later (bad mom alert) I returned them to the store. They never noticed.
The Four-Gift Rule
Soon after, I read somewhere about the four-gift rule: You get each child something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. This would certainly simplify my life. I was all in.
The next year I explained what was happening. There would be fewer gifts but I was open to requests (deadline: December 15: I was not battling last-minute shoppers for anyone). And if they wanted something pricey, they could save gift money and work toward getting it on their own.
Slowly, I carved out a more manageable, affordable path to holiday gifts and spending. One where I didn't dread opening my credit card statement in January.
Adults Start Gifting
I married into a big Filipino family with lots of siblings, cousins and kids. As an only child, it was a dream come true. Everyone came together for birthdays, special occasions and holidays, it was loud and lively, and there was always a smorgasbord of delicious meats, treats and side dishes. We all had babies around the same time, so our kids grew up together. It was idyllic.
But then the adults started gifting. This broad display of generosity was the polar opposite of how my own family — my mom, dad and me — had experienced the holiday.
Ours was always small and modest and I could only wish my mom had heard about the four-gift rule. While my best friend got a Barbie Dreamhouse, Barbie Corvette and six Barbies, I got Skipper. And she had one outfit.
When we started celebrating the holiday with my in-laws, I suddenly was getting more gifts than my kids did at Hallmark Christmas. While it was flattering and sweet, I couldn't keep up. I had no idea what to buy for 12 other adults, plus I didn't like to shop and I was finally on a budget.
So, I did the next best thing: I baked like a house on fire. Banana bread, pumpkin bread, fudge, brownies, peanut-butter chocolate delights. I bought shiny holiday tins, red cellophane and ribbon and made it festive. It took less time, less money and was straight from the heart.
What Do Others Do?
Now that our kids are grown, I was curious about how other people in my life approach Christmas and holiday gifting. I had noticed that my affluent friends were buying less, too. One confided that she and her husband don't get each other anything and they only get their adult kids one gift apiece.
My hairdresser, a woman in her 60s with a grown son and young grandchildren living out of state, lives on a moderate income and saves all year to send them $300 to buy their own gifts.
And a neighbor who has several great-grandchildren worries about stretching her Social Security check in the last couple months of the year. She sends a heartfelt card and focuses more on individual birthdays, so her savings doesn't take a hit.
Do What's Right for You
Eventually our family settled on doing Secret Santa for the adults, where everyone buys only one present, for the person whose name the gift-giver has drawn out of a hat. We put a price cap of $50 on it, and ideally each recipient will offer up a few specific ideas of what they might like or risk ending up with a pink elephant.
My easiest year was when I planned a destination Christmas at a cabin in Colorado for just the four of us. We took a small artificial tree and colored lights, but not much else. Each son got an envelope on Christmas morning with a check for the amount I would've spent on presents, but the real gift was being together and sharing a special experience.
The journey to fewer gifts and less spending was a slow evolution, but now my holidays are much easier and less stressful. I enjoy them more since it's no longer an endless spiral of to-do lists, errands and wrapping.
It's OK to Evolve
I've found that the older I get, the less I want. Twenty years ago, I loved opening a new phone or designer cologne. Now I'm delighted to receive a book or small candle.
The first half of my life was about accumulation — my 50s are about letting a lot of it go. I want simplicity and peace, not chores and complications.
My time is no longer spent shopping for gifts I don't want to buy for people who never asked for them.
Once my kids flew the coop, I spent several weeks decluttering closets, rooms and drawers and hauled boxes of china, crystal, clothes and tchotchkes to consignment stores and donation drop-offs. I don't need or want more gifts and gadgets, and that has carried over into how I approach giving to others.
I used to struggle with where to draw the line at holiday time, or whether to respond in kind to every gift-giver. Now I've set spending limits — like Santa, I make a list and check it twice, staying within a designated pool.
My time is no longer spent shopping for gifts I don't want to buy for people who never asked for them. I reciprocate in a way that feels right for me, which is my new and improved version of a perfect Hallmark movie Christmas.