Frugal Friday: Christmas Edition

‘t is the season to be cosy.

At least if you look outside the window. A thin layer of snow has settled and the thermometer is showing below freezing degrees. It is a great time to be snuggled up in the couch with a blanket, a warm cup of tea and either watch magpies figure out how to get the food I hung on treacherously thin branches, or light candles in the evening when all is dark and waiting for spring.

It is also, I suppose, the season when so many people run around with lists as long as their arm, trying to get everything for everyone, preferably while still having some money left over for a bit of food. Unless, of course, they put themselves into debt for several years to come by using a credit card.

To that, as with so many other things in our consumerist society, I say a resounding “no, thank you.”. I do not think my family will think that I love them more if I impoverish myself by buying them expensive, materialistic goods. That is why, this year, I will not be visiting a single mall to buy holiday presents. 

What to do instead

This is not a sudden 180 for me. It might be more difficult for you to pull this off without any complaints if that were the case. Over the past 5 or so years, I have gradually bought less and less gifts, and asked friends and family not to buy me gifts either. This can be really difficult depending on the type of family you have. I know Mr. E’s family would not take kindly to such a scheme, so he dutifully buys them (and me) presents. Remember that everything is a work in progress, so be kind to yourself and don’t fret if you can’t turn everything around emotionally or practically in just one year.

It began when I, as a student, realised that I had what I needed. Not much more could fit into my small shared housing, so why cram more in there? I had already been buying consumable presents for many family members. Things like coffee, chocolate and exclusive food or drink items only available where I studied. After a while, when my father asked what I wanted for Christmas, I thought about it and told him I’d much rather we both donate to a charitable organisation of our choosing and simply give each other a card about it. As simple as that, a tradition was born. A few years later, my older brother and I made a conscious agreement not to exchange gifts, and to that we hold.

Maybe we are just a strange and peculiar family. Last year, my siblings and Mr. E. were celebrating the holidays with my father when something strange and wonderful happened. We were chatting amiably, quizzing each other from a book, listening to radio, cooking together, eating together, and at the end of the day, relaxing in a chair or couch each with something warm to cradle our hands around. After such a calm and sociable day with good food and good company, we were feeling done. It was almost with an after thought that we looked at the pile of presents in the corner and looked at each other with a sort of “I suppose we ought’ve” expression.

Unlike when we were younger, the presents simply were not important. Much more important was the time we spent enjoying each other’s company, and I think everyone felt the same way. I know for sure I did. Here are five ways I have found to work when it comes to giving gifts, without breaking the bank or the planet.

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Our “tree” while we lived in London. The holiday season does not need to overwhelm you. Keep it simple.

1. The gift of charitable giving

One of my favourite gifts to give, if a gift is expected, is a gift of a charity donation. It doesn’t produce waste, it doesn’t clutter your home, and it doesn’t end up in the landfill. This year, in addition to the traditional donation exchange to my father, I will also give the gift of rainforest protection to my 1 year old cousin and her family. Theirs is a family of plenty, and as a young human, I suppose she will be showered in toys and clothes more than she can imagine any way. This donation is my way of wishing her a safe and sustainable environment when she grows up.

There are other friends and family as well. A Red Cross donation to my nan, who is an active member in her community, an animal shelter donation to the animal lover. I try to correlate charity with the person I am giving it to, while still adhering to my own values. For everyone I know who appreciates this kind of gift, this is what I get them.

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Roar, whipping up some reusable produce nets to give away as gifts.

2. The homemade gift

As a young teenager, I had the skewed impression that homemade gifts was something primary school children gave their parents. You know, the wonky ash tray from ceramics class or the endless piles of drawings and glitter-glued Christmas cards. Some how, I got the impression that these were considered “second rate” gifts. Less than. A well-meaning yet generally considered childish and useless gift. I thought you had to buy “proper” presents to show you really appreciated your friends and family, and that view coloured my gift-giving for several years.

Boy, am I glad I got over that! Homemade gifts are a tremendous way to show your love, be frugal, and save the planet at the same time. Since I don’t want people to tire of my gifts or come to expect certain things, I try to change it up every year. One year it might be fermented foodstuffs, or herb-glazed almonds. What about handmade produce nets? Or reusable shopping bags? This year, I am big on soap and will be giving handsomely. Perhaps next year I’ll up my confectioner game and try to make truffles? Who knows! The big thing here, for me, is that the gift should either be something useful (shopping bags), or something consumable. So many in my family have homes absolutely shock-full of stuff. You could barely cram any more in there. By giving them something they can use up, they will eventually (hopefully) use it up with a clear conscience. I find this is often particularly true for older people who have “everything” (grandparents in particular).

3. Simple money

For certain family members, particularly teens and young adults, a gift of money is often the best received. For instance, my youngest brother hopes to be able to go on a school trip next year, but it is to a different continent and very expensive. Thus, he has called around to his aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, etc, to explain this and ask if they would be so kind as to simply give him money this year, to add to his growing travel fund.

I have myself, both as a poor student and as a broke person living in London, gratefully received the gift of money. This was often the one thing that allowed me to order a plane or train ticket home, and was much appreciated. As stated above, my family values time together over material goods, so this was always a priority.

If you’re the kind of person who feels giving money is too impersonal, give it with a well-written card! Or a snack you know they like. As someone who has been on the receiving end, I cannot tell you how much easier it made things when people listened to my sincere wish for some economic wiggle room in my budget.

I know some people also offer to pay bills for other people as a gift. It is not something I have done myself, but it appeals to me and falls into the same category. There are more regular days than holidays, after all. And helping someone have an easier month can be far more valuable than that cup you thought was cute.

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Mr. E. having a nibble at Kew last Christmas. Experiences create more memories than stuff!

4. Experiences

This is a environmentalist classic when it comes to gift-giving. Know someone who loves the museum? Give them an annual pass or a couple of tickets, depending on your budget. Do they love to bake? Could you fund a class or two? Do you live on different parts of the country/world, and can never find room in your budget to visit each other? Perhaps you could offer to pay one or both tickets for a round-way trip, stay on your couch included, of course. We are frugal weirdos, after all.

In short, this one is limited only by your imagination and the interests of the person you are shopping for. This can also be an absolutely free gift. Are you close? Do they have children? What about a voucher for babysitting their children? A homemade dinner? A massage? A catsitter? Again, the possibilities are endless!

5. Get together for something big

Lastly, if you know someone actually needs (or really, really wants) something expensive, say their phone is falling to pieces or their stove is failing, can you get together as a group to fund it? Often, we know that someone needs something, but could never get it for them on our own as it would be far too expensive. In my experience, people tend to appreciate one big gift like this a whole lot, especially because it was something they actually needed! It also takes some measure of coordination and communication between the gift-givers, further indicating their love and dedication to the giftee.

As far as buying things goes, this is the only option I would seriously consider. If I am sure they need it, and it will be used and appreciated for years to come. Bonus if I can hook up with other willing participants at the same time. If you manage to rope in enough people, this will often mean that each participant has to spend less than they would normally on a Christmas gift, and it would still be more appreciated.

Make this holiday season a frugal and sustainable one!

Holidays2017

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