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The Case Against Giving Holiday Gifts

Cutting down on gifting — or eliminating it altogether — can relieve stress, reduce clutter, and make time with family feel more meaningful

Erica Sweeney
Dec 10, 2018 · 5 min read
Credit: Kai Wiechmann/DigitalVision/Getty

On Black Friday, as thousands of shoppers lined up outside big-box retailers, preparing to get a jump-start on their holiday shopping, I sat in my pajamas and browsed my favorite shopping sites, taking advantage of the holiday sales only to buy a few things for myself.

I wasn’t being selfish; I just don’t have any holiday gifts to buy. I won’t be receiving any gifts, either — several years ago, my family adopted a no-gift policy. We realized that we were lucky enough to not need anything, didn’t want to accumulate any more stuff, and, frankly, just didn’t want to deal with holiday shopping or exchanging presents anymore.

And we haven’t looked back. Going gift-free has been a money saver, clutter reducer, and stress reliever. We still get together in some form to enjoy the season, but without the ritual of presents. (Last Christmas Eve, for instance, my dad and I went to the movies.) We usually donate some of the money that would have gone toward gifts to charity and put aside some of it for things like travel.

In a 2017 SunTrust Banks survey on holiday spending, nearly 70 percent of respondents said they would stop exchanging holiday gifts if their family and friends were agreeable to it, and 60 percent said they would spend more time with family and friends if they didn’t have to worry about gifts. In SunTrust’s survey from this year, just under half said they’re feeling the pressure to spend more than they can afford.

“This [data] leads to a very simple conclusion, which is that we need to do something different,” says Brian Nelson Ford, financial well-being executive at SunTrust. “If we’re all thinking it, and the data shows this, why not have conversations with our family to see if it makes sense to make a change?”

Ford’s own extended family decided to make that change four years ago. Now, instead of typical gift-giving, each person buys a $5 ornament for one other family member, rotating every year who gives to whom. He says the change has alleviated the financial burden and stress of what to get someone, but it still creates an enjoyable experience where everyone gathers to open their ornaments together.

“We used to be just bonkers on Christmas, and it was like, ‘Hey, this is stressful, and I don’t know if all of us really want to do this,” he says. “We don’t even know if we’re getting something the person likes, and we just spent $40 on it.”

For many, the pressure to spend on holiday gifts can lead to overspending or even debt. Last year, Americans spent an average of just over $800 on holiday gifts. According to Discover’s 2018 holiday shopping survey, a quarter of people are planning to spend more this year, with 38 percent using credit cards to pay for most of their holiday gifts.

Trent Hamm has addressed the financial burden of holiday gifting on his blog, The Simple Dollar, which he founded in 2006 to recount his journey to becoming debt-free. “Each Christmas, a lot of people find themselves in gift exchanges that they don’t really want to participate in,” he wrote in a 2014 blog post. “No more. This is the year we declare our financial independence from unwanted gift exchanges.”

Hamm, who lives in central Iowa, was inspired to write the post after he saw that his family’s gift exchanging was getting out of hand. “We were in a pattern where everybody was giving gifts to everyone else, and we were really thinking about how we could stop this,” he says. So Hamm sent an email to his two brothers and their spouses soliciting ideas for new gift traditions. They decided to switch to small homemade or consumable gifts, like soaps or salsa made from vegetables from his brother’s garden.

The siblings still chip in and collectively get gifts for their parents. Hamm and his wife usually buy each other one present and get gifts for their three children. Everyone in the family of five also draws a name and writes that person a letter of appreciation to open on Christmas morning.

Generally, Hamm says, he’s just not that interested in receiving material things.

“We used to be just bonkers on Christmas, and it was like, ‘Hey, this is stressful, and I don’t know if all of us really want to do this.’”

“I don’t really need more stuff,” he says. “At this point in my life, if there’s some material item that I want, I can probably make the decision to buy it on my own. The idea of getting some random gift to fill up space in my house, I don’t really want it.”

As consumers are rethinking how they gift around the holidays, more are opting to spend on experiences, like trips or family outings, in an effort to create memories and promote quality time.

In 2015, Jodie Spears, owner of a public relations and advertising firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, convinced her family to stop buying gifts for one another and instead take a trip together around the holidays. Each year since, Spears and her husband have met up with her parents, sister, brother-in-law, and nieces at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tennessee, about halfway between Little Rock and Lexington, Kentucky, where Spears’ family lives.

“It’s so much more memorable and cooler to do than to just get another sweater,” Spears says. “We use the money that we would have spent on buying things that either we don’t need, don’t want, don’t like, or will never remember.”

A self-professed “advocate for experiences,” Spears recommends broaching the subject of switching up holiday gifting traditions by focusing on the positive. “It’s ingrained that Christmas is all about opening up presents, and if you try to flip that and get people excited about doing something else, they might be willing to get rid of gift-giving,” she says.

Starting the conversation about stopping or changing a family gift exchange — whether it’s because of financial reasons, stress, or the desire to accumulate less — can be tough, but etiquette expert Diane Gottsman says to just rip off the bandage.

“I think we are often too nervous, to be honest, and we need to get rid of that mentality,” says Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. If you feel like holiday gifting doesn’t fit your needs, “chances are good [others] feel the same way but haven’t been sure of how to broach the subject.”

Ford recommends using data to bolster your case. “It’s not saying, ‘This is what I want.’ It’s saying, ‘Hey, this is what a lot of other folks are feeling. I’m wondering if anyone else is feeling this way,’” he says.

Ultimately, exchanging gifts should be enjoyable for everyone involved — otherwise, there’s no point, Hamm says. “Gift-giving should be a fun and happy thing,” he says. “If it’s not feeling that way for you, it’s also probably coming across to the person receiving the gift. So, do everything you can to make the act of giving joyful for you,” even if what you’re giving is your time and affection.

Writer + Editor | Bylines: HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Men’s Health, MEL Magazine, CityLab, Realtor.com and more.

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