In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.
Today, one dad tells us why he and his wife don’t exchange gifts—and why they’ve also chosen to downplay presents for their daughters. By skipping the whole holiday gift-giving hoopla, he says that it actually makes his family’s season merrier.
This time of year, most of my family and friends are frantically running around shopping malls and waiting in crazy-long lines to get gifts to put under the tree. Some of them have a lot of fun doing this—and others are totally stressed out.
As for me, my wife, Sherri, and our two teenaged daughters, Winter and Sylvie, we sneak in as many long hikes as we can before the snow starts falling and spend our weekends cooking delicious dinners. You see, Sherri and I don’t get each other gifts, and we don’t buy many for the girls, either. As a result, there’s no such thing as “pre-holiday craziness” in our world, and we truly get to experience all of the magic of the season without any of the stress.
A No-Gifts Christmas Tradition Is Born
Sherri and I met in our late 20s and bonded over our shared vision that a frugal, simpler life might just be the ticket to happiness. We talked about “Walden” and how we’d both read it as teenagers, but how we hadn’t truly understood Henry David Thoreau’s point until much later in life. And we’d seen many of our family members try to keep up with the Joneses, working constantly to make payments on a big house, two brand new cars or a boat.
With all of that in mind, we decided to minimize our wants and stick to our needs.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
So starting early in our relationship, we made an agreement: birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and other holidays were “no gift zones” for us—at least not for store-bought presents. Instead, we would write poems, create something by hand or give each other an experience on those special occasions.
For example, for our birthdays every year, we leave the house early in the morning to hike 15 miles on the beautiful, deserted trails at Lake Hope State Park near our home in Athens, Ohio, and then have a great meal at their lodge restaurant. It feels decadent to ditch work for the day and be together in the woods. Neither of us would trade that for a store-bought gift of any kind.
Fast-forward to my siblings and I having children and trying to buy birthday and Christmas presents for everyone. Sherri and I felt like we already had everything we needed to be happy, plus we didn’t always use the things that we were given. And whenever we visited our extended families at Christmas, it seemed like the piles of gifts for the children got higher every year, and the toys would just be forgotten a week later. We feared that we'd be doing a disservice to the kids by teaching them that this was what life was all about.
So starting around 2000, we decided to stop making gift-giving the focus of Christmas. We asked extended family to stop providing physical gifts to the adults and only small, reasonable items for the kids. In place of presents, we donate to various charities in the names of adult family members. For the youngest nieces and nephews, we initially gave small, usually handmade gifts, but when they became teens, we started to include them with their parents on the donations.
For our two girls, we decided to select one “big” but typically useful item each year, such as musical instruments. One Christmas, they got a laptop to share—a purchase that's a necessary tool for their accelerated classes in school. Sometimes they’ll also get stockings stuffed with things that they need—art supplies, socks and consumables like candy—but the money we spend on these things is minimal.
Mostly, we try to create experiences for them, and in the process, Sherri and I have developed a few lovely family traditions. Christmas Eve turns into an entire day of cooking a gourmet dinner together, eating the meal as a family and then lighting paper lanterns to set them loose in the night sky. No present can give you those goose bumps and feelings of togetherness.
Family may still think we’re crackpots or just cheap, but I’d like to think that they also see value in the life we lead.
What Family Really Thinks of Our Holiday Policy
Our approach to Christmas didn’t initially get buy-in from members of our extended family. It was difficult to keep them from overloading our kids with gifts, but over time, they’ve come to essentially respect our wishes. The girls continue to receive presents from their grandparents and occasionally from an aunt or uncle.
But the gifts are more thoughtful now, and the grandparents ask first what would work best for our daughters. For example, Sherri’s parents sent GPS-enabled watches one year because the girls are both cross-country runners, and the gift would help them train. My mom sent Sylvie a subscription to a DIY magazine, and she asked to take Winter to a Barnes & Noble, so she could pick books she likes—plus, they also got to spend quality time together.
Most of our siblings also now honor our wishes for no presents and make a donation to a charity in our names instead, or they'll send food baskets or iTunes gift cards for the girls. Family members may still think we’re crackpots or just cheap, but I’d like to think that they also see value in the life we lead.
RELATED: 10 Money Secrets of Happy Parents
There Are Gifts ... in Not Getting Gifts
When the girls were younger, they'd feel sorry for us for because we didn't have gifts to open on Christmas. We explained that we really do have the things we need, and that what makes us happy is being together and sharing experiences. Now, as teens, they understand—and they definitely appreciate the things that they do have. They also know that they live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, enjoying a life that few others have.
Saving money at Christmas—and living simply throughout the year—allows us to live a life that looks like part-time retirement to many people. For one, both Sherri and I are able to work from home; I’m a writer and a television host, and Sherri is a videographer and photographer. While we make a comfortable combined income —we average medium-to-high five figures—we don’t work long hours, so we have ample time to spend with the girls.
We've made a conscious decision to live within our means, so we can savor life now, instead of waiting to do that in retirement. Since 2006, we’ve traveled across the country to camp, hike, backpack and canoe as a family. We even took the kids camping through eastern Europe.
Whether or not you choose to go the no-gift route, I think everyone should think about the benefits of giving fewer but higher-quality gifts, such as an heirloom item, or turn an everyday purchase—like a laptop or an upgrade on a smartphone—into a gift. And think about spending time together by finally taking that long-awaited trip to a national park or renting a cabin in the woods in the summer.
For our family, what it all really comes down to is living a life based on authentic experiences—not on accumulating things. Learning to be happy with less goes a long way in life, and Sherri and I are happy to teach that lesson to our children. Every holiday, I look forward to hot soup, dark beer, walking in the snow, Christmas Eve dinner and spending New Year’s with friends. And I hope I never get one gift.
Jeff Wilson is an author and home-improvement expert who has been a host on HGTV and the DIY Network.