‘I Don’t Believe in Buying Holiday Gifts (And, No, I’m Not a Scrooge)’

jeff wilsonIn 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.

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.

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  • Ana

    Well they are buying gifts, they are just buying a small number of gifts and experiences. Which is a lovely way to go and prob does save a lot of money.

  • Claire

    I love this! This totally encompasses my gift-giving philosophy.

  • Michael WB

    My wife has been suggesting that we should move to something like this within our family for the past couple of years. It is nice to see an example of it in action. With all the commercialization and perceived necessity to spend, spend, spend; it is an awesome idea to step away from all of that and focus on the things that Christmas is truly about.

  • LP

    This is the way it should be. I grew up this way, more out of necessity as we didn’t have a lot of money but in the end I relished the few items I received at xmas.. For a while in my 20s we went crazy with gifts but have come full circle again and are back to a very simple holiday. My husband and I do not normally exchange gifts for holidays, we don’t like to to fall into the craziness of the season but rather enjoy taking hikes and spending quality time with friends and family.

  • desertranger

    i appreciate the simplicity of the concept and thoughts, but is getting your daughters a laptop really that “simple” or frugal? this still feels like quite a privileged approach that isn’t financially accessible to many people…

    • robin

      It is one laptop, to share, between a 15 year old and a 12 year old. Thats actually quite simple and frugal, because most parents would have purchased a separate laptop/tablet for kids that age. Additionally, the article mentioned that it was “a purchase that’s a necessary tool for their accelerated classes in school”. That doesn’t sound very privileged to me, as many teens have way more electronic gadgets, than one shared laptop.

    • kgal1298

      You can get a good laptop now for less than $200.00 especially if you just need it for internet access so in a way it’s not really that bad especially if they use it for school.

    • kay

      AND it is practical, what kid doesn’t need a computer for school?

  • KateSF

    This is great, and something I am working towards myself. For the most part, my partner and I have gravitated towards “experience” gifts in lieu of “stuff” – where we struggle is getting others to adhere to our “we don’t want more stuff” pleading. My mom just can’t resist a wrapped gift!

  • JackieAU5

    Love this! My fiance and I have adopted the same philosophy. Instead of gift giving on special occasions we go out to dinner, buy something for the house, or tickets to an event. Gifts really are overrated, spending time with one another is the best gift!

  • Jenny

    This is really encouraging! Every year I keep toying with ideas on how to make Christmas more simple and I hope to make steps towards living the way that is described above. Awesome!

  • Maggie

    I absolutely love this. As an adult I have everything I need and when I make out my Christmas list I only put things on there that I need like if I news to replace shoes. Ideally I would love for my family to just give me experiences such as going out to eat with me or going camping with me. They aren’t the type of people who do camping though and they don’t really enjoy good food, so I am stuck with things for now. We have done the donation thing before but we do it where I get to po pick the charity and the donation. For example I usually either pick someone to get a kiva loan or donate to Heiffwe international. I love to contribution to rhw purchase of an animal that other families might news.

    • Maggie

      Sorry for the typos! “News” should be “need” and I meant to say Heiffer International.

  • Juanita Williams

    Wow, I thought my husband and I were the only ones who didn’t celebrate XMAS with gift giving. We don’t celebrate Valentines Day, XMAS or mother’s day or any other holiday with “Gifts.” I think people should give or take their mother out when it’s not based on what man alone created. (If that make sense). We enjoy the authentic holidays, less the gifts involved. Thanks for sharing. You were my confirmation that I am not so weird after all for not celebrating XMAS with the sense of purchasing gifts. While everyone was spending there money during the Holidays, I was building my first emergency fund which I never had in my life. So, I rather sacrifice to have my first $5000 in savings with high-yield interest by February 2014. Once I accomplish this goal, it would have only taken me 7 months to save that amount. So proud of me!

  • Joshua Miller

    Nice theory, and guess it works for some people. But it seems my mom has adopted a similar process but this is where it differs: she tries to get us one major thing we really want and then maybe some smaller things that go with that big thing or just some other stuff she knows we need. i just can’t see not giving people something at least with in the reach of my immediate family and what i can afford, and now that i have a job I can do more along the lines of giving but mine will usually be just that $25 visa gift card that can actually be nice to have and use just so you can spend it wherever you want. I am probably the one some might look at odd for the gift card but most of them could really use it just to get that something or help get the something they really want/need. i just don’t see going all out like some people do especially since you know good and well they’ll be suffering for quite a while afterwards. This is a good policy the article puts forth but I think this may be better: if you can buy the person you will actually get a gift for something small like a gift card or something they really need and keep it simple and don’t go all out.

  • Abby Schachter

    My extended family is spread across the country from Massachusetts to California, and we don’t always get to see each other every year. To alleviate the stress and costs of sending gifts to all our cousins, nieces, and nephews, last year my aunt started a Holiday Book Exchange. Each family member sends one of their favorite books (new, used, or even from their own collection) to another, randomly assigned family member. This way each person is only responsible for one gift, one that is meaningful to them and that costs little or nothing (besides shipping). It’s a win-win!

  • Mr Nuff Said

    “You didn’t give me a gift, you gave me an obligation” – Big Bang Theory

    I agree with the philosophy of this couple completely. I’ve always felt if I really wanted something, I’ll go get it myself. A gift is nice, but I hate when people offer gifts with a “so where’s mine” attitude – when I didn’t want anything in the first place. Experiences trump gifts in my opinion, but that’s not to downplay very thoughtful gifts. Much rather get something someone thought about rather than a “its Christmas, so here you go.”

  • erica

    I really enjoyed this article, they definitely embraced the simple things in life and are very happy for it. It’s something i need to keep in mind for myself. thanks for sharing!

  • mn

    Laptop, watches, art supplies, candy…..these are all gifts! What do you think they are? These kids are getting items for the holidays. And that’s who Christmas gifts are for, kids. I don’t know if just not buying for your spouse because you live a life with travel, clothes, restaurant meals, gourmet foods, and adequate housing, utilities, and transportation qualifies as not buying. “I Don’t Believe In Holiday Gifts” when your family is probably spending the average for the holidays seems a bit like a misnomer. I am also assuming the laptop was in addition to another computer in the house, that it was something special for the kids to use, not the only option for homework. A bit disappointed in the title. Let’s see, “Keeping a Simpler, More Rustic Holiday than Those in Our Neighborhood and Socio-Economic Bracket” seems a bit more apropos.

  • Danny

    This may seem like a “consumerist” comment but a family portrait photo session always does the job. Hiring a good photographer to create memories is awesome. If anyone is down in Miami I urge you to visit Delio. He’ll make sure you don’t go through the “craziness” of holiday shopping. http://Www.deliophotostudio.com

  • Audrey

    Where can you live comfortably on 5-figures for a family with children?

    • kay

      Hmmm, depends on what numbers are in your 5 figure arrangement, if it is only 1′s and 0′s that is problematic but once you get to 4 plus, lots of places.

  • Elaine

    This is a lovely philosophy and, as our daughter have grown, one that I’ve incorporated as much as possible into our holidays. We take care of our basic needs all year long, so there aren’t a lot of things we really need. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • VinMack

    I think I have the same policy in my family and now a days with extended family we are only buying gifts for the children but internally we do not buy gifts for each other because that is not what Christmas is about, as a god fearing individual – I know the true value of Christmas and to be honest gift giving is a retail idea that was planted in our heads. Christmas is about family, god, and recognizing the everyday things that you have and not about gifts only

  • Sandy Kreisman

    Our family has lived like this for many years now. While this philosophy was spurred on due to the Recession and underemployment, we have learned to live with less and put any funds we have towards family experiences or travelling to visit friends or loved ones. These memories will be treasured way more than things.
    Sandy in Ohio

  • kgal1298

    Thoreau strikes again. It’s charming, though I always found the idea of Walden to be quite tame, but understandable. I personally like to give experiences when I can, though some family members just won’t ever understand that. For Christmas I bought my mom a plane ticket so she could go home and have holiday with her grand children which to me is better than anything I could physically have given her. All in all it’s okay to be frugal, but life can end at any moment and prefer to spend money to see the world, but I guess we all have our preferences.

  • Joy

    This is awesome! This family cherishes Experiences rather than “Things.” The commercialism of all American holidays saddens me greatly. Now, we have “Cyber Week:” will it eventually be “Cyber Month?”

  • Pamela

    We dont do christmas gifts anymore and it is so awesome. We only get gifts for kids and the adults just enjoy the holidays.

  • T I

    Jeff, I couldn’t agree with you more. In the last 10 years, I shop for a few key things I know my loved ones would like throughout the year, and save it for their birthday or Christmas. I don’t engage in the crazy holiday shopping and at times distorted mentality of the holiday. I also make it a point to gift more experiences to my loved ones, like tickets to a movie, a show, or a restaurant certificate for their favorite restaurant. They always look forward to doing something rather than getting something from me.

  • kay

    Not buying gifts this year and I expect this trend will catch on quickly. Our family will do a white elephant, whole family exchange, on Christmas Eve but that’s it. It has been so much nicer and the reality is, if you need something or really want it, you will get it throughout the year. I have always wondered why suddenly at Christmas people are supposed to a. magically have a bunch of extra money and b. need to express their love for family and friends by buying gifts. Bake something for your people as a gesture of appreciation and offer your time throughout the year, cook a nice meal and gather together. Gifts are a distraction and in some cases result in after holiday distress which lingers throughout the year possibly ending just in time to start all over again. Just silly.

  • JoannieO

    I have recently retired with my husband after 45 years as a RN. We have no pensions, live on social security and our 401Ks, and had to reduce living expenses to afford our retirement. Many years ago, when I was in my late 20s, my mother–the great saver that she was–said “No more gifts! We’ll just get together and enjoy the day.” So I buy no gifts at Christmas, and get together with my extended family–all my cousins who live in Massachusetts (we live in Rhode Island). What a great time! No stress, we save tons of money, my husband and I live with no debt, and best of all, we’ve learned that the simple things in life is what matters. Your health is the greatest gift on Earth, believe me. Amazing too, when I walked into a store recently, I could not believe the consumerism at the Holidays. And all the products, on sale, the day after Christmas. Makes you wonder, huh? Enjoy your life + think about what makes you happy (no, it’s not the latest designer pocketbook). This article was excellent, by the way. At least it brought out some ideas and thoughts at Christmastime. Enjoy the Season !!

  • JenC

    My family buys gifts for the children but, in lieu of buying gifts for the adults, we put money in a stocking to save up for a family vacation together. This is done anonymously so there is no pressure to contribute more than anyone can afford. It’s time we look forward to together and takes the pressure off during the holidays.