Like a lot of newlyweds, my husband and I were on a pretty tight budget after we got married. I was finishing my degree and we were both adjusting to life as adults, responsible for all of our expenses. So, when Christmas rolled around, we felt a lot of pressure as we tried to figure out how we would buy gifts for our families without going into debt. First, we decided we wouldn’t buy each other gifts, but that wasn’t enough to keep us on budget. Something else had to go. We weren’t being stingy — the money just wasn’t there. In the end, we decided we couldn’t afford to get gifts for our adult siblings.
Nearly seven years later, we still don’t buy presents every year. There were a few years, before kids, when we drew names and did a gift exchange, but most years the adults in the family skip exchanging gifts altogether, only buying for the young children in the family. We realized the holidays were more enjoyable when we avoided the stress of overspending and focused our attention on the time we spent with the people we love. Over the course of many Christmases, I learned a few things about addressing money issues with family during the holidays:
Have an honest conversation
When money is tight, it may be tempting to try to save face by pretending you’ve got your budget under control. Remember that your family wants what is best for you and will respect you for making responsible choices with your money.
Be upfront; approach your family ahead of time and explain that you can’t afford to purchase presents this year. Talking to your family about being on a tight budget can be a relief — for everyone involved. You might be surprised to find that your siblings, parents or in-laws are in the exact same situation but didn’t know how to approach you about skipping gifts this year.
Talk about it early
Be courteous enough to have this conversation with your family long before the holidays arrive. One newlywed I talked to shared with me that she didn’t mind her family members skipping presents, but she was frustrated when they waited until the last minute to discuss their plans or changed their mind after a decision had already been made.
“Last year, everyone decided that we would do gifts,” she explained. “Then a week before Christmas, everyone backed out after I had already bought gifts.”
Remember that everyone approaches the holidays differently. Your sister may prefer to plan ahead, starting her shopping in the early fall, or your parents might budget for Christmas by saving money every month of the year. The kind way to approach a change in plans is by talking about it early, as soon as you decide you can’t buy presents this year.
Receive gifts with gratitude
Of course, you may have a few family members who don’t mind that you can’t afford gifts, but still want to give you something for Christmas. Remember that these gifts are given from the heart, with no expectation of receiving something in return. There is no pressure to apologize and there is no need to try to refuse these gifts. Don’t allow your pride or embarrassment over not having the funds to give gifts this year keep you from receiving presents from the people you love with gratitude and humility.
Creatively express your love without gifts
If you aren’t able to give gifts this year, that doesn’t mean you can’t show your friends and family how much you care for them this Christmas. Perhaps, instead of exchanging gifts, you and your loved ones can exchange handwritten notes on Christmas morning, plan a cookie exchange or craft party in the weeks leading up to the holiday. The holidays are a time for celebration and for spending time with the people you love. A tight budget should never keep you from cherishing the blessing of friends and family in your life.