giving: fewer gifts, more thought.

November 11, 2014
gift guide: quality over quantity | reading my tea leaves If the title of this post just sent you into a panic, I’m sorry. All of this less-is-more, quality-over-quantity business can start to sound like a dictum from some gift-giving guru with unattainable standards, or worse, an awful lot like bah-humbug. Trust me when I say that I have no intention of playing the role of Scrooge in this year’s performance of A Christmas Carol. I love getting presents. I love giving presents. I’d go so far as to say that part of the joy of the holiday season is the gift giving.

But despite my enthusiasm for presents, I can become overwhelmed by the stuff of the holiday season. And anecdotally, it’s clear that I’m not alone. When faced with a challenge, I say that the best solution is to strategize. So, here are a few ideas for ways that as individuals—and as families—we can focus on giving fewer gifts, more thoughtfully, minus the pressure of perfectionism:
gift guide: quality over quantity | reading my tea leaves

Pick a Number
Especially helpful for families with small children, establishing a set number of gifts that you’re hoping to give each member of your family helps you, in the words of my dad, “quit while you’re behind.” Whether it’s one gift or five gifts, it’s a nice idea to set the number from the onset so that you can keep it mind as you shop.

Along these lines, I’m a big fan of the four-gift Want, Need, Wear, Read strategy. The idea is to give each child just four gifts: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. It gets extra points for rhyming. You can swap out any of the categories for another that makes more sense to you. Want, Need, Read, Do, would be my pick, poetic dissonance notwithstanding.

Setting a number helps you show restraint when faced with the 2-for-1 (or 10-for-1) sales that pop up this time of year. If you’re someone who shops with a set budget in mind, it can also mean that you’re able to get one thing that’s truly special instead of many things that aren’t. Instead of buying many new onesies, for example, you might decide to pool your resources to buy one really special one (shh…don’t tell Faye).

Pick a Theme
For older families, getting everyone on board with a themed holiday can be festive and might take some of the pressure off. The idea of gift giving within a theme might seem stifling at first but I’m convinced that half of the pressure of holiday gift giving comes from too much choice, not too little. Maybe the theme is Something to Eat and everyone gives everyone else a single food-related gift. Or maybe it’s Made in the USA, and everyone gives gifts made in the US. One year when I was growing up, my mom decided that all of the gifts that we gave to each other at Christmas had to be something that might have been made in the 18th century. (No need for your own family category to be quite as wacky or to include quite as many oranges in Christmas stockings, but you get the idea.)

A single theme can also be a strategy for giving a few gifts to just one person without overwhelming them. For James’s birthday this year, for instance, I wanted to get him gifts to encourage his new-found love of bread making (see also: gift giving with ulterior motives), so I bought him the most beautiful bread-making book I could find, a few special flours, and the dough knife and spatula recommended by the bakers who wrote the book. Another year, we sent a care package to James’s family filled entirely with Brooklyn-made comestibles. This way there are a few presents to unwrap, but each of them was useful (or edible!) and based around a single, simple idea.

Pick a Name 
My brother-in-law has a really big immediate family, which husbands and wives and now kids have made even bigger. Every year they pick names out of a hat so that each person is only responsible for getting one special gift for one other person. The benefit is that the gifts tend to be pretty awesome. Dinner out to a cute new restaurant, tickets to see a play, a handcrafted something or other. If you only have $50 to spend on a gift, it’s nice to be able to pick something special for one person or for a couple, instead of trying to spread the same $50 across 15 extended family members. 

Pick a Present:
But—and I can almost hear the desperation in your voices—what do you do about everyone else? The people who you can’t strategize with? The well-intentioned grandparents, or in-laws, or brothers and sisters who might be stockpiling presents for you and your offspring right this very minute? 

At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychologist, I think the best strategy when it comes to receiving gifts is to a) to offer lots of ideas b) graciously accept what people give to you.

Do due diligence by gently spreading the message that you don’t need very much for the holidays. But quell the notion that you’re a Grinch by offering a few suggestions of things (or experiences!) that you would enjoy. In other words, help a mother out. I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that it can be difficult for parents to stop playing the role of Jolly Old Elf, even after their kids are grown. But gently suggesting to generous parents that you don’t need to open lots of presents, but that you do have your eye on a special scarf, might help do the trick.

If it’s kids with an exploding toy chest (or room) that’s the problem, suggest that Grammy and Gramps buy them a series of dance classes instead of a sleigh-full of toys.

The bottom line: You won’t get everyone on board with the idea that less is more, but you’ll have tried. And if a few extras do arrive, the best bet is to smile graciously, put those gifts to use as best as you can, and count your blessings. And remember: gift giving is not generally considered a malicious act. So.

NOTE: If focusing on quality over quantity makes you feel undue pressure to find THE MOST PERFECT, MOST MEANINGFUL, MOST BEAUTIFUL GIFT IN THE UNIVERSE, don’t worry. There are weeks to go before the holidays and with a little luck the upcoming posts will help sort out some of the specifics.

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  • Reply missris November 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    So what would you suggest when you ask people not to give you gifts, or you all agree to draw straws and each buy for only one person, etc. and then half the family (my husband's half, in this case) doesn't follow the rules? I feel like such a jerk saying "Oh you got me a bunch of stuff after all. Wow, thank you. I didn't get you anything because, you know, we'd agreed on that route this year."

    • Reply Jami Yaeger November 11, 2014 at 7:31 pm

      After a few years of minimizing our holiday gift-giving I've learned that I cannot control whether my family will embrace and respect our decision. I've made our wishes clear and if they simply cannot help themselves, then I try not take that on as my burden. (Although it still pisses me off to no end!) I also make it clear that if we get excessive gifts, most of them will be going to Goodwill or to a family in need.

  • Reply Erin November 11, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    You know, at the end of the day, I think we can all only control our own habits. We can do our best to let people know that we'd love to try a different approach, but we can't actually dictate what other people do. And then, try, try again?

  • Reply Alexa November 11, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Most of my girlfriends with children have taken the "want, need, wear, read" route and it's working beautifully! I love the approach of downplaying gifts and emphasizing family/friendships/good cheer/daily thanksgiving.

    You mentioned having assembled a Brooklyn-themed care package—I enjoy sending care packages throughout the year and am always looking for new ideas. Do you remember what was in that one?

  • Reply Anonymous November 11, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    We have three children from teenage to toddler and have been doing the want, need, wear, and read for years. I highly recommend it. This year my 14 year old wants make-up as her "wear," which works since technically you do wear your make-up!

    • Reply Erin November 11, 2014 at 4:14 pm

      Perfect! So glad to know that it's worked for you!

  • Reply Norma November 11, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    I've never heard of "want, need, wear and read" before. I love that!! I've always given books to my kids but the other ideas really are a help for focusing. Love your list. Thanks so much and I look forward to more posts!!

    • Reply Erin November 11, 2014 at 4:14 pm

      Thanks, Norma!

  • Reply Monica November 11, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    We've tried several iterations of the minimalist giving scheme, at least for the family we spend Christmas morning with. At first I think people thought I was being grinchy, but once they realize they didn't have to finish the holiday season in debt (at least not on my account) and none of us have to figure out to do with the mounds of stuff, everyone comes away more relaxed and happy. Last year we did 'stockings' presents for everyone, something small but useful for each person. As we get more of the younger generation I'm sure we'll have to switch things up, but I love the ideas here!

  • Reply Rachel Ann Pierce November 11, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    I like these suggestions.

    Even growing up I was always floored when kids got heaps and heaps of presents. I got one present from each extended family member who was coming for christmas/wanted to send me something and three presents from my parents. My mom reasoned that if three was enough for Jesus (gold, frankincense, and mir) then it was enough for my sister and I.

  • Reply crunicorn November 11, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    I actually contacted my family earlier this year and 'formally' said I love you all but only the under 18's will continue to get presents now (that's a niece, nephew and great niece), oh and my Mum! I did however also say that should I randomly find something during the year that I thought so and so would love that they may just get a 'out of the blue' gift!!! Everyone was fine with it and my sister did say that that doesn't stop them doing something for me although they know that I am decluttering so suggested a monetary donation to travel expenses next time I want to go and visit.

  • Reply Jessica Brown November 12, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    For the last few years I have added "no presents please" to my kids birthday party invites. Come have fun celebrating my child but please don't stop at target and add one more useless toy to our collection. My kids are totally used to it now and till get gifts thy need/want from grandparents and us/parents. The first party was a little sad – there after no big deal.

  • Reply Angela S November 13, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    We do something you want, you need, a little something extra (this one leaves a little wiggle room) and of course! to read. It has truly simplified my life and has made the gifts so much more thoughtful and personal, its actually been fun! We do this for our nieces and nephews too and as someone stated above: once you graduate (18), all you get is a we love you! And Merry Christmas! I simplified it for everyone else by making a Wish list on Amazon for my kids and letting the grandparents, aunts, uncles know it was open to all of them so, please!, a maximum of four from each. That's still a lot of presents but its waaay better than it was and if anybody knows how to stop the grandmothers please let me know:)

  • Reply Justine November 19, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    We pick names for the grownups in our family and go in on meaningful kids gifts (like a new bike). Taking the time to watch each person individually open their one special gift leads to more conversation and fun. Not to mention it takes the pressure off Xmas and revives the true meaning of the holiday = family.

  • Reply Sara Tasker February 10, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Late to the Christmas party here, but it's a post I've sort of wanted to write myself (albeit, perhaps not so well 😉 ). The STUFF of Christmas – teapots, novelty egg cups, cheap olive oil in fancy bottles, reindeer slipper socks, mugs, calendars,… stuff with no use or home! This year I did us all a favour and donated it all right away after Christmas, instead of clinging to it all, and the guilt of not wanting it, for six months first.
    My family will absolutely no way get on board with less-is-more or a secret santa arrangement. More is more, and gifts are a replacement for any sort of family love or relationship. When I bought them beautiful, high quality things, they would not appreciate them, and sulk about the size of their gift. So, I buy them acres of cheap stuff, they love it, I save money and time, and my local charity shop gets a great delivery of stock every January.
    It's wasteful and ridiculous and against everything I believe, but it works.

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