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The Boundary Lady’s Guide to Gifting, Part 2

  • November 28, 2022
Melissa Urban in a bright yellow sweater holding up a copy of her book, The Book of Boundaries, and smiling at the camera.

In Part 1 of my Guide to Gifting (available exclusively to XOMU subscribers), I talked about why I decided to stop exchanging gifts at Christmas, how I set and held that boundary with my family more than a decade ago, how they responded, and how you can get on the no-gift train too, if that’s what you want. (I shared specific scripts, advice for navigating pushback, and tips for holding this boundary.)

However, I recognize that zero gifts isn’t for everyone. There is certainly pleasure in finding something special for the people you love and seeing the expression of joy in their eyes when they open it. If picking out just the right present, wrapping it with care, and watching your friends and family open them on Christmas morning is your jam, then by all means, I want you to keep enjoying that experience!

And also… I know some of you are thinking, “Could we tone it down a bit?” As in, maybe we can experience the joy of gift giving and receiving in a way that doesn’t break the bank, stretch thin already crammed schedules, and pile more stress upon an already stressful time. So for those who want to maintain the tradition of gifts with friends and family while also being thoughtful, conscientious consumers and practicing self-care around the holidays, here are a few ideas.

Limit the cost

Institute a price limit on all gifting. Try something reasonable like $10-$20. This will force people to be creative while being respectful of your budget.

How to say it: “This year, I’d like to put a budget on gift-giving. Does $20 work for you? That’s what I’m comfortable with.”

Dealing with push-back: If someone spends more than the $20 you agreed to, you can either refuse the gift or accept it, because you still stuck to your limit, and you can’t set boundaries for other people.

Combine a small physical present with your time. Give your coffee-loving friend a cute mug with a note that says, “Let’s have a Zoom coffee date every Sunday morning in January,” send your mom a Whole30 cookbook with a plan to cook a meal together, or buy your spouse a gift card to their favorite restaurant and plan a special date night.

How to say it: “Remember those coupon books we used to make mom as a kid? Let’s schedule our first coffee date/cook-up/dinner date now so we have something to look forward to.”

Regift on purpose. Take gently used items and regift them thoughtfully to those you know would appreciate them. (This is both environmentally-friendly and trendy! Think of yourself like a thrifty god-fairy. Bonus points if the whole family agrees.)

How to say it: “I’m opting out of consumerism this year, so I’ll be getting creative with your gifts. Feel free to do the same!”

Limit the scope

Shrink your gift-giving circle. Exchange only with immediate family or just kids under 12, and send a pre-printed photo card to everyone else.

How to say it: “This year for my own mental health, I’m going to limit my gift-giving. I’ll only be exchanging with my spouse and kids/I’ll only be buying presents for the kids in the family, not the grown-ups.”

Dealing with push-back: If people insist on buying you a gift anyway—okay! You’ve made your limit clear, and if you didn’t explicitly say “please don’t buy me anything” then it’s their prerogative

Set up a “White Elephant” or “Secret Santa.” In these scenarios,you’re only expected to purchase one gift (with a price limit), but you still get to watch everyone open their presents.

How to say it: “So many of us are stressed and struggling this year, so instead of buying individual gifts, let’s assign a Secret Santa. I’ll handle the name distribution, and we can set a limit on gifts at $20.”

Dealing with push-back: If nobody agrees, you can enact one of the other tactics. If some people agree, have your Secret Santa with them, then all of you can opt out of gift-giving with the rest.

Buy practically. Get the same thing for everyone—a gift card to Target, a new book (ahem), or cold, hard cash. We have this idea that cash isn’t “trying hard enough” but right now, it may be the most meaningful gift of all.

How to say it: Say nothing, because you don’t have to justify your choice of gifts, and asking you to would be rude.

Suggest something else. Instead of more toys, ask grandparents to buy swimming lessons, a zoo membership, a museum pass, or contribute to summer camp for your kids. (Bonus, invite them along during a visit.)

How to say it: “We have too many toys as it is, so we’re asking everyone not to buy any more. Instead, she’d really love (fill in thing). Then when you visit, you can take her and enjoy the experience together.”

Dealing with push-back: If Gram brings a toy, either (a) ask Gram to leave it in the car because you said no toys, or (b) let your child open it, but tell them the toy is going home with Gram for her to play with at Gram’s house. You have no other option here, because otherwise Gram is gonna keep bringing toys over. Stand firm.

Think outside the box

Donate to a charity. Instead of buying gifts, make a donation in your family’s name to a charity you’d all support, whether that’s your local food bank, an animal shelter, a cancer research organization, or Ukrainian refugees.

How to say it: “This year in lieu of a gift, I’m making a donation to three charities in the family’s name. I’ll be taking charity suggestions until December 10th,  or I’ll just choose organizations I know are near to us.”

Have an experience. Cook dinner for your parents, go snowshoeing with your best friend, offer to grab your sister’s kids for a weekend, or take a road trip with your spouse and kids.

How to say it: “This year, I’d like to focus on experiences instead of gifts. Instead of a present, I’m organizing (fill in here). I can’t wait to spend this time with you.”

Plan a home project with your spouse or roommate, kick in some funds, then DIY-it together. Upgrading the kitchen, installing a home theater, or cleaning out the garage so you have a space to work out is the gift that keeps on giving.

How to say it: “I’ll be honest, I’d much rather build out our garage gym than buy each other a bunch of smaller Christmas presents. Can that be our present to each other this year?”

Give one big present to each of your kids, instead of a dozen small ones. Go in with other family members for the new bike, a pair of skis, gaming console, a new camera, or a surfboard—something that feels like a “big ask.”

How to say it: “This year, we’d like to get you one big thing you’d really love. This means you won’t have a lot of presents to open, but you’ll have one that you’d otherwise have to save up for a long time to buy. Do you want to start looking at cameras?”

Practice thoughtful consumerism

Shop locally and support your community’s businesses. They’ve been struggling throughout COVID, so spending in your own neighborhood will mean a lot.

Prioritize Black-owned businesses, whether in person or online. Etsy and Thrive Market have Black-owned business filters, your local community likely has lists circulating, and you can do a search for “Black-owned bookstores” or other types of businesses.

Shop nowhere, and make your own gifts. Prepare mason jars of bone broth or jam, soap or candles, gluten-free sugar cookies, or photo books of your kid.

Set expectations around shipping and gift exchanges. This is going to be another complicated holiday season, because of inflation, supply chain, and ongoing shipping challenges, so tell your family, “I won’t be spending extra on shipping, so some gifts may arrive late—we don’t mind that either, it just extends the celebration.” (This also reduces the pressure to order from Amazon instead of your local shop.)

Have yourself a merry little holiday

However, you choose to handle gifts this year—and I hope this two-part series has helped—please remember one thing. The best things about this (and every) holiday season are free—like the laughter, traditions, warm feelings, gratitude, and memories you make with those you love.

Also,  boundaries. Those are free too, and have the potential to completely transform this year’s festivities. You deserve that too. Sending you and yours all of my warmest wishes and gratitude this year.


The Book of Boundaries, Your Guide to Enjoying the Holidays