Homemade Gifts or Expected Expensives? — Ask the Readers

by Katy on November 28, 2010 · 72 comments

A reader comment came is this morning from Rachel in response to the Black Friday Musings post that I published the other day. She wrote:

“It’s been getting increasingly tricky for me to be a non-consumer during the holidays. My older sisters have moved on to well paying jobs and have high expectations for gifts, to such an extent that driving home from Thanksgiving I started crying because I realized that I had the choice of getting everything they wanted or being able to eat for the month of December.

I’m a fairly crafty person, and while I do still put out duds sometimes, I’m really happy with what I’ve made so far this year and have left to make, but my family’s made it clear they don’t enjoy homemade gifts. This leaves me with lots and lots of stress, to such an extent that I’m not really looking to the holidays this year – except for my small celebration with my roommates, where the only the expectation is of ‘presence’. “

This comment saddened me, as no one should ever have to decide between buying gifts for people who most likely have everything they need and buying groceries for themselves.

I am lucky. My family has weathered through my lean and flush years and has never once complained about the caliber of gifts they’ve received from me. Also, my family does not have a tradition of giving one another gifts that we’ve placed orders for. With a few exceptions, I consider that to be unsporting and pointless. (If there’s something that I need, then I’ll just figure out a way to get it for myself.)

I want you the readers to suggest alternatives for Rachel. How can she deal with her family’s high expectations? Should she figure out addition income streams to buy what is expected of her, or should she have a series of frank conversations with her family?

Please write your ideas for Rachel in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Sherry November 28, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Maybe if Rachel extends an expectation, the sisters will be ready and more willing. Something such as, “You know, I really just love being with you for Christmas. It’s fine with me if you don’t get me anything or if you make me something.” I think it would be much easier to make it clear NOW that you are making gifts. If left to Christmas day, there may be some wierd feelings when they found out that they spent $X versus Rachel’s $X. Not necessarily true to the Spirit of the season, but a very human reaction.


Jessica November 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Don’t get them anything. If they can’t be happy with hand-made goods and have went so far as to voice that opinion, then they don’t deserve to get presents at all.

That might seem a little bit harsh, but I guess I just think that people should be excited to get anything gifted to them.


joshua November 28, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Sherry, while I’m sure Rachel appreciates the suggestion, I happen to know her family (just a tad) and this is a matter of organized consumption. Names are handed out, lists are handed out, and she is in no way in control of how any of that plays out.

Each person is expected to buy for the person they drew.

Rachel makes gifts every year and does a wonderful job. Her folks are just rabid consumers that want big screen TVs every year (not much of an exaggeration here). There is no lack of expectation.

I can respect your desire to give them the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps you are somewhat unfamiliar with worse case scenarios in our culture of mass-consumption.

They know she is a college kid, they know she works two jobs, and they know she is poor. At the end of the day, this is a matter of Rachel doing her best with what she has and her sisters claiming that is simply not enough.

Maybe take another shot at it, if you like.


Practical Parsimony November 28, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Wow, Josh, you make it sound hopeless. If she had time, maybe a gift of time would work. Of course, she can just take her name out of the pot…they do draw names? That would solve all her problems. Lists are handed out? Of what the person wants? This sounds way too organized and conniving to be any fun. Rachel, tell them you cannot participate. Don’t say you don’t want to. Say you cannot, are not able to participate. To satisfy your need to give, you can still give a token gift to each person. Your generosity will still be expressed.


Sherry November 29, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Joshua, you obviously know way more of the back story than me. From what you’ve explained it doesn’t sound like there is a graceful way out.

I’ve never liked the ordering up of gifts. For me, part of the fun is the surprise and knowing that the person thought through what I might like.


SKM November 28, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Oh man Rachel – I’m so sorry to hear your plight. I guess I would try to find a small gift that has a lot of meaning … this weekend when I was at my folks’ house for Thanksgiving, I found a picture that I had given my mom a few years ago after her father (my grandfather) passed away. I had framed a picture of him and put in this saying that I had seen on some really spendy, crafty thing … she still keeps it by her desk. I made similar pictures for my entire family and the project probably cost me $20.

Can you find a great frame and put a meaningful picture in it? Can you do a scrapbook? The biggest problem with my idea, is what do you do next year? But if you’re not quite ready to put your foot down, this might get you another year of reprieve.


Kristi November 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm

My answers involved being silly…like a request for an electronic device would be an interesting candy bar with a home-printed wrapper – you know, “I really wanted you to know I was listening but wanted to get you something I thought we could all enjoy together” plus I’d add some sarcasm like “can I have some of your candy now?” but it sounds like this wouldn’t be appropriate in Rachel’s family…

So how about just one thing from their list? Or even an adaptation? “I know you were looking at that fancy accessory set, so I took your idea and made this scarf just for you!” Humm, now that I type it it also sounds tough for this situation.

I stopped by Rachel’s blog, and just from my moments of wandering about, it looks like she has some amazing skills to share. I understand her disappointment in her family’s approval of her handicrafts, but I feel that to be their loss! I also agree with Sherry’s advice above – make a limitation to spending of money, and spend your time making the season happy and joyous. 🙂


Kimberly November 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm

My sister makes a ton more money than I do. She’s also married and has her husband’s income to help subsidize the gift costs. I can’t possibly keep up, although, honestly I used to try! It was starting to make me resentful and resistant to going home to see her.

In the last couple of years, I’ve made it clear to her in honest conversations that there’s no way I can reciprocate dollar for dollar. At first I felt very awkward having that conversation, but I did so with a tone of: I love you so much, and I don’t want the cost of stuff to come between us. She lovingly accepted my position.

I still buy or maker her gifts, but she knows that what I’m bringing her is something I hope she’ll truly enjoy. And she tries to keep her gift giving to what she considers a “reasonable” amount.

I think honest communication is critical in a situation like this.


Practical Parsimony November 28, 2010 at 2:59 pm

My sister, childless, unmarried, with a good job and still in her early 20s loved my gift of a white crocheted purse. I, on the other hand, was married, not working and had two children. She bought me something that I don’t remember. She used and remembers the purse. The same goes for the needlepoint monogram for her wall. Who would not like needlepoint? I won’t go on with all the nice gifts I made, but my family like every gift I ever made. I only know one needlepoint stitch. I only know one stitch besides a chain in crochet.

But, if I bought a gift, once in a while they were disappointed. I just bought my father the shirt with two pockets and spread collar that he liked. He wore this type shirt without fail every day of his life…short sleeves even in winter. I cannot imagine what I would make for him, but I never tried to figure anything else.

If they are showing how disappointed they are with homemade or say they don’t enjoy homemade, offer to give them the money you spent, or would have spent for this year. Seriously, tell them they might enjoy money more!

Or, give them choices, say–tote bags or potholders. My sisters would have jumped at the idea of choice. Napkins or ceramic vase? I don’t know where Rachel has a blog, so it is hard to get the choices right.

If they persist, I would insist, I mean, INSIST that we quit exchanging presents….until you had more money. That ought to show them how you feel about their disappointment and rejection. Be firm. Don’t cry…well, unless they are watching…lol.

I would find out exactly what they don’t like about homemade. That may give you a clue as to what they don’t like about homemade.


Kari D. November 28, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I think Rachel should take each list, pick one thing from it and find a charity that has to do with that particular subject. Then she could tell her family members that “since you expressed an interest in ….., and in the giving spirit of Christmas, I’m donating $… in your name. Merry Christmas!


Tracy Balazy November 28, 2010 at 6:51 pm

I think that’s a great idea!


Evelyn November 28, 2010 at 3:40 pm

I’ve had the experience of being yelled at and shamed by a sister when I couldn’t come up with chic enough gifts. I’m sad to say that it was just another symptom of the huge gulf between our philosophies and I’ve pretty much given up the relationship. We continue to buy gifts for each other’s kids, and that wasn’t going at all well, do we’ve finally settled on choosing gifts for our own kids and putting Aunties’ names on them. No money is exchanged, so I don’t worry about budget pressure, and I don’t really care what they think of me. My solution is to opt out, though it isn’t the happiest thing.


kim November 28, 2010 at 3:50 pm

my sisters both also make a great deal more money than i do, and we, in fact, no longer exchange gifts. that was not of my choosing, despite our disparate income levels. i have come around to the idea, though, as being freeing. if i see something an adult family member would like, i get that for them. no special occasion necessary.

i think it’s a little tacky for adults to make wish lists. if you don’t know somebody well enough to know what they would like as a surprise, maybe you shouldn’t be worrying about getting him or her a present?

i love giving gifts, especially “happys.” but we should not be obligated to give on command.


Barb November 28, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Isn’t it sad that Christmas has become a “holiday” of gimme, gimme. I cannot imagine giving my family a list of expected gifts.

My son and his wife have requested that we not give more than one gift to their children. They do not want the emphasis to be on gifts. We are going together to buy farm animals for a family through World Vision. The emphais is to be on giving to others. We have agreed not to exchange gifts with adults. Christ is the greatest gift we have all received!


Darcidoodle November 29, 2010 at 2:08 pm

I love that idea! Giving to others less fortunate via World Vision is fantastic! Bravo!


Molly On Money November 28, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Agree with there assessment of you (with a crapload of pride!). They may think being a non-consumer is a bad thing and there’s probably not much you are going to be able to do to change that but the same should be true for you.
I know from experience siblings are willing to pull out all the stops to make you feel bad. Just remember it’s their junk not yours. The first time I agreed with my sister when she snidely said to me, ‘Your acting just like Mom’ and I responded with a big grin, ‘I know!’ it popped her bubble.


Gloria November 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I like everything about Christmas – except the gift exchange. I love the lights and decorations, the music, the food, the sappy movies – but especially I love all of us just being together.

Personally, Rachel, I wouldn’t worry about trying to please the members of your family and I would definitely opt out of the whole gift thing. When you’re older and better off you can revisit the idea and see what works for you.

I think that no matter how much money you have, gifts – with all the deciding, the shopping, the wrapping, the wondering whether they’ll like it, the work (and expense) that can go into homemade, etc. – can still be the source of much anxiety and that, for me, just kills the whole Christmas spirit. Can’t we just play a game and sip some eggnog?
Figure out what Christmas means to you and stick to it. Oh and, Merry Christmas!


Mrs. B November 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm

I am absolutely done with Christmas demands. I have family members that expect things. I give what I give with a good heart. If it is not up to their expectations…..they can then donate the item to charity. At least someone will win in that situation.

I have two kids in college right now. I ask them what they want/need for Christmas…..I am told “we don’t need anything” or “college is enough”. At least I don’t feel my husband and I have raised selfish kids….my heart could not be more proud of them and I let them know that all the time.


Annie Jones November 28, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I agree with everyone here who suggests you opt out of the gift exchange. Our extended families (both on my side and my husband’s) quit doing a gift exchange at nearly the same time a few years ago. Some have said it is liberating and I agree that it truly is. The holiday is now about spending quality time with one another.


Marie-Josée November 29, 2010 at 5:31 pm

I totally agree with Anne.


Ecobabe November 28, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Seriously — a family that is less concerned that you are able to feed yourself than that they get exactly what they want for Christmas in exactly the quantity they want? That doesn’t sound like a very loving environment. In fact, it sounds rather abusive. I’d keep the money and also think about spending the holidays with people who appreciate you instead of those to whom you happen to be related.

I don’t agree with Katy that a wish list is ALWAYS a bad idea, though. My in-laws fall on the “hyper-consumerist” end of the spectrum and will probably spend $500 on us for Christmas. If we don’t give them ideas for things we might want or need, they’ll just buy us a bunch of stuff we don’t want. But we try to come up with ideas at different price points so they can tailor their spending however they see fit — and of course we never EXPECT anything.


AnnW November 28, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Rachel should tell whomever is in charge of the gift exchange that she won’t be participating this year and her name should be reassigned. I think she has made a major decision in her life in the past few weeks, so another annoyance to her family won’t be a big deal.


Melissa November 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Rachel- I’m probably about twice your age, which is why my first thought was that you should tell your unreasonable (I’m trying to be nice here) family members to take a long walk off a short pier. But you may not be in that place yet. I would hope for you to see that no matter what you get them, THEY will not change. In fact, giving in to their demands might be feeding the Christmas machine, so to speak. You are who you are, and you should be proud and give your best (handmade wonder?) with a smile. You will have done your part, with love. They will then do their part, but you are not responsible for them. Good luck, and I hope you eat well this December.


Marianne November 28, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I think we have all been in this situation at some point and its not fun. But i feel my favorite christmas’s have been the most recent where i give small meaningful gifts and actually keep it to the very most important people in my life. Im glad rachel is going to be spending time with her roommates where the spirit is not about giving gifts. As for family members, you could focus on an old photo like someone else suggested or my new favorite is local half off deals. Groupon is one but local radio stations have half off deals or better. Last year i had almost no money to buy my mom a gift and she had been helping me out financially to make ends meet. I found a deal through one of these sites for a $200 gift certificate to a dance studio for $15! She is still talking about how much she loves the lessons. Good luck to everyone trying to get more bang for their buck this year. 🙂


Mamie November 28, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Oh, my heart just breaks for Rachel! What a terrible, hurtful situation to be in. Everyone who has commented has offered good advice; I think Rachel will have to find the idea the best “fits” where she’s at in life and go with it. I do hope that she’ll take her own basic needs (food!) into consideration first, and that she’ll find peace in staying true to herself. Good luck, Rachel – many people are rooting for you!


Chris November 28, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Dear Kind Rachel,
I would advise you give your homemade gifts, with no apologies, or to opt out of the tradition completely. There is no reason adults should behave like children when they don’t get what they want for Christmas. Are you kidding me? Whatever you decide, be firm and don’t feel guilty. I am sorry that your family does not appreciate the work that goes into the gifts you make or your financial situation. If what you have to offer isn’t good enough then spend the holiday with good friends instead, or maybe offer a gift to someone less fortunate who would be happy to know a stranger cares. I hope all the comments give you the strength to follow through on whatever you decide.


Tammy November 28, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Opt out. And if all you can give isn’t on their list – save your time and money and don’t give a gift that won’t be appreciated. Srsly – it’s a gift – not ransom.


Sara November 28, 2010 at 6:50 pm

I’m sorry to hear about her situation. My younger sister and I give each other the gift of not having to worry about getting the other a gift, and we love it. For my older sister (and her four kids) I get them something inexpensive but thoughtful. They are poor and always get me something I don’t understand, need, or want, but the gesture is what is appreciated.


Alicia November 28, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Rachel, I was really worried about this kind of thing, too this year. A family member of mine always gives us very expensive gifts. I don’t know how, because I don’t think they can afford it. I always feel so small giving within my means, especially with this person and their family. I talked to them last week and simply offered that they didn’t have to get my family anything this year, that we would really just enjoy spending time with them instead. They unexpectedly asked the same of me, that we not get them presents, either. We did decide to keep shopping for the children, but the adults are now exempt. I love this arrangement and I’m glad I talked to them about it, even though I was really nervous.

I realize your family sounds a little too into getting stuff for this to work for you. But maybe if you just offer it up, they will begin to come around. Sometimes when you say something out loud, like “I don’t need anymore things this year,” or “It seems like it’s not fair to you that I can’t get you what you asked for,” maybe they will really hear it. And maybe they will come around one day. Not this year probably, but maybe sometime in the future. I’ve been trying to get out of buying tons of gifts with my family for about five years, and this year it is finally sinking in.

And, if it is any consolation, you probably can’t make them happy no matter what you get them. Stuff doesn’t make a person happy, and for people who are hung up on Christmas lists I think this is especially so. If you look at it that way, you can spend as little as you want and get the exact same result as spending a lot.


gerard kiernan November 28, 2010 at 6:55 pm

I think that if Rachel loves these people, a nice, homemade card would be sweet. If that bugs them, they are not nice.


Lorna November 28, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Sorry, Rachel that your sisters seem to have lost the real meaning of Christmas. If they live near you, I’d make some cards or very small handmade gifts and take them with you to help hand out at a nursing home or make doggie bones and take them with you to a local shelter for all of you to distribute. Let them know that it’s your gift to them…to remind them what Christmas is about.
We stopped giving to the adults long ago…only the children and even that we keep simple and try to have them take simple things to the aforementioned places. Good luck…and Merry Christmas!


Robin November 28, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Personally, I LOVE hand made gifts — gifts made with LOVE! Imagine my surprise when my father-in-law opened his gift (a hand made calendar with images of his grandchild) and his response was, “this is a unique gift.” I spend hours on that gift. But no more, I won’t waste my time again. I know he likes cookies so I am either going to do Harry and David or ship him cookies I buy at the church bake sale.

I don’t really have advice for you other than to do what is true to YOUR HEART. You and your family members are related, but you are all individuals and you have a right to do what is best for YOU.

My therapist said something very helpful (and freeing). She said most people can only take care of their immediate nuclear family. Anyone outside of that inner circle is great, but really, the focus should be on your core family – and that may just be you.


Kimberly in So Cal November 28, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I can relate to this in so many ways: choosing to give handmade gifts as a way to bring meaning to the holiday as well as lowering my expenses and having family members who flat out don’t appreciate the gifts, having family members with high expectations who don’t believe in living within your means when it comes to Christmas, having family members who scoff at the idea of charitable gifts, gifts of time, etc.

I have given all manner of homemade gifts over the years: knitted items, homemade toiletries, crafted items, baked goods, etc. Eventually my mother told me that my handmade gifts just didn’t go over well because they weren’t what people wanted or needed. Since no one else in my family crafts and does handwork no one can appreciate the time and talent that go into such gifts ~ they all just saw it as me being cheap. Why am I considered “cheap”? Because I choose not to go into debt for Christmas (or any other time of year). I won’t go into debt to get people the gifts they want. I refuse to carry a credit card balance which is so not what most people do at Christmas time.

For two decades my siblings and I had done a name drawing with a very modest upper limit for spending, but after my mom died one SIL finally felt that she could say that she thought the tradition was “ridiculous” and that my trying to uphold it was “controlling”. Everyone should free feel to give “from their hearts”. Okay in theory, but what that really meant was that she wanted more presents. I do kind of understand her motivation; her love language is gifts. But it sent our gift giving into a tizzy and suddenly we all felt that we had to get everyone a gift. My youngest sister in particular has really struggled with buying gifts without shortchanging her own family, and even though some of us have suggested that she not buy us gifts she feels that obligation anyway.

Every October I get a Christmas list from that SIL listing what she, my brother, and my nephew want. It is very specific.

Last year I started my holiday knitting and after a couple of hats I collapsed into a puddle and told my husband that I didn’t know why I worked so hard when almost no one even wanted my handmade gifts. The hats would garner a thank you and get shoved into closets never to be seen again. I stopped knitting (and marked those hats for DH’s side of the family, the side who gives reasonable gifts and love handmade presents) and gave every child cash. I hated doing it but I had no idea what to get them as all of the “lists” had gifts that either my family doesn’t choose for children or items that were way over my budget.

This year I turned in credit card points for gift cards and am giving those, but I feel as though I am doing so under duress. The holiday has gotten out of control and I spend each holiday season miserable every time I even think about gifts, both those given and those received. Count me among those who are embarrassed at the idea of someone going into debt or going without groceries to buy me a gift.

So this year they will each get a gift card, and the adults will get a letter explaining that this is it. The end. After this Christmas I will give gifts to the children only and I won’t be buying off of anyone’s list.

A gift is a gift only when you want to give it ~ giving out of obligation isn’t a gift, it’s extortion. If people don’t want handmade gifts I’m not wasting my time and talent on them anymore. I am fine with people choosing not to give gifts to me and my family. I hate the consumerism of it all, the junky toys that are landfill fodder within a week, the gifty items made in China, the ubiquitous popcorn tins that say “I don’t know you well enough to buy you anything but this”. Most of all I hate a family culture that says you are only valued when you spend money and buy people what they want.

Rachel, please bow out. Tell your family now that you can’t do it and ask whomever has your name to take the name that you drew. Don’t let them make you miserable, don’t let them keep you from feeding yourself, don’t let them put you in debt. Don’t let them devalue your time and talent by not valuing your handmade gifts. Don’t let them judge whether or not you are a good person by the presents you give. Put your foot down, opt out, and find out if they will love you for who you are, not what you spend.


Laura November 28, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Is there a family member you can lean on in the mean time? You may feel that it is “too late” to opt out of the gift exchange this year. If you are a student, maybe a parent or aunt would be willing to help you shop, just to help keep the peace?

If you know gifts are already bought and opting out now would cause further resentment, a little help may be a way out. Come January, let people know that next year you will not be participating to the same degree.


Jenny November 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Maybe you could work a few extra hours this year to help bridge the gap….and then IMMEDIATELY after Christmas make it clear that you aren’t going to be participating in this anymore? Or as Laura suggested, borrow a bit from someone else. But then it has to stop. You don’t need to feel guilted into spending money you need for expensive gifts to feed the consumer machine.

I don’t mind suggestions, myself. Especially from family members far away. Kid interests change so fast that it’s hard for us to always keep up– so I like to know that they love books about fairies, or beaded crafts, or Legos. But it can get out of control and get too specific quickly. Itemized lists are too much!


Jennifer November 29, 2010 at 3:41 am

I’m with Jessica. What ever happened to smiling and thanking someone for a gift, even if you don’t like it. Take it to goodwill the next day, but don’t tell them you don’t like it, especially when they have worked hard to make it for you. Sounds like your sisters are a little spoiled and selfish (as we all can be!). How about suggesting a special night togeather doing something you all enjoy and let that be your gift. Or maybe it’s time to suggest serving others together, something like volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Then everyone can see that it’s not about gifts. Happy Holidays to you and your family!


Rachael Irwin November 29, 2010 at 5:15 am

I’m so glad you have started this conversation, Katy! My solution is that my brother and sister and I just do not exchange gifts, neither homemade nor purchased. I really do not understand adults exchanging gifts at all unless it is homemade stuff which people give freely and without expectation of receiving stuff. Even then, this can add stress. I mean, the expression “Christmas is for children” really does have truth to it. We do give gifts to our nieces and nephews and to our parents but nothing elaborate. I really think a conversation with Rachel’s family would be helpful. The only way Christmas is ever going to get back to a sane holiday is when people have these frank, albeit difficult, conversations. Write a letter if it is hard to talk in person and say in your letter that you are writing it because you find the subject so difficult to discuss in person. Lastly, if you are in a family with loads of kids and/or adults and find it a financial and or emotional strain to purchase all these gifts, suggest each person draw one name out of a hat.


Angela@beggingtheanswer November 29, 2010 at 5:39 am

I’m so sorry to hear you are in such a predicament!

I agree with the others. Make something homemade anyways, or give them the gift of time to do cooking or cleaning or babysitting or whatever. Explain that you could not afford what was on their list, but did the best with what you have.

After that, explain that although you enjoy their tradition, you can’t participate it in the future unless the “rules” are changed. It may be sad, but it’s not worth the debt or mental anguish for you. Hopefully your family will understand.

Hope you are able to have a Merry Christmas!!!


ellen November 29, 2010 at 6:14 am

Rachel, My heart goes out to you. I have made handmade christmas gifts for year, (usually an orniment) and people enjoyed something that took time, thought and came from the heart.
Maybe its time to back out and say you just cant do it.
If they cant set a limit that your are comfortable with.
Some people are just amazing!
I don’t think you should let this upset you.


Reese November 29, 2010 at 6:27 am

I, too, do a Christmas draw, but we set strict limitations beforehand: No more than $50 (which is an awful lot to ME), and no lists. Period.

Sure, there can be a lot of asking around for what people want/need, but the best answer I got to my question was, “Surprise me.”

For everyone in my family, we’re in agreement with what Christmas really is: time to celebrate life, being together, and “family”. Perhaps you should sit down with your family and map out what Christmas means to you all. If it’s material things… who gets what… who spends the most… Please.. opt out of the holiday draw. It’s not the same.

If it’s about a more in-depth meaning… then people will understand and appreciate your homemade gifts!

But opting out, however, doesn’t mean you CANT give. It just means you aren’t giving an expensive store-bought item. You’re saying you CANT do that. But you can still play in the spirit of Christmas by continuing handmade items. Bring food! Knit a hat! Make pre-made holiday mixes! Write a well-thought out card for each person detailing what you love and appreciate most about them! Create “coupons” for family and friends for date nights (like movies)! Offer an all-expenses paid breakfast brunch for one of them!

There’s so much you can do. And part of being in a family is also having that family back you up and understand.

If you want, I’ll take you into my family this xmas and I promise NO ONE will mind if you make something 🙂 (I’d actually love it :D).


Mary November 29, 2010 at 7:08 am

Terrible situation and I truly feel for you. No one can screw your life over quite like your birth family. The only good thing is the older you get (I’m 51 so trust me on this one) , the less and less you care what they think and once you have your own family, you can focus your attention on them (and hopefully not screw them up in the process! ) ; )

By the way, If I knew my kids were going hungry or not able to pay their bills just cause I wanted something for Christmas …. that is just so wrong!


Judy November 29, 2010 at 7:12 am

I feel sorry for Rachel. Gifts are something to be given from the heart and when adults start giving out lists of what they want it just takes away from that spirit of giving.

It is a shame her family does not appreciate homemade gifts. In my family, homemade is more welcome than bought. We also do a name exchange and if I get a gift from one of my sisters’ who make gifts I am thrilled.

There have been a lot of good suggestions but I think Rachel just needs to be honest and let everyone know she cannot afford what they expect. I think it is very insensitive of a family to expect Rachel to buy a gift she cannot afford. If they don’t appreciate handmade or what she can afford, opt out of the gift giving or take what she can afford and give it to a charity in the receiver’s name.


Dianna November 29, 2010 at 8:23 am

Opt out. They will not appreciate the hard work you put into your hand made items. Give these to friends that will appreciate them and whom you just feel like doing something for. THey will love them.
Last year I suggested to my family (parents,brother, sister in law) that we not exchange gifts. I enjoyed buying for my kids but when it came to everyone else I couldn’t get good ideas and neither could they. It was a gift card exchange, because we don’t buy lots of things and if there is something we wanted we wouldn’t ask anyone for it, we would budget, thrift whatever to get it ourselves. They all continued to buy for my children because they wanted to but that was fine . It made Christmas much more fun and relaxing for us. I do give them all photo gifts from snapfish deals or shutterfly deals from the kids. They love these more than anything else they could give them. We also give them all homemade treats after our baking day. Now if I find something through the year for one of them, I just give it to them or give it for their birthday. Its not expected or necessary, its because I could.
My kids on the other hand ….. they get quite a few presents. I buy things they need/and some wants through the year and we give them all to them at birthdays and Christmas. I do not do black friday shopping or do I buy the “hot” items for kids that year. Example, my daughter plays softball 9 months of the year and needs new cleets once a year. This will be one of her gifts this year. My kids do not make lists and never have. I also have never encouraged it. My family will ask for ideas for them but they are things I have seen that they would like or want or even need.
The subject for visiting Santa came up the other day and my 7 year old said “I only want to ask for my family to be safe and healthy”. It can’t get much better than that. Im not sure how exactly it happened that she is so kind but it did and I am proud to have had a hand in raising her.


Nancy from Mass November 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm

It’s funny, when my son was 7 he visited Santa with his cousins who are a few years older than he is (and their mother is one who expects loads of gifts). The cousins asked for Ipods,, TV’s, game systems etc. My son asked for a shirt. Santa said “A Shirt? What kind of shirt?” My son said “anything will be fine. I’ll just be happy it’s from you.” I found him the coolest shirt that year (and every year since). my IL’s were laughing about him asking for a shirt, but I could not have felt more proud!


Barb @ 1 Sentence Diary November 29, 2010 at 9:00 am

My heart goes out to Rachel, and all the others in similar situations. Realizing that in fact you are dreading the holidays — rather than looking forward to enjoying them — is so terrible.

I don’t have advice any different from those who have already commented. I only wish for Rachel to find a way to enjoy the holidays in a way that is comfortable for her.


Paul November 29, 2010 at 9:59 am

I feel Rachel needs to be very forward in her philosophy on this. She is a non-consumer person, dislikes the pressure her family puts on her, particularly when it comes to such things as supporting the family’s decision on how to celebrate Christmas!

I’m also concerned about some of her reasonings for proceeding to “buy into” their perception of how to celebrate Christmas – it’s a way of being accepted/receiving love from family members.

Reading some of the other postings here. It’s been very painful for many of you to come to the conclusion that there is no way to continue the habit of spending for Christmas, like there is no tomorrow. But you have done it for your own sake. I applaud you all for working through the pain and hurt others place on each of us to live up to their standards.

So Rachel, listen up! It maybe quite painful to do what is best for yourself, but in the end what you do and how you come out of it, how you feel about yourself is much more important than what others think.


Patricia November 29, 2010 at 10:26 am

Our family practices a twist on this tradition that may work for your relatives. The idea behind your family’s “name drawing with specified gift” is to let each adult get something special that he or she wants. In our family, we (adults) buy OURSELVES one special thing, and we put it under the tree in the name of the whole family. At Christmas, we open it and show the rest of the family, saying “Thank you so much for this!” The cost absolutely does not matter, high or low, so my brother could buy himself a guitar he’s been wanting, while I get myself a pair of nice pajamas or even just a box of Almond Roca. The idea is for it to be a treat the family would like to give you, if they knew what it was.
It’s true that we are not surprised by our gifts (as we also would not be in a gift-exchange-with-list), but we look forward very much to opening them and showing the rest of the family.
Maybe you could convince your family to switch to something like this, possibly next year? Meanwhile, I encourage you not to give in to pressure and buy gifts you can’t afford. Stand strong and resist the idea that things are more important than people!
Good luck and all the best,


Reese November 29, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I can’t say how much I love this idea for Rachel. Perhaps not this year since they’re already well into the season, but it makes sense for every other year.

You have a list of things they want, right? And people usually buy what other people want, yes? Let them buy it for themselves and then everyone wins, regardless of prices. And the excitement should be in sharing with family 🙂

I love it… thank you for sharing Patricia. I might do this with my family next year!!!!


Sarah November 29, 2010 at 11:01 am

In times like this, I like to think about what Miss Manners* would say. Obviously, she would be horrified to hear that you are essentially being given orders on what to buy. As everyone knows (but not everyone practices), it’s the thought that counts, and the point of Christmas is to give from the heart.

Rachel, I think you should whole-heartedly ignore anything your sisters have ordered through you. Go ahead and make them what you would like to give them– give from the heart.

If anyone makes any rude comments about “this is not what I wanted,” you should come up with a polite-but-firm phrase and repeat ad nauseum. In Miss Manners’ world, phrases like this are designed to do two things– 1. stop the conversation in a polite way and 2. subtly alert the other person to their rudeness.

Some samples:
I know it’s not what you expected, but…
-it came from the heart!
-I got lucky this year and had lots of time to spend on making things!
-I know you’ll just love it! Here’s why I thought it was perfect for you [go into detail].
-I just couldn’t bear buying something from a store when I had the time to make things!
-I spent a lot of time on it.
-I put a lot of thought into it.

Or: “I know you were looking forward to [expensive item], but I figured I’d leave that one for Santa, since his pockets are so much deeper than mine!”

Or: (said quietly) “I know you were looking forward to [expensive item], but it would’ve meant raiding my food budget for the month, which I knew you wouldn’t want.”

*I adore Miss Manners, but I am not her. I actually think you should try writing to her. She answers a surprising number of questions and always has good points.


Shelly November 29, 2010 at 11:03 am

I wouldn’t get them anything. I’d tell them that I don’t have the funds to pay for gifts and wouldn’t expect them to get me anything either. Hold your head high and stick to your guns! No one (especially family) should pressure you into spending money that you don’t have.


Anne Marie @ Married to the Empire November 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm

My first thought is to opt out, as others have suggested. But I do realize that it may be too late at this point to do so, and frankly, that can often be easier said than done.

I thought I’d throw out a potential solution if you really need to get them something more expensive (which really just ticks me off that your family has no concern for your financial well-being). Last year my husband asked for only one thing for Christmas: an XBox 360. If I’d known earlier in the year, I could have budgeted accordingly, but I didn’t know. It really was out of the budget, but I wanted so much to get it for him!

One day when I was in a thrift store, I saw a brand-new Le Creuset pot. It was a discontinued 2-quart pot in the shape of a tomato, and it still had all the stickers still on it and the booklet inside. It was only $11! I snatched that right up. I’d originally intended to use it for myself, but I realized that it was smaller than what I needed, so I put it up on Ebay. That $11 pot sold for $189. I used that money to put towards my husband’s XBox. (That, plus a $50 discount from a friend who works for Microsoft, and I bought my husband his XBox for only $75 from our gift budget.)

I’m just tossing that out as a possible solution. Thrift stores are rife with nice, and often new, items that go for a song. You might find something your family would like there, or you might find a high-value product you could sell on Ebay or Craigslist for the money for presents.


Miss Roman Apartment November 29, 2010 at 1:30 pm


One luxury that no one ever has enough of is free time. Could you offer to clean their house after the holiday party or free babysitting or dogwalking instead?

My family went no gifts a few years back and instead we focus on activities like decorating the tree, cooking together, roasting marshmallows over the fire, etc…Even the kids (who still get a few presents) don’t miss the consumption because they get to stay up late, sleep in, eat junk food etc…Perhaps this is something you could talk to your family about?

Lastly–can you freecycle for something that your sisters would appreciate?

I feel you pain. My boyfriend comes from a huge family and they still give gifts. I shop thrift stores year around for nice gifts and knit like a crazy person 52 weeks out of the year to compensate. Good luck!


Nancy November 29, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Why don’t you give your family the gift of honesty?

I come from a large family, and there are many many opportunities for gifts. Graduations, birthdays, weddings, babyshowers, Christmas, etc. When I was dating my husband, and I was searching for a perfect $10 present. AT first he thought I was cheap. After awhile, he realized the genius of the clever $10 gift, because I bought so many!

My husband’s family is wealthy, and they used to spend gazillions on each other for Christmas. Being a stickler to a small budget, I told him it had to stop. So we called them up, and told them what we were going to spend on Christmas, and they ended up spending a similar, lower amount. This helped avoid the disappointment of spending a lot on someone and the expectation that you were going to get the same thing in return.

Another honest conversation was when one of his brothers married someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and she told us she isn’t going to celebrate it and buy presents. I appreciated the honesty. We decided that we still wanted to send them a gift every year because we love them, but they can do what they want.

But back to the family dilemma. Tell them the truth. Tell them your honest budget. Of course you are changing the family dynamic, but you are your own family, and your happiness only comes when you live your own values.

We now do a yankee swap type of thing with a strick $20 limit. But last year, my sister wanted to follow her heart, and decided to opt out. Instead, she made a family heirloom cookbook with old recipes, stories, pictures and fun memories of all the food and of course lots of love. It was a blast helping her and it is now a true family treasure. She learned a new skill in the process and now makes cookbooks for other people.

Cost: priceless!


Miss Roman Apartment November 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm

I just had another idea–donate to a charity in your sister’s names. (They don’t have to know how much you donated). My do-gooder mom always asks people to donate the money they’d have spent on a gift on a charity they think she would like. Her house isn’t full of extra things to dust and she gets to hear from her friends and family about various charities.


Miss P. November 29, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I have been giving homemade gifts since forever unless it is a book that is specifically something I want the person to read, or think they would enjoy. There have been quite a few people and occasions that didn’t get a gift, simply because I didn’t have the time to make something. On the other hand I will often give my mom, sister and aunt things I made that suit them much better than they do me. I have been really fortunate that this goes over well, even if my family does ask for specific wishes from me (this year it’s tools for knitting)

My boyfriend on the other hand is in Rachels situation without the list. Basically it’s all about the price tag. I nearly screamed when he said that he was happy to at least have the money for decent gifts this year. I would have preferred that the money go to an emergency fund for himself. I want him to opt out, because Christmas shouldn’t mean not feeding yourself and it also shouldn’t mean endangering your financial future.


Jen November 29, 2010 at 3:29 pm

I never understand why adults, who make their own money, exchange gifts (especially beyond the homemade cookie type gift!). If someone was truly in need, then I think that would be great to buy that person something, but I would expect that would be more like necessity type items like pajamas or a coat.


Katy (another Katy in Portland) November 29, 2010 at 4:02 pm

What a great bunch of kind and useful suggestions for Rachel, and for anyone who is feeling the pain of this kind of gift exchange!


Mandy November 29, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Thankfully, I have a small family. But even this year I can’t really afford to buy gifts. I will get something for the two little ones in my family. So I have decided to give baked goods, wrapped cutely with an ornament (from my collection), and attached with a card that says something like…

Because we are fortunate to have more than we need, in your honor I gave a gift to someone who needs it more.

That’s not exactly what it will say, but something similar. I am doing one of those Holiday Wish programs for a child affected by AIDS. This fits perfectly into my budget and my look on life. I have found that not many people will give you flack for giving to needy children.


Rachel November 29, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Thank you, all of you, so much for your comments, suggestions, and encouragement. It’s great to read through all of the ideas!

As a little bit of context (I didn’t expect my comment to get this sort of attention, and thus didn’t include it to begin with), my family has a strict pattern of matching up people for Christmas, so everyone always knows exactly who they are with and makes out exact lists of what they want. I would have been fine with this, but this year two sisters decided to exclude the other from getting presents, so I found out at Thanksgiving that I had twice the presents to buy and little extra time to save for them.

I’ve been open with my siblings and have told them before exactly how much I make – I have little overhead, so I choose to work part time and enjoy the free time and less stress as opposed to more money, and intend to keep that pattern. Just after I posted the original comment, I had a conversation with one sister and explained that I simply could not buy everything that was asked for. She eased up a little bit, but pointed out that when I “grow up” I’ll be expected to “step it up” with more money spent on Christmas.

With all of that in mind, and all of your suggestions, I’ve decided that for this year I’ll buy both sisters one thing off their list, which makes it a little tight for the month but is doable, one homemade present (I had planned to make more, but it doesn’t seem worth wasting the time if they won’t enjoy them), and baked goodies with a kind note for stockings. After that, I’ll let them know I’m opting out of the gift giving from now on, though I’ll still partake in stockings, and that I’ll be happy to have their company as my Christmas present.


Melissa November 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Sounds like a great plan. Good luck, Rachel!


Evelin Richter November 29, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Have less.
Live more.


Elaine December 2, 2010 at 6:21 am

Rachel, I love your plan! Who knows, it might set off a chain reaction in your family of getting back to the real meaning of Christmas.

It bothers me that so many people have forgotten what Christmas is really about. My family is 700 miles away, and I can’t go back at Christmas time, so I miss the family-ness of the holiday very much.


Helen November 29, 2010 at 5:48 pm

We became tired of the ‘gift competition’ that Christmas had turned into, a few years ago. It seemd as though the spirit of the season had become lost in the melee. We handled it differently on each side of the family according to what would best suit temperaments;

– for my in-laws, who compete to buy the biggest most ridiculous present they can, we announced (well in advance of the holiday season) that we wouldn’t be buying gifts that year, but would be making a contribution to X charity instead, on behalf of the family. The contribution amount was equal to the amount we had budgeted for the gifts we had planned to purchase. This worked out even better, as my employer matches contributions to registered charities – so the charity got double the amount.

– for my family, we asked that only those under age 18 gave or received gifts. This means the kids don’t miss out, but a huge amount of stress and expense is relieved both for us, and for a couple of other family members that we knew were quietly struggling to keep up with things.

We announced this firmly but with a smile, and not one person has grumbled (at least not to our faces) and complied with our wishes.

Just some ideas….good luck with your family!


Lisa November 30, 2010 at 1:19 am

Look, if you are in the position where you are being asked to choose between EATING and getting someone a gift, it doesn’t sound like there’s much of a way for you to make the family happy. So, maybe you should give up on that as a possibility. You are not going to change their minds or make them see the light about a different way to live. There are lots of good ideas up there about how to handle the situation; just do what you can to make the holiday bearable for yourself. It’s a given that you are going to “disappoint” them–so you can stop worrying about that part, anyway.

It’s easy for us on the outside to scoff at your family’s tackiness or skewed values, but when you love them, this stuff is painful and complicated. I mean, it’s hilarious for me to imagine you handing out beautifully wrapped boxes, each containing a paid utility bill or a canceled rent check or a receipt for groceries–things you had to spend “their” gift money on…but, of course, you would NEVER do that. Right? 🙂


Meredith November 30, 2010 at 6:23 am

Lots of good comments have been made, and it sounds like this reader has a plan. I’m not going to judge her family, as it’s easy for us who are not related to judge, but it’s so much more complicated to deal frankly with the ones you love. We have faced, and still face, this problem. We have declared this year a second-hand or homemade Christmas (and that inludes gifts to our own children), and we know we may face a little judgement for it. But, my husband and I see it as taking a stand against the ridiculous overspending that has become the norm, particularly in his family.
I think that opting out of the gift cycle altogether is often the only way to make your point, as Rachel has said she will do in the future. Once you make it clear that you don’t expect an expensive gift while giving homemade ones, family members may be more accepting of your circumstances.


Sheila November 30, 2010 at 10:57 am

My family and my sister-in-law’s family got into buying each other way too many gifts over the years, more because of assumed expectations than anything else. One year, my sister-in-law finally suggested we just get presents for each other’s kids and we were all so happy. We wished we had made the suggestion a few years earlier. Our holiday stress and post-Christmas credit card bills were reduced so much by just having a bit of a discussion and realizing that no one really wanted all the stuff we were giving each other.
I know for me, it took having a kid and seeing how quickly we accumulated stuff, stuff, stuff, to realize that lots of presents are not always a good thing. I love getting and giving gifts that either get used up or used a lot. One year I was setting up for Christmas and realized there were still a couple of presents sitting in the living room from the previous year that we had never used!


Suze November 30, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I think you have come up with a plan that will work for you this year – I also wanted to mention that your gift giving need only be guided by your personal standard and not the expectations of others. I know it may not be easy expressing a difference to the “norm” in your family but you need to feel good about your choice for yourself and not from the approval of others.
love & christmas wishes


Kayla K December 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

My siblings and I keep a $5 gift limit between each other. This means we could buy small gifts like nail polish or we can go together with other siblings to purchase a larger gift. It is a fair amount because some of my siblings are still in high school and cannot afford much.
Even though the older siblings could potentially afford to spend more, they do not have to. Just because someone makes more money does not need they deserve more of a gift.
Your family loves you and does not want you to stress, or starve.


Simplicitas December 15, 2010 at 7:34 am

It is unfortunate that the commercialism of the holidays has come to the point at which gift-giving is the be all and end all of the season. Shouldn’t it be about enjoying one another’s company?
Frankly, giving and getting gifts makes me break out in hives. This year, my kids and I made as many presents as we could and I used old gift cards for the others.


Jen December 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I just moved to another country and started a new job. I’m not getting my full November and December pay until AFTER Christmas. I’m already hurting from just moving, much of my cash has been ‘rejected’ for exchange (long story), and I’m worried about Christmas vs eating as well.

I made the decision to postpone my Christmas giving (I like to eat!), explaining the finances (without getting people back home to think they need to give me a loan) and basically giving IOUs. But, I’ve also realized I shouldn’t feel obligated to give gifts – especially when it seems like the family members are being ungrateful and downright mean (I won’t get into details, but I’m having family conflicts as well). And in my family’s case, most of us are strapped for cash.

So they don’t like homemade gifts, don’t waste your effort, skip the gift giving. I’ve been toying with the idea of kiva gift certificates – loans for small business around the globe. My family has a similar reaction to this kind of thing as homemade gifts, but it’s also not an object – it’s an action. TheHungersite.com also has ‘gifts that give more’ that allow you to donate money to a cause and print out a certificate. They don’t like it? Tough – nothing to throw away, you can still feel good about it, and some causes you can donate as little as one dollar. 🙂


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