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How to give during the holidays without breaking the bank

You don't have to go into debt to brighten someone's day.

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Woman buying Christmas presents on the Internet

I’m a sucker for holiday shopping. As much as I hate to admit it, I look forward to walking into a warm store festooned with pinecones, ribbons and snowflakes and shopping to my heart’s content. But over the years I realized I was overspending on gifts my loved ones didn’t actually use.

And I’m not alone. More than half of Americans planned on going into debt for holiday spending last year, according to a Finder study. I certainly get giddy when I pull out a credit card to buy books my family will never read or a sweater that sits in the back of a closet for years.

But I’m a reformed woman now. My family has sworn off the traditional gift giving in favor of a new, more thoughtful way of giving — a way to make this dark first month of winter feel a little warmer and kinder. You don’t have to stop holiday shopping altogether to give more meaningfully this year. But you might want to consider avoiding a $1,000 credit card bill come January 1st.

1. Make thoughtful, homemade gifts for those close to you.

Use your talents or hobbies to give something your friends and family will actually appreciate. As a writer, I’ll sometimes write poems or short stories specifically for my literary-minded friends. My mother, who among other things is a world-class knitter, once knitted me the most gorgeous wool socks when I was going through a rough time and needed something cozy.

This one can be a little tricky because it’s easy to make the gift-giving part about you. It’s helpful if you think about it as a way to show the people who matter most to you that you know and value them, rather than showing off your talents. (Though you can do both!) Even something as small as baking a friend’s favorite cookies can mean a lot.

2. Give small gifts to more people than you normally would.

This is essentially the idea behind making holiday cookies. Think of the people you regularly interact with and consider giving them something small, too. This could include coworkers, that barista you banter with every morning or anyone else you feel use a little something extra this winter. This comes with a caveat: Some people hate gifts. So if it’s someone you don’t know well, you might want to ask first.

I like to make batches of chocolates, candied nuts and other treats that I can carry around and offer to acquaintances as I run into them. But it doesn’t have to be something homemade — I know someone who likes to give fancy little soaps or small bottles of high-quality olive oil.

If you’re traveling for Thanksgiving, consider bringing back small souvenirs from the place you visit. From my personal experience, I’ve found that people love getting something they can’t find at home. A friend of mine once came back from Thailand with a collection of coin purses as gifts, which I loved and used for years. Another friend from Washington State once gave me a bottle of huckleberry syrup, introducing me to something delicious that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

3. Up your tips.

The holiday season is a truly stressful time if you work in the service industry. It’s the season of irate customers, seven-day work weeks and unrelenting Christmas music. One easy way to give back is to tip more than you usually would. If you usually tip 18%, consider upping that to 20%. If you tip 20%, consider going even higher. It’s a small way to brighten someone’s day — especially someone you see regularly, but don’t know well enough to give a small gift to.

4. When you shop, shop mindfully.

I used to not put a lot of thought into holiday shopping, which often meant I went into a store blind and bought a bunch of gifts I thought my family might like. I ended up spending a bunch of money on back-of-the closet presents, only to end up in the trash during spring cleaning.

Rather than going in blind, I think of what people actually want — or need but won’t buy for themselves — before I even start shopping. If you’re stuck, try making a list of what you know about that person and what you share: hobbies, inside jokes and personal goals can help.

People tend to talk about things they want more than you’d think. I like to keep a list on my phone so when the time comes to buy a present, I already have an idea of what to get.

5. Host a holiday potluck.

Throwing together a full holiday spread while also working full time can be one of the most stressful parts of the holiday season if you’re the designated host. If you don’t regularly host holiday dinners, consider volunteering to have a potluck at your place instead — especially if the host seems exhausted each year.

This can be a gift in itself. Making everyone responsible for a dish, dessert or even drinks means nobody has to stress over throwing together several courses, and it can shake up tired routines. It also lightens the financial burden of hosting each year — which can easily top several hundred dollars if your family is anything like mine.

6. Sign up for monthly donations.

Rather than making a large, bank-breaking donation to a cause or charity, consider signing up for a year or even a few months of recurring donations. It’s a win-win. It won’t cost you as much when you’ve got other holiday expenses to take care of. And charities often prefer small, recurring donations because they provide consistent cash flow throughout the year — especially during times when people don’t typically give.

7. Volunteer your skills.

Volunteering can be a great way to give back without spending any money. But it can actually hurt organizations if they need to spend a lot of time and effort training you in something you don’t know how to do. Think of what skills you have to offer and look for opportunities where you can make a real difference.

For example, as an English major in college, I used to volunteer at a used bookstore that donated its profits to a housing and healthcare charity for the homeless. I was able to help an organization I cared about raise even more funds by making book recommendations — something I was actually good at.

Volunteering doesn’t have to be through an official organization either. As a writer, I’ll help friends in graduate school edit their final papers or help out with writing projects for people I know who get paralyzed when they sit down to a blank page.

8. Be there for your friends and family.

For those of you who love the holidays, it may be hard to understand that this time of year is actually the most difficult for some people. Sometimes the best gift you can give is just being there for someone. With all the parties, shopping and preparing going on, it’s more tempting than ever to flake on your other December plans. But try to make an effort to keep your dates — especially if they’re not holiday related. And reach out to anyone who you think might feel particularly alone this time of year.

When you’re with people, make an effort to put away your phone and really listen. Being present can not only help strengthen your relationships, but it can also help you become a much better gift giver.

Remember that giving isn’t just about spending money.

At its best, gift giving is a way to spread love and kindness to the people in your life. When you approach holiday gifts with that in mind, it becomes clear that spending a lot doesn’t really have much to do with giving. Pay attention to what your loved ones actually want and how you can make their lives a little bit easier this December. Who knows, you might actually end up saving while strengthening your relationships in the process.

Interested in more ways to cut back on spending? Check out our guide to saving for the future.

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