Can’t Afford Christmas Presents? Are They A Need Or A Want?

Christmas is believed to be the most wonderful time of every year, with over 90% of Americans celebrating it in some form or another according to Pew Research Polls. As well, the Mayo Clinic reports the need to make it ‘special’ weighs on us heavily, mounting up stress and pressure. So what about if you can’t afford Christmas presents? Deciding if they’re a need or a want can help.

Christmas, though celebrated by 9 out of 10 people, can be very stressful especially if you can’t afford Christmas presents. If this is the case, it’s good to determine if presents are really a need or a want. Once you decide what matters, it’s easier to handle the situation and make wise choices.

If you have kids or loved ones in your life, you likely feel pressured to go out of your way to get them presents even if you can’t afford it. And with the commercialization of Christmas, it’s natural to feel outside pressure to buy gifts too. But is it necessary? Are presents really a need for you or others?

As a parent of four, I’ve certainly felt the pressure to buy gifts at Christmas, and it seems most heavy when I couldn’t really afford the extra expense. I’ll share my feelings on this below and hope it brings you some peace on the issue.


Are Christmas Presents A Need or A Want?

Even as a grownup, Christmas for ‘most’ persons becomes all about the presents. The practice of giving gifts is nothing novel and has been going on for generations, though it’s certainly become more commercialized since the 1980s. So how do we decide if presents are a need or a want?

Christmas presents are usually considered a want, something unnecessary. Yet, they can actually be a need. For instance, sometimes people purchase clothing or appliances for Christmas presents. Also, there is emotional attachment to getting Christmas gifts which can make them a need for some.

Most times, people buy frivolous things for Christmas presents. Toys, electronics, jewelry, and other types of things make up a lot of gifts at Christmas and these are items that really we can live without, making them ‘a want’ rather than ‘a need.’

Popular ‘wants’ at Christmas Pasts:

However, there are situations where people actually buy needs at Christmas. Growing up we didn’t have a lot of money so buying clothes and shoes was something we didn’t do regularly. Instead, my parents and grandparents bought us new shoes, jackets, gloves, and even underwear at Christmas.

Though these were ‘needs’, I was always happy to get new things so really, those Christmas gifts fit under both categories, needs and wants.

Popular Needs Purchased for Christmas:

As well, imagine Christmas with no gifts. This can be quite depressing. If you never received Christmas presents, it could be psychologically impairing. In this situation, I venture to say that Christmas presents, regardless of what they are, could be ‘needs’ too.

It’s certainly possible to give gifts at Christmas that strike a balance so that they aren’t so burdensome, nor do you need to give them up completely.

But as we get older, we learn that people can enjoy the Christmas season without presents. Christmas is much more than presents, as Scrooge and Mr. Grinch learned.

Celebrating Christmas can include caroling, movies, family time, decorations, good food, and much more, without gifts. However, it should be noted that gifts can be included without excess, so that even if you think you can’t afford them, you can do something small in most cases.

Some Inexpensive ‘Needs/Wants’ Gifts for Kids:

Is It Necessary to Express Love Through Christmas Presents?

Some people take a minimalist approach to gift-giving, whether it’s Christmas time, for birthdays, or other.

There are tons of ways to show love and appreciation for your kids and loved ones if you can’t afford gifts. It is not necessary to express love with gifts, though there will be times you do. Remember it’s the act of giving that truly represents love, not the gift itself.

In the absence of gift-giving, though, what might your Christmas be like? 

Your family’s reaction to you forgoing the holiday tradition of exchanging gifts would be different if you decided to do so yourself. Jo from Little Women was right when she said, “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without any presents!” And truly, somewhat unfortunately, many people feel the same way. 

As a result, they (and probably you) go shopping. Even so, it’s worth pondering what Christmas means to you and your loved ones. When it comes to holiday traditions, there’s always room to start new ones that emphasize the people in your life rather than the gifts you can afford. And what a wonderful legacy that would be for your children to inherit. 

While it’s unlikely that your children would recall specific gifts from Santa in 30 years, it’s more likely that they will recall the aroma of hot apple cider and singing holiday songs on the couch with their parents. 

One time, my family decided to not exchange gifts for Christmas. At the time, the kids were all teenagers (me included) and though I am sure it was easier on my parents’ pocketbooks to not buy gifts that year, our motivation was altruistic. We talked about it together, what Christmas really meant, and how commercialization was outside the ‘reason for the season.’

It was a choice we made as a family, so if you decide to do something like this, it’s probably best to make it a family decision. If you are doing it purely because you can’t afford gifts, then it might be harder to get everyone on board without unduly burdening them with your economic hardship, and this burden is too much for younger kids.

I also recommend you check out these articles from ‘Hopeful Holidays’:

What To Do When You Can’t Afford Christmas Gifts for Kids

Although not super popular, there are some families who decide purposely to omit ‘gifts’ at Christmas, birthdays, or other times typical for gift-giving.

If you don’t have the money to buy Christmas gifts for your kids, there are ways to go about it positively. For instance, charity and church groups often help families with children at the holidays. You can also sell some items or work extra to earn money for small gifts.

Depending on your children’s ages and maturity, you’ll need to adjust how to handle this situation. But essentially, gifts aren’t necessary to celebrate Christmas. Keep that in mind and try not to let your economic issues affect Christmas for your kids.

There are also creative ways to celebrate Christmas with gifts that won’t cost you much money, if any. You may be surprised how special the gifts you make are compared to the ones you spend the lots of money on, too. The gifts we remember fondly are often not worth much monetarily.

Here’s a story I heard recently: “We had a modest Christmas as a child because my parents had a difficult year. Honestly, if they hadn’t told me later when I grew up, I wouldn’t have known. Even though I can’t recall everything I received that year (maybe one toy and some candy), I do remember getting this wooden sculpture my father made me and I loved it! I had no idea he made it because he couldn’t afford to buy me anything.”

Adding that “They were disappointed they hadn’t spent a lot of money on us for gifts, yet I remember that Christmas as being one of the best. And I’ve kept the wooden horse ever since!”

Now not everyone knows how to carve, or sew, or paint…but there are plenty of other ways you can make a memorable Christmas without spending a lot of money, if any! Below I’ve shared some ideas that have worked for us in the past.

Do Family Experiences Rather Than Individual Christmas Gifts

One of the best things we’ve done over the years at Christmas and birthdays is to do an ‘experience’ rather than buy gifts. Sometimes this means still spending money, but it’s more about spending time together as a family instead of blowing money on gifts that don’t really mean much for individuals.

For example, buy some puzzles or board games as gifts for the whole family and spend all day on Christmas playing together. You can often find really good deals on new puzzles and games but also these are common at thrift stores or garage sales-if you look far enough in advance, you’re liable to find some really good deals.

A more expensive ‘family experience’ might be a vacation, but it’s still possible to do it on a budget. We’ve done this several times: once taking the family on a cruise at Christmas and another time spending Christmas in New York City. Both times we still saved money because we didn’t do a vacation PLUS gifts that year, we used Christmas gift money to pay for the vacation. TIP: If you plan carefully you can often find cheap deals for trips at Christmas, going to places at their ‘off season’. Another cheap vacation spot is to camp.

Create Your Own Coupons As Christmas Presents

Creating coupons that your child can claim is something fun to try. Consider options such as time alone with dad or mom to an adventure of their choice, getting their favorite cuisine created for dinner for all to eat, or even getting mom or dad to do something funny of child’s choice.

Another really popular coupon is ‘staying up past bedtime’ or ‘camping in the living room’.

Now these coupons won’t work if your kiddos are too young to understand the concept, so that’s something to consider.

Try Local Thrift Stores for Christmas Presents

Even when there’s no pressure, I love some thrift shopping! Not only do I get to save some good money, but there’s also always a chance of getting something unique that could get heads turning. If you’ve got some small change to spare, the local thrift shop has got some affordable presents you can buy.

Thrift shop trips s are really interesting to do together too. You can give each child something to look for, for another family member, and really make it an ‘all family affair.’ Also, set a budget together so that everyone feels invested, too.

Do Christmas Swaps for No-Cost Presents

If you belong to church, school, or homeschool groups, it’s possible to meet early to do gift swaps for ‘new’ presents. This is sort of like a garage sale, but money doesn’t exchange. You swap something of yours to get something from another person.

This is especially good if you have enough people in the groups of similar ages, sizes, and interests or hobbies. It’s a very fun way to ‘reuse’ and ‘upcycle’.

Also, if your kids are old enough ‘to get it’, do handmade gifts for each other. This could potentially be the best Christmas they’ll remember!

Cardboard Boxes Never Fail

When it comes to kids, cardboard boxes are a blessing! To be honest, my little cousins (6 and 9 years old) spend more time playing with the large boxes than with any of the other toys they receive. Also, there could be something in the house for everyone if you just check those old boxes in the basement or attic.

To make this really cool, work together to turn those boxes into castles, forts, rocket ships, and so on! Get out the markers, paints, crayons…and let your imagination go wild!

Now to be clear, you probably can’t get away with just giving a box to your kid or 5-year-old niece, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money because the box can be part of the gift too-if you get creative! Your time is key ingredient for making the box fun, too!

Wrapping Up Can’t Afford Christmas Presents

To wrap it up, Christmas doesn’t have to stress us out, particularly if you can’t afford presents. We all know the true meaning of Christmas isn’t something you buy. The only problem is we forget that.

You can celebrate Christmas despite money problems. Be creative. Think outside the box (or use the box!). Make Christmas meaningful by focusing on giving your time and attention. There are many ways to show your love-whether you buy inexpensive gifts, do family experiences, or make hand-made gifts.

The true ‘reason for the season’ can’t be wrapped, after all!

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