It’s that time of year! As if you needed any reminders. I don’t know about you, but my feed and every shopping experience is awash with Christmas theming already. Which means silly season gift buying is rearing its ugly head.

I reckon the festive season could be renamed ‘the stressful season’. It can wear on our emotions and our pockets as we grapple with how to make the big day special for our families without sending ourselves broke.

It’s also common for people to rely on credit to get through what seems like a bottomless pit of silly season spending. Whether it’s a credit card or a ‘buy now pay later’ option like AfterPay, taking some of your future earnings to enjoy Christmas now is not unusual.

One area in which there tends to be lots of unnecessary or wasteful spending is gift buying, and that’s what I’ll focus on helping you with in this blog.


The lamentable waste of unwanted gifts

How many gifts have you received in your life that you didn’t want or need?

At least a few, I’d bet.

Take a short trip down memory lane with me…

My grandmother’s gift buying almost never failed to amaze for sheer impracticality and lack of fit for whatever stage of life I was at. The gifts invariably ended up buried in my room until I threw them away several years later unused, or gifted them to the local op-shop if they were still in good nick.

Don’t think I’m completely devoid of gratitude – I appreciated the gesture. I knew the gifts were carefully chosen, and she’d spent both time and money to get them, wrap them beautifully and place them under our tree. I hope I was a good enough actor to show enthusiasm as I unwrapped a floral cloth book cover with matching mouse-shaped bookmark.

One year was different. She gave me something really special. It was a notebook – A6 size – into which she’d pasted pictures of birds she’d cut out from postcards, magazines and stamps. I loved birds at the time. I’d later go on to have a couple of pet cockatiels and some canaries, but at that point (age seven) I just loved how they looked. She covered the book in recycled wrapping paper – blue with white polka dots.

I still have that book, and I treasure it.

The wrapping on the cover is faded now, and at seven I was still learning to write so it’s littered with hilarious misspelled attempts to write the breed of each bird in scruffy handwriting. She inscribed a message in the front cover. I still love looking at her neat lettering.

Grandpeg’s best – and cheapest – gift to me

Just holding the book in my hand is enough to bring back memories of Grandpeg, as I called her – smoking her 50-pack of Brandons, letting me hold the cigarette and move it up and down vertically to make smoke rings, playing Yahtzee and Rummy with me and Megan till we couldn’t see straight anymore. It brings sentimental tears to my eyes thinking about it.

Of all the gifts Grandpeg gave me, this was the cheapest. Perhaps not in terms of her time, as I guess it took a while to make, but definitely in terms of money.

The moral: a present doesn’t have to cost much to be special.


Mo’ money isn’t always the answer

It’s not unusual for us to throw money at the problem of gift buying. We think ‘it’s expensive, so it must be a good gift’, or we think our recipient will see we’ve spent a bomb and be commensurately grateful.

Before you reach for the plastic card in your wallet to buy yet another gift: what would Christmas feel like for you if you spent less?

Would that make the season less exhausting?

Would the New Year spending hangover be less miserable?

Perhaps your time would be less stretched in the lead up to celebrating?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I’ve got some ideas below to help make gift buying less burdensome.

Some are things my family does, some are ideas friends have shared with me. They’re all geared towards a lower cost gift bill without sacrificing too much of the fun stuff.


1. Secret Santa

Let’s say there are six adults in your family. Each person is planning to buy a gift for the other five adults. That’s 30 presents to distribute! Good chance some of them won’t hit the mark, despite the buyer’s earnest efforts to pick the ‘right’ thing. What a waste of time and money.

For the same amount of money – or less ideally – each adult could instead buy one really good gift for one other adult. Six gifts instead of 30.

This doesn’t need to be like the Secret Santa at work, where you’ve probably drawn out enough ‘humorous’ gifts like edible undies to be put off the idea.

(Actually, I bet edible undies don’t feature often these days – probably a bit borderline on the political correctness scale – but they were a common sight at the typical 1990’s/early 2000’s office party.)

I swear I’m not making this up!

It can be a ‘proper’ present instead: something the recipient wants or needs.

If you’re willing, you can also cheat a bit like I do.

I’m in charge of our family’s Secret Santa, so each year I work out which family member I could buy something awesome for – usually it’s because I’ve heard them speak about a particular item, or watched them develop an interest in something. Then I assign myself to them. A few years ago for example, hubby Adam was getting into the idea of sous vide (water bath) cooking. I’d seen these sous vide attachments that fit to any pot, so that year the $ limit on presents was $150 (enough to buy the attachment) and I assigned myself as Adam’s Secret Santa. Simples!

Of course, you could set your $ limit to whatever level you like. Last year we set a $20 limit, which was a fun challenge. We also added another factor to make it more entertaining:


Optional Twist: Dirty Santa

We decided to make the process of picking gifts a big deal by following Dirty Santa rules. Turns out my father-in-law is really good at this. As the final person in the draw, he had us in stitches as he evaluated the previously opened gifts before settling on his preferred one. It added a wonderful entertainment factor.


2. Make something

It can be effective in terms of both time and money to make one type of gift in bulk then gift it to everyone. A friend did vanilla extract one year. I’ve done Irish Cream following my school friend Astrid’s recipe several times. Other family members do Christmas fruitcake.

BONUS: If you want to try Irish Cream, here’s Astrid’s recipe.

Note this is not for kids! It includes alcohol, so make sure you’re of legal drinking age if you’re going to make and/or drink this:


  • 200mL whiskey
  • 1x 400mL can condensed milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1.5 tsp chocolate essence
  • 1 tsp coconut essence


Blend it all up and store in the fridge for 5 weeks before drinking. It’ll keep for many months in the fridge :).

I buy a 700mL bottle of whiskey, four cans of condensed milk and grab eight eggs to make a batch of around 2.5L. There’s a little less whiskey than there should be to get the recipe perfect, but it still tastes great and I can make 10x 250mL gifts out of it.


3. Wait for the sales

One guy I worked with in my early 20’s had what seemed like a fabulous family tradition: instead of giving any gifts on Christmas day, the whole family hit the Boxing Day Sales together. They’d buy what they wanted for themselves at a fraction of the cost of buying the same thing 48 hours earlier. Family outing plus a bargain – #winning! Especially if you’ve got family members who consider shopping to be a sport. I think they set a limit around $200 per person, in the early 2000’s, but that’s up to you.


4. Presence, not presents

The rise of experiences-over-things has been exponential in the last decade, and for good reason. Things don’t tend to make us happy for long. We always seem to want more stuff. But experiences – and the wonderful memories they create – sustain our happiness for longer.

Could you create a fab experience for your family? A special picnic, a day trip to somewhere special… whatever takes your fancy. Focus on the present being your time together, and the amazing memories that come from that.

A picnic’s always fun, and you can have fancier food if you want to

In our interview with Jessica Strutt on ABC 720AM Radio, Tamara DiMattina mentioned hiring an artist to visit the family on Christmas day. The entire family was spellbound as she (I think it was a she…) performed. They still treasure that memory.


“Not our family”

When I suggest such ideas, I often get:

‘That’s all very well and good in your family, Lacey. But my family won’t go for it.’

You may be right, but you won’t know till you ask. Perhaps there are other members of your family dreading having to buy gifts, or they’re feeling particularly broke this year. This could be the year your rewrite tradition and earn the gratitude of your extended family for doing so.

Whatever you decide, the Money School team wishes you a wonderful festive season with your families. May it be your best celebration yet!


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Lacey Filipich is the co-founder and director of Money School. She helps parents raise financially savvy kids and helps adults get on top of their finances. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow Money School Facebook to learn more.

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