A Budget-Friendly Holiday Tradition: Stockings-Only Christmas

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash.

When my husband and I moved from Vermont to NYC as newlyweds, we adjusted to sky-high rent, pricey entertainment, and a significantly increased food budget, all while slowly building back our savings after our wedding. But even after a few months of settling into new spending habits and a new city, we were still nervous heading into the holiday season.

We knew we couldn’t afford our typical gift-giving practice that had involved multiple presents for every immediate family member (covering a “big” gift, a few smaller gifts, and a stocking stuffer or two), plus additional presents for extended family. We needed to cut way back.

After brainstorming with my parents and sister, we all agreed that the gifts themselves were less important than being together on Christmas. We talked about a few different ways of cutting back on gift spending, and then I suggested that we skip the individual gifts but keep the stockings. Growing up, opening our stockings was one of the best parts of Christmas morning—they were overflowing with surprises and our favorite candy. Suddenly we all knew that was the answer we were looking for, and everyone was excited to begin scouring stores and websites for the best stocking stuffers!

To kickoff our first Stockings-Only Christmas, we decided to set a few guidelines to help everyone stay on track:

  • Each person gave one gift per stocking (excluding their own)
  • The budget per gift was around $15
  • To have some fun with this new tradition and make it a group effort, each stocking included:
    • 1 food or drink gift (think: gourmet chocolates or coffee, fancy olive oil, a bottle of wine)
    • 1 home gift (delicious smelling candle, dainty bud vase, cute water bottle, art)
    • 1 beauty or fashion gift (wool socks, pretty nail polish, cozy scarf)
    • 1 homemade gift, if you’re feeling crafty (holiday garland, wreath, mini planted succulent, picture/piece of art in the frame and ready to hang)
    • and 1 miscellaneous gift (gift card to her favorite coffee shop, his three favorite magazines, a best-selling novel, tickets to see a movie at their favorite theater)

Before everyone started shopping, we divvied up categories for each person. This took a little planning, but in general, if someone already had a specific gift in mind for someone, they took whichever category it matched with. For example, I’d found a great drugstore face mask that I wanted to give my sister, so I had her beauty gift covered, and everyone else just picked from the remaining categories.

I remember the homemade gift category being a little tricky that first year. Making gifts isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But luckily, my mom is always up for a fun project, and she volunteered to do each of our homemade gifts the first year. Since we switch up categories each year, I did the homemade gift for two people the second year. I made each of them a batch of chocolate chip cookies, from scratch.

Are you wondering if everyone actually stuck to the budget? I was also curious how we’d do as a group with the budget, especially since this was our first time organizing something like this. That first year was great and everyone stuck to the plan. Since then, a few individual presents have snuck back in, which is mostly my parents giving us kids gifts (as parents will do). We’ve also adjusted the stocking budget a couple times (last year we upped it to $25). But the key to making this work for my family was staying flexible—if someone wanted to spend more on someone else, of course they could!—but also respecting the budget for the new stocking tradition, which everyone was great about.

Our first holiday season in NYC brought on new budget-friendlier spending habits and traditions. It’s been four years since we started Stockings-Only Christmas, and it continues to be a hit. What do you think? Would you try this? It’s a great way to do Christmas if you’re on a budget or just looking to switch it up.

Kelley MacDonald is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and marketing consultant. Follow her adventures in NYC and beyond @kelleymacdonald.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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