How I Convinced My Family to Stop Exchanging Presents (And You Can Too!)

Gift giving is stressful, wasteful, and a horribly inefficient way to transfer resources from one person to another — so we should all do away with the practice. Now that I’ve caught your attention and solidified my reputation as a Grinch, let me explain where I’m coming from.

First: I like giving the occasional gift, but I’m not crazy about receiving them. As a lifelong minimalist who lives in a small one-bedroom apartment with another human, I am pretty choosy about the things I let into our space. Second: I’m annoyingly particular about most of the things I purchase for myself. I want to read reviews, evaluate the usefulness and practicality of an item, and figure out what I’m going to get rid of in order to house the new object. We have a fairly strict one-in, one-out policy in our household in order to keep the amount of stuff in it under control. Given this framework, I’m a nightmare to buy gifts for, and I fully realize this about myself. My husband, who is perhaps even more of a minimalist than I am, dislikes both receiving and procuring gifts. So about five years ago, after a particularly disastrous gift debacle in which I had to make not one, not two, but three separate trips to a far-away L.L. Bean in an incident we now refer to as “Coatgate 2013,” I launched a campaign among my family, friends, and coworkers with the goal of getting everyone to stop giving and expecting gifts, at least as far as my husband and I are concerned.

My sister was my first target, and she was the easiest to convince. Sometimes she randomly sends me a book she’s read that she liked, and when I visit her we go out for a fun brunch, but other than that we have agreed not to give each other any gifts, for any event, period. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, it doesn’t mean that we are misers, it just means that we understand the other person doesn’t expect or want any unnecessary object on an arbitrarily-determined day. Easy peasy.

My parents, who are wonderfully generous people, were a little harder to convince. We correspond often over email, and I began by casually sending them links to relevant articles — about minimalism, clutter, how millennials are killing the dining room table industry, and Swedish Death Cleaning. I passed onto my mom my copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Every time it came up naturally in conversation, I mentioned that my husband and I weren’t exchanging presents for whatever holiday, birthday, or anniversary was next on the calendar because we had enough stuff and not very much room. We started giving my parents experiences for presents, such as concert tickets or spots on a food-themed walking tour of their town. Finally, we just told them outright to please stop buying us gifts. They could pick up the tab for dinner when we were in town visiting, or contribute to the cost of our airfare on occasion if they wanted, but we didn’t want any more stuff from them, please and thank you. Perhaps because we’d been laying the groundwork for a while, they were surprisingly amenable to this request.

My coworkers were another challenge I wanted to tackle. I truly don’t expect or want people at work to spend their time and money procuring tchotchkes in an already busy and expensive time of year. These small purchases can add up! It’s also always seemed a little icky to me that some people feel they’re obligated to buy presents for their bosses. So instead of exchanging gifts, I suggested something that anyone could get behind: Treat Week. Everyone who wants to participate signs up for a day on which they will bring in a small homemade or store-bought edible treat they like to have at the holidays. Treat Week takes place the last week we’re in the office before Christmas, and there’s a fun rotating selection of treats that makes every day feel like a party. Everyone brings something different, from reindeer bark to fudgy brownies to Chex party mix, and people get surprisingly into it each year. Whenever someone new is hired, we tell them about Treat Week and encourage them to brainstorm what they might want to bring, and no one is left scrambling to buy $50 worth of Starbucks gift cards to desperately shove into greeting cards the last day before the holiday break because coworkers have been dropping off unexpected presents at their desk all morning.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself that your family and friends would never go for a gift ban. To that, I have two responses. First, you may be surprised at how many people are also feeling overwhelmed by stuff and how expensive the holidays can be, and they might welcome this kind of suggestion. Second, you don’t have to completely stop giving and receiving gifts; you can simply aim for less. Perhaps you could organize a gift exchange where each participant only buys something for one other person in your family or group, so that everyone gets one present and everyone only has to buy one present. Suggest that the group put money toward an outing or a yearly family pass to the local zoo or botanic garden. Consider going in on a block of tickets to a local sports team or concert series for a gift that can be enjoyed for several months. Ask for contributions to the cost of plane tickets to visit if you live far away. If you have well-meaning but overly generous grandparents or aunts and uncles, nicely request that anything they purchase for your children live at their house instead of yours. Finally, if family members ask you specifically what you want for Christmas/your birthday/Hanukkah/Earth Day, suggest a meal out or grabbing a drink together instead of exchanging presents.

Finally, if you truly don’t want to receive gifts from family members and they aren’t complying, stop giving them stuff. Take them out to dinner, get them tickets to a play or musical, but don’t buy them any more physical presents, full stop. It may be awkward the first time they hand you a wrapped box and you don’t give them an object in return, but you’d be surprised how effective this strategy may prove after a few rounds of polite thank yous with no reciprocation.

You may not be able to get your friends and family to cease exchanging physical items altogether, but even if you’re able to reduce the amount by half, that’s still going to go a long way toward making the holiday simpler, less stressful, and less expensive than it had been. The goal isn’t perfection, it’s just less, and that’s more than enough to be thankful for.

A grant writer and personal finance fanatic, Marisa Bell-Metereau is an avid traveler who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. When she’s not reading or writing for work or play, she enjoys running, thrifting, and searching for the most authentic Mexican food in the city.

Photo credit: Roy Luck, CC BY 2.0.

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