WASTE (of money, time, resources) & STRESS during the holidays.

This has been heavy on my mind for the last several Christmases. So many years of buying junk just to have something to pad the amount of gifts per child to increase the Christmas morning “MAGIC FACTOR”. It has always caused me to pause and regret. More and more as each Christmas morning passes, as I survey the damage and pick up the trash…and realize how fast it goes and how little it means.

I don’t want gifts given out of obligation. I don’t want to be just another name on someone’s shopping list either, adding to their stress and taking money out of their bank account. I want to take that pressure off of others. I also know that it isn’t possible or even practical to expect a meaningful, thoughtful gift EVERY YEAR. All the more incredible when a gift is placed on my lap. Knowing it meant something to the person giving it.

Watch this video that Patagonia sent out today and think about how you think about gifts and giving. Think about what really matters for your family. Think about what the IDEA of gifts really means, and see if you can find a way to recreate that in other ways throughout the holiday.

Common Threads Initiative from Patagonia on Vimeo.



Talk to your family about this subject, ask for support.

Gently set a present limit for extended family members who are buying for your children. This takes pressure off!

“We will be citizens and ambassadors, each with a destiny of our own, but with a common pledge to honor life, and nature.”

Name swap with big groups. Each person gets one gift per person, thus creating more time and energy to purchase thoughtfully.

Plan a family talent show for Christmas morning after the gifts are opened.

Dim the lights, light the candles, and crank the Christmas music. Put on socks and slide around the kitchen (or wood) floor, sharing your best dance moves as you make breakfast after the presents are opened.

White elephant parties. This can include gag gifts of real gifts. Especially fun when alcohol and obnoxious people are involved.

Shop for gifts second hand. A special trinket or vintage treasure from the heart.

“This is something we can do. This is something we are called to do. And if we are quiet we will surely hear it.”

Host a “favorites party”. Each person brings multiple amounts of ONE of their favorite things, under a certain dollar amount. Everyone at the party shares, you go home with some meaningful swag.

Time spent together throughout the month in what I call “spontaneous delight”. Usually means you are doing something new or something old with a fresh twist. Can be something as simple as a new board game, just take it off the table and onto a picnic blanket outside (or inside in front of the fire). Ask the kids to prepare “fancy snacks”.

Take more care to find things with meaning through the year, and not just in a mad rush at the big red store at the last minute.

Ask your spouse to write you a letter and place it in your stocking Christmas Eve. Do the same for him or her.

“Living is not buying. To be a citizen of the earth is to put one’s brief life to the use of one’s dearest gifts.”

If you know someone who has a need for a big ticket item, organize a donation fund and gift the person with cash to go towards their purchase. Put the cash in a fun container, and give it in a fun way. (Put a bunch of $1 bills in a huge jar, send them on a treasure hunt.)

For people in your life with children, give them the gift of your TIME, and set up a day (or weekend) to babysit for them. (Trust me, this is better than ANY gift certificate to ANY store.)

In creative friends/family circles, host an entirely handmade holiday. (My friend Emily is involved in a handmade holiday online workshop with tutorials for holiday decorations, ornaments, and other goodies)

Make lucky bags.

Take your family on a secret mission like this or this from Andrea at Hula Seventy. It will show them what it feels like to give non material items to others.

Give the gift of your own must haves. Think of the things in your life that you use every day. Is there anything you just couldn’t live without? This could be ANYTHING: a super plush towel, the perfect wallet, or an AMAZING ice cream scoop. If you love it, it will be something that ANYONE on your list would love to have. You can give everyone (or small groups of people) the same thing! This does two things – eliminates stress and offers them something on your “best of” list. Label the tag and let them know why it is one of your must haves.

“Gives nature a chance to rest, and time to heal.”

Host a stocking stuffer swap with other creative friends. (organize a group of friends, tally the number of children, set the dollar amount, every adult chooses a single item to make for that number of children. Share and you receive an eclectic mix of things to fill up the stockings Christmas morning.

Plan advent activities, like our Bernard The Christmas Elf.

If you are in a service industry (photography, landscaping, sewing, carpentry, cooking, massage, graphic design…), gift that service to someone on your list on a smaller scale than your average job. Or, go for the gusto and remodel their entire kitchen. ;)

And, from the Patagonia video: reduce what you buy, repair what you can, reuse what you no longer need, recycle what’s worn out.


Most of all, deep breaths, we can do this again, and I wish you ALL a sweet and simple holiday.


PS : I would love to keep the ideas coming in the comment section. If you have anything to add, please share!

PSS : Someone privately emailed and said this way of thinking was even more pressure on her – that it’s easier for her to just buy and not think too much. I empathize because I am just trying to figure out a way to make this time less stressful for me. My advice to her was to ignore this post completely. ;)

Obviously, to each their own, whatever works for you is what works for you.

This wasn’t about putting MORE pressure on anyone, certainly!

xo Tara

Join the Conversation


  1. Yes, yes and more yes. I got the email from Patagonia this morning and reading “Don’t buy what you don’t need” led me to delete every one of the offers I had received in my inbox! It saddens me to watch families go into debt for this holiday to allegedly “bring happiness” into their lives, when that happiness is right before them. Thanks for your message, Tara!

  2. I used a simple 4 gift formula for my kids for several years –

    Something to Wear.
    Something they Want.
    Something they Need.
    Something to Read.

    They loved trying to figure out what each gift would be – and there was ZERO pressure to exceed the 4 gifts.

  3. I read something a few years ago that changed my outlook forever. It was about this feeling of obligation around gift giving and how that ruins it for the giver and the givee. When someone gives you something and they are excited, but you have nothing in return, it ruins the experience for BOTH of you if, instead of thanking them, one harps on the idea that you have nothing for them. When you have something to give, and you are excited about it, you really don’t care about what you are getting back, only anticipation about giving your gift. So, I learned just to say thank you, even if I don’t have anything to give. I just love the everyday think that someone sees, thinks of you, and gifts. Not the gifts that they “have” to give because the calendar says so. I hope that your holiday is wonderful and simple and full of love.

  4. I feel so inspired. And I was already feeling inspired and excited about the holidays. Part of it started when my kids gave me their lists and it had things mostly under $10 on it. Sigh. : ) I LOVE YOU! I want to do an elf!

  5. Yes! Same thing has been heavy on my heart and my children are still young. I am thinking about random acts of kindness this year. I know giving to someone who may be in need of something is going to be more meaningful to our spirits & hearts than something that will just end up in the “toy bin”. What’s that saying? The best in life are not things…they’re people. I am hoping to pass this along to my boys :)

  6. firstly, you rock mrs.whitney. secondly, we have two christmas traditions that we love in lieu of traditional gift giving and the stress + consumerism that goes with it.

    with one side of the family, we all privately put money into our big christmas jar (whatever we are comfortable with). once everyone has donated their money, we count the total amount and then together as a big family, we go through the world vision catalogue (or another organization we support) and choose different ways we would like to give to those in need (ex. medical supplies, rabbits and chickens, school supplies, blankets, toys, etc.). it feels so great to not only give but to all do it together and bonus: no crazy shopping malls + every year we switch who in the family receives the tax return.

    the other tradition we have with the other side of the family is that instead of gifts we go away for a weekend trip together sometime in january. :)

  7. Great link. I really love this season because it is reminder to care for others, whether it be with a tangible gift or an encouraging phone call or backrub. It brings us together as a family unit, focusing on our spiritual beliefs, anticipating the greatest gift our faith gives. We do weekly advent projects, not advent gifts. Advent is about waiting. The waiting is when we sit quietly, listening.

  8. As always, such great and timely thoughts. This year my budget is tight, but I am trying to think of meaningful things I can make/do that won’t break the bank, not surprisingly it turns out I am liking these gifts so much more than the ones I have bought last minute at the mall out of obligation, and the bonus is not having to deal with crowds and parking and all that nonsense. I hope you have a great holiday season, sweet lady. Thanks for making me smile and nod more times than I can count this year x

  9. I’m SOOOO with you on this. My extended family decided no more gifts just because we “have to”. We always ended up exchanging gift cards. Seemed to silly.
    And my new rule of thumb for present buying for my kid(s) is 1 thing they want, 1 thing they need, & 1 thing to read. The end! Now to get my husband on board. ;)

  10. A. I big fluffy heart this post! I am SO with you on every bit.
    B. After my husband and I were married, we found ourselves so fortunate to have together five living grandparents. After our first married Christmas of trying to find something for each and being told by each, “don’t get me anything. I’m old. I have what I need and want, except pictures; I’ll always take a new picture.” So, we give them a nice photo of our family each year(which has now grown to four), a tin of their favorite home-baked treats and a letter explaining what we have done in the Christmas season in their honor. A few years we adopted needy families and bought them gifts. We have donated to charities that are special to our grandparents and last year we bought livestock through This year we are sending gifts to a local Army unit that was recently deployed. It’s our favorite gift to give each year and our grandparents always tell us that it’s their favorite gift to receive each year.

  11. hi tara,
    wow you nailed it. something deb and i have done for years is favorites! throughout the year when i fall in love with something the next time we buy one we pick up two and put them away to exchange as “our favorites” at christmas time. They are little things like soap, cleaning products, nail polish etc. makes it so much fun. honestly makes me look forward to giving her my gifts.

  12. stressed out is something i will NOT be this year. Our daughter turned 17 yesterday. She is one of a kind and literally did not ask for one thing for a present. She has no clue what she wants for christmas, either. Parents on both our sides want for nothing but we all want just one single thing – the family feast. That is our most treasured desire. So we plan to buy one gift out of our group of 12 strong recipients – and give that one person a gift worth £30 – all 12 of us just buy one person a gift and all of us will just have one present…….Im so excited about this new approach. normally we are “expected to spend £20 per person – thats £240 before my hubs and I splurge on each other. By doing this one gift lifts the stress, free’s the debt but most of all, makes the day less about the gifts but more about the thought x

  13. The best part of Christmas last year was a game of “Family Jeopardy” I put together. I got the idea from the Rosalind Revival blog. It was all about family memories, and everyone loved it!
    Rinda (who loves your blog, but mainly lurks)

  14. On the heels of Tucker saying, “mom, can this be my biggest christmas ever”? Teenagers:) Love your post, your ideas are awesome. Be sure and post your end results. I’d love to hear what changes worked for your family.

  15. Someone privately emailed and said this way of thinking was even more pressure on her – that it’s easier for her to just buy and not think too much. I empathize because I am just trying to figure out a way to make this time less stressful for me. So for her, I told her to ignore this post completely. ;)

    Obviously, to each their own, whatever works for you is what works for you.

    This wasn’t about putting MORE pressure for anyone, certainly!

    xo Tara

  16. I have to say, I’ve been trying to reach this goal for years, suggesting experiences rather than toys, quality over quantity, expressions of love in a card or a photograph print instead of a gift box of something or other that I can put a bow on, but older members of my family branded me “picky” “high strung” and other such lovelies, even extending to how I must think their homes are trashy and low class compared to mine! They took it as me just wanting better things rather than less things, as though I was passing judgment on what they had been gifting us already.

    When instead, I was passing judgment on the whole thing, the obligation and the shopping for the sake of shopping. Every year I now get calls from seriously disgruntled grandparents who, because they do not spend time with their grandchildren or us, feel compelled to sigh to me, “I NEED to know what to GET your kids” and then I get the stress back from the other side, too. They know that I won’t want them to get 15 presents of inconsequential meaning, but they don’t know how to find one with any real meaning at all.

    What I am saying is I went the route you are suggesting many years ago with my own family, and for me the realization was that the group of people who were filling our home with mountains of meaningless things just for the sake of having fun shopping, weren’t able to understand why less can be so much more. Now the kids get one inappropriate low-thought gift instead of 15, so I guess that’s progress?

  17. I love this so much! I have definitely felt some of these frustrations, especially with adding shipping costs to most of our family through the years since we are a military family. There have been times when purchasing through the year was fun because I found unique/antique/custom items for recipients. There have been years I made items that took hours but I loved it. There have been times we’ve bought ‘something’ to send to the people on the ‘list’ and never had one minute of conversation with them through the whole year. It is extra challenging when you live far away and you simply cannot spend time together in lieu of gifts. There are SO many great ideas here. I will be sharing this!

  18. I agree with both sides…..who doesn’t love getting presents under the tree! I think maybe what you are looking for is a nice balance. Start by looking what the kids and you received last year and what is no longer being used….then eliminate those as options for this year and the years to come. For me it is toys….my kids get so many and so many are just left unused a few months later. Now don’t get me wrong….I am still going to buy a toy or two, but I am going to look for more useable gifts like a really nice art set with pastels and quality pencil crayons, cooking classes for the kids, sports items, movie passes, board games and books….even things the kids ( or adults ) want to decorate their rooms or houses. I am buying a lava lamp for my nephew…how cool is that! But on the flip side of “buying gifts”…..I think you also want to “give” and enjoy the quality time. I absolutely love the idea of leaving little fortunes around town and I am definitely going to be doing that. Remember… are probably already doing those meaningful acts at home like spending the day baking Christmas cookies ( which you can leave as suprise gifts on neighbour’s doorsteps ), watching old Christmas movies, not sure if you have a skating rink in your area but that would be a fun idea. I am sure you can find your peaceful ground soon :)

  19. I found myself feeling entirely Scroogish yesterday. We had just come home from a magical Thanksgiving and a few of my kids (13-2 years in age) instantly started in with their list of Christmas “demands”. It totally killed my buzz :) . Watching this video and reading your words completely changed my mood and my perspective. Mark and I are going to sit down with the kids and show them the video and have a firm refocus on this whole Christmas season. I was seriously feeling blah about the whole thing (and I LOVE all holidays) and what you wrote helped me be able to be like “Wait! I don’t NEED to feel like crap about this. I have the power to reshape the expectations of these little people and bring things back to where I want them to be.” Thank you for sharing this, Tara!

  20. This blog post is absolutely amazing!! I love all of your ideas and I hope I can pass on your will to want more for “US” (all living creatures on earth) in this crazy life that we are all destroying with our uncaring ways of only wanting and not giving. Keep up your drive it doesn’t go unnoticed and more people are with you in this fight than you probably think.

  21. Yep… my name is Tara too =) I have a 4 babes..only they are not babes anymore. Years 13, 17, 27 and 28 and I find myself melancholy this year as all the things purchased last year have already been discarded and the kids are all headed in their own directions BUT… I LOVE giving gifts! I do have a 1 year old grand baby that I am sure I will spoil through out his life. =) But I came across a wonderful idea that I hope will make our Christmas a little bit more thoughtful… For my kids we are following this guidelines 1. Something they want, 2 Something they need, 3 Something they wear and 4 Something to read. I think it is worth a try! On my husbands side we do the Favorite Things you mentioned and it is a GREAT hit! And on my side we draw names with a set limit. Great post! Merry Christmas!

  22. Thank you for this timely post, Tara. I had a moment yesterday–CYBER MONDAY!!! (all caps added to emphasize the hype surrounding the day)–where I just wanted Christmas to be over already. I took a deep breath, made a list of what I’d already bought/wanted to buy, and recommitted myself to enjoying the holiday. We’ll stick with our traditions: pajamas on Christmas Eve, socks and underwear and toothbrushes in the stockings, lots of mint M&Ms and new Christmas movies. My teenagers will receive the one big item on their list and a few little surprises that make them–and me–smile. And my friends will get a bottle of my favorite wine. Thanks, again, for the reminder.

  23. EXACTLY!!! I have been feeling the same way! These are great alternative suggestions and I am going to raise my kids to be excited for Christmas because of the family time and magic, not the amount od presents under the tree! Wonderfully written, Tara!

  24. We are not buying gifts this year. My parents and my brother and I and our families have rented a home for four days so we can all be together in one place and enjoy each other. I am so happy to do this and not stress about physical gifts, the cost of said gifts. The greatest gift I have is my family and I look forward to having us all together!

  25. christmas is always hard. because there are so many more people involved than just my spouse and i… so many more expectations. but you are so right. it has to change. i want to enjoy christmas and thinking about it right now…i already feel stressed because it just always is.
    BUT last year we got a little table top ping pong net to go over our dining room table. and after gifts and breakfast we had a family tournament. it was completely spontaneous and a wonderful memory. and less than $10. i love all these ideas. :)

  26. Hey Tara, my thoughts exactly! I don’t want to give a gift just for the sake of giving a gift, but I don’t want to disappoint anyone either. There is so much stress over what to get, I’m just over it. I’d much rather spend time with the special people in my life and love on each other – that’s what I’d really like to do. Bless you Tara – have missed your regular posts.

  27. The thoughtful life – a life that is pondered and rendered significant – a big goal in my life right now.
    I am a big Christmas person. I love the excitement and the heightened sense of joy. And I am deeply religious. So there is serious joy (oxymoron?!) in the air!
    However, in the past few years, I have weeded out some things that I did only because they were “tradition.” If an activity is just another checkmark on the list, they go! A few years past I have catered dinner. This year is feeling like a full-on turkey and all.
    The Santa plates are already being used at all meals – they make me smile.
    The advent calendar will be filled with scripture each day and a fun activity (maybe just a cup of hot chocolate with candy cane after school) – not a small piece of junkola.
    And my language of love is gifts – so, yeah, I love thinking about gifts to give, stocking stuffers, mail-away, teacher gifts, the works – love it. And I try very hard for meaningful. But that remote control helicopter that my 10-y-o is dreaming about will be under the tree – even though I know the possibility of it lasting through the day is not good!
    My long-winded advice in a nutshell – Enjoy and Celebrate!

  28. Gahhhh!!! Can we be best friends? I had a moment like this a few years ago and I asked everyone of my siblings and my parents to write each other a note as a gift.

    The notes were about moments we shared together, something we liked about the person, and how much we loved them.

    Best gift I ever got and the best time I ever spend making a gift. Who doesn’t like re-living happy memories?

    Bonus points if a picture, or ticket stub is tucked inside bringing it even more full circle.

    Hope everyone stays comfy and cozy this holiday season!

  29. Hey Tara girl, you are an inspiration! My Mister & I decided on a word for the year together at the beginning of 2012 and the word was Minimal. We vowed to work on becoming minimalists in every aspect because of the very things you talked about. I love this & your words so resonated with me.

    Something we started doing when we had kids was 4 Christmas presents:
    1. Something you WEAR
    2. Something you READ {or play/listen to}
    3. Something you WANT
    4. Something you NEED

    This has been awesome! We do simple & funny stockings which often include things the whole family can do together {movie tix, concert tix, etc.}, and a gift from Santa for the whole family, but otherwise, it’s SO much less pressure.

    We also always choose a family or someone else around us {known or stranger} who needs help & we give Christmas to them which totally puts things in perspective–especially when a 5 year old kid asks for socks and a new toothbrush. Talk about being humbled.

    Thanks for the great reminder! Merry Christmas to your sweet fam!

  30. What a fantastic post – thank you Tara! We have just had a conversation about changing our traditional gift exchange, and this couldn’t have come at a better time.

  31. Hi Tara–love your blog & your photography & your outlook on life! I have really tried to reduce the spending and madness at Christmas…concentrate more on the activities that make the month great. Also (and I didn’t do a good job of this, this year) cutting down on my sessions and workload as December approaches so that I can enjoy the time with my family. Next year, different story. My family all lives apart so we “called a truce” a few years back to stop mailing gift cards to each other. :) We only buy for the kids and we try to keep that simple. For grandparents and family I do make a shutterfly calendar of pics of my girls which everyone LOVES, send a couple nice 5×7 prints, and I also send them a photo ornament with the year on it with a picture. For my husband-well we are starting new traditions, we just got married …but we are definitely keeping it simple, we are buying a house Dec 17th and that is the best present of all. :) Sure I want an epiphanie bag but do I really NEED it? Probably not.

  32. we are opting out this year – only doing what we feel is right, only what we want to do. keeping it simple and enjoying each other, not making any excuses or even trying to rearrange. and it feel really really good :)

  33. We stopped adult exchanging last year with the whole family. SO much stress was relieved. Also, our kids only get one gift from us on Christmas eve and 3 Christmas day (the same Jesus was given). We spend Christmas eve playing games, baking a “happy birthday Jesus” cake and read the Christmas story from the bible. It is so wonderful and our kids love our tradition.

  34. after years of coaxing I have both sides of my family down to minimal gift exchange – I am so looking forward to this holiday season. If you still need to gift I think a museum pass is an excellent family gift.

  35. I loved this post. I am wrestling with how to end gift exchanges with several friends and neighbors. I don’t know how to bring it up without offending them. I have always been touched by their thoughtful gifts, but I would like to end the stress of shopping for these people. I also want to elevate the stress they might feel in shopping for me, too. And I really don’t need anything. My house is full, I need to purge! I would like to see these 2 neighbors and 4 friends during the holidays….share a meal or dessert at least, but how do I tell them let’s stop the present part? Should I write a note and send it with our greeting card? Does that seem weird?

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