A Gift-Giving Guide for the Truly Broke

Even the young and the penniless can wish their loved ones a happy holiday without going into debt.

The holidays are upon us, and, as has been the case since I started college, I have no money. Perhaps you, too, have blown your would-be holiday gift budget on something frivolous like, say, rent. This is when the season of giving can get tricky. You don't want to spend outside your means, but you don't want to look like a cheapskate, either. I've navigated these waters for years and spoken with some etiquette experts to get their professional advice. Here's more than a nickel's worth of our tips — for free.

Set price limits and prioritize.

Assess your finances and determine what you can afford to spend on holiday gifts. And don't confuse what you can afford with how much you think you're expected to spend. "Operating within a budget that is reasonable for you is part of having good etiquette," says Daniel Post Senning, of the Emily Post Institute. "It's important to stay within your parameters."

Make a list of everyone for whom you'd like to buy a gift, and rank them from most important — maybe your significant other — to least important — sorry, mailman. (Yes, you really should consider a holiday tip for your mail carrier and other service providers. Often, a note of appreciation will suffice.) Then set a spending limit for everyone on your list.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

Buy gifts for the high-priority recipients first. That way, if you overspend on your mother and girlfriend, you can cut back a little on, say, your coworkers — instead of the other way around.

Keep it personal.

If done right, an inexpensive, personal gift can trump a fancy, big-ticket item. "What determines a great gift is how much thought and effort you put into the gift — not money, but time and attention to details," says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas.

One of my greatest successes on this front was getting a poker buddy a deck of cards from every country I visited when I studied abroad — personal and poignant at $2 a pack. Of course, not everyone has such affordable fascinations; some like cards, but others have more expensive interests, such as golf and skiing. For the people on your list with fancier tastes, think tangential. Obviously you can't afford skis or a new set of clubs, so try to come up with small ways to make their favorite things better. For instance, you can get stencils that allow golfers to personalize their balls for $20 at www.tin-cup.com. My dad can expect a Wake Forest set soon.

Tap money-saving online resources.

If your favorite parts of the holiday season are taking pictures with men dressed as Santa and duking it out with fellow shoppers for the best deals, then, by all means, go to the mall. For the rest of us, holiday shopping is best done online, where you can save both time and money. Sign up for e-mail alerts from specific merchants or follow them on social media for special offers. Use price-comparison tools, such as PriceGrabber.com, to find the lowest prices; score even greater savings with coupon codes from sites such as RetailMeNot.com; and pay nothing for shipping directly to your gift recipients. (See Why You Should Do Your Holiday Shopping Online for more tips and resources.)

Give the gift of your time.

Doing something special for someone can show more love and forethought than giving him or her something tangible.

Just make sure you can follow through, even if you're busy. When my sister was in law school, she promised to organize all of my mother's photos into albums, which she eventually did — but only after it became an absolute point of contention. To avoid flaking, I usually try to dedicate my time on the gift before the big reveal. For example, one year my father and I converted all our old home movies to DVD for my mother. We turned on the TV on Christmas morning, and there I was on screen, taking my first steps. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Regift the right way.

Sure, it's tempting to pawn off an extra toaster on some unsuspecting cousin to save some cash and clear out your closet, especially now. As Post points out, "We live in a time of more and more disposable consumer goods. The likelihood that you have two or three of a popular blender has increased a lot."


Gottsman reminds us, though, that regifting is an option only when the circumstances are right: You have a brand-new, never-used item that you know the recipient would appreciate. Or maybe you received a gift card for a store at which you simply don't shop; if you know someone who will put it to good use, it might be the perfect gift to pass on.

But even with those criteria met, tread carefully. Regifting a present someone picked out for you can really hurt that person's feelings — and make you look tacky and thoughtless. Make sure you're not regifting in the same social circles.

Include a thoughtful card with your gift.

It's easy to forget in the rush of consumerism that has come to define the holiday season, but try to remember: We give gifts as reminders that we care about one another. If your card expresses this sentiment earnestly and thoughtfully, then the gift is secondary. You don't have to be poetic or have nice handwriting. You don't even have to buy a card. Just fold a piece of paper in half and write. Explain why you've chosen the attached gift and remind the recipient that you're truly grateful to have him or her in your life. After all, nothing says "I love you" like saying "I love you."

Ryan Ermey
Former Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Ryan joined Kiplinger in the fall of 2013. He wrote and fact-checked stories that appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and on Kiplinger.com. He previously interned for the CBS Evening News investigative team and worked as a copy editor and features columnist at the GW Hatchet. He holds a BA in English and creative writing from George Washington University.