Thoughtfulness Trumps Cost When Under Indulging on Gifts

Underwear, socks, a basketball, and a typewriter. One Christmas, this was the extent of my holiday loot.  My sister and I (who had to share the typewriter, by the way) were always embarrassed about the sad gifts we received from our skinflint parents. Not only were they limited, they often seemed to miss the mark when it came to thoughtfulness.  As teenagers we developed a comedy routine to use when our friends boasted about their presents so we wouldn’t be quite as embarrassed.

You might be expecting me to declare that those limited holiday gifts reinforced love and unity rather than materialism. Here’s the truth—it was no picnic.

thoughtfulness and under indulgence on giftsCompare that to my husband’s childhood experience of being heaped with treasures for birthdays and holidays.  He had toys I never imagined I could ever possess, including a huge fleet of matchbox cars and almost all the Star Wars toys available in the galaxy.   You might imagine he took them for granted, but he actually kept all their original boxes and carefully displayed them in his bedroom with pride.

So how do the two of us compromise on gift giving for our children, especially since we’re trying to practice the art of under indulgence? I’m hoping our odd combination of gift legacies have helped us find greater balance.  I’m always reminding my husband to keep it simple, and that less is more.  He counters by sharing that a few quality toys can make lifelong memories and are worth a bit of money and thoughtfulness.

Last year my son received a generous bunch of toys from garage sales and was utterly thrilled. This year we did buy a few quality new items that we knew he’d enjoy, but it was interesting to see that he was most thrilled by the Hotwheels moving truck that cost just under a dollar.

We haven’t set a strict monetary limit for birthday gifts, but I’m convinced that it’s possible to make the receiver feel special on a budget if thoughtfulness is the main ingredient.  There are wonderful homemade crafts and garage sale scores that would thrill any child—it’s just a matter of taking the time and consideration to find the right treasures.  Our family’s version under indulgence for birthdays includes a few new toys, lots of used items, and the realization that thoughtfulness, not expense or newness, is the most important part of gift giving.


  1. You’re so right! The gift I’m looking forward to this Christmas is the cookbook my aunt and sister are compiling based on all of our traditional family recipes. The best gift I’ve given in recent years was a nicely frame picture of our dad as a baby – given to both of my sisters at a cost of nearly nothing, and I know they’ll both keep it forever.

    As our firstborn is about to turn 5 – and is definitely influenced by what other kids have – the art of under indulgence is increasingly tricky. But I do find that he hasn’t got a clue if his Thomas trains come secondhand from eBay or straight from the toy store. And the tunnel that his dad built from a few pieces of scrap wood has been just as much a favorite as the pricey bridges that we bought new.

    I think what we’re really giving is the gift of attention – that we notice what our loved ones love and value. Whether you’re 2 or 32 or 82, that’s what matters!

  2. For now (my son is 3) I’ve set a rule for one gift apiece from me, his dad, and our close family friend (my mom just sends money so we can buy memberships to the children’s museum, aquarium, etc). When you’re restricted to one, you have to choose carefully, and the results have been great–everyone has picked something that ties in to one of my son’s interests and he isn’t overwhelmed with gifts.

    For Christmas last year I sent many of my friends gifts that were hand-me-downs–books or DVDs, etc., that I picked off my shelf especially for them. I paid only the shipping and they enjoyed the gifts just as much as if they were new. I was able to share things that I loved and de-clutter at the same time!

  3. Thinking strictly on Christmas gifts we have made a rule in our house that everything has to fit in our Christmas stocking. (we have the normal size ones that they sell in stores.) We also only exchange gifts in our immediate family. The kids all make homemade gifts for everybody and my husband and I do a combination of homemade and purchased gifts. We don’t spend much money and we obviously don’t get a lot but our kids think it is wonderful! We do try to be thoughtful in what we get them and I totally agree that thoughtfulness is incredibly important in gift giving.

    Some of the things that helps our kids feel very satisfied with this method is: 1. It is what we have always done. 2. We homeschool and so our kids are not going to school after Christmas break and comparing loot with everybody else. 3. Our kids watch basically zero TV and are not exposed to much commercialism.

    I am so happy that things have worked out to be so simple in our family. I hope all goes well for you as well as you seek not to over indulge.

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