Setting Realistic Expectations For Christmas Gifts

Setting Realistic Expectations For Christmas Gifts


This post is 1 of 3 in my Simplify The Gifts Mini-Series

If you’ve decided to “go simple” in gift giving this year, it’s good to have a game plan on how to do that. Laying out a plan makes all the difference in follow-through. Here are some tips to get you started:

We need a realistic expectation of gifts.

We want to please our children.  But we’ve got to be honest with them.  Let your kids know what to expect for gifts this year.  Don’t feel guilty about “ruining the surprise”; you are doing them a favor.  When we expect very specific things and when life doesn’t meet our expectations, we have to work through heavy emotions.  If you can give your kids a realistic view of what they can expect for gifts (and stick with it!) — while I can’t guarantee contentment during the gift exchange — it should curb the major disappointments when they don’t get all they imagined.  Why won’t they get all they imagine? Because this year we are giving less.

Gifts are such a sensitive topic.  There are so many unspoken rules about gifting:

  •        I have to reciprocate every gift I receive.
  •        Once you start, you have to exchange gifts with that person forever.
  •        Gifts should be close to the same amount in monetary value every year.
  •        My gift needs to be similar monetary value to their gift.
  •        If you gift to one neighbor/teacher/co-worker, you need to gift to all of them.

But these rules are self-imposed.  If we are overwhelmed by all the shopping, wrapping, and gift exchanging that we expect of ourselves, isn’t it safe to assume that other people feel the same way? Let’s give ourselves permission to end excess.

Most people purchase gifts and it can be the most stressful and time-consuming aspect of the holiday.  So, let’s start by organizing a gift list.  Click here to get your gift list PDF

Set a budget.

Having a set amount of money to spend on your holiday celebration will relieve stress by providing realistic expectations for what you can afford to spend.

You may need to adjust your allocations.  Setting boundaries for yourself while planning how to best use your dollars will help avoid being caught off guard when you get your bank or credit card statement.  It’s absolutely no fun to spend money over the holidays while dreading the bills you know are coming in January.

After you set your budget, call a family meeting to discuss how many gifts you want to exchange within your immediate family.  The number is up to you.  Our family has decided to give one high-quality item per person.  But each family is going to be different, and that is okay.  The important thing is for everyone to have the same expectations of the gift exchange.

If your family is in the habit of giving large quantities of gifts, you may choose to make the change gradually, perhaps giving five gifts per person instead of the typical 20, and then reevaluate before the following year.  Another possibility is to discuss your gift budget with the kids and say, “We normally spend X amount of money per child.  This year, instead of giving a bunch of gifts, I want you to think about what you would really enjoy for that dollar amount.”

Some families may even decide to take trips instead of having gift exchanges.  

So depending on your budget, you can say, “This year instead of exchanging gifts, how about we do a five-day vacation in Hawaii?” Who would say no to that?!

How you decide to simplify the gift process is up to you and your family.  I do encourage you to talk with the kids (unless they’re too young to really understand) and have them participate in the decision.  It’s easier for kids to accept something if they are the ones who decided to do it.  Just like adults, they rankle at mandates but are comfortable participating in boundaries of their own making.

As parents, our attitude about simplifying the holidays is key.  

Kids take their cues from us, so if we feel guilty or uncertain about change, don’t be surprised if the children push in just the right way to amplify those feelings.  When you sit down with your children and talk about what they can expect in gifts this holiday season, talk about your “why” behind simplifying the holidays. Bring them into the conversation and decision, like we talked about, and be firm that they may not hint, manipulate, or give guilt trips if they’re feelings change.

Be very frank with your children about the way they are communicating. You are laying the foundation of good communication skills that they will use the rest of their lives.  If they are hinting or trying to guilt, say, “By the way you phrased that, you are trying to make me feel guilty about this and that is not acceptable.” Be open to discussion, but don’t allow people to emotionally manipulate you.


About the author, Rachel

Hi there! I’m the Joyful Space Specialist. it’s my desire help others create a joyful space of their own and enjoy their time spent at home.


  1. Candy on 11/05/2015 at 10:42 AM

    Thank you! I’ve always been thrifty when it comes to the holidays but this just confirms I’m on the right track. I pass along your emails to my daughter that is always emotionally manipulated by her two sets of in laws to buy and give to them. Thank you for the written support you give to us all! The holidays should be full of fun not stress!

    • Rachel on 11/05/2015 at 5:01 PM

      Thank you Candy!

  2. Mary on 11/05/2015 at 11:01 AM

    Our family gift giving is fairly simple. We sent a limit of $20.00, and each person
    decides on a theme. The theme helps you to focus and you really only have to
    shop in one department. My theme this year is gardening, last year it was books.
    We are seven adults and two children. Some of the other themes used in the past
    are kitchen gadgets, sleep wear, clocks, gift cards, food, pillows etc etc. The
    children are nine and twelve and they get very excited about coming up with a theme
    and following it through. They have used, handmade ornaments, candy, homemade
    bird feeders for their themes. Some themes are kept secret, some are not.

    • Jennifer on 11/05/2015 at 11:24 AM

      I like the theme idea, Mary! 🙂 We are down to 3 gifts per child (now ages 17, almost 16, almost 13 & 9), and I’m a single mom.

      I think the $20 and themed gifts would work for us too 🙂 We also fill mason jars with gifts (spa stuff – nail polish, hand lotion, etc), or a gift bag – I did a Redbox themed gift for my siblings and parents, it was about $5-6 per bag 😉 (Bought a box of microwave popcorn and put a package in each bag, gluing the redbox coupon code to the front, included a $1 box of candy from Walmart, a chocolate bar too, and a self-size bottle of soda. At the last minute, I slid a gift card to a movie theater into each bar of chocolate, as an extra surprise, which brought the gift to $30 – Lindt has the cardboard outer wrapper and foil inner wrapper, so the card doesn’t touch the food.) Another time, we put all of the ingredients for my late grandmother’s Christmas cookies in a mason jar, and shipped that off to family members with a copy of her recipe 🙂 This is going to be awesome 😀

    • Rachel on 11/05/2015 at 5:02 PM

      I love the idea of picking a theme- that is great! Thanks Mary.

  3. Carrie on 11/05/2015 at 11:31 AM

    When my children were small we established a holiday tradition of buying a new board or card game each Christmas . Learning and playing the game – spending time together in the evenings during the vacation period – became one of our priorities and best times together. Children will remember the time you devoted to them better than they remember any toy.

    All adults now, we carry on with game buying and playing each holiday “

    • Rachel on 11/05/2015 at 5:04 PM

      I love that!! That is a great tradition.

  4. Katie on 11/05/2015 at 12:20 PM

    I have really young kids and last year we decided to minimize the gift giving. I wanted to set the tone while they were young so it would become the expectation. In our house Santa brings only one gift. Last year I also discovered the idea of getting them something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read which inspired a more minimal approach. I still make cookies with them, decorate, play music, etc – all the non material parts of the holiday that I love. Santa brings a wanted item and we get something small (a want) and usually wear and need are combined. Throw in a book and you’re done.

    • Rachel on 11/05/2015 at 5:05 PM

      It’s so great that you’ve started while they’re young Katie!

    • Jenn on 11/05/2015 at 11:14 PM

      I’m thinking about this for my kids too. I want to get the kids a trampoline, get each a book or two, some clothes, and one other fun-to-do-together gift, like a gift cert to the movies.

  5. Angela on 11/05/2015 at 1:54 PM

    Hi Rachel! I’ve been following along for a while well and really enjoy reading your blog daily. It gives me motivation that I’m not alone in this minimalist movement.

    My husband and I are both in our mid/late 30s with a almost 2 year old. We are expecting our second baby next year and have tried really hard to enforce minimal holidays and birthdays from the start. We know once we start with the BIG gifts it will be hard to turn back. My husband and I exchange one gift, sometimes something like really good coffee or perfume, something that needs replacing. This year my husband already bought me house shoes. Done!

    The baby is getting two puzzles and a toy plane. I think that’s enough. He loves bananas so I might put that in his stocking from Santa. He is only two. He gets so excited for the littlest things.

    As far as exchanging gifts with the rest of our family, we draw names with my family and we still buy for everyone in his family although we have mentioned drawing names with them, they are completely against it. So we buy “small” gifts for them. Last year we bought our nephew a giant coloring book. He was 4 at the time and loved it. See, he didn’t need a loud obnoxious toy anyways. It’s always a tricky subject. I enjoy reading others comments on this topic.

    Happy Holidays!!!

    • Katie on 11/05/2015 at 4:24 PM

      Your comment about the extended family gift giving really hit home with me. I would love my in-laws to embrace a more frugal holiday. We have tried suggesting it, drawing names, making a dollar limit and each time they’re against it. I wish there were a manual for how to handle these differing priorities between his family and our nuclear family (as well as my extended family)! Any advice would be very welcome!

    • Rachel on 11/05/2015 at 5:07 PM

      Thanks Angela, it’s such a pleasure to give to young children, when getting things they enjoy (like a banana) can be so exciting. 🙂

  6. Gloria on 11/05/2015 at 2:25 PM

    We have been slowly paring down our gift giving. We are mid-30’s with 2 young boys. This year we are getting each of them one big quality gift and one stocking (usually containing a package of their favorite candy, character band-aids, pencils, a lego minifigure and the like that we know they will use). We are going to ask grandparents to do the same, perhaps a zoo membership or music lessons. The small gifts they want to give should be consumable, readable, watchable, or wearable. Having a small home helps because they know we don’t have space to store things.

    • Rachel on 11/05/2015 at 5:10 PM

      That’s great Gloria, we do one quality gift and consumable stocking stuffers as well. It’s nice that the grandparents are understanding of your living situation as well, that makes a big difference.

  7. Jenn on 11/05/2015 at 11:10 PM

    Ah, Christmas shopping… blah! This year I’m opting for more homemade gifts. Everyone will get something homemade, be it food for the adults or crayons for the kids. I will include a gift card for a small value to the movies or out to dinner for everyone. I’m hoping to cut my budget by 25% by doing this.

    I’m not sure how I’m going to handle gifts for our kids yet. I’m thinking one thing to share (like a trampoline) and a couple of smaller things for under the tree. I have to admit my husband and I haven’t discussed it yet.

    • Rachel on 11/06/2015 at 12:33 AM

      Homemade gifts can be an easy solution and easier on the budget. I like to make everyone the same, so if I’m spending time in the kitchen, I can get them all done at once.

  8. Maureen on 11/05/2015 at 11:28 PM

    We just had this discussion tonight at dinner! We simplified Christmas quite a bit last year and loved having just the right amount of gifts so that all could be appreciated and played with. For this year it was decided (the kids’ ideas, guided by parents) that Santa will still be coming, but that our gifts to each other will be homemade so that a good chunk of our Christmas funds will go to helping those in need. We are still discussing how we would like to do that. I like your ideas about setting the right expectations. It is so easy for kids (and parents) to get all hyped up thinking about all the Christmas morning possibilities and then for the reality to be a letdown (even with many gifts). I will be making a conscious effort this year to not play up the excitement of the gifts, but the excitement of our family traditions and the time we spend together. Thanks!

    • Rachel on 11/06/2015 at 12:34 AM

      That’s so awesome Maureen- It makes such a huge difference for the kids to be involved in the decision making. Good job. 🙂

  9. Samantha on 11/06/2015 at 12:48 AM

    Some great ideas!

    My husband is one of 8 kids and all but one of his siblings have kids. So to keep things simple, we do a KK. It used to be that each couple would buy for one other couple or one of my in-laws and each family with kids would buy for one family with kids (individual gifts for each child or a collective gift for all of them, whichever you preferred). Nice and easy, each family would buy 2 gifts and be done.

    Now for the adults, each adult buys one $15 generic gift and wraps it. The game is that we draw numbers and go in order. When it’s your turn you can choose a gift and open in front of everyone OR you may choose to steal a gift that had already been opened. It then becomes the turn of the person stolen off. You can’t steal the same gift more than once. While our new way can land you with something useless, the process is quite hilarious! And the stealing aspect means you may end up being able to choose something of use to you (as long as no one steals it off you!)

    As it’s not a personal gift, I don’t think there’s any hard feelings if it ends up being given to charity. Or one item (a flying alarm clock) got put back in the mix the next year, much to everyone’s amusement! There have also been a number of clutter free gifts in the mix especially because they work for a generic gift- chocolates, other edible things, lotto tickets etc.

  10. Megan Darling on 12/01/2016 at 4:50 PM

    Thank you for this… my husband and I changed our ways about christmas because of your inspiring ideas. I also love the idea of a big trip instead of presents. thank you and god bless

    • Rachel on 12/02/2016 at 5:19 PM

      Wonderful Megan! <3 Thank you.

  11. charlene Allen on 12/05/2016 at 12:32 AM

    Our family is purchasing all of our Christmas gifts from markets/craft shows this year. We are spending time together shopping, spending a lot less and supporting small businesses at the same time. It’s great so far and when we drive by the mall and see all the cars and traffic, we just smile and are totally convinced this is the best decision for us this year. It’s been stress-free.

  12. Meg Vandegrift on 10/20/2017 at 10:26 AM

    Now that my two older children are in on the Santa Claus secret, they are my “helpers.” It has been such a relief having them know that there isn’t a magical guy (with an unlimited budget) whose job it is to fulfill their every wish. There’s a book called “The Wonderful Truth About Santa” that I can’t recommend enough. We’re a middle-class family in an affluent school district. They were starting to get the idea that Santa liked some of their school friends better, and that was hard on us. Now their expectations are more realistic, and there is more joy.

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