Skipping the Gifts: A Different Approach to the Holiday Shopping Season

Gift boxes on old wooden background

According to the National Retail Federation, the average American will spend nearly $740 on gifts, decorations and greeting cards this holiday season.

But S.S. Gee Burro, a Pennsylvania-based author, is not an average American -- at least, not when it comes to his family's gifting practices.

"Each member in my family has a stocking, and each family member puts in a gift that costs no more than $2," he says, noting that the threshold had been raised from $1 due to inflation. "We all know who left buying until the last minute -- they are the ones who bring lottery tickets." With 20 family members present for Christmas, that keeps per-person Christmas spending below $40, and he says the only gifts given beyond the stockings tend to be of the hand-made variety.

That concept will feel alien to most Americans, who follow a fairly predictable holiday gifting pattern: You make a list of what to get for friends and family, you start your serious shopping shortly after you're done with Thanksgiving dinner, and then you spend hundreds of dollars on gifts over the course of the month-long shopping season.

But for many families, the gifting regimen isn't quite so simple. Due in part to lingering economic uncertainties, some are pulling back from their usual spending habits -- and a fraction are skipping holiday commercialism altogether.

More for Me, Less for Thee

One trend that's grown in the last few years is so-called self-gifting, which is exactly what it sounds like: Treating yourself to some 'gifts' around the holidays. Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director for Prosper Insights and Analytics, says that self-gifters will spend about $130 on themselves this year, and observes that the trend really stepped up in the wake of the recession.

"We've become smarter shoppers overall, and shoppers are delaying purchases they would have made earlier in the year," she says.

In other words, these aren't exactly "self-gifts" -- they're just things that consumers were already planning on buying, but put off buying until they could get a great deal during the holiday sales. Retailers clearly recognize this trend, packing their Black Friday sales with appliances and electronics that people are likely to buy for themselves.

With that in mind, it might seem that self-gifting is merely taking the place of year-round discretionary spending, rather than replacing a gift you might have otherwise bought for a friend or family-member. But NPD analyst Marshal Cohen says that if you're buying a TV for yourself on Black Friday, it's inevitable that you're going to scale down your gifting a bit.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%"It does take the place of some of the gifting that would normally be done," says Cohen. "But it's the second level of relatives that get hurt -- if you're an uncle, you're not necessarily getting a gift from your niece or nephew."

And even if your uncle still gets a gift, he might not get what he wants. Cohen says that consumers these days are more likely to let sales and coupons dictate what gifts they buy for others.

"I have a finite amount of funds, and now I have to make the rest of my list go just as far but on less money," says Cohen. "If I find a cashmere sweater for $69, then that's what you're getting this year."

Getting Creative

Such strategies represent a frugal-minded adjustment of typical gifting practices. But a minority of Americans are going a step further by skipping the biggest excesses of the holiday shopping season altogether.

Burro's $2 gift exchange is an extreme example. But others take a similarly measured approach to gifting that keeps the total expenditure down. Carly Fauth of Money Crashers says that while the kids in her family still get gifts, the adults skip the iPads and cashmere sweaters in favor of a white elephant exchange with a $20 cap.

"We decide the theme at Thanksgiving (this year it's 'star') and then everyone has to buy one $20 gift that fits the theme and bring it to Christmas Eve," she says. "This actually cuts down on a lot of the stress of shopping for the holidays."

Another creative approach is to more or less skip physical gifts altogether. "Instead of giving each other gifts, my husband and I surprise the family with trips," says Michelle Gannon, who runs a language-learning company. "[They're] just quick weekend adventures, but we put a little 'brochure' in each other's stockings."

With more than half of all Americans expected to hit the malls on Black Friday alone, it's clear that these creative non-gifters are very much in the minority. But economic uncertainties and a renewed interested in do-it-yourself projects could conspire to make more people reconsider the traditional gifting spree.

"I think everybody is still second-guessing what they're spending and who they're buying for, and even what they could possibly make instead of go out to the store and buy," says Goodfellow. "Pinterest has really driven this DIY trend, and making something more personal is more accepted than it was before."

More on Holiday Spending:
Do you think there's a correlation between people's beliefs and their spending decisions? AOL and Chase Blueprint recently partnered on a survey to study this. The results are on the infographic below. Check it out and see where you fall. To see a bigger version of this, click the infographic on this link.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.