via Wikimedia CommonsYou might think that with a mag full of Christmas tips, we here at family circle would be GENIUSES of organisation come the big day. Alas, no.
Look, there are some members of the team who are – the food gang can always be relied on for a brilliant spread, while our redoubtable editor in chief and deputy editor both put on impressive family productions. But, ironically for someone who makes a living as a managing editor, I never manage it. In fact, last Christmas was spent eating ice-cream and sandwiches at our place, after we decided it was all too hot and horrid and we’d rather spend what energy we had playing at the park. So these blog entries are less the sort of lovingly trialled excellence you might receive from luminaries such as Martha Stewart or June Dally-Watkins, and more the tested but slightly harried suggestions of someone who thinks that a sandwich can be celebratory.
Now that’s out in the open, let’s talk presents.
There’s little quite as fraught with potential for disaster as the gentle art of gift giving. Quite aside from all the emotional turmoil when one child receives the toy another child had pinned all their hopes and dreams to, it can be quite the costly exercise and leave the credit cards groaning well into the new year. But there are easy ways to make everything a bit easier.
Controlling your costs
The most important piece of advice financial planners give regarding Christmas is to set a present budget and stick to it. I’m yet to do this perfectly, but every year I get a little bit closer. Following a tip given to me by an old business writer, I make a list of everyone who I plan on giving a present to on one sheet of paper, roughly in the order of importance, then on a second sheet of paper I write the amount I plan to spend altogether. Going down the list, assign amounts to each person and subtract them from the total as you go. So you might have $800 in total, and jot down $150 for hubby, $200 for each of the two kids, $100 for mum, leaving $150 for all the other relatives and friends and the in-laws. If that’s six people, you’re laughing, but if you’ve still got 30 to go, it’s either scale back on hubby and mum, or start striking some of the names off your list.
Before you sentence hubby to yet more socks, have a serious think about culling your list. If you and your sister have been waging an ongoing gift war of soap sets in return for cheap perfume and statuettes for the last 10 years, ring her up and say you think because the budget is tight this year, the two of you should just exchange cards and spend the cash on the children instead. The worst case scenario is that she will think you’re a bit miserly – and you know, if that means never again having to feign joy at the sight of a 15cm-high ceramic weeping puppy, that could be OK.
And for anyone who gave you a pressie once in the 90s but hasn’t reciprocated since, OFF! Unless they’re really lovely and deserving, or have a will that names you as a beneficiary …
There is, of course, one more way around things …
It is possible to give cheap gifts that don’t look cheap. If you’re a wiz in the kitchen, whip up some flavoured oils and vinegars. You can buy gorgeous little bottles from many gift shops (also, try Indian, Chinese, Fijian and hippie shops, they often have some beauties lurking for massage oil blends), or online. Make sure to sterilise your bottles before using. Because you’re giving gifts of 200ml or so, buy good quality oil or vinegar in large bottles: even if it’s $40/Litre, that’s $8 a pop between five. Add $2 for the bottle, herbs free from your garden, and you’re laughing! There are good instructions online. Try here for herbal oil and butter, or here for vinegars (keep the vinegars topped up or else strain all the herbs out before using, as uncovered herbs in the bottle can spoil). Better at baking? Grab the Christmas issue of family circle on October 31 and whip up the biscuit recipes or brownies you’ll find inside.
Prefer craft to cooking? Grab a few metres of calico or linen and run up shopping bags for all your friends, or else drawstring bags that can be used for everything from keeping shoes together while travelling to storing craft projects. You can find lots of good patterns on the web, from this fancy-pants model, to this classic one (you can leave off all the appliques), to this easy-peasy drawstring. You can print or embroider motifs in place to personalise each bag, and it will cost you little more than time.
If your recipient lives online, buy them a new App or a gift to their fave social media site, for example, WordPress offers all sorts of services from domain names and ad blocking to HD video.
Alternatively, make the money count more! You can buy a chicken for someone in a developing nation in the name of your friend for $10 thanks to Oxfam, plus receive a great card or e-card to let them know you care. Check out our Giving feature in the mag for more charity ideas, where a little bit of cash can go a long way.
And don’t forget the old tradition of the present box: buy up big during the sales throughout the year when you can get lovely little gift packages of basics like stationery, soap and so on. There’ll always be someone you need to cough up a pressie for at the last minute, so it’s good to have a stash that you grabbed for 50% off in the pre- or post-Christmas sales. Make sure you buy things you like, if it looks as though they are getting past their prime, then you can use them yourself. And always store text books on top of the box – it’s amazing how few people will keep looking once they spot 4-Unit Maths Extension 2, or Introduction to Semiotics. If you don’t have any lying around, try breast-feeding pamphlets, they work a treat!
What do people want?
Santa has the right idea: get everyone to write a list.
In our house, you can write as long a list as you like, but everything on it has to be something you really want or need, and then you’re allowed to put extra stars or ticks beside the things most wanted. We then go onto the internet and look at roughly how much things will cost, so everyone knows that if they get one expensive thing while someone else gets three cheap things, it’s still fair. In a good year, a lot of each list might be delivered, in a tight year, less. But in tight years we make sure to wrap up handwritten vouchers for Time To Watch A DVD and Games Afternoons Down the Park, too, so they can be hoarded as treasures and cashed in at will (usually we give the voucher back and say ‘that was so much fun, it doesn’t count as a voucher use’).
Hold onto old present lists, but check to see if they’re still current. Last year’s must-have toy is probably passé now, while the hope for a dog might still burn bright and now be matched by an age level at which the puppy will be safe from tail-pulling.
Look at the lifetime costs of a gift, too. Computer games are amazingly popular, but they do encourage a sedentary lifestyle that’s less than ideal, and require regular updates of both console systems and peripherals, as well as new games as they come out. A bicycle will require some amount of mechanical work over its lifespan, but will help keep your kids active and keep parents off the sofa, too, as you teach them road sense and escort them until they’re old enough to ride alone. Similarly, some dollhouses and racing sets come with loads of dolls/furniture/cars/bits, while for others you need to buy each component, so what looks like the best value to begin with, often isn’t.
If you’re on a strict budget, don’t be afraid to say so. Kids are really good at trying to do their part around the house once they know it’s important. Let them know that both you and Santa are still worried about the GFC, and so they’ll need to prioritise and pare down their lists this year. Make sure you’ve made sacrifices if you’re asking them to, and then show how it all helps around the house – Scruffy’s dogfood is paid for the year because Son Number One asked for a new football rather than a Wii, while you deciding to go for at-home colour has paid for the electricity this quarter. Showing what you can manage on a budget can really help the kids to cope when you’re going through a financial rough patch, because they feel as though you’re all in it together, and that everyone has a level of control. If only our politicians followed suit!