Waste Less and Give More With These 5 Effective Ideas

Maybe you're broke.  Maybe you're appalled at the environmental costs.  Or maybe you're tired of compulsory consumerism.

I get it.  I've been to those extended-family Christmases where there's a ten-minute turmoil of present opening, a tornado of ribbons and wrapping paper, and piles of presents that are destined to be tossed, returned the next day, or stuffed into the back of a closet.

pile of holiday gift wrap

We spend how much?

The average monthly car payment in the U.S. is $568.  Which is ridiculous.  Yet most people are spending far more than that for Christmas gifts.

Average household spending on Christmas gifts in the U.S. is $886.  Women do most of the shopping, and spend an average of 20 hours searching for gifts.

Additionally, 41% of U.S. adults say they're willing to go into debt for Christmas gifts. 

Is it worth it?

Let's look at the waste.

Sorry... it's depressing, I know.  I'm not trying to beat you over the head, because I contribute to this mess as well.  But is it worth it?  Is giving Aunt Marge another knickknack that will sit next to last year's unloved tchotchke worth a car payment and then some?

You don't even have to be a minimalist to long for some alternatives.

5 sustainable gift-giving ideas

These ideas work for anyone who finds that the typical holiday hoopla doesn't fill them with joy.  Feel free to steal them and pass them on.

1.  The all-in-it-together gift.

My siblings and I used to do this when we were kids.  Each of us had enough money for a crummy present for our parents, but if we pooled our funds we could buy one decent gift.

A few years ago my husband and his three brothers clubbed together to buy a new gas grill to replace the beat-up charcoal briquette grill their parents had used for over 30 years.  My parents-in-law wouldn't have treated themselves to a nice new grill, so they were thrilled.

When we stop flying solo and start collaborating, we open up many more ideas and opportunities.  After all, four or five people with a $25-$50 budget can come up with $100-$200.  One truly useful or desirable gift of quality beats four lesser or unwanted gifts any day of the week.

2.  The draw-a-name gift

My husband and I come from families of four and three children, respectively, and we and all of our siblings had two or three children apiece.  Now those kids are getting married and so far there are twelve children in the new generation.  That's a lot of gifts!

Why not pass around a hat and choose names, so that each person is responsible to get a gift for just one other person?  You can keep adults and children over 12 in one group, and kids under 12 in another.

Jon and I do that with our two grown children and their partners.  Each of us writes a short list of items ($20-$25) we would enjoy receiving and the lists go into a bowl.  Whoever draws your name also has some idea of what to buy, so unwanted gifts aren't a problem.

3.  The handmade gift.

Sometimes people worry about giving something handmade because they're afraid it will come across as cheap.

Even worse, many people seem to expect a present that reflects a person's annual income.  Your cousin who's a lawyer is expected to give fancier gifts than the sister who teaches preschool.

This kind of accounting doesn't enhance Christmas spirit, does it?

Christmas cookies
Instead, make it a family rule that gifts have to be handmade, and see what people come up with.

  • My son-in-law has made everyone except my gluten-intolerant son beautiful loves of sourdough bread (he bought gluten-free cupcakes for my son).
  • My son has made no-sew fleece blankets and essential oil rice bag heating pads (I use both of these all the time in the winter).
  • I've made soup mix in a jar, spiced walnuts (from local orchards), picture books illustrating my own silly poems for the grandkids, and cozy crocheted scarves.
  • Jon likes to give handmade coupons for his services such as a bike tune-up, oil change, or car wash and detailing.
  • My oldest grandson colors pictures and decorates home-baked cookies (his Mama helps).

Remember this equation:  Time + Effort + Creativity > Cost

4.  The consumable gift

These gifts don't wind up in the garbage or at the back of a closet.  They can range from things like jams, wine, coffee beans, and chocolate, to gifts enjoyed by the mind or the body, such as:

  • one-year membership (and free admissions!) at a museum, arboretum, the zoo, an aquarium
  • movie/TV streaming subscription
  • gift certificate for a massage, facial, or mani-pedi
  • concert or movie tickets
  • an experience suitable to the recipient (glider ride, horseback ride on the beach, whale watching tour, indoor rock climbing, snorkeling, wine tasting, etc.)

Most consumable gifts will be appreciated and remembered for a very long time.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you purchase through my links, I may earn a small commission.

winter walk
5.  The grown-up gift

Kids may be excited about Christmas gifts, but that doesn't mean you have to be.  Isn't it true that as we age, other things become more important than whatever might be under the tree?

In a world that contains pandemics, political unrest, and too many other terrible things, why should we waste time worrying about whether we got the right present, spent too much or too little money, and whether things are wrapped or decorated just so?

Let's be grown-ups and put other people with real needs ahead of our own pleasures.  Maybe you can agree with your family or group of friends on one or two (or three or four) charities that you would all like to donate to in lieu of buying any gifts for each other.

Then you can simply enjoy being together, take a walk or play some games, and forget about waste and consumerism entirely.

If you liked this post, you'll love my book A Minimalist Holiday: Simplify Your Celebration for More Meaning and Joy.

You're not a Grinch, but you definitely want a holiday with less greed, less clutter, less stress – and more love, more meaning, and more peace.  You don't have to do more or buy more to make the holidays mean more, and A Minimalist Holiday can show you how.


  1. I love that your name drawing comes with short lists of affordable wants. That's a clever idea I would duplicate if we still gave gifts.

    I loved my step-mothers traditional white elephant exchange. She's have 20-30 people who picked numbers out of a hat. Then number one would pick a wrapped gift but not open it. When everyone had a gift, we went around again and took turns opening them. The one more time around and you could exchange your gift for anyone else's gift so it paid to have high number or someone might take the one you just chose. It was fun to see who would get the drinky bird this year.

    1. Sounds fun - and what a great idea to keep some of the silliest, iconic gifts in year-by-year rotation. Who gets it this time? Just great.


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