Christmas On A Budget: The 4 Gift Rule

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Maybe the 4 gift rule will completely change your Christmas – for the better!

When I was growing up, Christmas was a huge production. There was always a mountain of gifts under the tree, and over-filled stockings, and it was downright magical to wake up to as a child. When I first had kids, I wanted nothing more than to give my babies the same experience I had growing up…. but there was one small problem: I couldn’t afford to do it. I spent the Christmas season stressed and filled with guilt. These days, we have a little more wiggle room in our budget, but I struggle with something different:

I want to avoid excess.

My kids have plenty of toys. My house is easier to keep clean when it isn’t stuffed to the brim with stuff. And so, a couple years ago, I implemented a new way to Christmas shop and do the whole gift thing.

We follow the 4 gift rule, which is actually very simple. Each child gets 4 things:

the four gift rule budget christmas

They get:
Something You Want
Something You Need
Something to Wear
Something to Read

And I kind of love it. Each year, I make a spread sheet and plan out well in advance of actually going shopping what I am going to purchase. This way, I am able to see how much I am likely to spend and stick with a budget, and when I actually go to buy, if it isn’t on the list, it doesn’t make its way into my shopping cart.

Struggling with keeping a budget? Check out the Recovering Spender. This book is a life-changer.

In our home, we do have a bit of a “last-second-wild-card” gift- the Santa gift, which I wait to purchase after the kids have a chance to see the big man in person. I limit the cost of this gift so I know I won’t blow my budget, but it does get purchased last second because I love to keep the magic alive and have their (reasonable) requests show up under the tree. Luckily, my kids haven’t asked for anything crazy yet. I mean, last year, one of my children asked for a red bouncy ball, so it’s not a big deal. (So, in reality, as long as they “believe” in Santa, there are 5 gifts for them under the tree.)

What I don’t do is ask the kids what they want for Christmas from their Dad and me. I do listen in to the things they talk about, but we avoid the whole asking thing entirely. I do this for a couple reasons- I don’t want the kids to mistakenly think they will get everything on their wish lists, and I don’t want them getting overly “gimmie gimmie” during the holiday season. We talk a lot about service and helping others, and yes, I have been known to tell them that Santa and his elves have so many kids to take care of that we can’t be selfish. The biggest reason, though, is that I love to surprise them with gifts, and what fun is it to only buy what someone specifically asked for?

If you’d like to try saving your budget this year, Only Passionate Curiosity is sharing a spreadsheet printable for you to use in your planning as well as a printable fill-in-the blank Santa letter if your family does the Santa thing and you wanted to let them ask for specific things. 

Click here

The four gift rule shopping list

Here are some other ways you can stick to a budget this Christmas:

Eliminate Stockings

Stockings are the ultimate money suck, in my experience. Sure, I could fill them with an orange and socks and it wouldn’t be so bad, but the truth is I often stuck things like small toys and other goodies in them. Before I knew it, I had blown an extra 100 dollars on “junk” when really, all my kids cared about is the bigger gift. These days, our stockings are decor only, and no one seemed to notice we no longer do them.

Give an Experience

Why not give the kids a date with Dad, or cookie making with Mom?

Limit Kids to the Dollar Store

Do your kids give each other gifts? Have them get those goodies at the dollar store!

Pull a Name

If you have a large family, try having each child pull a name for giving gifts.

Homemade Christmas

When all else fails, have a homemade Christmas. My favorite Christmas gift is still the family cookbook my mom gave me one year. All she did was type up the tried-and-true recipes I grew up on, and I still use it daily.

This article was written by Heather–the previous owner of Only Passionate Curiosity. 

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  1. I shop during the year. I give a craft book with supplies to learn a new skill. I get the books at thrift stores. The added benefit is the satisfaction of their creation. Our local library offers free classes and supplies!

  2. We have seven children and are very blessed to be financially sound. I too struggle with excess and materialism not to mention to much JUNK! Do you have any suggestions to quell the influx of trinkets and useless clutter that infiltrates the family from grandparents? They don’t seem to be on board with a minimalistic approach. Thanks and merry Christmas!

    1. Could they be persuaded to chip in for a zoo membership or something like that? Maybe have a child sweet talk them with a kind letter about how much experiences mean to them? Even something like a “date” with grandma to the park, or baking cookies, or creating a craft together would limit the clutter without eliminating the “gift.”

      If the trinkets keep coming, then what I would personally do is let the children enjoy them for a time, but eventually they would make their way into the “giveaway bin.” Many of the smaller, less expensive gifts the kids receive loose their shine quickly anyways. The other option would be to have a designated drawer or shelf for trinkets, and once it’s full, your child would need to purge some of the goodies to the giveaway bin to make room for new. One out, one in, that sort of thing!

      Good Luck! It’s hard when family means well- you don’t want to hurt feelings, but don’t want to sacrifice your home and sanity either!

  3. HI Heather! Great blog! I am a homeschool mom too, and my question is, of the four categories, which one would you choose if you could get each child only ONE gift this Christmas? We have zero budget for gifts this year and 6 children. I am wanting to do something but it has to come from the grocery budget which is already tight with so many eaters -lol! Any advice? Thanks, Christy

    1. If I was only going to get one gift, it would probably be the “want” in our house, because I want to keep the magic alive! But- that’s a really hard question… you can’t overlook needs either! If it’s coming out of the grocery budget, could you maybe do each child’s favorite meal under the tree? Or a special food based treat? I know my middle son would be thrilled to find his favorite pancake mix, and my oldest would love tacos, and my youngest would go batty for a cake mix. And I would get bonus points if it was presented as a “Mama and Me” experience and they could cook with me.

      The other thing you could do is homemade gifts- knit a scarf, or write up a family cookbook (which was one of the best gifts I have ever received!) or even paint some rocks (little kids love that kind of thing!).

      OH! And, don’t forget, I have a freebie for Christmas you can use this year here:

      Good luck, I know it stinks to feel so strapped during the holidays. I hope you come up with a way to celebrate with the kiddos without further straining your budget. HUGS!!!

  4. We used a three-gift rule for many years, based on the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus. The “gold” gift is something valuable or greatly desired; the “frankincense” gift is something that grows their relationship with God (because incense was used in temple worship); and the “myrrh” gift is something that prepares for the future – in our family it was usually something very practical or maybe something educational or something that could be considered an investment in some way.

    And yeah, we found the same thing with stockings. We stopped stuffing them years ago and now only decorate with them.

    Great ideas!

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