The holidays can be a tough time of year for many families. It puts stress not only on parents, but on their pocketbooks as well. This year, holiday spending is expected to reach the $1 trillion mark for the first time in history, according to a report by eMarket.
The average family is expected to spend $942 on gifts alone, reveals a report by Gallup. But what if your budget is so tight that you have to choose between keeping the lights on and buying presents for your kids?
It’s a reality that all too many families face in our country every year. And it’s one that mine dealt with for many years, too. Fortunately, there were ways for my mom to provide free Christmas gifts for my sisters and me without making those choices.
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How to Get Free Christmas (and Other Holiday) Gifts
The most well-known organization that provides Christmas gift donations to underprivileged children is Toys for Tots. The organization was established by the Marine Corps Reserve in 1947, and it’s been collecting and distributing gifts since. You can select your state and county on its website to find out who is running the distribution in your area and whether you still have time to sign up.
Another organization that regularly provides assistance to parents during the holidays is the Salvation Army. It does this primarily through its Angel Tree program. However, some sites also do direct gift distribution in their area if a large portion of the local population lives below the poverty line. You can find and get in contact with your local Salvation Army organizers on its website.
Another place that fixed- or low-income families might be able to find holiday gifts for their kids? A local church.
In most cases, you don’t have to be a member of the church — or even religiously affiliated — to ask for help.
Churches are often more than willing to help provide holiday cheer for your family, regardless of your religious beliefs.
How Christmas Gift Donations Helped My Family
When I was growing up, my mom was either on a fixed income or not making much money at all. But because of organizations like these, I never went a Christmas without gifts under the tree. If you or your family is in a situation like this and is facing the possibility of being unable to celebrate the holidays with gifts, reach out to these programs.
Meanwhile, if you’re in a position to donate to one or more of these organizations — or to ones like them in your area — please do. It makes all the difference to children.
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Where to Donate
There are many organizations that aim to provide children with the holidays that they deserve, but they need your help.
- Toys for Tots: As mentioned earlier, this organization is the run by the United States Marine Corps Reserve. It gives new toys, with your help, to children whose families can’t afford them.
- One Simple Wish: This organization connects you directly to wishes uploaded by children in foster care. It gives you a short sentence of information behind each wish. It makes and accepts donations at any time of the year, including birthdays and holidays.
- SantaCAN: This registry allows you to purchase gifts requested by youth in at-risk foster care in Los Angeles.
- Partnerships for Children: You can sponsor a specific child and buy gifts directly related to him or her. If you don’t have time to shop, you can make a general donation and the company will take care of giving out your gift.
- Samaritans Purse: This is an evangelical Christian organization that helps victims of war, natural disaster, poverty, and disease worldwide. A donation of $25 will purchase a shoebox filled with children’s essentials for the holiday season.
- GreaterGood: While you won’t exactly be purchasing gifts directly for those in need, a portion of the proceeds from your purchases will go to a cause of your choice. The options range from fighting hunger to helping veterans to rescuing animals.
- Be an Elf: Answer underprivileged kids’ letters to Santa and grant their Christmas wishes with no charity or middleman involved. Your gift goes straight to that child.
- The Ali Forney Center: This agency, which provides care for homeless LGBT youth, has a holiday gifting service in which you can participate. It may be the only gift some of those young people will get this year, the center says.
- Covenant House: Covenant House provides housing and resources to homeless children and teenagers who are in this situation due to abuse or sex trafficking. Its gift catalog is representative of necessities for the youth it cares for in over 31 cities nationwide.
- Nationwide Children’s Hospital: This organization also has a wish list for kids and teens spending time in the hospital over the holiday season. It particularly needs gifts for teens.
- Ronald McDonald House: Donate toys and essentials to your local chapter to help children and families in nearby hospitals this holiday season.
- Family Giving Tree: You can grant the specific wish of a child living in abject poverty via this virtual giving tree.
- Operation Christmas Spirit: Help a military family in financial need this holiday season. You can give specific gifts or donate funds and this organization will do the shopping for you.
Cheap Holiday Gift Strategies
If you have some money to spare over the holiday season, there are several strategies that parents can use to help get through the Christmas season without breaking the bank.
The “Four Gift” Rule
Each child gets something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. This is a straightforward and easy way to approach the holiday. Of course, you may still need to set a cap on how much you will spend on each person or things could get out of hand quickly.
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Instead of each family member purchasing something for every other family member, you can select names out of a hat and each person gets one gift. This is a great way to drastically reduce stress and spending.
Garage Sales and Secondhand Shopping
I have been able to make some amazing purchases at garage sales over the years. Brand-new items still in the package or with tags attached. No one has to know that you got their favorite movie or video at a garage sale for $1 if it’ss still wrapped up!
Set a Budget for Each Child
This is such an obvious one, but I had to mention it. The beautiful part? If you have older kids, you can get them a Visa gift card, and they can buy what they want. Chances are that they aren’t going to like that outfit you picked out, anyway!
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Leave Expectations Behind
Consider concentrating on the meaning of the holidays, rather than the gifts. Give your children one or two presents on Christmas morning, and spread out the gift-giving throughout the whole season.
Of course, generous grandparents and other family members may give kids presents, so your kids will never be empty-handed.
Stop Giving Individual Presents
Make a purchase that benefits the whole family instead of one particular person. Go on a short vacation around the holidays, or get annual passes to a local theme park. Rather than gifts, spend time and create memories with family.
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How to Buy Secondhand Gifts
To many people, going without gifts is not an option over the holidays. Lessen the burden on your wallet by considering secondhand gifts. If you do it right, they’ll ever know!
“There are many reasons people avoid buying used items for gifts,” says CentSai’s resident financial expert, Peter Neeves. “Psychologists refer to gifts as symbolic markers of both the gift giver and of the relationship between parties.”
“People may be afraid of being found out, fearing that a used gift is indicative of not caring about the relationship.”
That said, Neeves adds: “Some gifts play well used, such as cars. Many people who wouldn’t take offense at a used Corvette might take offense at used jeans. It’s very contextual, and it depends a lot on the relationship between the parties.” So make sure you and your recipient are on the same page when it comes to quality.
Secondhand gifts save money, reduce waste, and keep you from regretting that purchase that the kids grew out of or lost interest in. When you do it right, it also guarantees that you’ll be getting the best deals possible. Bye-bye, Black Friday! (In fact, late shoppers save 28 percent more than those who begin before Black Friday according to a study by Deloitte. Insane!)
- Iron pages of old books to flatten them.
- Remove all sales stickers.
- Clean old toys thoroughly — a bit of elbow grease goes a long way.
- Put multiple used items in a gift basket for that extra flair.
- Refurbish secondhand products: a bit of paint, a floral upholstery, and you’re set.
- Shrink wrap!
- Put some thought into the wrapping process. Bows, ribbons, name cards — anything goes.
Tips for Buying Secondhand Gifts
The trick to having a successful buy-used holiday is in knowing how to score a great, high-quality deal. Here are six great tips for ensuring that you get your money’s worth:
1. Ask Questions
The most important thing to do before you buy secondhand gifts is to make sure that they’re smoke- and pet-free — especially if there are allergies in your household.
Always ask for additional pictures if the toy has a defect, such as a dent or a stain. And be wary if the seller doesn’t describe it in detail or bother to provide pictures.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
This year a friend wanted to get their daughter a Bilibo chair, but didn’t want to pay full price. They put an ISO (in search of) request on a local Facebook page. Within an hour, they had three Facebook sellers offering their excellent-quality Bilibo chairs for less than $5! It goes to show that it never hurts to ask.
Be specific about what you want and the condition you want it in, and don’t just take the first offer that comes your way.
3. Know Where to Buy Secondhand Gifts
For big items — outdoor play homes, for example — search first on local Facebook sales pages and on Craigslist. It’s best to check out sites like ThredUP or Poshmark for quality clothing, especially designer brands.
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Deals on big-ticket items and collectibles always seem to be the best price in Facebook sales groups and on eBay.
Look into brick-and-mortar stores or sales. For example, garage sales can be gold mines for cheap and secondhand gift ideas. Check out any of them that you pass by. One person’s trash and all that!
Also, don’t be afraid to purchase new and excellent-condition clothing and shoes from consignment stores that have quality control in place. And stores like Goodwill, Savers, and other secondhand children shops are known for their toy selections and dress clothes.
4. Know What Secondhand Gifts You Shouldn’t Buy
There are some things you just don’t want to take a chance on. For example, some people stay away from buying boxed items. These are toys like puzzles, games, and building sets that you need to have each piece of in order to make them worthwhile.
Unless there’s some form of buyer guarantee, don’t take the risk with certain items. Who wants a puzzle with a missing piece?
It’s also wise to avoid anything that mold can grow in. Plastic baby dolls with a feeding component or bath toys — which get wet — may be a health hazard. And let’s just say there are certain items I don’t ever want to buy secondhand: underwear, baby bottles, you get the idea.
Look for other cheap ideas if these are on your gift-buying list. Keep an eye out, and you’re sure to find discounts and deals on new items. (There are tons of coupon-clipping sites and apps that can help you with that search.)
When I first started planning to buy secondhand gifts for the holidays, I made the mistake of getting overly excited. I was thrilled to find a seller advertising a crib that I wanted for $5. I practically sprinted to the person’s house. But when I got home, I noticed that it had stains all over that hadn’t been disclosed during our presale conversations.
It’s not a huge deal, but I would have passed had I taken the time to check the item before paying. Now I don’t hand over my money until I’ve thoroughly vetted the product for stains, rips, tears, missing parts, weird smells, and so on.
6. Shop Smart and Safely
Whenever you buy from another person, you should follow some safety measures. First, never wire someone money. Instead, use third-party money-transfer systems like PayPal if you pay online. If you can’t resolve a dispute with a seller, most forums or your credit card company will help you if you have been genuinely misled.
For in-person purchases of more than $20, insist on meeting in a safe, public area. But most importantly, use your gut feelings to determine whether or not a purchase feels right for you. There are scammers out there.
Final Thoughts on Cheap and Free Christmas Gift Ideas
Your holiday season doesn’t need to be about store sales, plastic packaging, or blowing your savings. Going into debt over holiday presents just isn’t worth it. Decide what will work best for your family and then stick to the plan. By shopping intelligently and safely for preloved toys and clothes, you can have a great Christmas with your kids and not spend the next calendar year paying for it!
Additional reporting by Kelly Meehan Brown.