Folks: we're entering the height of the gift-giving season. There are more events - weddings, graduation ceremonies, baby showers, etc. - in May, June and July than almost every other month combined. And whether you love to give gifts, or would prefer almost any other method of showing your love and admiration, a disorganized last-minute approach can do serious damage to your wallet.
Last-minute gift buying - like last minute buying of almost anything - leads to misguided purchases. You buy something you want (instead of what your giftee wants), or fall victim to peer pressure ("if so-and-so is spending $100, I have to spend $100"), or revert to the same old habit (every baby gets a blanket even if the blanket that used to cost you $35, now costs $60). Whether you always look for the "perfect" present, or find yourself snagging a gift 45 minutes before your nephew's graduation party, taking a more strategic approach could help save you money and guilt. Here's how:
Plan by quarter. Look ahead three months in your calendar (I think it's easiest to do this by season - spring, summer, etc.). Compile a list of all the occasions for which a gift is expected, then figure out how much you can afford to spend. Is it $300? $500? A thousand dollars? Once you do that, you know how the gifts you have to buy match up against the money in your budget.
Remember, not all gifts are created equal. You don't have to treat every gift the same way - and there's no need to pull the same lever every time. Think about the person you're buying for - what do they value? It's usually one of four things: 1) money -to help them start a new phase of their life 2) time - spending time with you, or finding more time for them; 3) thoughtfulness - whether it's a picture album or a piece of art; or 4) practicality - they want exactly the item they've asked for (think wedding or shower registry). Remember: don't confuse what you would want with what the person you're buying for values.
Prioritize and get creative. Once you know how many gifts you need to buy (and when), and have a ballpark gift budget tailored to each recipient, you're ready to shop. For a few starter ideas:
- Elevate the ordinary. You can add a personal touch to just about any gift, without it costing you more money. Buy a bride her basic cake pans, but include your handwritten recipes. Give a graduate a frame, with a photo you took inside. Inexpensive and thoughtful.
- Take advantage of deals. Be on the look out for appropriate gifts that are on sale - a spa day for a new mom, dessert at a fancy restaurant for a new couple, membership in a professional association for a recent graduate - all great gifts, potentially at a fraction of the cost (if they are on sale and you plan ahead).
- Give the gift of time. Time is the one thing no one has enough of. Deliver a week's worth of meals to a new mom, plan an afternoon at the art museum with your mother-in-law, take a graduate to a seminar. My daughter's wedding gift to her cousin was to plan the entire honeymoon--port to port. Time with or for someone can be a treasured offering.
The dirty little secret? Gifts are an obligation. Whether you love or hate buying gifts, it's something you have to do. And in this post-Great Recession economy, it's not as easy (or wise) to spend $50 per gift carte blanche. Mapping out a strategy - and removing any element of surprise - can help lessen the burden on your brain and your bank account.