MONEY Holidays

The DIY Way to Give Your Gifts a Personal Touch

Forget gift cards or store-bought knickknacks that will just get regifted. The best presents come with something money can't buy.

If you want to really wow someone over the holidays with a token of your affection, chances are it’ll take more than a trip to the mall (or Amazon.com): A survey shows nearly three-quarters of Americans will be unhappy with their gifts this year.

Distinguish yourself from ordinary gift-givers by using your skills to make a present that packs an emotional punch. Artistic? One MONEY staffer’s illustrator boyfriend once gave her a hand-drawn picture book in which she was the main character. Good on Google? Another staffer did some Internet sleuthing and tracked down her father’s long-lost war buddy and was able to give her dad a letter from the friend as a gift.

If these ideas sound too intimidating or time-consuming, there are shortcuts to memorable gifts. Consider ordering a wall calendar from a site like collage.com with your funniest family photos, organized by season. Or a shirt with an inside joke for your closest group of friends from customink.com.

If you’re short on inspiration, your best resource is the vast digital footprint we all leave behind these days (for better or worse): Comb through old texts, emails, and chats for clues as to what your intended gift recipient might really love. And—for even more creative ideas—check out the video above.

MONEY Holidays

If You Insist on Regifting, Here’s How to Do It

gift with card that has been amended from "To: Me" to read "To: You"
J.M. Guyon

If the present you're planning to pass along doesn't meet these 5 cardinal rules, put down that wrapping paper right now.

We’ve all been there: stuck with a present we don’t want and feeling the urge to repack that hideous whatever-it-is and pass it off to the next unsuspecting person on our holiday gift list.

Should we give in to temptation?

“Nine times out of ten, regifting will come back to bite you in the butt. It doesn’t have a lot of good spirit to it,” says Lizzie Post, etiquette expert and co-author of the most recent edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette.

She recommends that instead of repacking the item, you cut your losses and simply donate it, or at least be honest with your loved one: “Hey, I got two copies of this book for Christmas, would you like one of them?”

But if you feel that the unwanted present is actually a really good gift—just, you know, not for you—there are certain circumstances where recycling a gift is perfectly fine, says Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas. “We’ve all gotten gifts that just didn’t work, and we all want to be budget-conscious and not wasteful.”

So if you’re going to regift this year, follow these five rules and nobody gets hurt.

1. Keep It Out of Your Social Circle

“You need to be 99% sure that the person you are giving the gift to and the person who gave it to you won’t ever find out about your regift,” Post says. To avoid getting caught out, don’t pass it along to anyone in your family if it came from another family member. Same goes for swapping within your circle of friends. Instead, take that ceramic pie bird from your mother-in-law and give it to your baker friend who lives in another state.

2. Have a Flawless Presentation

Make sure the item is in the original box and that both are in perfect, store-shelf condition. Anything that you’ve opened, tinkered with, or tested out shouldn’t be going to someone else, says Gottsman. And don’t even think about doing a bait and switch and putting it in a new box or different bag to make it look newer or more expensive than it actually is, she adds.

3. Skip Any Items That Aren’t New

Anything that’s been sitting in your closet for a while will not be to current taste and may look dated. You’ll also want to be sure no original gift tags are still stuck to the package and, if regifting a giftcard, that the amount listed matches what’s actually on the card.

4. Ditto the Unique and Homemade

“Do not regift any family heirlooms, anything homemade, or anything really unique,” says Gottsman. “No matter how much you hate it, you should respect the effort, thought, and meaning behind that gift.”

More generic and less expensive items, particularly perishables like chocolate or wine, lend themselves more easily to being passed along because we think of these hostess-type gifts as less heartfelt or meaningful than other presents anyway.

5. No Regifting the Ugly

Don’t think of your regift as a way of unloading unwanted items. “If you find the item useless, ugly, or in bad taste, why give it to someone else?” asks Gottsman.

Your recipient still needs to feel that thought and effort went into their gift—even if it wasn’t yours. “You need to really think about the person who will be receiving your regift and be sure that it is an item the person would actually want.”

If the present you’re thinking of regifting doesn’t meet all the requirements on this list, put down that giftwrap right now. Return it, donate it, or find a special place for it in your closet so you can easily pull it out next year when your mother-in-law visits.

MONEY Holidays

The Ultimate Guide to Holiday Tipping

Want to give a holiday tip, but don't have a clue how much to give? Here are some helpful guidelines from the etiquette experts.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but instead I often find myself stressed when I realize I have no clue how much to tip my hairdresser. Or my housekeeper. Or my garbage collectors. If you’re like me, you have a list of people you want to thank for helping to make your life easier throughout the year. If you’re also like me, you have no clue about what gratuity levels are considered typical, stingy, or even generous.

That’s why this year I reached out to a couple of highly regarded experts to get the inside scoop. Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas says, “The first rule of thought is to gift and tip within your budget. No one wants to see you struggle to tip through the holidays if you have just lost your job, or you are having trouble paying the rent.”

“Tips are subjective,” adds Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass. “Tips are dependent on your relationship with the individual and the norms for your area, as well as your budget.”

With that in mind, here are some helpful guidelines from the experts to help you (and me!) navigate gratuity gifts as the year comes to an end.

Home Services

These are the people who help out around the house, so you have more time to earn money to hire people to help out around the house!

  • Babysitter: Cash or gift card equivalent to one or two night’s pay. I talked to someone who used to sit for my kids and she told me, “It’s nice to know you’re appreciated. A small gift is a nice token of appreciation and helps keep a sitter loyal to a family.”
  • Nanny/Au Pair: The equivalent of one week’s salary and a handmade gift from your child. “A live-in nanny or a nanny that spends most of the day with your children is invaluable,” says Gottsman.
  • Housekeeper: A cash gift equal to one week’s pay. “If you use a service, and you don’t see the same person on a regular basis, or the person is brand new,” says Gottsman, “you may not feel obliged give a tip at all. If you have a relationship with the person(s), or they come weekly, consider a gift card per person or a tip equivalent to one visit.”
  • Pet Sitter: One day to one week’s worth of service. “Our pets are our family and someone that takes care of them while we are on a trip, or walks the dog on a regular basis is worth their weight in gold,” says Gottsman.

Apartment Living

You’ll want to keep happy all those folks who make apartment living nice.

  • Doorman: Between $20 and $200. (This range seems huge to me. I’ve never lived in an apartment with a doorman so I’d love to hear those of you who do ring in on this one.)
  • Custodian/Superintendent/Handyman: $20 – $100. “If they have saved you in the middle of the night when your toilet was overflowing or jumped your car more than once when you forgot to turn off your headlights,” says Gottsman, a holiday tip would be helpful.”
  • Parking Attendant: $10 – $50
  • Landlord or Building Manager: $50 (cash or gift card)

Homeowners

While homeowners don’t typically have doormen to tip, they do have a host of service providers to gift.

  • Garbage Collector: Between $10 and $25 per crew person. In many areas, tips left taped to the trashcan lids can be stolen (I’ve had several friends tell me this happened to them.) If you miss your crew during the day, Gottsman suggests arranging to drop the gift off at their corporate office.
  • Lawncare: $10 per crew person.
  • Snow Removal: $10 per person.
  • Pool Cleaner: One week’s pay.

Work

These gifts are more personal than those traded during the office Secret Santa.

  • Your Boss: $0 or a group office gift. “It’s not necessary to give your boss a large or expensive gift,” says Gottsman. “Consider an office gift pool or bring a tray or holiday goodies for the office.”
  • Your Office Assistant: A bonus, gift card, or small gift.

School

Show teachers and staff you appreciate all their efforts to educate Junior (even if Junior doesn’t).

  • Your Child’s Teacher: Many schools encourage parents to contribute to a class gift. If your child’s school doesn’t, consider a small gift with a note and/or a handmade gift from your child. A teacher friend of mine told me, “I always love and save handwritten notes. If they come with a gift or gift card — to anywhere at all — that is appreciated, too. But, it’s the notes that keep me going.”
  • Classroom Aide: If there is not a group classroom gift, a small gift with a note and/or a handmade gift from your child.
  • School Lunch Attendant: $20 per attendant, if you have a child with special dietary needs, and school policy allows such gifts (check with your child’s school office to be sure). Says Gottsman, “A lunch attendant who is vigilant when it comes to your child’s food allergy is worth their weight in gold.”
  • School Secretary: A small gift or gift certificate.

Personal Care

The people who keep you and your family looking good should know you appreciate their work, too.

  • Hairstylist: The cost of one session or a gift. “Hair stylists become our confidants,” says Gottsman. “It would be uncomfortable to arrive empty handed the last week of the holiday season.”
  • Shampoo Attendant: A small gift or $5 – $20.
  • Manicurist: The equivalent of one visit or a gift.
  • Massage Therapist: The equivalent of one session or a gift.
  • Personal Trainer: The equivalent of one session or a gift. According to Gottsman, “Personal trainers often double as counselors. A tip of one service or a gift that has personal significance would say happy holidays.”
  • Pet Groomer: The equivalent of one service or a basket of treats from your pet.
  • Personal Healthcare Nurse: The equivalent of one week’s pay.

Gift Wrap Your Gifts, Too

When preparing your holiday gratuities, Smith says, “Tips should be crisp, new bills placed in an envelope with a card or note of appreciation.” For the financially strapped, Smith suggests a heartfelt note of thanks along with a thoughtful and inexpensive gift like homemade cookies. Gottsman agrees and offers further suggestions like a pot of fresh herbs from your garden or a basket of scones with homemade jelly.

When to Skip the Tip

Gottsman also suggests adjusting your tips according to level of relationship and frequency of service. “Everyone has different lifestyle preferences and providers,” says Gottsman. “One person may use a hairstylist once a week while another person may visit the salon every three months. If you don’t see them regularly and they can’t remember your name, you may opt to skip the tip.”

If the relationship is solid, though, Smith says that skipping the tip is akin to telling your service providers they’re not valued or to imply they’ve done something wrong. If a gratuity is not in your budget for this year, consider the alternative suggestions above. However, “when your finances are fluid again,” Smith suggests, “please do tip them.”

Related:
Who Can You Get Away With NOT Tipping Over the Holidays?

Read more articles from Wise Bread:

How to Wrap Gifts with Leftovers
Regifting: A Simple How-To Guide
25 Great Gifts for $5 or Less

TIME advice

7 Habits of Thoughtful Gift Givers

gift
Getty Images

Need a little help channeling your inner Santa? These simple tips make it easy to get into the spirit of giving

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” ― Mother Teresa

‘Tis the season for giving. And research suggests that doing so may help bust stress, promote happiness, and even lead to a longer life. Looking to get in touch with your generous side? Embrace these seven habits of truly thoughtful gift givers.

They plan ahead.

Considerate gift giving is as much about planning as it is about how well you know the person. Take time to think about the recipient’s personality and interests to figure out how he or she will get the most value or gratification, suggests Elizabeth Hebda, shopping expert at LivingSocial. Map out a list of your ideas to help you stay organized and make sure you find the perfect fit for everyone.

Thoughtful gift givers don’t focus on cost.

The practice of thoughtful giving offers a wealth of benefits, but that doesn’t mean givers should focus on big price tags. In fact, thoughtful gift givers don’t dwell on the cost of presents. It seems that having more cash could actually reduce compassion, according to Berkley research, and isn’t compassion what this time of year is all about? So don’t sweat it if you don’t have a lot to spend. Instead, get creative.

They make gifts personal.

Gifting is an opportunity to let a person know how much you appreciate and love them, and show how well you know them, says Nancy Soriano, living editor at Rue La La. “Even when I gift an item that is store bought, I personalize it in some way,” she says. “I have been known to re-wrap Trader Joe’s dark chocolate dinner mints in clear cellophane bags with silver silk ribbons—perfect for a dinner party.”

If you’re buying for someone who seems to have everything, consider gifting an experience, saysHebda. Book a massage, take them to a wine tasting event, or grab a couple of tickets to a concert or show. If you’re buying for a parent, taking their kids for an evening could be the best gift of all. “Think back to your last conversation,” says Hebda. “Did they talk about wanting or needing something? Are they going on any upcoming trips? Was there a particular topic that got them excited?”

And they enjoy giving more than receiving.

Nothing beats the feeling of giving a gift, and a recent study may prove it. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbra found that people would rather take on costs themselves in order to help others. In another study, participants chose to give away an average of 40 percent of a gifted sum of cash rather than keep it for themselves. There was also a clear difference in their brain activity. When people donated money, the dorsal and ventral striatum and the ventral tegmental area, the part of the brain we would expect to show activity when receiving a reward, actually lit up more than when the participants acquired the money for themselves. The bottom line? Our brains consider the act of giving a positive reward.

Thoughtful gift givers can also get crafty.

Homemade gifts can add a bit of sparkle to the holidays. Love to knit? Keep your friends or family warm with mittens, a scarf, or a hat. Right at home in the kitchen? Whip up some special treats and place them on a pretty, vintage dish. “One of my favorite things to make and gift is a ‘baking canister,’” saysSoriano. “I fill a canister with ingredients for a cake, brownies, or pancake batter with exact measurements. I attach a handmade recipe card around the top of the lid.”

They think about the presentation.

Thoughtful gifters pay attention to detail, including how their gifts are wrapped. See what you have around your house to customize generic packaging. Soriano recommends using pretty fabric or towels to cover something like a bottle of wine. You can also tie on a decoration that fits the theme of your gift, such as a small gingerbread ornament to hang on the tree if your present is a batch of homemade cookies.

When in doubt, they ask.

There’s always someone on the list who leaves you stumped. If you’re truly at a loss, it’s totally OK to ask for a little help from a close friend or family member of even the person you’re shopping for. Also, remember that the old cliché​ about the thought counting is often spot-on. “The act of giving a gift is in itself a thoughtful gesture,” says Soriano.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

More from Real Simple:

MONEY Shopping

Why Gift Cards Are the Only Present That Makes Sense

Gift card on gold background
Khuong Hoang—Getty Images

The case for not wasting time in search of the perfect presents for your loved ones.

Let’s just say it: Gift cards are the best present for almost everyone on your list.

“Gift cards?!” you yell, monocle falling into your tea. “Who, other than your distant relations, would be so tacky? So gauche?

The answer? Most people. According to BankRate, 84% of Americans have received a gift card and 72% have given one. By the end of 2014, $124 billion dollars will have been loaded onto gift cards, and sales have been growing for years.

The case against gift cards is weak. (Though my colleague, Kara Brandeisky, begs to differ.) A recent Wall Street Journal article revealed that “only” 37% of consumers want a gift card this season, yet spun this news as a negative: “The novelty of gift cards has worn off,” Alison Paul, Deloitte’s vice chairman and retail sector leader, told the paper.

Really? Does more than a third of America wanting your product mean the “novelty has worn off?” If only we could all be that unsuccessful.

And the truth is, most of us will be unsuccessful when we shop for gifts this year. A 2014 survey from online retailer Rakuten showed almost three out of four Americans won’t like the gifts they receive this season. Let’s do some quick Moneyball here: Based on these two studies, most gifts have a 25% approval rating, while gift cards have a 37% approval rating. Gee, I wonder which one I should pick…

Faced with those statistics, the case against gift cards boils down to human insecurity. How will your friends know you really care about them if you don’t give them something special? It’s this fear that drives people to spend an average of 14 hours shopping for gifts. That’s more than half a day of your life spent stressing out, and for what?

“I got you a Star Wars ice cube tray because I know you like Star Wars (just like everyone else on the planet). I’m a real friend.”

Please. Does this type of vague, commercial knowledge of the people close to you—the type of knowledge that leads to thousands of tacky Han-Solo-in-Carbonite iPhone cases being given every year—actually demonstrate anything other than the commodification of companionship?

Gift cards, therefore, aren’t just the right gift for your friends, they’re the right gift for society. They cast aside our anxieties and pretensions to declare, “I’m so confident in our relationship that I have nothing to prove.” That’s therapeutic for everyone. In contrast, the stress of trying to accurately translate our feelings into an object—something that’s neither possible nor desirable—can actually be dangerous.

For proof, look no further than The Gift of the Maji, a classic O. Henry story in which two lovers set out to buy each other gifts. Despite their poverty, the wife scrapes together $20 to buy her husband a chain for his only possession: an old pocket watch. In order to pay for it, she sells her beautiful long hair. But the husband trades his watch to buy his wife ornamental hair combs, leaving them both with nothing of value.

There are a lot of lessons here, like don’t ever buy someone a hair comb, but let me get to the most important one: Wouldn’t they both have been happier with BestBuy gift cards?

Instead of getting caught up the need to be thoughtful, to the point where both parties sold their most treasured possessions for pretty mediocre presents, they could have spent their gift cards together and gotten a sweet flat screen. Maybe pop in Love Actually and talk about how their relationship is even more enduring than Hugh Grant’s aw-shucks routine. Now that’s what I call a Christmas.

What were we talking about? Oh right, gift cards. The point is that you’re statistically likely to buy an unwanted, meaningless present, so don’t get gray hairs over choosing the right one. Instead of stressing out, just put 25 bucks onto a piece of plastic and spend another 10 minutes writing a nice card. That’s almost guaranteed to go over better than anything else you could give.

Why not just give everyone cash, you may ask? Dude, that’s so tacky!

COUNTERPOINT: Why Gift Cards Are a Crime Against Christmas

MONEY Holidays

8 Smart Ways to Save When Buying Holiday Gifts for a Big Family

Buying christmas presents for a big family
Vstock LLC—Getty Images

You've made your list, checked it twice, and—my god, are there really that many names on it?! Keep your budget from being scrooged by your generosity with these strategies.

If you’ve got a lot of people to buy for, you’re probably used to watching your holiday budget spiral out of control.

The costs of purchasing presents for a long list adds up fast. The average American expects to spend $720 this year, according to a Gallup poll, and a quarter of people will spend more than $1,000. If you’ve got a huge extended family or a big coterie of gift-exchanging friends, you may have found that your own expenses surpass even that not-so-grand figure.

And many people embrace the giving spirit and are generous to a fault: Nearly four in 10 people admit to feeling pressured to spend more than they can afford during the holiday season.

To help spare you some pain when January’s credit card bill arrives, MONEY asked a few smart mom bloggers to share some of the cost-cutting strategies they use for their own gift giving. Cue the elves!

1. Cut Out the Adults

“Last year we agreed with my brother and sister-in-law to only exchange gifts for the kids. It was the start of something wonderful. We have agreed to do it again this year, and I also reached out to another family-in-law this year to do the same. We have reduced our present load by at least four, saving about $150 to $200—as well as the weeks-long process of my husband mulling over the perfect present while vetoing everything I suggest!” —Elissha Park, The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything

2. Rotate Recipients

“On one side of the family, we rotate between the four siblings and their families as to whom we give gifts. My three kids enjoy coming up with a theme and putting together a ‘family gift’ for their cousins.”—Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

3. Agree to Get Crafty

“On the other side of our family, we do homemade gifts—still sticking to a dollar amount because it’s easy to overspend even with craft supplies. These have been some of our family’s favorite gifts, like the CDs of favorite kid songs my son made for his uncles when they became new dads!” —Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

4. Think In Tiers

“It’s so easy to go overboard from year to year. That’s why I use a three-tiered gift-giving system: Tier 1 is family. We do gift exchanges with each individual person in our immediate family, and set a budget for each person. Tier 2 is friends. We typically do a single-family gift for our friends, like movie tickets with free babysitting or a fun new game for them to play together. Tier 3 is neighbors and co-workers. I create homemade chocolate goodies in handmade packages.

Once I establish my budgets for each tier and the people in them, I create a cash envelope for that tier. I only spend cash on what I buy for gifts, supplies and even wrapping paper. Once the cash in the envelope is gone, it’s gone!” —Kim Anderson, Thrifty Little Mom

5. Focus on Experiences

“Meaningful gifts don’t have to be extravagant and costly. Consider giving experience gifts—whether that means buying tickets for a ball game or making plans to take the kids to a matinee movie. Sometimes, the most remembered gifts are those that took thought, not money.” —Crystal Paine, Money Saving Mom

6. Pick One and Be Done

“We often employ the Secret Santa method for the adults in our extended family, because with all the siblings and parents things can add up pretty quickly! Rather than try to spend $50 on everyone in each family—which would total $500—we each pick one name to buy for, with a set price range of $100 to $150 per person. This cuts our costs pretty much in half. Plus, this method makes sure that the adults each get a nice bigger gift rather than a whole bunch of smaller gifts. (We don’t include kids in Secret Santa—under 18 means you get a gift!) It adds a fun element, too, seeing who got who and what they got them!” —Scarlet Paolicchi, Family Focus Blog

7. Set Aside Cash

“As a mom of five boys, planning ahead for the holidays is an absolute must. Four of my kids are teenagers, and while their wish lists may not be as long as they were when they were younger, the price of their toys has certainly gone up.

To combat the heavy hit the holiday season takes on our budget, my husband and I decide in January how much we want to spend on each child (as well as on ourselves) for the holidays and birthdays for the upcoming year.

We then take the total, divide it by 12, and put that amount into a special savings account every month. By putting away a small amount each month, we aren’t met with panic when the holiday season is upon us.”—Candace Anderson, Frugal Mom

8. Block Up the Chimney

“Decide with your family to forgo gifts all together. Volunteer Christmas morning so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, and instead of exchanging gifts, take some of the money you all would have spent and use it for an experience together.” —Anna Newell Jones, And Then We Saved

TIME curiosities

Holiday Jeer: Good-for-Nothing Gifts From Back in the Day

Thank heavens ridiculous, overpriced gifts are no longer on anyone's wish list. Right?

In December 1953 LIFE featured a number of gifts that, the magazine assured its readers, were far “better to give than to receive.” For our part, after spending a little time with these photos, we’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that, with one or two exceptions (those velvet glasses acting as a hairnet are kind of cool), these items are preposterous whether one is giving or receiving.

As LIFE noted:

When a sequined $7.50 fly swatter turned out to be one of the best-selling gifts last Christmas (a time of year when flies are rare), department stores were quick to turn its success into a trend. This year the country’s gift counters abound in homely household objects which have been gilded, bedecked with pearls and rhinestones and upped in price. Holiday shoppers whose main object is to pamper the recipient may now choose jeweled back-scratchers which are almost too pretty to use, velvet eyeglasses which are designed to be worn instead of a hat, time-pieces for pets who can not tell time. Here is a selection of this year’s silly Christmas gifts.

Thank goodness we’ve evolved as a society and as individuals to the point where ridiculous and overpriced presents are no longer on anyone’s wish list. Right?

Right?

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