How to Handle Family Gift Giving When Everyone Has Different Budgets

Once upon a time, the tradition of gift giving was about sharing tokens of affection that were meant to touch the heart of a loved one and express gratitude for their presence. There was — at least in the way I imagine it — a sweetness and simplicity that moved people to either create or scout out something special that would bring a smile to the recipient’s face, affirming that they were cherished and appreciated.

Today, all bets are off.

Most of us feel enormous pressure to get the right gift — and spend far more than our rational minds (or bank balance) would advise — in the hopes of pleasing those we love.

To make matters worse, we sometimes find ourselves having significantly more or less, financially speaking, than our relatives. Uncle Mark lost his job, and his wife is taking care of their newborn and toddler, while Aunt Molly’s family just received a windfall from her husband’s side of the family. How do you navigate the gift-giving ritual when not everyone is in the same shape financially?

Set guidelines. Discuss whether everyone wants to spend within their particular means or would be happier having a mutually-agreed-upon dollar limit for gifts, so no one feels blindsided by the difference between a box of homemade soaps and a new iPad. Big gifts that are generously offered by a wealthy family member are fine if you’re sure they won’t create discomfort among less well-off recipients, so have a family powwow before the holidays to establish ground rules.

Play the “Pick One Name” game. Have everyone in the family — from young to old — randomly choose a name out of a hat (or with an online name generator) to select just one person to get a gift for, and set a price limit. This allows those without financial resources to creatively focus on what their particular person would enjoy, whether store bought or homemade. It can forge special connections between family members as different duos learn more about one another in the process of choosing that one special present.

Let the chips fall where they may. In some families, it’s understood that some relatives will spend a lot, and some will spend a little, and everyone graciously rolls with it without drama. If it works for you and your relatives, allow those who are able to lavish gifts on their less wealthy loved ones without letting is suggest that anyone is better or worse. Those with deeper pockets should just make sure to act with sensitivity, so they don’t demand center stage as they present their big gifts.

Exchanging gifts with family members in widely different economic situations can be awkward, but establishing expectations in advance can reduce the tension felt by those who can’t afford to buy impressive presents. And if it happens that you aren’t able to come to an agreement, then those who are struggling to make ends meet should hold their heads up high as they offer their famous homemade chocolate cake to Uncle Moneybags, while he hands your children their new iPods. As long as everyone gives and receives graciously and remembers that what’s really under the wrapping paper is love, holiday gift giving among family can be sweet, regardless of the price tag.

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a bachelor of arts in developmental psychology and a Master of arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on amazon. Sign up at to get Susan’s free parenting newsletter.