I Have Five Kids: Here’s How I Save Money on Holiday Gifts

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A mother of five shares her tips, tricks, and techniques for saving money on gifts and keeping her kids happy during the holidays.

Tips on how to save money on gifts

It’s no secret that the holidays are a time of spending. And while choosing the perfect holiday gifts for him, her, the grandparents, and the kids—and filling stockings—is a fun way to show your love, it can add up.

By the time I had my third kid, I realized I wasn’t budgeting my holiday spending properly—and it had to change. Now I have five little kids (all with birthdays that fall on or around the holiday season), and I’m much better about smart planning and budgeting.

Here’s what I’ve learned about saving and spending during the holidays in my dozen or so years of parenting a large brood. Consider this advice my holiday gift to you!

How do I save money on holiday gifts?

My five kids range in age from 2 to 12. And that means they all want this year’s hottest toys, clothes emblazoned with their favorite Disney characters, and tech gifts that can quickly add up to a small fortune. Between saving for college educations and doing my best to spend wisely, I can’t drop the GPD of a small nation on holiday and birthday gifts. I do, however, want to give each kid memorable experiences and distinct birthdays that aren’t lumped together with the holidays.

It’s especially tricky because we celebrate Hanukkah. The holiday is traditionally marked with eight nights of gifts. That means eight gifts per child, plus a birthday gift. Nine gifts per kid multiplied by five kids means I need to find a way to make my entire brood smile a total of 45 times. That’s a lot.

I realized early on in motherhood that experiences mean a million times more than things, so I’ve kept one overarching strategy in mind when it comes to staying on budget for holiday shopping: get the kids involved in memorable moments. Memories last forever, right?

What strategies work for saving money on holiday gifts?

list of names written in book for christmas gift listMattStauss/Getty Images

I take list-making seriously

List-making may sound tedious, but it’s a priceless organizational tool and helps kids read, write, and organize their thoughts. It also helps me have plenty of time to score those must-have gift ideas when they go on sale.

I keep a magnetic board on the most used door of the house, the one leading to the garage that’s full of their favorite outdoor games and toys, for easy access. Most of my kids have fall and winter birthdays, but if they decide sometime in spring or summer that they would love nothing more than some super-specific toy, I tell them to write it on the list.

Each kid has their own magnetic list with their name on it to write, erase and even rewrite their wish lists. If they can’t write yet, an older kid helps them out. Then I peruse Labor Day sales, Black Friday sales, and more for deals on those items.

I cut the physical gifts in half

That doesn’t mean we’re aiming for smaller gifts per se. On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, I make sure the kids have a wonderful gift, but at least half of those gifts will be experiences rather than items.

We live in a chilly northern climate, so for older kids, that may mean a day dedicated to winter sports and hot chocolate. One year we made an entire geology and special gems-themed gift night where each of the kids got to crack and keep their own geodes, followed by a few fun gem-themed art projects. Years later, the bigger kids still talk about that day. A pack of 25 good-size geodes is under $30. With all the art supplies we added another $20 or so, which made the entire evening of gift-giving and several hours of photo-worthy activities a cool $50. Not bad.

I encourage the kids to do their own gift exchanges

One of the nights of Hanukkah is devoted to the kids showering each other with love and gifts. I give each kid a modest amount of cash (last year was $20 and done online to stay socially distanced from strangers) to head into Walmart or Target and pick four small gifts for each of their siblings.

The activity usually takes an afternoon, fills them with a lot of happiness, and gives them things to talk and think about for days. When sibling exchange night comes, they all do their best to impress the others and give something memorable. The kids exchange things like new markers, toy cars, Squishies, and other gifts for boys and girls that make an impact.

I celebrate with food

I’ve noticed that a big celebration day filled with oodles of exciting holiday meal options and loads of toys to unwrap can actually be overwhelming for younger kids. Plus, it’s stressful for parents. Instead of going overboard in every possible direction, I like to dedicate one special night to a feast-style meal that all the kids help pick and prepare.

My oldest makes salads and grates potatoes for homemade latkes. The second makes her own dressings, kids three and four usually whip up cakes with me, and the youngest loves setting the table with glitzy accessories like snowflake napkin rings and the “good” plates.

We save the heavy-duty dishes for adults to make to keep everyone safe, but preparing a whole holiday meal is a full-day activity that keeps all the kids busy and makes them feel extra proud. If we do gifts after, they’re small.

We honor mementos

Giving tokens of love from other family members is usually something we like to do as an add-on during the holiday season. We wrap plenty of personalized gifts and make belly-filling meals. But from time to time we throw in a toy car a great grandparent played with 90 years ago, a small piece of costume jewelry Grandma used to love wearing in her teens, or old children’s books from an uncle or aunt’s collection. My husband gave his former military uniform to our oldest son last year, and though it didn’t cost a dime, it’s something he treasures more than words can describe.

What strategies didn’t work for saving money on holiday gifts?

woman's hand putting together christmas giftsFreshSplash/Getty Images

Waiting for the last minute is costly

Amazon Prime makes it easy to get gifts shipped quickly, and making a list and checking it twice months in advance has also saved me hundreds each holiday season. I set sale alerts for preferred retailers, wait for major holiday weekend sales to pick up things like Lego sets and art supplies that are often reduced as part of back-to-school sales, and keep my eyes peeled for bargains.

Keeping up with the Joneses fails every time

Who are the Joneses, anyway? My kids don’t need to compete with every kid in school or on the playground. I want them to have things they enjoy, but we just don’t put pressure on ourselves to keep up with every single model of remote control car or have all the new limited-edition Pokemon cards just because Jack from fourth grade does. Truthfully, this act alone sets just about any family free from the emotional and financial burdens the holidays dole out.

Focusing entirely on material gifts ruins the holidays

If the sole focus of holiday gift-giving is to unwrap things, it just won’t result in the smiles and love-filled interactions you might hope for. At least not at our house. We deeply understand that kids are kids. They obviously want shiny new toys and fun games, but it’s also our responsibility as parents to balance those fun new magnetic block sets with large doses of laughter and memorable activities.

Not letting the kids participate in the act of giving

I wish they put this one in the parenting handbook that hospitals really should pass out when new babies arrive. It took me a few kids to figure out that the most fun comes from seeing their eyes light up as they experience new things and find joy in their gifts.

But prolonged joy comes from teaching kids how to be generous with each other. It’s a great act of trust to be able to assign a small amount of cash or gift cards to a kid to let them figure out how to bring happiness to other people.

The final takeaway on saving money on holiday gifts

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me several years (and kids) to get the gift-giving formula right for our family, but it’s true. We’re focused on a strict 50-50 ratio of kid-friendly material gifts and family togetherness experiences. It’s been the best thing for us in so many ways. The pressure of extreme spending isn’t one we’re faced with now, and the (loving) side effects overflow with memories, learned skills, and less stress. Happy holidays in the truest sense.

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Bryce Gruber
As Home Editor, Bryce Gruber is an expert in gift ideas, shopping, and e-commerce at Reader's Digest. You've likely seen her work across a variety of women's lifestyle and parenting outlets and on TV shows. She lives and works in New York's Hudson Valley with her five small children.