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Guest Post: Being Generous While Living on a Budget


photo by jek in the box

Guest Post by Katie from Three Blondes and a Redhead

In these uncertain economic times, it's wonderful to see how many people are finally accepting the benefits of budgeting. I still remember many of the frustrations I felt when we transitioned to living on one income in preparation for our first child.

One of my biggest challenges was reducing the ability to generously give gifts to friends and family. After nine years of marriage to a very frugal accountant, I've wised up about the money dedicated to "gifts" in our budget, I have learned how to get creative when giving and am quite proficient at stretching our dollars. 

Here are some of my tried-and-true bargain shopping methods:

::Develop a Gift Stash–I've always kept some generic gifts on hand. It began in the form of a box of picture frames, bath soaps, and candles. Gradually, it transformed into a small shelf in my linen closet and is now a large under-the-bed storage bin full of gifts for adults and children of all ages.

One of the things I've noticed over the years is that last-minute shopping can cost 2-3 times as much as you could have paid had you planned ahead. Having small items available at a moment's notice for a hostess gift or a birthday celebration can save you time, money, and stress.

I remember the days when I would actually decline a birthday party just to avoid buying a $10 gift that wasn't in our budget. But now, as long as the schedule allows, my kids get to attend many of the parties we're invited to because I try to have a couple of gifts in my stash for boys, for girls, and some which could be for either gender.

::Shop the Clearance Sales–One particular Super-Target location in our area always seems to have the best clearance sales. Whenever I am near that side of town, I plan a trip to that store with the sole purpose of roaming the end caps.

They often have toys marked 75% off, so I can grab $20 gifts for upcoming birthday parties for $5. In the past, when I've tried to find a $5 gift at the last minute, it's usually something junkie and I end up paying a premium for a bigger gift that I know the receiver will actually enjoy.

The key to shopping clearance sales is to think ahead. Plan for Mother's Day, Father's Day, and any upcoming birthdays and baby or wedding showers.

::Think Generic–Don't get hung up on buying a Hello Kitty present for little Sally Sue because you know it's her favorite. If you know that Sally Sue's birthday party is coming up and you see a Hello Kitty item on sale, by all means, get it!  But don't feel trapped into individualizing your gift purchases. You can be generic, while still keeping it thoughtful. 

There are lots of easy ideas for generic gifts for kids of all ages including: art supplies, puzzles, dress-up items and board games. I also like to stock up on nice picture frames to fill with our annual family picture and give them to my extended family for Christmas. It's amazing how much they appreciate a 5×7 picture I printed for $0.50 in a pretty $3 clearance frame!


photo by allerleirau

::Shop After-Holiday Sales–Personally, I don't go nuts with this, but I do try to hit a few clearance sales after Christmas each year. Why pay full price for a Christmas ornament in early December when you can pay one-fourth of the price in early January and hold onto it for a year?

Again, keep your eyes open and think ahead: Does your office have a White Elephant gift exchange each Christmas? Would your parents appreciate a picture of your child in an ornament frame? As always, don't buy clearance items just because they're a good deal. Give it some thought and have a recipient in mind when you make your purchases.

::Shop Throughout the Year–We had no income this past Christmas because my husband had recently been laid off so I was very thankful that I'd stashed a few particular items away throughout the year for our families. I'd found a great doggie gift in July for my brother-in-law at 75% off that I hid under our bed until Christmas, I took advantage of some free photo book offers in September and made books for each set of grandparents, and I had a pair of earrings for my mom that I'd found at a bargain a few months back. 

However, don't forget that you bought items for certain people once the holiday arrives!  I suggest putting a sticky note on the item with the recipient's name and the intended time frame you want to give the gift.

::Keep a Small Stock of Cards and Gift Wrapping SuppliesI save gift bags from presents I receive and store them in one giant
gift bag near a standing box of wrapping paper and ribbons that I've bought
on clearance.
In addition to keeping stocked on wrapping supplies, always have a stack of greeting cards handy.

Before I learned to make my own cards, I used to go to Hallmark every few months with a list of upcoming birthdays and buy several $0.99 cards to have on hand. You can also buy a set of 8 or 10 blank note cards and write "Happy Birthday" inside. No one says you have to buy a card with a poem that someone else wrote!  Let's be honest: people usually throw away their greeting cards, so don't spend too much money on them.

::Build it into the Budget–This is so important! None of these ideas will work for you if you haven't built a line item in your budget specifically for "gifts." Pretty much everyone buys gifts, whether they can afford them or not. Why not write down an amount that you'd like to spend on certain people for holidays and put it into the budget?

If you use the cash envelope system, put a little money in the gifts envelope each month so you have a pool to pull from when you find a great sale.  If your budget is strictly on paper, take some time with your spouse to write out who you plan to buy gifts for in 2009 and the amount you'd like to spend.

Having a $50 bouquet of flowers delivered to your mom for her birthday will likely seem excessive once you see the grand total of your gift-giving budget at the end of the year. You can buy her a beautiful bunch for $10 and deliver them by hand and save yourself a lot of money.

Are you beginning to see a common thread here? Plan ahead! Put money aside for gifts, intentionally keep your eyes open for good deals, and pretty soon you'll find you're able to give generously while staying within your budget!

Katie is a Christian wife and a stay at home mom to a 4-year-old son, a 2-year-old daughter, and a new baby due in October. She blogs about managing her family, frugal living, cooking, organizing, and all things homemaking at Three Blondes and a Redhead.

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  • Jessica says:

    This was an awesome post! Thank-you:)

  • Trixie says:

    Hi Katie!

    Thank you for the great tips! We are pretty big planners when it comes to gifts, too. We find that by planning ahead we are able to give some really nice, thoughful gifts that do not break the bank.

    Take Care,


  • Christie says:

    When Kohl’s has their 30-20-15% off sales, I buy a bunch of the .99 Hallmark cards. When I have the 30% off, that makes the card just .69! I’ll stock up on anniversary, baby, showers, wedding, and birthday cards at this price. They also often have a buy 3, get one free, or buy 3 get a gift promotion going on at the same time!

  • Michele says:

    This is a great post. I do something very similar. When buying presents for my daughter’s friends, I actually find it to be quite easy because so many of them are “into” the same things. One year I bought 8 pair of pajamas from the Disney Outline Online for $40 (on sale and using a coupon code). Since most of the girls were into princesses, most of her friends got Princess pajamas that year for their birthdays. This year I bought a bunch of American Girl Doll clothing from their site at a deep discount. Each of my daughter’s friends who has a doll gets an outfit for the doll for their birthday – at only $10, it looks like it cost a lot more!

  • Maya Andrews says:

    I appreciate this post! I too struggle with not being able to gifts big gifts (my family tends to do so). I have a gift box in my closet. I bought my sister’s birthday (in May) gift last month on clearance. I find some of the drugstore freebies are good gifts too- makeup, fancy airfresheners, bodywash, ect.
    Anyone have ideas for men’s gifts? They tend to be more expensive for me.

  • Devon says:

    Excellent post- these are some really great tips!

  • Courtney Lemon says:

    Great ideas! I seem to sub-consciously do some of these things already, but this inspires me to be more purposeful about it. Thanks for the thoughts!

  • Cynthia says:

    I love the idea of a gift stash. It is so smart and so practical. I can’t believe I never thought of it. I owe YOU a gift for sharing the idea – it’s like a little light bulb just went on in my head as I read this post!

  • Satsuki says:

    You left out- make it homemade. This has been a very budget-friendly option for us. Old christmas cards and children’s art can be turned into new cards and gift tags. Homemade jellies, jams, cookie mixes, and more can be put together with minimal effort for cheap gifts. I mean, who doesn’t love food? There are so many other ideas out there that I can’t even touch on them all.

  • Brooke P says:

    Thank you for the post! Good timing, too, in my case. I was just finishing up the weekly Walgreen’s shop and found a great sale item for a gift. It was a great deal, but because I hadn’t “planned” on purchasing it, I felt weird buying it. I do need it for my gift closet, which is running low. You can’t always plan the clearance gift purchases, so that cash gift envelope comes in really handy right then.

  • Elena Fox says:

    Great tips, thanks! If you have a Dollar General nearby you can get greeting cards 2 for $1. Also, check out Factory Card Outlet, their cards are usually less than $1.

  • Maria K says:

    I have recently started to do this. In the next 3 mos I have an excess of 10-12 presents to purchase for my immediate family: birthdays, mothers, and fathers day gifts. It seems so overwhelming at times and quite honestly…me and my husband wonder what are we spending our money. This is a great post!! Thank you!

  • SarahJane says:

    These are great tips but the only gift stash I have is for baby showers.

    Many of my friends and neighbors are having babies. I like to keep a stash homemade flannel burp cloths, scrubbing buddies and baby shampoo on hand for the many baby showers I attend each year. I wrap the soaps in the colorful burp cloth and tie with ribbon.

  • Learning2CouponFL says:

    Does anyone know how long scented lotions, bath gels, etc. stay fresh? I saw several cute gift baskets on clearance at my local Walgreens for $5, regularly $20, that would be great as Christmas presents but I was afraid that eight months from now their scent will have soured or they’ll be separated and discolored.

  • Jerry says:

    The gift stash is a terrific idea and it leads to much less stress when an unexpected occasion arises! My wife does this with great success, and it’s also something that we can stock up when we find things on sale… it’s a little baby-shower-slash-birthday-slash-anniversary insurance policy in the storage closet! Great tips…

  • Sherri says:

    You can also add “recycled” gifts to the stash- things you received but just won’t use. Just make sure you remember who you got it from so you don’t give it back! My friend re-gifted a toy back to my child that we had given hers the year before. I got a good laugh out of that one- and then re-gifted it to another child the next year! 🙂

  • Jennifer says:

    I totally agree that you have to keep your gift stash organized! I had purchased a very high-quality Ohio State University sweatshirt for my father-in-law when we were at an outlet mall a few years ago. Then we picked up some Western videos for him from a Wal-Mart clearance bin. We had those things ready for Christmas gift-giving and totally forgot about them! Needless to say, he got them the following year for Christmas!

  • Shannon says:

    I also handmake many of my gifts. It saves us so much money. My kid’s friends get handmade crayon rolls or chalk mats, some crayons I pick up super cheap at back to school time, and a .99 doodle pad that I personalize with the child’s name. As I think of ideas, I make them throughout the year so I am not scrambling to sew 25 gifts during the holidays.

  • Mary says:

    This was a great post. My husband and I have 8 children, 6 son/daughter in-laws, and 20 grandchildren. Any way you look at it, that adds up to a lot of birthday and Christmas presents. Over the last few years my husband has gotten on board the bargain shopping train, and he does quite well. Over the last year we have found that Academy Sports store (not sure if they are outside of Texas) has great clearance sales. We very often find clothing, hunting and fishing supplies and toys for as little as $1.88. These are items that were priced as high as $100.00. Last year we bought our daughter a black leather jacket that was originally $99. and it was marked down to $9.88. She got it for her birthday in October and was overwhelmed at such a nice gift. Last weekend we were in San Antonio and noticed that Academy was having a clearance sale and we went to 6 different stores, spent $75. (regularly 350.00) and started our christmas shopping. Let me encourage you, if you live close to an Academy, check out their clearance racks for some great bargains. We also regularly check our other favorite stores for their clearance merchandise. My husband loves to shop Walmart, particularly when he is traveling in Colorado and Wyoming. Their clearance is so much better than the Walmart stores in Texas.

  • ADollarSaved says:

    Great post! Very informative and useful!
    Thanks for the heads up!

  • Lisa says:

    This post came at a perfect time as I am going out after school today to buy a bday gift for a party my daughter is going to tomorrow. I always “say” I want to buy ahead for bday gifts, but I haven’t. Now I have lots of good ideas for the future!

  • carla sorensen says:

    We like to give to Samaritan’s Purse each Christmas; filling shoeboxes. I get things all year round and save them in a white tub in my spare closet. By the time Christmas comes, I have enough stuff for many boxes. I like to look for little things at yard sales,and often find new coloring books, etc.
    I also do that for stocking stuffers.
    I already have a brand new Monopoly game for someone that I got for $2 at the Thrift Store.
    After reading your post, I am even more in the mood to be on the look out for great bargain deals!

  • Mary says:

    We penny-pinch on all gifts except those for my parents. And since they live 3,000 miles away, it’s not feasible to just pop over with a bouquet. So, $50 on flowers for her birthday is the only thing we really “splurge” on, and I don’t even consider it a splurge since that’s such a minute amount of what they’ve spent on me over the years.

  • Diana says:

    Thanks for the advice! I found it to be very helpful consider I don’t have a job right now but still want to give gifts to people that I cared dearly.

  • Melonie K. says:

    Make sure to check the “Dollar Spot” at Target too. I do little gift boxes of “fun things” to send to a friend in Germany, and it’s a good place to pick up a handful of little things. I’ve also gotten baby hats and socks there that I liked. (Check for quality, of course, not all of it is that great – I look things over closely.)

    Here in Japan we have the 100 Yen store, which is basically like a dollar store but better stuff than where I used to live. We can do entire boxes of goodies for family back in the States for under $20. I’ve even found really nice soaps and lotions there for 100Y (a dollar, give or take, based on the exchange rate at the time) that are usually quite pricey in the States.

  • Not only is last-minute shopping more expensive, but if you have to mail your gift to its recipient, last-minute SHIPPING is REALLY expensive. I use to send me an e-mail a week in advance of a friend or family member’s birthday. That way I can usually send my gifts via regular mail (vs. priority or two-day). Thanks for the great post, Katie!

    Best, Erin
    PlinkPlink: Moms Talking About Money

  • Ann says:

    One year at Christmas, my parents said that they didn’t need anything but you just have to give them something. So I headed to my stockpile of boxed and canned food items, toiletries, and cleaning supplies all bought on sale and with coupons. In all, I was able to fill 5 boxes with items that my parents would use (Dad did most of the cooking, cleaning, etc. as he was taking care of my mother with Alzheimer’s) plus another box with frozen food items, including homemade lasagna. My husband asked me if I realized how much I had given them so I asked him if he realized how much I HADN”T spent!! 🙂 I have also used my cleaning supply stockpile as wedding shower gifts for the new bride.

    I also stockpile glass-blown ornaments and other Christmas items for my nieces’ and nephews’ weddings to come so they have something for their first Christmas. All have been wrapped and a note left for my husband as to how to assemble the gifts (if something happens to me – I know what you are thinking). I also have stocked up on Baldwin brass ornaments at at least 75% off at after Christmas sales to give to my nephews and their wives at Christmas. I already wrapped them since I had the paper out and put post-a notes on each as to what & to whom. I think I have the next 8 years taken care of. All my gift purchases are paid for with my “coupon savings” kitty that I add to after my weekly shopping. This year so far I have saved over $1000 with coupons – what a year!!!

  • Dorothy Gardiner says:

    I use my airmiles to either buy gifts, or make a charitable donatation and notify the recipient (about the charity, not the amount). I don’t give Christmas gifts. I choose a family charity and contribute whatever amount I have available. No wrapping or mailing costs, no deadlines. Then let family members know via their Christmas card. One gift helped build a fence for a South African orphanage. A friend there sent us pictures of the fence in progess and the children… which I shared with my family via email.

  • Darla says:

    Great post! One thing I have discovered for gift giving to adults…if you give a nice card (handmade) and learn a few little “tricks” on how to present a small gift well, they love it, if only for the ‘wrapping’/presentation! And all that takes is some paper! I usually keep a stash of Ghirardelli chocolate squares or something on hand and package them nicely for a small gift (seems to be lots of friends at church etc, where I want to acknowledge their special day, but there is no party and a ‘real gift’ might be a bit over board.) Anyway, just another way to brighten someones day without breaking the bank!

  • Heidi @ ggip says:

    Good tips.

    I wrote a post on a similar topic recently. It also deals with charitable giving.

  • Katie says:

    Great post – I totally agree with you.

    I use to spend a lot on cards and wrapping paper and now I buy them in bulk and in the sale. I now keep a list of everyone I buy for on a spreadsheet so that I know what I’m looking for in sales etc and can buy when I see something on offer. I also keep a stash of kiddies presents at the back of the cupboard for parties – this saves lots of money, time and effort.

    This year I decided instead of buying presents I would make them for my family as: they have everything they need; I wanted to give something more meaningful; and I wanted to learn some new skills. Expecting people to be really unimpressed by my feeble efforts I was some what overwhelmed by their delight. I knitted some gorgeous fluffy scarfs for my grandmas; make handmade chocolates for my friends; bath bombs and soaps for my mum and sister. I’m sure most of you do this already but if not I highly recommend it. My sister has just taken up sewing and has made me some great maternity clothes and baby stuff. I love, love, love handmade things. It also preserves those dying arts of knitting, crocheting, sewing etc.

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