Holidays are meant to be joyous, cheerful occasions, but as anyone who has struggled with a tight budget or multi-kid wishlist can attest, holidays can also be unbearably stressful. Just take a scroll through previous years’ footage of Black Friday shoppers—that trademark cheery Christmas spirit is hard to find amidst packs of snarling, stressed parents fighting over the trendiest toys and gizmos. Without getting completely cheesy, it’s safe to say the true meaning of Christmas has long been overshadowed by rampant materialism.

Of course, that’s not to say that giving and receiving gifts during the holiday season is an inherently bad thing. The custom of exchanging gifts over the holidays has been a long-lived tradition around the world, but as the Spice Girls would say, too much of something is bad enough. Widespread commercialization and corporate monopolization has turned Christmas synonymous with cash, encouraging consumers to overbuy and guilting those who can’t.

Skip the shopping dilemma altogether this year with a simplified gift-giving strategy: want, need, wear, read. Using this method, everyone in the family is gifted only four items: something they want, something they need, a piece of clothing or accessory they can wear, and something to read.

Mountains of Presents = Mountains of Debt

Messy stack of bills and receipts

Every day, millions of dollars are funneled into advertising campaigns aimed at convincing us we need things we could really live without. These marketing tactics convince us to spend outside of our means. The average US household spends over $1,500 on Christmas presents every year. If the US median household income.) is $68,703, that means we’re spending a large percentage of our monthly income on a single holiday.

Nothing can suck the cheer out of the Christmas season quite like an overdrafted bank account, yet nearly 30% of Americans went into debt over the holidays last year. This accumulated debt directly affects mental health, worsening feelings of anxiety, depression, shame, resentment, and fear. Unsurprisingly, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly 30 million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.

Paring down everyone’s wishlist to four-items-a-person significantly lowers the overall cost of the holidays, keeping your budgets balanced and your household afloat as you enter a new year. Towering piles of Christmas presents might be subconsciously engrained into the American psyche as an indicator of a successful Christmas, but even the tallest, shiniest mountain of gifts can’t cheer up a household rife with tension due to strained finances.

A Stress-Free, COVID-Friendly Way to Shop

Red gift box in the small shopping cart.

As has been made painfully obvious this year, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic waits for no one, not even Santa Claus. City sidewalks might not be as active this season as a growing surge in coronavirus cases causes the number of shoppers rushing home with their treasures to dwindle. Does anyone really feel like being packed into a department store like sardines this year anyway? We didn’t think so.

Luckily, another fantastic plus side to sticking with the “want, need, wear, read” method is its COVID-adaptability. A trimmed-down Christmas list means less time scouring the aisles for thingamabobs and doo-dads to shove under the tree, leaving you with less potential exposure to the virus and more time to spend with your loved ones.

The Beauty of Keeping It Simple: Reflection and Growth

The “want, need, wear, read” method does more than lighten the financial burden of the holidays; it also serves as an invaluable exercise in self-reflection and getting to better know your loved ones’ interests, goals, and values. Writing a Christmas list goes from a wild free-for-all to a pointed, thought-out list of items that will be used and enjoyed long after they’re ripped from their wrapping on Christmas morning. Each pillar of this minimalistic gift-giving tradition also offers greater insight into your spouse, children, and other loved ones’ personalities, hobbies, and aspirations.

Want: Out of all four gifts, this gift should be the most frivolous or fanciful. The “want” gift doesn’t need to serve any other purpose than making the recipient happy. This can include:

  • Toys; dolls; video games or consoles; new gadgets
  • Tickets to a concert, sporting event, convention, or other similar events
  • Cosmetic and haircare items: a new make-up palette or styling tool
  • Name-brand apparel and accessories
  • Miscellaneous electronics
  • A top-shelf bottle of wine or liquor
  • Any other "splurge" item your loved one has been eyeing all year

Need: The “need” gift should be the most sensible, serving a functional purpose at work, school, or home. “Need” gifts offer a deeper look into the recipient’s goals, dreams, and aspirations and should help the recipient grow in one way or another, be it personally, professionally, or otherwise. This can include:

  • New lunchbox or backpack
  • New glasses or contacts
  • School and art supplies: pencils/pens, markers, binders, and more
  • Starter kit for a new hobby like a toy laboratory or Yamaha GigMaker guitar package
  • Briefcase or duffel bag for work
  • Kitchen tools and gadgets
  • Carpentry and home repair tools
  • Auto maintenance: oil change, tire rotation, or detailing
  • Do they have a certain type of clothing or accessory they wear the most? (e.g., flannel button-ups, leggings, basketball shorts, work boots, or jewelry)
  • What is their favorite sports team? Color? TV show or movie? Book?
  • Do they have any favorite brands? (e.g., Vera Bradley, Carhartt, Yeezy, Fenty, Adidas, Nike, Vineyard Vines)
  • Is there an available duplicate to a well-worn pair of shoes, purse, jeans, or other long-loved articles of clothing?
  • Find books by mood and emotions; characters and plots; or parts of the world with
  • Find new books for kids of all ages — including struggling readers — via Reading Rocket’s online book finder.
  • Enroll young readers ages 0-5 in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for a new book each month (free of charge!)
  • Save on a yearly subscription to a loved ones’ favorite magazine via
  • Buy books secondhand for even more holiday savings at

In a year when virtually everything else has changed, why not switch up your usual Christmas routine, too? Sticking with this simple, four-gift “want, need, wear, read” method is worth its weight in gold, perfect for the current times, and a welcome shift back to what’s actually important about the holidays: being safe, healthy, and happy in the company of those you love.

As small and large businesses alike re-shutter due to rising COVID cases, perusing the aisles of a local bookshop might not be an option this year. Luckily, the internet always delivers, and there is a multitude of resources available to help find the perfect reading material for anyone in your family:

Read: Exchanging books for Christmas is a national tradition for Icelanders, and with good reason: with over 120 million published books at our disposal, there is bound to be the perfect read for every age and personality type. Additionally, books are easily-wrappable, re-giftable, and offer entirely new worlds, landscapes, and ideas in one succinct package. Gifting young ones with reading material also benefits their intellectual, lingual, and social development; increases their likelihood of graduating high school; and sets them up on a path for success. Go ahead and take that “parent of the year” award now—you earned it.

Or, if you’re solely a surprise-gifter, thinking of the ideal piece of apparel for a loved one can be half the fun. If inspiration isn’t coming easily for this category, here are some great questions to ask when reflecting on the perfect “wear” gift:

Wear: A “wear” gift should be a present that can be—you guessed it—worn, but don’t settle for a pack of socks or boxer briefs just yet. This category might seem boring and self-explanatory, but it doesn’t have to be! Encourage your loved ones to think of their ideal article of clothing or accessory, no matter how fanciful, and go from there. Since everyone in the family is only getting one wearable item, the extra effort can easily be spent to find the ultimate pair of lace-up boots or ultra-plush quarter-zip.

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