We’ve all been there. Your best friend’s birthday is coming up, your out-of-town buddy let you crash at their place for the weekend, Christmas is around the corner, you have another wedding to go to…the list goes on!

These spending-fraught social obligations can make us feel pressured to spend more money than we can really afford. How do we balance our desire to give gifts to our loved ones with our desire to be financially responsible? I have some less expensive ideas for how you can show your appreciation in different social settings.

(Note: all of these suggestions are flexible and interchangeable; you should use whichever one you feel is appropriate for the loved one’s personality, regardless of what the “event” occasion is.)

How do we balance our desire to give gifts to our loved ones with our desire to be financially responsible?

Thank You Gesture

A client of mine recently spent over $100 on dinner for a friend as a thank-you for crashing at her apartment for one night. She wanted to thank her friend, but in doing so, she went over her budget and ended up pretty stressed out! I hear these types of stories fairly often. People want to show their appreciation but end up frustrated and potentially resentful (instead of thankful, which was the entire point of the spending in the first place!). Here are some cheaper ideas for showing your thanks:

1. Bottle of wine: If someone does you a favor or lets you stay with them, an easy way of showing thanks is to get them their favorite alcohol (if they drink). In case you’re wondering…my favorite wine is sauvignon blanc. So if you ever want to thank me for something, I’ll gladly take a bottle!

2. Thank-You Card: Sometimes a simple thank-you note is all it takes. Does anyone else have a grandma who would be very put out if she didn’t get a card after sending your birthday money? It’s also really special, thoughtful, and meaningful to get handwritten notes during these days of email and text message.

3. Bouquet of flowers: There are few things nicer than a bright bouquet of flowers showing up at your door or desk. My favorite flower delivery service in DC is Urban Stems (which is also in NYC and Baltimore). They tend to be cheaper than the larger companies, and they have a fairly sustainable business model.

Weddings and Bridal/Baby Showers

When you hit a certain age, it seems like there’s a wedding or baby/bridal shower of some kind every other weekend. (Just wait, you youngin’ kids in your early twenties. It’s coming.) At these adult occasions, you don’t want to be the only friend who doesn’t bring a gift. But you also don’t want to go into debt! There are ways around this:

1. Combine forces: If you have friends who are going to the same wedding-related events as you, you might be able to go in on a single gift together. Last year, a group of my friends pooled their money to buy our friend an expensive vacuum cleaner that she wanted. They each only had to pay about $20 each, but it meant that our friend got the wedding gift that she wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

2. Scrapbook: If you’re crafty and you want to give your gift a personal touch, consider making a scrapbook for the lucky couple. You could document the history of your friendship, or of the couple’s relationship.

3. Framed photo: This takes less effort than scrapbooking, but still has a nice personal touch.


Holidays are supposed to be fun, but overspending can make them a real downer. In fact, debt counseling agencies see a 25% increase in people needing debt assistance in January and February. Don’t fall into this trap.

1. Coupons: An easy gift for my dad (for basically every holiday and birthday) is a gift certificate for a massage. My sisters and I scour websites like Groupon and Living Social for coupons to local massage therapists and go from there. You can find coupons for all sorts of pampering services and other activities.

2. Baked goods: Is there anything better than a tin of your favorite cookies? Peanut butter blossoms, thumbprint cookies…I know I’d be thrilled if I got a box of those for Christmas this year. Whip up a few batches of goodies and give them out to friends and co-workers as a gift.

3. Homemade crafts: Do you love knitting? Maybe you’re really good at painting. My best friend sent me a homemade scarf last year and it’s beautiful and I love it. Use your talents to show your love during the holidays!


I know I wouldn’t want my loved ones to spend a lot of money on me if I knew they were financially strapped. It really is the thought that matters, sometimes! Try one of these next time:

1. Home-cooked meal: Instead of taking your friend or partner out to an expensive birthday meal, why not eat in? This can also be applied to anniversaries or dates like Valentine’s Day. You can spend less and enjoy an extra bottle of wine (or linger after dessert to chat) without getting kicked out of the restaurant for closing time!

2. Adventure: If you live in the same town as your friend or family member, take them on a cheap day-date. Take them on a tour of parts of the city they’ve never really seen, or check out museums or other local exhibits. If it’s a nice day, you could head to a nearby park and have a picnic.

3. A touch of nature: This is another time that flowers can do the trick. Or, if you don’t want to buy something that will die within a few days, try giving your friend or loved-one a nice plant! Here are some good options for lovely plants that are hard to kill.

If you still want to buy more expensive gifts for your friends and family, you can make that happen on a budget. Personally, I put money aside every month during the year to make sure I have enough money in savings when the holidays come around. I can also dip into this fund when there is a big birthday or anniversary. This has saved me a lot of heartache (and heartburn) when the time for spending comes; I don’t feel strapped for cash when I’m feeling generous.

How much should you save? Answer these questions in order to figure out how much you need to save throughout the year:

1. The Special People: How many people do you want to buy gifts for throughout the year?

2. The Occasions: How many holidays do you want to celebrate (think Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Galentine’s Day, etc.)?

3. The Price Cap: Roughly how much do you want to spend on each gift, per person, per occasion?

4. The Monthly Save: How much would you need to put aside each month to get to that amount?

You’ll be amazed at how less stressful it is knowing you have the money you need. Good luck!

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