De-Materializing the Holidays: The Connection Between Frugal and Festive

de-materializing the holidays: mother and children making cookies

So much for the idea that an abundance of gifts is what contributes to that “most magical time of the year.” The fact is: materialism does not contribute to our happiness. In fact, it has just the opposite effect.

In 2014, materialism expert Tim Kasser, PhD, shared research findings with the American Psychological Association that proves just that. In partnership with colleagues at the University of Sussex, Kasser found that the more highly people emphasized materialistic status and values, the less their sense of well-being. Materialistic people reported experiencing a greater number of unpleasant emotions like depression, anxiety and a general dissatisfaction with their lives. They also reported physical health problems such as stomach aches and headaches.

This was especially true during the holidays.

As Kasser and psychologist Ken Sheldon discovered, people who emphasized the spiritual aspects of the holidays reported having a “merrier” holiday season than those for whom materialist aspects were the focus. Their explanation? Religious people in general struggle with the conflict between the materialist goals valued by society and their personal spiritual aims as taught by Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and others. When they find themselves preoccupied with gift giving, that tension is only exacerbated.

It may be hard—okay, impossible—to influence today’s media-saturated, gift-hungry children with academic studies like these. But, armed with the knowledge that dematerializing your holiday season will result in happier memories for your little ones, you may wish to consider adopting one or more of the practices below.


As a general approach, emphasize the time you are spending together over the gifts you are planning to exchange. Cook and eat together, for example, and enjoy the unique traditions that matter most to your family. For some, it may be putting up decorations that only come out once a year. For others it’s the taste of eggnog or other special recipes. Maybe there are particular songs or movies that you share this time of year. For most there are annual gatherings with friends or at places of worship that bring on the cheer.

If you live far away from your loved ones, consider contributing to a shared “travel fund” instead of exchanging individual gifts. When the pot’s large enough, you can purchase a plane or bus ticket for one family member to visit the others, or for siblings or parents to travel together someplace new.

Other ideas for shared experiences include:

  • Arranging a family hike to a special spot, complete with hot cocoa or adult beverages (you don’t have to celebrate a holiday to enjoy them!)
  • Spending an evening out at a paint bar where all materials are supplied—you’ll walk away with your own piece of art.
  • Asking little ones to host a tea party or put on a play for the family.
  • Pooling your gift funds to rent a cabin for the family (during or after the holidays).
  • Agreeing to go in on tickets for the whole family to attend a concert or sports game.
  • Devoting an afternoon to singing holiday songs at a nursing home—the more out of tune, the better!


Homemade gifts don’t have to mean filling your house with sticky paper and un-vacuum-able glitter.  This article offers homemade—and practical—gift ideas for everyone in the family. The projects include fashioning bath salts, bird suet, soaps and even a personalized picture card game for kids.

Other gifts that help you avoid the check-out line include:

  • Coupons for favors: Consider distributing individual notes that offer a massage, a favorite meal, helping with yard work or an errand you keep putting off—like finally getting that piece of art reframed or the car tuned up.
  • Gifts of homemade treats and special foods allow you to spend time cooking with others and help the recipients host their own celebrations. Preserving, candy-making and roasting mixed nuts are only the beginning of what you can offer. Look for mason jars and pretty vases from thrift stores to present them in.
  • Gift homemade decorations by searching for adult pottery or glass-making classes in your area.
  • You don’t need to have much of a green thumb to give paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs that bloom indoors while the snow piles up outside. Plant bulbs in plastic pots that recipients can slip into their own ceramic bowls or pots. It’s like giving the gift of spring.
  • Agree that all of your gifts will be second-hand or gently used and spend your time searching the aisles of thrift stores for that truly one-of-a-kind present.
  • In lieu of impersonal gift cards, ask children to help you decorate handmade cards for the letter carrier, the crossing guard and other special people you wish to acknowledge.


While children may not dream of unwrapping practical items like socks and underwear, there are plenty of ways to make your gifts exciting and useful.

  • When purchasing gifts or gift certificates, patronize your town’s local toy stores and gift shops that specialize in works by local artists. If you have to spend the big bucks, at least you know you are supporting local businesses in the process.
  • Plenty of people on tight budgets will be thrilled to receive a gift certificate for groceries from a special food store or a gift card good for camping equipment.
  • There’s nothing wrong with providing someone with something they are already planning to buy for themselves. Contribute to a friend’s gym membership or pick up a pass to the yoga studio.
  • When others ask you for a wish list, have no qualms about asking for a contribution to your emergency fund (or income-loss insurance!). It need not be extravagant; every little bit counts.


The holidays, after all, are a time for giving—not getting! Plenty of studies back up the fact that giving is the source of true happiness. Whether giving your time, money or your own possessions, the pleasure of spending at least some part of your holiday season alleviating the suffering of others will last longer than the thrill of a new sweater or toy.

Here are ways to give what really counts:

  • Make donations on other people’s behalf to charities that they find significant. Often the charity will send a note letting them know about your gesture.
  • Search for charities that allow you to purchase a cow, chickens or other resources to support a family in developing countries. Again, make the gesture in someone else’s name.
  • Gather old towels, bedsheets and blankets to donate to the local animal shelter. Help your kids collect trash bags full from others! Arrange to visit the animals when you drop off your donation—but only if you can resist taking them all home with you (unless your budget can support a pet)!
  • Make it a tradition for kids to donate their gently used toys, books and outgrown clothing to charities during the holiday season. As an extra benefit, you’ll make room for what’s coming—and claim an end-of-the-year tax write-off.


Whether your celebrations are defined more by their materialistic or spiritual aspects, it is your gratitude for the things you receive that will put the jolly in your holiday.

Make it a tradition to give thanks every day for small gifts that come your way: an extra gumball, a hand with your groceries, the bus driver who waited, the friend who stopped over with a smile and a hug. Ask everyone at the table to share something from the day they are grateful for—or to share something about someone else at the table that they appreciate.

Gratitude can be its own form of spirituality, after all. To quote Alice Walker: ‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say.”