Thanks to credit cards, you can be completely broke but still spend thousands of dollars on Christmas gifts. It is not only your right to do so, but you may be led to believe it is an obligation. However, you can make wise decisions about gift-giving, being thoughtful without breaking the bank.

Do you recall the gifts you gave last Christmas? How about the ones you received? We have trouble remembering because when it is all over, the gifts pale in comparison to the joy they deliver—the love and best wishes for the season. Giving a gift just so you can mark a name off a list is a hollow effort that is likely to fall flat, no matter how much money you spend.

Do you still have a sense of the joy associated with gift-giving from last Christmas, even if you cannot recall the specific gifts? Those who don’t recall joy may remember the stress of finding the perfect gift, the hassle of last-minute shopping or the guilt of spending money you did not have on things you do not remember.

Think of gift-giving the same way you think of a special meal you prepare. You want it to be delicious and for your guests to enjoy it. But no matter how fluffy your mashed potatoes or how delectable the prime rib, it is still a meal—and it will end.

Your gifts should bring a momentary sense of joy, but the memories of your expression of care should live on. Consider these five tips to aid you in gift-giving:

  • It’s the thought that counts. Not every occasion requires a gift. Sometimes, a card with a thoughtful sentiment is perfect. Knowing the thought that went into the gift is what really counts will help you be genuinely grateful for gifts you receive, too. Be sure to express your gratitude.
  • Give something you made. Whether from your kitchen, craft room, computer or woodworking shop, there is nothing like a homemade gift. A tree ornament, a plate of cookies, a box of fudge, a bottle of pure vanilla extract and some notecards are some homemade gifts with universal appeal.
  • Give what matters most. If you do not know what to give someone, ask this simple question: What matters to the recipient? You have to pay attention, listen and observe. Find a way to show you care about what matters most to that person. Is he or she passionate about medical research? Become a bone marrow donor. Is the individual an environmentalist? Plant a tree in the person’s name. Write a description of your experience and give it to your recipient.
  • Give what you do best. What do you do well? Cook, clean, babysit, garden, sew, drive, shop? Whatever it is, create a unique gift certificate. Make what you do the gift you give: a weekend of babysitting, a day of housecleaning, six hours of errand-running. Your recipient may be too embarrassed to remind you to make good on the gift, so follow up within a few days to set the exact time your certificate will be redeemed. 
  • Give it in writing. Worried your gifts are not quite right? All your doubts will vanish when you include a short note telling recipients what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life.

The best gift is one that delivers a message of love and joy that remains with the recipient long after it has been consumed, used or put away.

Mary Hunt’s column, “Everyday Cheapskate,” can be found at