The holiday season has become an extravaganza of exorbitant gift-giving, and with all the sales and emphasis on holiday gifting, it may be a particularly difficult time for elders.  Older parents and grandparents generally want to give generously, but there are unique risks for elders in spending too much during the holidays.  Older adults risk spending too much of their retirement savings prematurely if they give large gifts or amounts of money – or make substantial charitable donations – during the holidays.  Furthermore, for elders who are trying to obtain Medicaid benefits, or who may apply for benefits within the next five years, substantial gifts during the holidays could cause serious setbacks for obtaining benefits to help pay for long-term care.

This may be a good opportunity for younger adults in the family to initiate conversations about limiting elders’ holiday spending.  But when approaching the subject with older adults, it may be important to frame the conversation in terms of the benefits for the whole family.  This could be a chance to start fun new traditions that emphasize family relationships and the time spent together while reducing the financial burden on everyone (including younger family members).  Here are some gift-giving alternatives your family could try to avoid over-spending elders’ resources during the holidays:

  • Set spending limits. One strategy to keep elder loved ones from feeling as though they are under-gifting is to agree on a spending limit as a family.  This could mean deciding that each household must only spend a certain amount or that each person may only spend a small sum on every other person in the family.  If you’re having a hard time getting the elder to buy in, you can frame the change as something that will benefit younger members of the family, such as college students or young adults just starting out on their own.  If everyone’s spending is limited, the elder does not have to worry that he or she will be seen as under-spending on gifts compared to the rest of the family.
  • Secret Santa (draw names). Instead of everyone in the family buying gifts for everyone else, your family might consider drawing names, so that each person only has one other person to shop for.  This may allow for some nicer gifts and more personal thought:  quality over quantity.
  • Give family baskets. Rather than giving individual gifts for everyone in the household, your extended family may agree to assemble “family baskets” of sweets, small toys and gadgets, or other inexpensive items – one basket per household.  So instead of buying gifts for each person in the family, the grandparents may only need to assemble three or four baskets that each family unit can share and enjoy.
  • Give to kids only. Much of the joy of gift-giving is watching children open their presents.  If the elders in the family can’t resist lavishing gifts on the children, the family can agree that gifting should be for kids only, allowing the grandparents to focus limited funds on the kids.
  • Craft your gifts. If your family is crafty, make a rule that this year’s gifts should be homemade.  Elders in the family with special skills like sewing, crocheting, cooking, knitting, and woodworking can make small keepsakes for younger family members.  Art supplies may be expensive, but the internet is full of ideas for up-cycling the things you have lying around the house.  For less tech-savvy elders, younger family members might find ideas and spend some quality time with their parents or grandparents co-creating holiday gifts for other family members.
  • Re-gift or pass down family heirlooms. Many elders have special items around their homes or tucked in drawers or attics:  wedding china, embroidered tablecloths, wooden trunks or boxes, hand-stitched quilts, antique guns or knives, classic board games, photo albums…  The holidays can be a great time for elders to begin passing some of these items on and sharing the memories with the younger generation.  If parents or grandparents know the younger family members will cherish these items as much as (or more than) new toys and clothes, they can give meaningful gifts without spending anything at all.