When You Can’t Afford to Take a Gift to a Party

*This is the 16th day of the One Month Spending Freeze Challenge. Please click here to see all of the posts in this series.*

Believe it or not, life goes on when you are doing a voluntary or involuntary spending freeze. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, weddings, and more will happen and you have to be ready.

The worst thing you can do when you can't afford a gift for a party is to skip the party altogether! Here are several alternative ideas that are socially acceptable.© gow27 / Dollar Photo Club

Some people are strongly pro-gifts, others are on the fence, and others don’t care about gifts.

I am fortunate that I don’t have to worry too much about gift giving. My family and my husband’s family do not participate in gift giving, except occasionally. We all have our own families now, and we know that money can be tight, so we don’t expect anyone to give a gift for these occasions.

However, I still feel like a rotten, terrible, no-good aunt when I go to my nephew’s birthday party gift-less. I mean, what am I doing there without a gift? My brother is providing food and a wonderful time, and I’m not giving anything back?

And this is my issue. This is where I have no idea if I should or should not go to the party. This is why I actually skipped out on a party last weekend. We are in a spending freeze (of course for this challenge, but also because we have to be) and can only spend money on our needs. We really shouldn’t spend money on a birthday gift for anyone. It sounds selfish, but we literally cannot spend $10 on a gift when we are scrambling to pay for our mortgage. It just doesn’t make sense.

When You Can’t Take a Gift to a Party

Since I really had no clue what is socially acceptable when a gift would be expected, I decided to find out. I did all my research online, and it was plain to see that every person had a different opinion on the matter. Many people very boldly stated that it would be rude to show up to a party without a gift, but that they would never say anything to the gift-less person. Some said it wouldn’t matter because they would just want the person to come to their party so they could enjoy their company.

When you really shouldn’t spend money on a gift for someone, here is what you should do instead. It might vary case-by-case, but there are a few ideas here to make sure you can do something even if there is no money to spare.

Call the host before to let them know you will be empty-handed

Nothing is worse than showing up at a birthday party without a gift. Especially when every other person at that party brought one. Save yourself some embarrassment and be sure to let your host know ahead of time that you won’t be bringing a gift. This is just a polite thing to do, and it will make your host aware of your situation so they don’t make a big deal about it at the party.

Bring something you already have or make something

When you are attending a housewarming, a birthday party, or a holiday gift exchange, it would be better to bring a little something, even if it didn’t cost you anything. People usually care more about the thought behind the gift, and they won’t care if there are no tags.

Go through your house and get out anything that you could give. If it’s a child’s birthday party, let your kids make the child a nice gift.

Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • Stickers
  • Flowers from outside your house
  • Cake or cookies
  • Homemade play dough
  • A drawing
  • A card
  • A nice toy that looks like new and is rarely played with

If you can spend $5, do it

When you can at least keep up with your bills, try to spend even a small amount on the person. Five dollars can get you a card and some candy. You could even get crayons and a coloring book. Sometimes kids just love getting cash, so give them a $5 bill.

Give a personalized coupon book or promise to do something in the future

I love the idea to give something intangible, like a service or an experience. You could make a coupon book with various things you will do for or with the person throughout the next year. Or you could write in a card what you will do with them the next time they see you. That way it gives you time to come up with any money that is necessary to actually “give” them their gift.

Weddings seem to be a different story:

A wedding is a big deal, so if you have to attend one while on a spending freeze, consider how you might feel if someone came to your wedding without a gift. When you hear that a wedding is coming in a few months, start thinking about what you can give the moment you know. That way you can set aside $1 a week or set out a jar for everyone in the family to put extra change in. Then a week or two before the wedding, you’ll hopefully have enough money to spend on a decent gift for the newlyweds.

As for Christmas…

It seems that people just can’t get the idea out of their heads that gifts really are not what matters around the holidays. However, if you are in a family or a group of friends that really gets into gift-giving for the holidays, and you just can’t swing it this year, be honest. Ask them if you can help them with the party by setting up or cleaning up afterward. Tell them you can come over and make Christmas cookies or drink hot cocoa together and just hang.

It’s hard to be the one that cannot spend money on Christmas, but hopefully your friends and family understand your situation and will be happy to spend time with you instead or let you serve them.

If you work at an office where there is a gift exchange, you may want to let the person in charge of that event know that you will not be participating this year. It’s awkward to receive a gift when you have nothing to give back.

That One Time I Requested No Gifts

In January, my youngest turned 1 and we had a small party with our families. On the invitation, I wrote, “Please no gifts.” What do you know, everyone brought a gift. There was no opening of the gifts at the party, but I still felt embarrassed that I requested no gifts and everyone still brought one.

I purposely did that because 1) my girls already have a lot of toys and 2) we hadn’t been giving gifts to others for a while. I felt like having our family members at the party was good enough. I guess in the future, if we don’t want anyone to bring gifts, I will write “Your presence is the best present” on the invitation so it doesn’t sound weird and people feel more comfortable coming gift-less.

When Someone Comes to Your Party Empty-Handed

Please remember that if you are on the receiving end and your family or friend comes to your party without a gift that sometimes people are honestly struggling financially. Not everyone tells the world what kind of financial situation they are in. Be kind and non-judgmental because, truly, you would probably rather have that person in your life than a gift that they bring to your party. Am I right?

For today’s challenge, just think about what you will do if you have to attend a party during this spending freeze challenge. Will you get creative and make something or will you give of your time?

Have you ever skipped out on a party because of lack of funds? Please tell me I’m not the only one!

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  1. Haha I haven’t skipped out on a party, but I usually try to give something, even if it’s small. But on the flip side, if someone comes to a party of mine and doesn’t give a gift, I don’t mind. It’s definitely a tough situation sometimes!
    Nina recently posted…Unfair Reasons We Get Mad at Our KidsMy Profile

    • Agreed, Nina! I think my problem boils down to waiting to get a present until the last minute. Then, if we’re in a really tight spot, I have no idea what to do and just decide that we better not go. It’s always good to plan ahead for gifts!

  2. Nicole says:

    How the hell is anyone actually mad when people don’t show up with a gift? If they could they would…time, financials, whatever, sometimes it’s just not possible. If you’re throwing the party for the gifts then just clearly state the dollar amount that you expect and why you deserve it. Guaranteed your “friends” wish you liked them for them.

  3. A really inexpensive, but useful wedding present is to write quick, tasty, family favorite recipes on pretty recipe cards and tie them together in a fancy ribbon.

    • Ooh, that’s a great idea. I got a bunch of recipes from some family friends when I got married and I used a lot of them, especially my first year of marriage. Thanks for the cheap, but very valuable, gift idea!

    • Crystal says:

      When I had a bridal shower, I included recipe cards in the invitations and asked the guests to bring a recipe for me to the shower. I got some good recipes, and some that I didn’t really care for, but I am so glad that I did this and that I saved them all. The real treasure is that I have something special, handwritten, to remind me of each of these people, many of whom are no longer around. Things like this are so special and worth way more than any towel, dish, or picture frame. I love to look through my recipe box!

  4. Friends of ours have 15 yr old twins. They are having first Holy Communion and Confirmation in 2 weeks. We received an invite to a lunch after at their house. My husband has been laid-off a while now and we simply do not have money to spend on gifts. What should we do? Our son has been friends with these kids since 3rd grade. Any advice?

    • Since you are close to the parents, I would kindly let them know that you can’t bring anything. Hopefully they will understand that you are not in a situation to spend money on anything besides your current needs. It’s a difficult conversation, but it will be more awkward to arrive without gifts. Good luck!

      • Thanks Charlee. They are aware of our situation and I’m sure they’ll be fine. I may take some advice and see if I can help with the set up before people arrive, while they are still at church. I guess I just needed someone to say it was ok to not be able to do something. Thanks for taking the time to write back!

        • That’s a great idea. There is also nothing wrong with giving them a present in the future when you are in a better situation.

  5. Crystal says:

    For my daughter’s first birthday, I didn’t want everyone to bring gifts because we really didn’t have room for anything else. I am sensitive about people spending money on our children because we have a large family and I don’t want people to feel like they have to buy for all the children and therefore end up spending a lot of money. I truly wanted the people I invited to come to the party, but not feel obligated to bring a gift, or feel weird about not bringing one. When I emailed the invitations I wrote “In lieu of a gift please write a note to her to be opened on her 16th birthday.” At least one person in each family that came brought a note and I am so excited for her to read them and see what everyone wrote! One person brought an actual gift, which was a bonnet she had made herself and we will treasure it as well. I was pleased with the outcome and I am planning to do the same thing for my son’s first birthday this month.

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