Holiday gift lists shrink, but who makes the cut?

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NEW YORK - Gift givers are getting ready to cut.

Against the backdrop of record high unemployment and other financial struggles, people are taking out their holiday gifts lists and finding themselves having to cross off friends, relatives and co-workers this year.

"Like the rest of the world, this economy has me cutting almost everyone off the gift list," said Trish Bonsall, who lost her job as a sales manager for a new home builder in June. "In the past, it was a very long list. This year, we're cutting it drastically."

For Bonsall, 51, of Charlotte, N.C., that means losing all but about six people — her four sons and their significant others — from her list of 35.

"Christmas is my favorite season. I like to buy presents," she said. "It hurts."

A survey earlier this fall by market research company NPD Group found that 27 percent of people said they would cut their personal or business lists this year. But when gift comes to shove, not everybody can go through with it. Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst, expects about 19 percent will trim the list.

Still, it's the first time in the five years the question has been asked that the number has topped 10 percent. It's usually 5 percent to 8 percent.

"Every year, the consumer's gift list got longer and longer and, during affluent times, you didn't think anything of adding people to the list," Cohen said. "Now, with consumers having to be frugal, the list is not only getting checked twice, but cut twice."

While it may be a relief not to have to buy for a family friend or your book club, breaking up with a gift giver can be hard to do. To avoid hurt feelings and awkward situations, experts advise, be kind and tell the truth.

"Be honest, and say, 'Times are tight this year and I'm having to cut back. Do you mind if we don't do gifts?'" said Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute.

And don't wait too long. "Do it early" so your friend doesn't buy you a present before you break the news, Post said.

But in place of the latest best-seller or pair of gloves, come up with an alternative, like a holiday lunch. "Don't forget there's a lot of gifts that are free — your attention, your time, maybe your talent," says gift expert and author Robyn Spizman.

That's just what Bonsall is doing.

In September, she e-mailed two sets of friends and asked that they skip the gifts. One group of five women she has known since childhood in Philadelphia is saving up to attend her son's wedding this summer, while another five, who like her live in Charlotte, will meet for dinner.

"Buying gifts for five gal pals would run me $100 (or more) ... but going dutch treat for dinner, I can enjoy a night with the girls and only spend $20," said Bonsall, who's got a coupon for the restaurant.

"Everybody was relieved that I took the initiative and said it's OK not to buy gifts this year," said Bonsall. And it's a financial fix for her as well. Of the $200 savings, she said, "It's huge. It's an electric bill and a gas bill."

She and her husband, who does not work, also have decided not to buy gifts for each other, but to go on a date instead. "He is thrilled not to have to go shopping," she said.

WHOM TO CUT:

When it comes to friends, Spizman suggests cutting people you don't see any more. Instead, send a card with an offer to get together.

If you live nearby, invite the person over for dinner. "If you're broke, say, 'Let's have a drink together or a cup of coffee,'" Post said.

When it comes to family gifts, you can skip grownup gifts and buy only for children, or draw names for the adults, so each person buys and receives one gift. The same can be done for children, by drawing names for, say, all the cousins.

When it comes to thanking people, a gift isn't always necessary.

"If you give your business to someone, you can shake their hand and thank them," Spizman said. "You give them your business — that's a gift."

GIFT ALTERNATIVES:

There are still many ways of marking the holiday without a trinket wrapped up with a bow. "You can cut back without cutting the holiday spirit," Spizman says.

— Part with a possession

"Maybe this is the year you pass something down that was meaningful to you — a baseball, a comic book," Spizman says. Or she suggests giving four or five books to help someone start a library or a piece of jewelry.

— Lend a hand

"Long after the fruit cakes are forgotten, people remember true help," Spizman said. "They remember when you repotted the plants at their front door when they no longer have the energy, or the soup you brought, because you made that by hand."

Another way of helping, especially considering the unemployment rate, is to refer somebody for a job. "You might not have the money, but you might have a connection," Spizman said.

Or you can offer to babysit or run errands.

— Share a tip

If you're getting together with a group, everybody can bring a dish along with a copy of the recipe for each person. Or if you're gathering for a girlfriends dinner like Bonsall, add a theme by asking guests to bring their favorite beauty tip, says Spizman.

— Pick up the phone

"Call someone and say, 'I'm thinking of you' and 'You mean the world to me.' That is beautiful," Spizman says. Or stop by to spread some good cheer.

— Give by giving back

Tell your circle that you're donating money (it doesn't have to be a lot) to a charity or working in a soup kitchen in their honor, Post says.

Or do a combination. In Beth Cleveland's family, her aunt asked that instead of buying all 25 people a gift, each person bring one $25 gift with an animal theme. They will play a White Elephant exchange game.

"I think everyone had a tough year and it's just going to be about spending time with family," said Cleveland, of Charleston, S.C. "We will still have the experience of opening gifts, but it will be more of a group activity rather than a free-for-all."

Her aunt also let the family know they would draw the name of a charity out of a hat and donate any voluntary contributions.

"This year it doesn't have to be all about the gifts," said Cleveland, 27, the founder of a public relations firm.

And though Bonsall will miss picking out presents, she too said she feels this celebration will be more meaningful.

"I'm actually looking forward to putting the real meaning of Christmas back and taking away the gift part and getting back to spending time with family friends and enjoying each other," she said.


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