Catey Hill | MarketWatch, November 2014

Forty-four-year old Michelle Morton’s Christmas celebration probably doesn’t look like yours — but you might wish it did.

That’s because, for the past few years, the Raleigh, N.C., resident and her sisters and husband have instituted a no-gift policy for the holidays. “It was stressful and expensive getting all those gifts, when none of us really needed any of it,” she explains. “In order to stop the madness, our Christmas became about being able to spend time with family.”

Now, rather than trading gifts or gift cards (Morton says they tried the gift-card exchange one year and realized “all we were doing was exchanging money”), they all travel to Morton’s parents’ house in upstate New York to spend time together. “We will keep doing it this way,” she says. “Our Christmas has become more meaningful,” she says.

The no-gifts or very-limited-gifts holiday — while certainly not for everyone — is popular with a small group of Americans. According to the Survey of Affluence and Wealth from Time Inc. and YouGov, while per household spending on holiday gifts will likely rise by 10% this year, total spending on gifts will increase by only 8.7% — and that’s because roughly two million households have dropped out of holiday gift spending altogether. That means in 2014, nearly 9% of American families will not participate in holiday gift-giving, the survey revealed.

There are many reasons Americans just say no to holiday gifting, including that they don’t celebrate the holidays or have no one to give to. But for many, the holiday tab has gotten to be too much (nearly one in four Americans say that the holidays are too expensive, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last year).

That was the case for 38-year-old Cherie Lowe of Greenwood, Ind. In 2008, Lowe and her husband “were a wreck of debt,” they owed $127,000 that had accumulated from student loans, credit cards and other factors, she says. So to cut back, for four years they did not give gifts to one another or friends and limited the kids’ gifts to a few items and some stocking stuffers (in addition to other cost-cutting measures). Lowe admits it was very hard to do the no-gift thing — “I love to both give and receive gifts so it was truly a sacrifice that I felt deeply,” she says — but is glad they did it: “I learned that I could give and receive love without giving and receiving things.” And now, the family is debt free.

Others take a stand against consumerism and buying for the sake of buying (one in three Americans say they dislike the commercialism and materialism of the holidays, the Pew survey found). Kellie Pelletier Macdonald, 40, of Roswell, Ga. says she and her husband and their brothers, sisters-in-law, and one set of parents/grandparents have stopped gifting one another altogether (though they still give presents to the kids). “The holidays are not about material things,” she says. “I so prefer watching ‘Sound of Music’ with my mom after the kids go to bed on Christmas — just the two of us — or playing flag football with three generations of family members.”

Whatever their reasons, many people who stopped or curtailed gifting said doing it was a challenge. Lowe notes that doing so was a big sacrifice, and Morton says she had a hard time convincing some of her family to get onboard. Still, they felt it was worth it.

So, if you’re thinking of doing something similar this year or next, the first thing to do is to make a to-gift list — and cut it. First, look to cut people whom you don’t see that much anymore. “If you rarely see or interact with certain people, consider sending a card instead of a gift,” says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas.

But don’t stop there. “Don’t be afraid to communicate with family and friends about cutting down on the gift list,” says Gottsman. “Most extended family and friends will appreciate a financial reprieve, or an alternate form of gifting.”

Macdonald notes that you can bring up the no-gift idea in a number of ways to get others to buy in: “The key is pitching the angle that will appeal most to the recipient,” she says. “For the frugal sibling, you emphasize the money you’ll save; for the environmentalist, you promote the trees you’ll save by wrapping fewer presents; for the time poor, you talk about the hours you’ll save at the busiest time of year (and it’s hours) by dropping a few people from your list.”

Of course, this no-gift policy is easier said than done, and the people we talked to, though they had stopped gifting adults, still gave to children. Furthermore, if you have the money, time and motivation — and love gift-giving — by all means, keep the economy humming and your family happy with a home filled with thoughtful gifts.