Something You Want, Something You Need

Gifts by Mel Poole on Unsplash via

During the throes of the Great Recession, I read a book that changed my life: The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced “decision”). In the book, there is a story about children opening presents at Christmas. The child opens their first present. They are excited, their little faces glow! They want to play with it, explore it. They appreciate it. But the parents want them to get through the Christmas morning process, so they make the child put the present aside.

In addition to dealing with serious financial hardship that year, I also believed this was true and advocated for a small Christmas. Grandparents on both sides, however, wanted to be sure we had a “good” (read: big) Christmas despite the economic climate and showered our children with gifts. As I sat on Christmas morning and watched my children open presents, I saw the story above play itself out in my living room. Exactly as described.

That’s when I knew my desire to put limits on Christmas gift giving wasn’t just an idea but something that I deeply wanted to stick to and stick up for. I knew I was going to need some reasons when I explained this to extended family, so wrote them all down.


  • I wanted Christmas to be one of many holidays instead of THE holiday, and refocus our holiday around classic low-cost activities instead of materialism.

  • I wanted to emphasize the meaning of the holiday and have that take center stage instead of the focus on getting presents.

  • More obviously, I wanted to save some dang money as well as helping extended family save money, too

  • I wanted to avoid the highs and lows that come with those super high expectations around presents and the inevitable disappointment on the part of the receiver AND the giver when the gift doesn’t measure up to the hype

  • I wanted to declutter the entire process so that there was time to choose a quality gift thoughtfully or even to handmake gifts (my personal favorite).

But how to do it?

We’d tried some systems in the past like each person giving each other person only one gift (four gifts per person), but it got too complicated, too expensive and too much overlap. Not to mention too much pressure on then young children to make choices.

We’d also tried hand-making gifts, which was a lovely experience but something again that put a lot of pressure on young children to make gifts that were actually useful and meaningful to the recipient.

When talking this over with a friend, she told me about something she had heard of called “The Four Gift Rule” for presents. You may have heard of it, you remember it with the following rhyme:

Something you want,
Something you need,
Something to wear,
Something to read.

I loved it. It included books, which are a big part of our family culture, and an emphasis on practical things over material desires. It lends itself to lower-cost items and it limits the presents to four per person but with built-in flexibility. Perfect.


Something You Want

This is the typical Christmas list present – different for every person, and the thing they really want but would not or could not buy themselves. For my husband this is usually technology, for my children its expensive LEGO sets. For me it’s usually jewelry, art or something for the house. Quilting fabric sometimes, but only if I’ve been very specific about what I want. Like clothing, quilt fabric is really hard to buy for someone else.

Something You Need

Mostly in our family this ends up being something that the person could use for a sport or outdoor activity, but could also be school supplies, wants that are more practical (like kitchen accessories or garden & garage tools). Pretty much anything the person might want that is very practical, useful and needed.

Something to Wear

Clearly the obvious present here is clothing, but since the “need” item can often be clothing, we’ve been creative with this over the years. This could include sport or outdoor clothing, accessories such as jewelry, watches, purses, bags or hair accessories. Shoes, too, would fit in here. Or hats, mittens, gloves or other seasonal clothing. Sunglasses, anyone?

Something to Read

This is easy! Books! Our family loves books and I love to collect pretty editions of classics. Over the years we’ve given pretty illustrated children’s classics, beautiful coffee table books, the latest installment in a special series, or non-fiction books that are perfect for the current interests of the recipient. But this could also be audiobooks or a magazine subscription.

And yes, speaking about it several years later, this has absolutely been a positive thing for our family. It hasn’t entirely done away with the hype or expense, but at least it’s less and that’s something.

Oh yes, and one unexpected benefit. The kids’ started organizing their Christmas lists around these categories and now my husband and I do, too. It really helps the giver make the best possible choices while still keeping the final selection a surprise until the big day.

UPDATED: While this system  has worked well for the most part, I have always been a little flummoxed by having “need” and “wear” as separate items. In 2019 we eventually changed our version of the four-gift rule to make it work better for us. You can read more about it at the postA New & Improved Version of the Four Gift Rule.

Love, Angela


Many thanks to the generosity of photographers whose work is shared for free onUnsplash:Mel Poole.


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