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Paring down the holiday shopping list: Who makes the cut?

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 10:33 AM EST, Wed December 14, 2011
Who makes the cut on your holiday shopping list?
Who makes the cut on your holiday shopping list?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some shoppers are paring down their gift lists to focus on kids
  • Cards and handmade gifts replace pricier items
  • What to give teachers is a hot topic among some parents

(CNN) -- Michele McGraw used to give holiday gifts to nearly everyone who played a supporting role in her family's life: teachers, bus drivers, the mailman, the paperboy.

Not anymore. As her four children grow and their wants become more expensive, she's checking her list for ways to pare it down.

"It mostly comes down to the amount of money we were spending at Christmas; it had to come from somewhere," said McGraw, a tech blogger in northern Virginia. "We just looked at overall spending and it was a lot, so we decided to pare down to family first."

Whether it's recession-related or born of a desire to cut back on "stuff," consumers are looking for ways to scale back their shopping lists. Immediate family and relatives tend to make the cut, but even then, some families are revamping the formula.

In McGraw's extended family, the adults no longer exchange gifts to keep the focus on the kids. That doesn't mean becoming a scrooge to everyone else. Her children (ages 15, 12, 8 and 7) will choose teachers they have a special connection with to receive a handmade gift or card. McGraw also tries to to do more things throughout the year, like buying a small gift for a teacher on her birthday or during National Education Week instead, she said.

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The bus driver and mail carrier will get a handwritten card expressing thanks, said McGraw, who writes about technology from a working mother's perspective on ScrapsofMyGeekLife.com.

"It helps to spread the gift-giving out throughout the year instead of doing it all in December. It is also more unexpected at other times of the year," she said.

No one should ever feel an absolute obligation to give gifts, said etiquette expert Anna Post with the Emily Post Institute. But, if you plan on ending a longstanding tradition of exchanging gifts with someone, best to let them know as soon as possible. Like, today, if you haven't already, she said.

Otherwise, cards and handmade gifts can replace store-bought items in a pinch, especially for crafty folks, she said. Food and baked goods can also go a long way, just be sure to include an ingredient list for dietary considerations, she said.

"Especially when money is tight, thinking of ways to give of ourselves doesn't have to involve money or be wrapped in a bow," she said. "It can be making something, or by starting a new tradition. It could be going to hear carolers at the local community center, taking a walk through the neighborhood to look at lights or getting together with a friend."

Who makes the cut aside from family and friends tends to vary with location and priorities. Post recommends going about it in one of two ways: Make a list of people and divide up the money you want to spend evenly among everyone or go down the list giving a designated amount until you run out.

In the suburbs, mail carriers, landscapers and bus drivers make the list; in big cities, doormen, superintendents and porters are common recipients of cash gifts.

Read the Emily Post Institute's guide to tipping for the holidays

Housekeepers and hairdressers are common recipients regardless of location, but gifts to those folks do not cause debate as contentious as over gifts for teachers, said Rebecca Levey, co-founder of KidzVuz.com, a video review site by and for children.

Many parents want to show their appreciation or believe that teachers are not adequately compensated for their work, she said. But that's not the common sentiment across the board.

Some see a conflict of interest in giving money the teachers who hand out their child's grades. They question the legality of the practice. Others feel a handmade gift from the child should suffice, Levey said.

Gift cards are a good compromise, especially cards for places where teachers can buy classroom supplies, like Barnes & Noble or Staples, Post said.

"Many schools have policies against cash gifts, so it helps to check," Post said. "One thing we know for certain is no more mugs. We've heard this from a million teachers."

For some parents, it's hard to cut out teachers, especially those who care for children with special needs, said Ellen Seidman, whose blog, Love That Max, focuses on caring for children with special needs.

Her 8-year-old son, Max, has cerebral palsy. Between therapists, teachers and her daughter's teachers, Seidman estimates she has about 20 people to shop for.

"I think they're saints," she said. "I never dreamed I'd have a list like this, but never dreamed I'd have a kid with special needs. But I'm glad they're in my life and I want to reward them."

Parents of kids with disabilities often have additional financial burdens, including out-of-pocket expenses for therapies and medical costs.

"Add to that the internal pressure many parents of kids with special needs feel to get their kids toys that could help with their development, and you have a whole lot of holiday shopping stress," she said.

Because she buys toys for her son throughout the year to help his development, the holiday is a time to focus on a few gifts that are just plain fun, she said.

Read Seidman's gift guide for kids with special needs

"As I've grown into becoming a parent, I've become more selective and not gone nuts over the holidays."

Quality over quantity is a common focus, even among parents who are scaling back on gifts for others to free resources for their family.

"For a lot of parents, because they're so much more budget conscious, they're way more into what's going to last and having one nice gift -- the Nintendo DS, iPod Touch, LeapFrog -- and toning down the rest of it," said Levey of KidzVuz.com.

"We want our kids to appreciate what they have and that's hard for them to do that if they're constantly getting stuff."

The same mantra tends to extend to nieces and nephews. When Levey's extended family gets together to exchange Hanukkah gifts, the adults won't get anything, she said. Using Draw Names, the children each selected a cousin to give a gift to. And that's that.

Mom blogger Melissa Chapman is taking the idea a step further with her immediate family: only handmade gifts for everyone, including her children.

Chapman, who runs Married My Sugar Daddy, a blog about her family life with an older man, admits the kids aren't thrilled with the idea. The plan is to encourage her son and daughter to make something the other would enjoy, like a toy or jewelry, and that way they'll think of one another when they use it, she said.

"I feel like they have so much and I have to be honest, the way my son works is he gets a toy and he's done with it in a week and rarely goes back to it," said Chapman, who runs her blog from her home in Staten Island, New York.

"By buying them another gift they don't need, the lesson really isn't about expressing love and kindness for each other. What better way to do that than with a handmade gift?"

On the other hand, Chapman said she plans on giving gift cards to all the people who make her life easier: teachers, landscapers, even the UPS guy.

"That's my new thing to give out to everybody and that's what I'd love to get because it's really like giving the gift they need. If they need groceries, they can get groceries with it," she said.

"Anyone who makes my life easier on a daily basis deserves some acknowledgment," she said. "It shows that you appreciate what they're doing."

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