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It's the thought that counts

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

We're approaching the holiday season amidst dire economic predictions and warnings about credit-card spending. Since we issued those warnings months, even years, ago, it seems more appropriate to take a positive approach toward seasonal gift giving.

Even though your budget is stretched, and your finances are overextended, you still can give meaningful holiday gifts to those you care about. Where did we ever get the idea that "meaningful" is synonymous with expensive? It's time to redefine the spirit of gift giving, as well as the practice.

And if you get your family and friends together this Thanksgiving weekend and agree on a plan, this could be the most rewarding holiday season you've ever had. Remember, if you're all fortunate enough to gather for dinner in a home that is not being foreclosed, you're well ahead of the millions of families who can't even be thankful for the roof over their heads.

Thanksgiving dinner is quite a tradition in many homes. There's likely to be turkey and trimmings. Then everyone will head for the couch to watch football games. And it's also become a tradition to get up early to start shopping for expensive bargains on Black Friday.

Stop right there. This year must be different. This year "cash is king" -- especially the cash you don't spend! So here are tips for a family conference about a new kind of gifting during this recession. If you're creative, you can come up with gifts that mean more than money.

Richer than money

The first step in gifting more than money is a general agreement that includes everyone -- from kids to grandparents, as well as budget-conscious parents. When everyone "buys" in to these ideas, creative spirits take over.

FAMILY GRAB BAG: Instead of stressing out for the perfect gift for everyone on your list, cut your list to one! Put everyone's name in a hat, and draw for the name of the person who will receive your gift. Be sure to put a limit on it -- maybe only $10 or $20, so you lower expectations and increase the challenge.

GIFTS OF SERVICE: Who says a great gift has to cost a lot? Giving of yourself, your time and talents, can mean so much more. So kids can create "gift certificates" for promises to take out the trash, or walk the dog, without being asked twice. They can attach little tear-off coupons to their card, so Mom can present them to remind them of their gift-promise. And parents can equally promise inexpensive gift certificates -- for a free ride to the movies for the whole gang, or for a special dinner to be cooked at home, or a week of no nagging!

GIFTS OF TIME: For some family members, time is more valuable than money ever could be. Spending an afternoon with Grandma, or driving her shopping might not sound like a teen's idea of fun -- but what a gift it would be. And for a busy dad, promising to coach the Little League team might be more costly in time and energy than a new mitt, but it will be more appreciated.

Your family can create its own new tradition, one that is affordable and won't bring a January blizzard of bills to pay. The challenge is to get everyone to agree, and that's best done on a full stomach, just before kickoff! Timing is everything!

This doesn't have to be a gloomy holiday season, even if it is a thrifty one. It can be different -- and better. Western Union, the company that facilitates cash transfers around the world, notes the change.

Around Labor Day they surveyed American's preference for cash as a gift -- a number that has risen sharply in the midst of the financial crisis of the last two months. Now 65 percent of Americans say they would prefer to receive $100 in cash rather than a specific present or gift card valued at the same amount.

And if they do get cash, far fewer would spend it on a treat for themselves. More than half of those who would prefer cash say they would spend it on basic necessities such as gas, groceries and bills.

So, if you simply must give a gift that your recipient won't exchange, money will be appreciated -- not only by family and friends, but by the charities that will be hard-pressed to help suddenly needy families this holiday season.

We're back to basics -- and that isn't all bad. Talking about money, or the lack of it, doesn't have to ruin the holiday spirit.

In fact, a frank discussion with family and close friends could make everyone appreciate the positive aspects of our life. And that's The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Distributed by Creators Syndicate. Copyright Terry Savage Productions Ltd. Visit and

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