Gift-giving in a time of COVID-19

Last week, a friend of mine mentioned that she just couldn’t think of making up a gift list this Christmas.  After caring for her two COVID-stricken daughters while working full-time, she was understandably exhausted, and she said it felt “wrong” to be asking for things when so many people are struggling financially.  At first I agreed with her.  After all, COVID-19 has dealt an incredible blow to the nation’s overall health and economic well-being, impacting women and minorities the hardest.

But then after some thought, I realized that as awful as 2020 has been, this pandemic has also forced us to re-evaluate the way we live our lives.  This crisis has reminded me that this time of year is about what we can do to bring others joy, and not about what we can do for ourselves.  In fact, it’s even more important now to keep this tradition going. 

No doubt, though, the family budget has been stretched thin for many, and household spending has shifted to focus on essential supplies rather than luxury items. What can any family afford to give?  Here are some ideas that minimize cost while maximizing benefits.

The gift of gratitude

I know, I know—we all know this one by heart.  But if you’re like me, sometimes I need a little nudge to put it into practice.  Expressing your gratitude to a friend, family member, neighbor, or anyone who has helped make this pandemic less terrible will go a long way to make that person’s day.  Whether it’s a neighbor who has always brought in your recycle bin or the UPS delivery guy who has lugged yet another box up your steps, a simple thank-you card or a “You’ve made my life so much simpler” would likely bring a big smile.  

The gift of time

Charitable organizations like local food banks are particularly challenged this year as families across the country struggle to bring food to the table.  If you can’t make a monetary donation this year (which tends to be the gift of choice since this supports all aspects of the organization), consider volunteering a few hours on the weekend to help sort out food donations (most organizations have social distancing guidelines in place and provide volunteers with PPE, but check with your local food bank).  Volunteer work can also be a family event and is a good way to spread joy this season.   

The gift of cheer

Perhaps one of the hardest hit populations during this time is the senior community, particularly those who are in long-term care homes and who have been unable to receive visits from their loved ones.  My father, who passed away this year, was in a long-term care home from just before the start of the pandemic, and I and my sisters could not visit him until the day before he passed.  Still, we were able to FaceTime with him and drop off care boxes and letters in the weeks prior. There were others at the home, however, who for whatever reason had no contact with family or friends, and received no letters or virtual visits.  We made a stack of greeting cards with notes of encouragement and baked some cookies for the staff to share with the residents, which brought smiles all around.  There may be a senior care home in your area, or you might know of an elderly neighbor in your community, who could use some holiday cheer.  

Gifts in hand

Of course, there’s something to be said for a gift in hand, and if you’re wanting to open gifts on Christmas Day, here are some budget-friendly ideas:

  • Primary schoolers – More than anything else, young kids love having their parents’ full attention for a period of time.  Yet today’s parents are more likely to need a break from their kids, with many having to balance work at home with child care, or having to take leave to stay at home to watch the kids and/or help them with online schooling—the brunt of which falls squarely on women. But your time along with a new card or board game (check out this website for game app suggestions or just Google “best board games under $15”) might be a welcome gift as well as a sweet compromise.  Pair the gift with a book of time “tickets” promising your child thirty minutes to an hour of “Just You” time.  You set the time limit (and anticipate a guilt-free break at the end when you can hopefully spend some time on yourself), plus your child enjoys looking forward to game time with you.
  • Teens and pre-teens – While a new laptop or mobile phone may be on their wish lists but way out of your wallet’s reach, teens would still appreciate small gifts that might add some spice to what they already own.  These fun stickers (found on sites like Etsy, Redbubble, Tee Public) that adhere to water bottles, laptops, or binders make for a creative, personalized gift.  At a couple of dollars each, they are still within budget for most, plus your purchase supports the independent artists who created them.  If you have a bit more to spend ($15+), you might find a cool poster by another artist for your teen’s walls, or you could give them a gift card for a poster purchase.
  • Adults – Regardless of where you live, quarantine restrictions are making many people feel the weight of isolation.  What better way to cure cabin fever than to enjoy a date night with your significant other or a girls’ night out with friends?  A small restaurant gift card with an invite to enjoy time together would be a welcome change from the day to day.  If COVID restrictions prevent you from eating out together, make that gift card a takeout delivery service one, and set up a time for a virtual “date”—do a virtual museum visit (check out the Smithsonian or the Met for starters), stream a movie together, or just get online and chat during your meal.  

This season, gift-giving doesn’t need to fall victim to COVID, like so many other “normal” activities in our lives.  In fact, it’s even more important during this time, when we could all use a good laugh and a warm fuzzy.  We don’t need to spend a ton of money to spread joy.  Just keep it simple, and give from your heart.


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Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.

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