4 gift rule

Do you find yourself struggling with out-of-control gift buying for your kids during the holiday season? Or buying them frivolous gifts just so they “have something to open?” If you are trying to live a less wasteful, more intentional, and/or minimalist lifestyle, this can be a huge source of frustration and stress. It can add unnecessary stuff to your life or go against the values you are trying to live by and instill in your children. There is a solution! I stumbled across the 4 Gift Rule early in my foray into minimalism and it changed my family’s holiday traditions forever…for the BETTER!

As a young kid of the 80s/90s, I have distinct memories of Christmas time involving my brother and me literally engulfed by a PILE of presents. The excitement would bubble up as we eagerly awaited the cue to go ahead and start opening them.

I can still feel the rush of joy as if it was yesterday. Trying to guess what was in each box based on it’s size, shape, and the sound it made when you shook it. The feeling of the tearing into the holiday themed paper that the giver has painstakingly folded around the item. And the eruption of excitement (or sometimes confusion (if I’m honest) when the contents of the package were revealed.

This excitement usually lasted for at least the first 3 gifts. After that, we would often become distracted wanting to play with whatever we had already opened, and practically forget that we had more unwrapped gifts to go. The excitement of the last several gifts was definitely diminished from the first few. (Spoiler alert: I have noticed this exact same phenomenon with my own kids at certain holidays.)

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When I became a mom, as much as I didn’t want to, I began falling into the routine of overbuying for my first child. I would buy things just because they were cute or I thought she’d like them, even if we didn’t need them. And at the holidays, it was worse because I felt like I should give lots of presents or she would be missing out somehow.

A few years into motherhood and a second child added to the mix, I began to increasingly feel like we just had TOO MUCH STUFF! I discovered the principles of minimalism around that time and started incorporating them into our lives.

When the holidays rolled around that year, I found myself torn. As much as I wanted to give my children that joy that I remembered of opening piles and piles of gifts, I became overwhelmed all over again with the idea of having to find a home after for all of the stuff the kids would get during the holidays. Between both sides of grandparents, aunts/uncles/cousins, us as parents, and Santa, our kids were receiving plenty of gifts.

Align Traditions With Your Values

That year I decided there had to be a better way to give gifts in a more intentional and less wasteful manner than we had been. We had already begun giving and asking for “experience gifts” the previous year, but I knew I still wanted the kids to be able to open a few things (and so did other gift-givers in the family).

My searches that year revealed a genius framework for gift-giving for your kids that would keep things fair, minimal-ish, and not overwhelm your house or your wallet with unneeded stuff. It was perfect!

The idea is to follow is a 4 Gift Rule:

  1. Something They Want
  2. Something They Need
  3. Something To Wear
  4. Something To Read
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The first year we implemented this rule, it was SO freeing and kept things in control at the same time!

It freed my mind by giving a framework and plan for the gifts to buy for each kid, thus having control over how much was bought and resisting going totally overboard!

We have used this rule for 5 holiday seasons now (since my oldest kids were 4 and 2) and it has been the best thing our family has ever done for handling holiday gifting. It has even evolved over the years to involve even FEWER gifts!

For example, the past two years, I have eliminated the “something to read” gift as we use the county library and Free Little Libraries so much that it really is not a necessary or even exciting gift.

And last year we even eliminated the “something you need” gift since we decided to take a family trip instead. So last year my kids got a “something you want” and a “something to wear” gift, along with a Santa gift and stocking stuffers. Trust me, it was still plenty for them and they were so excited we were planning a trip!

Examples for Each Category:

1. Something They Want:

With this one, I try to get one of the things they want the most, within budget. I try to find it secondhand or get the most eco-friendly option, but this is the one I’m the most relaxed with regarding zero waste parameters.

Examples: Anything goes! Depending on the age of the child, it might be a simple toy they’ve been dying to get, a fun electronic gadget, or a snazzy piece of clothing they’ve been eyeing.

2. Something They Need

Believe it or not, getting things you need as a gift can be fun–even for kids! I try to think of things they actually need and I would be purchasing for them at some point anyway (not just things they think they need) and aim for gifting the more “fun” ones or pick versions with a little more pizzazz than I might normally buy on a random errand. It’s okay to be a little loose with the definition of “need” so you’re not stuck only being able to think of getting your kid toilet paper and toothpaste (not that I would judge you for that at all!).


  • Wool socks with fun characters on them
  • New backpack or lunchbox for school with a favorite pattern or character
  • A sports item that they will be growing out of or is wearing out (e.g soccer cleats, volleyball shoes, cold gear under layers, baseball glove, etc.)
  • New bike helmet or safety gear for a favorite activity
  • Toiletries
  • Replacement for items that have worn out of broken (e.g. new set of art materials, new curling iron, replacement video game controller, replacement headphones

3. Something To Wear

Most of us get our kids clothes they need throughout the year as they grow, start school, etc., but there’s usually some special clothing items the kids want that you wouldn’t normally buy as a necessary item throughout the year. That’s what this category is great for! Or you can think beyond clothing to other things that you “wear” like sports gear, hair items, makeup, etc.


  • Fun Sweatshirt
  • Jersey or other gear from favorite sports team
  • Comfy robe
  • Special clothing item they’ve been wanting
  • Makeup, lotions, hair accessories
  • Fuzzy slippers
  • New swimsuit or item for an upcoming vacation or outing
  • Pajamas with favorite pattern/characters

4. Something To Read

This one in pretty self-explanatory, but you can think a little beyond books!


  • Books
  • E-books
  • Audio books (I count these even though they don’t “read” them!)
  • Magazines
  • E-course to learn a new skill

Change It Up And Make It Your Own!

I followed this rule to a tee the first 2 years we did it, but the 3rd year I realized we had way too many books and I had come up with 2 “something to wear” items. Rather than adding an item or giving up on the 4 Gift Rule altogether, I doubled up on the “wear” category and skipped the “read” category.

The year after that I replaced the “need” item with an experience gift by signing each kid up for a fun class that I knew they wanted to take and I probably would have signed them up for anyway.

And last year, we took our first family trip to a warm place shortly after Christmas, so I eliminated 2 of the categories and gave each kid a new swim suit to surprise them with the news of our upcoming vacation—they were thrilled and didn’t even notice they were short a gift!

The point is, you can make this guide what you want it to be and alter it each year as needed. I start out with these 4 categories each year and sometimes abide by them or sometimes swap things. The idea is consistency with each kid getting gifts from the same categories and never adding more categories (which would defeat the purpose).

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Benefits of the 4-Gift Rule:

  • Saves money! *Note: this one is not automatic if you choose to purchase more expensive gifts, but if you stay in a similar price ranger per gift as usual, you will save some money.
  • Saves time since you’ll shop less and wrap less!)
  • Reduces stress of holiday shopping and thinking of things to buy
  • Produces less waste since you’ll purchase fewer items and use less wrapping material
  • Less cleanup after the unwrapping
  • Minimizes clutter in your home since you’re adding less stuff to your household
  • Everything is equal between the kids since they all get a gift from each category
  • Creates more gratitude in kids for what they have and choosing what they really want instead of adding frivolous gifts to their list
  • Makes more time to enjoy the other fun aspects of the holidays rather than simply focusing on the gifts
  • Saves your sanity as a parent and gives you time and energy to enjoy the holidays more!

My family has been using the 4 Gift Rule for Christmas for the past 4 years and will be using it again this year! It has changed our holidays for the better in every way possible and ensured that our traditions align with our values as parents. I am so grateful that I stumbled across it when I did and I hope it works for you, too!

Have you used this or another guide to tame gift-buying in your household? I’d love to hear your experience and how it has improved your holiday season in the comments!

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