The 4 Gift Rule: Simplify Your Christmas

The 4 Gift Rule: Simplify Your Christmas

Is Christmas gift-giving stressing you out? Learn how to use the 4 gift rule in your home and make Christmas more meaningful and affordable.

Giving kids the perfect Christmas is hard. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the “must-have” toys and gifts that are advertised on TV, but it can be difficult to find something that will make your child happy without breaking your budget. The 4 gift rule for kids is a simple way to give them four meaningful presents while curbing your holiday spending. But what is this rule and how can it simplify Christmas in your house?

Having spent 13 adult Christmases without children, I can confidently say that kids definitely make the holidays more fun! There is nothing better than watching your kids rip open a present and see their eyes light up when they realize they got that really cool THING they wanted so badly! 

I enjoy the gifting part of Christmas so much; I’ve been known to go a little overboard. I can’t be the only mom that sets a Christmas budget then has a hard time sticking to it! And it’s not because I love stuff. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist, but maybe a “stuff needs a use and a purpose” kind of person. However, when it comes to Christmas, I just want to buy all the stuff!

baby sleeping in a bucket set up in front of christmas tree

The Christmas letdown

As I prepared for my first born’s second Christmas (she was born in October, so for her first Christmas she just received a stocking), I had visions of my daughter’s face as I watched her open that perfect Christmas gift. I tried to be sensible, but I’ll be honest: I went a little crazy and so did our extended family. 

My kids are the youngest in the family by quite a few years on both my side and my husband’s side of the family, so most years our extended family can’t help it either; it’s so much fun to buy toys and little things for little people.

My daughter caught on quickly to the whole unwrapping thing and seemed to be loving it… for the first five gifts. I spent an hour trying to convince her to open just one more. Her Christmas morning grin was soon overshadowed by my own grumpiness when I had to unwrap all the gifts that I had wrapped two days earlier. It was at that moment that I promised myself I would scale it back because this was not the kind of Christmas I wanted year after year!

I shared my story with a friend, and she mentioned that they do the 4 gift rule at their house to avoid the overwhelmingness that can come with a Christmas filled with too much stuff. I was intrigued! What is the 4 gift rule?

twin boy and girl holding a stack of gifts the 4 gift rule

How does the 4 gift rule work?

Here’s how the Christmas 4 gift rule works:

  1. Buy something your child wants
  2. Find something your child needs
  3. Buy something for them to wear
  4. Last, buy something for them to read

That’s it. That’s all they get: four presents from their parents, one Santa gift, and a stocking. It’s specific enough to stick to your gift budget, but broad enough that you can still achieve that perfect present delight. The beauty of the 4 gift rule is that you can modify it to fit the ages of your children and their stages of development. For example, a gift card to a clothing store for a teenaged girl might be easier than trying to find her that perfect pair of jeans.

Basically, when you’re holiday shopping list leads you to an item that you just cannot purchase on your own but you know it would be the perfect gift for someone, a gift card to cover that item at a particular store might do the trick, especially for older kiddos. What teenager wouldn’t love a gift card to their favorite show store?

Modifying the 4 gift rule

With my singleton, I stuck to the want, need, wear and read for her first five Christmases. But honestly, this year, I’m modifying the read rule. She has discovered the library and loves to go, browse, and check out new books to read every two weeks. Because of this, we are going to skip buying a new book. Instead, she will be getting a Harry Potter Lego set (her newest literary obsession). I feel good about this. Although it doesn’t seem as educational as reading a book, LEGOs do require discipline, direction following, and allow for imaginative play. 

You could also swap this gift out for art supplies if you have a kiddo who hates to read but love to paint. The point here is to pick a semi-educational category and stick with only one gift from that category. There’s definitely some flexibility here and as the parent, you can decide if art supplies or even a video game might be just educational enough to make a swap.

I’m also taking some liberties with the need rule for my twins. Usually, the “need” is filled with an article of clothing or shoes. All of my kids have birthdays in October so most years the “need” is hard to fill because they got a lot of what they need for their birthdays. The twins are officially “three-nagers”, so this year they need something that will help them practice how to share and will allow them to play together. Therefore, their “need” will be filled with a couple of board games to play together that will (hopefully) encourage sharing and turn-taking. 

twin toddlers standing next to small christmas tree the 4 gift rule

How to adapt the 4 gift rule for older kids

As my kids get older, I plan to change the 4 gift rule to want, wear, read, and share. This way, they will get three gifts from mom and dad, and I will use the share category to allow them to pick out a gift to donate to Toys 4 Tots. I love giving gifts exponentially more than getting gifts and I want to instill this in my kids, too. 

little girl opening presents in front of christmas tree the 4 gift rule

What if my extended family isn’t on board?

I’d be lying if I said following the 4 gift rule is easy. Finding gift ideas for each category is easy. It is not easy to stick with the one gift rule for each category. 

But the really challenging part is getting the grandmas to get on board. I have tried repeatedly to get my extended family to adhere to a “one present only” rule. I get the need to keep things even. No one knows this more than a mom of twins. My family likes to keep the amount spent fair, which is more than generous and understandable but often results in multiple gifts for each child. 

Every year I try to reason with my family, politely asking them to only purchase one gift per child, even if the gifts do not cost the same amount. Some years I win, others I do not. I have learned some tricks over the years, and one way I help my family stick to one present is by giving them a Christmas wish list with only one item listed

Something they want

This one will probably be harder than you think. If your kids are anything like mine, they want it all. Do yourself a favor and DON’T bring them to Target in the weeks leading up to Christmas. They will want more things than you can count on two hands.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have a choice, but wow. Too many choices sure does make it tricky. I would start a list on my phone sometime around late spring or early summer for each kid. I would list things they saw in stores, on TV, the internet, and everywhere else. When I was ready to shop I would have a good list ready at my fingertips and I could often remember if it was something my kid seemed particularly excited about or mentioned only one time.

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Something they need

This one was usually a little harder in my house. Like I said, fall birthdays. But, I get creative when I need to. The word need is subjective. Again, the point is to stick with one gift and curb the desire to spend a fortune on dozens of gifts for your children. \Maybe your little one needs a new lunchbox for her preschool, or a new bed set for her big girl toddler bed she just moved into last month. Be creative and have a little fun with it.

Something to wear

This seems self-explanatory, and it mostly is. Clothes, jackets, shoes. All great ideas. With mine, we sometimes will do accessories if they really have too many clothes already. (They often do) A good winter hat or scarf might work for you, too. Something to wear is probably the easiest category to choose from for me. If they can’t wear it, it doesn’t fit the category. Easy peasy. 

If all else fails, get them a matching set of Christmas pajamas. Heck, you can even get a matching set for the whole family. Even the dog! I mean, isn’t the obligatory Christmas pajama photo around the tree basically an Instagram requirement at this point?

Something to read

I have an equal mix of kids who like to read and hate it in my family. I still generally buy them a book. If I can find one about something specific my kids actually like they are more likely to read it. Comic books, nature books, even coloring activity books with a little story in them will all work for defiant readers. Again, be creative here. 

I know one reluctant reader who would read anything train-related for many years, even though he currently hates to read. Sometimes you have to try different categories to find one that will encourage your kids to read. The older they are, the harder that can be so you might want to start looking early. 

We’ve been doing this for several years now and it works for us. Each gift is thoughtful, personal, and Christmas bliss has still been experienced by all three kids!

The 4 gift rule is a great way to simplify Christmas for your kids while also sticking with a budget. You just need to buy one present from each of the four categories: want, need, wear and read. With these simple strategies in place, you can finally have some peace this holiday season!

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amanda hadleyAmanda Hadley is a mom to a sassy seven-year-old, and 3-year-old wondrous monster twins. She is a mom first and a photographer and journalist second. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband of 10 years. She spends her days repeating cliches she was sure she would never say, such as “because I said so” and “stop licking that”. She is an accomplished cartoon theme song repeater, and has no idea what is happening in current events and dreams of traveling to exotic places, alone. She enjoys hot cups of coffee, silence and Atlanta Braves baseball.

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