The 3 Gift Christmas Rule – How and Why to Do it

Published on November 21, 2020 by Lauren

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  • The store catalogs, magazines, and Instagram feeds have us believe it isn’t a proper holiday without gifts spilling away from under the tree in all directions. But have you heard about the 3 gift Christmas rule?  For about ten years now, this idea has been popular with online bloggers. Your kids only get three gifts chosen from three different categories.

    3 gift Christmas rule

    How The 3 Gift Christmas Rule Works:

    One of the toughest struggles as a parent is to give my children a joy-filled Christmas. To me, that somehow translates to giving them the gifts that they want in hopes that presents will make them happy.

    With the rocketing prices of products every year and the massive marketing initiatives that are bombarding our children at every turn, the struggle to not bankrupt the family finances on Christmas presents is real.

    As with most financial matters in life, learning how to budget is key.

    Once you set a Christmas budget and stick to it, you’ll be able to sleep soundly that two goals have been met. You’ll have made selective, smart decisions for happy children and a happy checkbook. Here are some strategies, tips, and tricks to consider for establishing a Christmas budget for your child.

    1.) Equality Approach: When It’s Important that Everything is Equal

    For many families, it makes sense to give each child an equal value in their gifts. This develops a sense of equality to the presents. The number of children and your financial situation will dictate what your dollar amount is, but with some planning and strategic shopping, you can certainly make even a few dollars per child stretch quite a bit.

    Here are the basics: Determine how much money you want to spend on all the kids combined. Divide it equally by the number of kids you’re buying for.  For example, if you have $100 to budget and you have 3 kids then they each receive $33 worth of gifts. It’s that easy, but you have to stick to it!

    Tip to make this work: Don’t go over budget for anyone. If you go over a little on each one your budget will be exponentially demolished!

    2.) Have the Kids Do the Shopping: Teaching Thoughtfulness to Older Kids

    This is my favorite spin on the equality approach. You still set a budget and you assign an equal amount to go to each child. The difference is that you have the children do the shopping for each other. So you set a budget per child. Then you give each child that amount to spend on their siblings.

    Here’s how it works: Let’s say your budget is $50 per child and you have three children. You give each child a $50 spending limit and they have to purchase gifts for each of their siblings within their budget.

    My favorite part is when the kids find the perfect gift for one of their siblings and pool their money to purchase it. They’re always more generous and thoughtful than I expect.  This strategy has the added bonus of teaching about budgeting, giving, and combining efforts for a greater impact!

    Deal breaker tip: The children will not end up with the same value of gifts. But they will have learned to give and think of others, and your budget is still intact. But if absolute equality of gifts is important to you, this strategy will definitely disappoint you.

    3.) Sliding Scale Spending: Age Matters

    Gift ideas for older children are definitely going up in price and are shifting up to accommodate a more tech-savvy generation.

    With that in mind, understand that you might be spending more on one tech gift for an older child than you will on a bag full of fun toys for a younger sibling. Setting a dollar amount based on this will still allow you to budget and limit your overall spending.

    The key is in the details (I LOVE MATH):

    • Decide your overall budget in dollars. This will be BUDGET #.
    • Write down the age of each child in years. Add their ages together. We’ll call this the YEAR #.
    • Divide the BUDGET # by the YEAR #. The result is the BUDGET per YEAR amount.
    • Multiply each child’s individual age by the BUDGET per YEAR amount and that’s their allotted gift budget.

    This works better with an example:

    • Someone budgets to spend $400 total on Christmas gifts for all their children. Their BUDGET # is 400.
    • Their kids are 15, 12, 8, and 5. Their YEAR # is 40.
    • 400 divided by 40 is 10. Their BUDGET per YEAR amount is 10.
      • The 15-year-old is allotted $150.
      • The 12-year-old is given $120 in gifts.
      • The 8-year-old gets $80 in presents.
      • The 5-year-old receives gifts worth $50.
      • $150 + $120 + $80 + $50 = $400 total spent – Right on budget!

    4.) The 3/4 Gift Christmas Rule

    I have a feeling that this idea was originally based on the bride’s tradition of wearing “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.” Whatever the origin, this themed giving is perfect for families that want to give thoughtful gifts in a simplified way.

    I once did only 3 gifts, but the past few years I’ve increased it to four gifts + a Christmas Eve gift.


    3 gift Christmas rule


    How to make this happen: Make a chart with each child’s name on the left column with row headings for each category.

    • Something They Want
    • Something They Need
    • Something They Wear
    • Something They Read

    Now fill in your chart as you plan your purchases.  That’s it. Each child receives four gifts – one from each category.

    While this strategy doesn’t specifically limit the amount of money that you spend, it almost always translates to savings in the long run. Truthfully, unless you’re spending way too much in each category for every child this method is pretty sensible.

    And this method can kill two birds with one stone! It’s perfect for providing a much need winter coat or a nice Christmas dress that your child needs. Everybody wins with this one. Your child receives a gift, they get a much-needed clothing item, and you did not only stay within your Christmas budget, but you also helped out your clothing budget for the year.

    Here’s the simplest strategy of the bunch.  Just limiting the number of gifts given to three or four really makes me focus on choosing quality presents that convey my love without breaking my budget.

    We make it work by limiting the gifts to three presents per child.  One kid might get all art supplies, another Lego sets, and then the baby might get pajamas, a snowsuit, and a ball.

    However you arrange it, selecting the perfect three gifts for each kid is challenging and rewarding, and budget-friendly all rolled into one.

    5.)  BONUS Christmas Eve Gift Pack

    You can complement any of these strategies with the Christmas Eve Gift option.  This is a gift that each child opens on December 24.  It allows another gift opportunity, gets the gift exchange and excitement rolling a day early, and it’s fun to think outside the box on this one.

    Each family member gets a box with:

    • pajamas
    • a movie
    • a book
    • family time snacks (like popcorn, hot chocolate packet, apple cider, special holiday sweets or cookies)

    This gift provides the setting for a family-focused Christmas Eve.  Everyone gets in their jammies and snuggles up with a book and a movie.  And those don’t all have to be new.  Maybe borrow the book and DVD from the library or buy them pre-owned from your local used book store.

    The pajamas could match or be silly.  The snacks could be something you make together or just snuggle up and enjoy around the tree!

    The point of this gift is to give a gift that brings everyone inward and to enjoy time together as a family. A gift to focus everyone on what really matters.

    I have really enjoyed making the focus of the holidays about the things we do together and the memories my children will carry with them into adulthood over the material gifts. We love doing things together like tree trimming, decorating, baking, hosting a cooking exchange party, participating in Operation Christmas Child, and making cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. If you are at a loss for some holiday-themed activities to do as a family, check out this list I found online for some inspiration.

    Find one of these strategies and make it work for you. Or blend them all together for a personalized solution. However you work it, you can come out of the Christmas season with a feeling of accomplishment and encouragement. Make Christmas simpler this year by following the 3 gift Christmas rule.



  • In our house presents under the tree are from from people they know. We (their parents) give 4 gifts: want, need, wear, read. Santa fills their stockings.
    Note: we do not limit presents from others, such as grandparents.

  • After the kids watched Rudolph and the whole island of misfit toys I created Santa donation day. We go through all their toys & books and put ones they want to donate to Santa for the elves to fix in a special bag I made. It looks like Santa’s bag from the movies. We set up Elf snacks for them to take on Thanksgiving Eve with the toys. This gets the kids learning about donating and gets rid of toys they don’t play with anymore to make room for new stuff. I then take the bag and put it in my car and on black Friday I give the toys to a shelter.

  • Thanks for the article, the christmas eve gift idea is great and I think I’ll be trying that for my three year old. I was really wondering how many things to get him. He gets wants on Christmas however, since we get his needs as they are needed. I do not consider needs a gift I suppose. I felt bad getting him three gifts, but perhaps not. I don’t need to shower him, sadly he barely plays with what I get him anyways.

  • Wow, I don’t think I could ever only do 3 or 4 gifts. Christmas has always been such a huge ordeal in our house. I have 4 kids, and even though they are all grown now, the tradition of huge Christmas’s continue. When they were small, each child received usually around 35 gifts each from Santa. Then gifts from family. It would take us about 3-4 hours to open everything, as we did it very organized, one person at a time. Now that they are grown, they still get around 20 each, plus we now have grandchildren, that we love carrying this tradition on with. And now it just warms my heart seeing my children continuing this tradition with their children at home. Santa brings the grandkids about 20 gifts each to Grandma;s house on Christmas Eve, then returns to bring gifts to their house on Christmas. It’s my favorite time of year. I do not set a monetary value on the gifts, we just make sure everyone has the same amount when it is all said and done with.

  • Ever since I was around 5 or 6 (I have 4 other siblings) my parents said we could only get 3 presents because Jesus only got three presents. They never give us a budget because my little sister still believes. Some years we can get more expensive gifts other years not so much. It really just depends conn the type of year. Like this year my brother joined a private school and they won’t let us get “expensive gifts” because “Santa” has been working really hard this year and we should lighten the load on him. Oh well, I mean at least I get to have gifts. I’m grateful for that.

    • My family is Jewish and Christian, we give a gift each night of Hanukkah. But instead of a material item we do experiences, (such as movie tickets, handmaiden coupons saying a lunch out with mom, trips to a spa). We also have themed nights, like a night we give pajamas, calendars, and books. Then on Christmas, none of my children believe in Santa so I make them make a list. My children know not to go over the top, and so all we are able to supply them with the presents they want. This year for Christmas the youngest got toys, the middle got clothes, gift cards, beauty products, notebooks, pens, lip balms, candy. And the eldest got jewelry, clothes, etc.

  • Wow, the Grinch did steal Christmas for some… want, need, read… We get our kids what they need the rest of the year, we get the kids something to read the rest of the year, we don’t give them what they WANT until Christmas.

  • My roommate invites me to a 12/18 Xmas dinner at her biz partner s house. She cancelled as she was sick, but she said, well if your coming, you Have to get 3 gifts for each member of the family. Cancelled dinner postponed to Xmas.
    I’m on social security disability, I don’t make that much. Now These people are coming here, Now 9 gifts, for 3 people, I don’t know!
    I don’t like this entitled group!

  • I have followed your posts, recipes and financial tips for years now. My kids are now older and I still want to make Christmas special, but have been at a loss this year for what to get them. Your four categories gave me some new found ideas ~ Thank you! To those who left negative comments or obviously have money to burn (20 gifts, really?) Christmas isn’t about gifts, it’s about Jesus. I hope you, your new husband and your family have a blessed Christmas season!

  • An useful article on 3 Christmas gift rule. I really enjoyed reading it. I also like this website for christmas gifts :

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