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How to pare down your holiday list without looking cheap

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By Maryalene LaPonsie/MoneyTalksNews

The holidays can be a social landmine. There are so many emotions and expectations tied up in gift-giving. Rather than risk offending someone, we often go overboard and end up with a gift list nearly as long as Santa's.

Whether your budget is stretched thin or you have had it up to here with Christmas commercialism, there are simple ways to reduce the number of gifts you're giving without looking like Scrooge.

Start with the low-hanging fruit

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I'm talking about the people you give to out of habit or obligation. The nephew you haven't seen in three years who never says thank you for the holiday check? Cross him off the list. The neighbor who moved in 2008 and is your Facebook friend now? They don't need a gift either.

Likely, many of the people who fall into the casual acquaintance category aren't expecting a gift and won't even notice if you stop mailing them the annual fruitcake. Well, your nephew might notice there is no check, but that's his fault.

In the event you do get caught off guard with a present from someone you crossed off your list, it is always a good idea to have a couple of relatively inexpensive, but nicely presented, gifts at the ready. For example, soap that is beautifully wrapped with a sparkly bow, a bottle of wine in a gift bag or goodies such as jam or candies can make great presents.

If you don't need them for Christmas, you can repurpose them for other occasions later in the year.

For more inspiration on how to use holiday deals to buy discounted presents for the entire year, check out "Tips to Score a Year's Worth of Gifts at Rock Bottom Prices."

Tackle the family and office Christmas party

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Now let's move on to the family and office parties. The gift-giving expectations run the gamut during these events. Some parties may not include any gift exchange while others operate under the expectation everyone will be gifting to everyone else.

If yours falls into the latter category, it's time to rein in the madness. The key is to find a couple of like-minded people on your side. If have a co-worker living on a tight budget, they could be your ally. The cousins with three or four kids each could also be looking for a way to pare down their lists.

Once you have a couple of people who are ready for a change, approach the person in charge to propose an alternative. It could be your boss, the HR director or the grandma who hosts the holiday party each year.

Be sure to stress you have loved past parties but budgets are really tight this year (or your kids have too much stuff) and would it be possible to do something different. Secret Santa arrangements are one option, but my favorite is a gift exchange such as a white elephant game. Not only does every participant only need to bring one inexpensive gift, it also gives the family/office something to do rather than talk about the weather for two hours.

Consider the creative use of cards

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On your holiday list, you may have some people you appreciate but don't interact with on a regular basis. These people may include the postman, your co-workers the next department over or the custodial staff at your kids' school.

Rather than eliminate them completely, move them from the gift category to the card category. )Read The 20-Cent Greeting Card for ideas to make something yourself that's both inexpensive and impressive.) But if you're short on time, hit your local craft shows to find some handmade cards -- in my area, you can regularly find crafters selling cards for $1-$2 each. Then write a heartfelt note and attach a piece of candy to the outside. I'm not talking Hershey's here; get a package of individually wrapped truffles or something else that screams "festive" and tape one to the envelope.

The candy gives your recipient something tangible while the note lets them know they are appreciated. The result is you've spread holiday cheer at $2 a pop rather than $10 or $15.

Use charitable donations with caution

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Giving charitable donations in someone's name can come across as either very thoughtful or very cheap.

Typically, I only recommend this strategy if you know of a cause that is particularly dear to the recipient. For example, if Grandpa Joe died of cancer this year, you could make a donation to the American Cancer Society or hospice in the name of the "Smith Family." Depending on their relationship with Grandpa, that donation could be a meaningful gift to multiple family members.

However, your 20-year-old son might not be so appreciative of your buying a couple of goats through a foundation on his behalf. Instead, the gesture might appear more like a ruse to get you a tax deduction under the guise of giving a gift.

Keep it real with those who understand

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Finally, don't be afraid to be open and honest with good friends and close relatives. Tell them upfront you love the holidays but hate the commercialism. Or explain you lost your job and are flat broke this December. Perhaps you simply have too much stuff. Whatever the reason, ask if you can skip your traditional gift exchange.

You could suggest going to the Christmas concert, seeing the latest blockbuster or maybe even ordering pizza and hanging out for the night instead. All are ways to have a meaningful holiday together without draining your wallet on trinkets or other items to shove into already-overflowing closets.

Have you cut back on your holiday spending? Who got the boot and did they notice?

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