A Simple Gift Giving Philosophy: Want, Need, Wear, Read

The following is by editor Kara Fleck.
Last week, I shared with you some of my plans for homemade gifts.  I’m not convinced that at this point in my life it would be practical, or possible, for me to attempt to create a 100% handmade holiday by myself, so we balance between handmade and purchased.  Regardless of whether or not the gift is made by my hand (or someone else’s), I have learned over the years to keep our gift giving philosophy simple.

Simple Gift Giving

Our Gift Giving Philosophy is based on something I heard years ago on a parenting e-list I’m a part of and it goes like this:

  • something they WANT
  • something they NEED
  • something to WEAR
  • something to READ

Over the years, to this we have added:

  • something to WATCH
  • something for DRESS UP
  • something to LISTEN TO
  • something to EAT
  • something to CREATE

My children aren’t guaranteed an item in every category and, depending on their age and the year, some categories might double-up while others aren’t filled (my two year old is getting more dress-up items this year, for example) and generally the “something to watch” is a holiday movie given to everyone to share.  This philosophy is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule.

However, the basic WANT, NEED, WEAR, READ is the guideline that I follow year in and year out.  This simple gift giving philosophy has served me well, not just at the holidays, but for birthdays and other gift giving occasions.

Staying Organized

Having an outline like this helps me stay organized when I am making or purchasing gifts for my children.  Because I have a general idea every year of what I am looking for, I can keep my eyes open for bargains year-round and I also have a guide for my holiday crafting.

I have also found it very handy to have when grandparents and others ask me for gift ideas for the kids. I can easily refer to this list when suggesting ideas.

A list like this also helps me to keep things fairly balanced and equal between three kids as far as the number of presents and the type.

Now, simplicity is, of course, a very personal thing.  And so is gift giving.  Nine gifts might seem excessive to some families and spartan to others.  Every family’s budget and philosophy will be different. 

My point is to find a way to simplify gift giving by giving yourself an outline, a plan to follow.

Gift Ideas

So, now that I’ve shared my gift giving philosophy, are you wondering how I am filling in my outline?  These are items we have purchased for our children over the years and a few things on our wish list for this year, as well.


While they know that making a wish list is not a guarantee that they will receive what they ask for, we do try to make sure each child has at least one thing they have specifically asked for and want.  For example, this past year Jillian got glasses and so something on her wish list is for her American Girl doll to have a pair of glasses to match her’s.


This is traditionally socks and underwear, right?  Okay, it isn’t often a wished for gift, to be certain, but we do make gifts of things that they need. Growing up, my family had a Christmas Eve tradition of new pajamas. Finding a new pair of winter pajamas is something we have carried on with our kids, too – filling an annual “need” in a fun, festive way.

It doesn’t have to be strictly practical clothing items, of course. We have discovered this summer that each child having their own set of age-appropriate binoculars would be nice to have, for example.  One year everyone got flashlights and last year everyone got their own kid-sized snow shovel.


While this category can have some cross-over with the need and dress-up categories, in general what goes here is usually something specific that I have made them such as a sweater or new hats and scarves.

Though, as my oldest grows up, this year she has been making some specific fashion requests as her own personal tastes develop and I’d like to honor those, within reason.


We’re blessed to have kids who love books and reading.  When it comes to books, my kids usually have some specific titles or series in mind they would like to own.  I also try to keep an eye on which books I am noticing them checking out from the library over and over.

We have been renewing our subscription to Wild Animal Baby magazine for the better part of a decade now and haven’t yet had a toddler or preschooler who didn’t enjoy that year-round treat in the mailbox.


As I mentioned earlier, this is usually a gift to be shared.  We add to our holiday movie collection every year and it is becoming a Christmas evening tradition to watch a movie together.  This year we’re giving The Polar Express

Dress Up

All of my kids, from the nine year old to the two year old, love to dress up.  We love play silks, wool felted crowns, vintage dresses and jackets, hats, and jewelry.

Pretend play goes on here every day and I do make most of their dress-up things myself, or purchase fun things second-hand, but the Melissa & Doug Knight Costume is on our wish list this year, as well.

Listen To

Sometimes this is something to go along with our homeschool and sometimes it is something specific that has been requested.  Check out contributor Jennifer Brown’s columns if you’d like some ideas for gifts of children’s music.

Notice that this category does NOT include battery operated “musical” noise making toys! A fact that sometimes has to gently be brought to a well-meaning gift giver’s attention.


This one is pretty self-explanatory. At our house, this means a special edible treat, usually chocolate, in their stockings.  One year I was ultra-organized and they each had decorated sugar cookies in the shape of their initial.

In year’s past we’ve been given the family gift of flavored popcorn, caramel apples, cheese and sausage sets, and other food related gifts.  In fact, one of the biggest “hits” with my kids from last year was the mug and cocoa sets they got from their grandparents.  They drink out of their mugs every day and my daughter just reminded me over the weekend that it is getting to be “cocoa season.”


This category is for things like art kits, crafting supplies, and building blocks.  We try to add to collections the kids already have and to encourage interests and talents we seem them developing. This year we’re going to be adding to my son’s lego collection and we’re shopping for a video camera to help encourage my nine year old’s movies that she makes with her paper dolls.

Building and Creating for Younger Kids

When my kids were toddlers we’re giving them things like stacking and nesting toys.  This year, we’re purchasing this stacking rainbow tunnel for my two year old.

A few more favorites for little kids:

  • Stacking Rings – I prefer wood over plastic because I believe wooden toys have a warmth and feel to them that is more pleasing to the touch.  I also like that wooden stacking toys add dimension of weight with each ring.
  • Nesting Bowls and Blocks – again, I prefer wood to plastic.  These are fun to stack, nest, and can double as play kitchen accessories.

Simple Holidays

I implore you to make the holidays easier on yourselves, my friends.  Adopting this philosophy years ago was one of the most profound ways we changed our holiday giving and it took so much pressure off of my shoulders as the person doing the bulk of the holiday planning.

Having a simple and easy to remember reference – something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read – has proven to be invaluable to me in my gift giving.

I’ll be sharing some more simple gift ideas this week, including stocking stuffer ideas and no-sew, no-knit handmade gift ideas.   You should also check out Simple Mom’s list of 10 Clutter-Free Gift Ideas for Kids.

This post on my simple gift giving philosophy was brought to you by Christina Ashely Designs. Christina has been creating beautiful jewelry and keepsakes since 2006.  If you’re looking to add a personal touch to your gift giving, look at her unique hand-stamped items.  You can keep up with the latest news about her designs at her blog, too.

How do you keep gift giving simple?

About Kara

Kara Fleck is the editor of Simple Kids. She is a small town mama, writer, knitter, bookworm, and hooligan. Kara lives in Indiana with her husband Christopher and their four children Jillian, Max, Lucy, and Amelia. You can find more of her writing at KElizabethFleck.com.

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  1. great stuff! we’ve been trying different “traditions” to no avail…i like this, thanks for sharing.

  2. Great suggestions again Kara. Can you please share some of the dress up clothes you make. My twins are 2 and I want to make them dress up clothes but I’m not sure where to start;)

  3. love this idea. I only have two children (3 & 20 months) and we’ve *always* done “something to wear, something to read, something to play with” for birthdays and Christmas. It not only cuts down on clutter, but we can focus on quality, too, and there has NEVER been any other expectation!
    Great post,
    Sarah M

  4. This is a great idea, and would be a fantastic way to help reign in some over zealous grandparents. :) I’m going to mention it to her, and see how she reacts. It’s so difficult to get so many gifts (for her only grandchild) that I don’t have a place to keep and she never really ends up using. It just creates clutter which I’m trying to cut down on. :) Thanks for the tips.
    Jackie Lee´s latest post: Is She Your Mrs Right

  5. Can I link to this post? I have been thinking about this and it just drives me nuts! I love this way of thinking about it and could really use a little organization in this department (can you imagine? Organization for gifts…what are we coming to?)!
    Rebecca´s latest post: Fall Leaves Are Coming Down

  6. We did a very intentional “want-need-wear-read” holiday two years ago – evey with cute TAGS that labled each gift. Last year, the newborn baby destroyed any intentionallity in our holiday, but we’ll be returning this year. I like the concept of using this as a guide for the TYPES of gifts, rather than just trying to find one thing in each category. I think I may forward this article to the grandparents…
    Alissa´s latest post: Brain Dump

  7. I, too, first discovered this philosophy on a parenting list-serv, and I love it. We give each child three individual gifts, and I use a method similar to yours to narrow down their wishes (and mine). For instance, my five year old is really into her creative side now, so she’ll be getting something to further that, while my three year old is into role-play and could use a few masculine additions to our heavy-on-the-tulle dress-up collection. They also get three gifts to share, like a CD, book, or sports equipment.

    Thanks for articulating the process so well–I’m finalizing our list now and this will help!

  8. love this! last year, we did mostly books. Also, Santa/Saint Nicholas stuffs the stockings and that’s it. If a big ticket item like a bike is given- it’s from Mom and Dad (so say thanks :) )
    priest’s wife´s latest post: More Books to Read Again 7 Quick Takes

  9. We keep Christmas gifting really small!!! We have one granny that thinks the more you spend the more you are loved so she will get each child (exactly the same gift, because that will cost exactly the same and doesn’t show any favoritism, wether you are one or thirteen. I try and encourage – useful things – new beach towels, one year she did camp chairs). The other granny thinks the more gifts you give the more you love and piles on mountains and mountains of really cheap and nasty gifts… and I hate to say it but I wish she would just by one gift. Anyway we see the grannies one on either side of Christmas and our kids just get a simple stocking and a book from us: So here is their stocking, and we try and make it pretty consumable… a ball of string, a roll of tape, a sweet treat, glitter glue, some little bits of stationary and stuff for a family project that we do right on the day. One year it was everything to build a scarecrow together and one year we did tie-dyes…
    se7en´s latest post: Se7en’s Fabulous Friday 43 – Link-Up

  10. the best advice ever …I will link to this today I am blogging on giving.
    Trish´s latest post: Awe of four

  11. I love this! Passing it on. :)
    Alicia´s latest post: Review- Hail Merrys raw snacks are delectable treats

  12. this is a great idea. I’ve been trying to figure out how to organize what my son -3 – wants for Christmas with what I can afford and what won’t be outrageous. I try to not make Christmas overly outrageous and to buy him things throughout the year but it is hard not to get caught up in the consumerism of it AND in wanting to see his excitement from it.

    do you label them as their item as on the post you had linked to had made tags for?
    Nina´s latest post: child book reviews 11710

  13. I remember reading about a similar gift-giving philosophy last year and thinking this sounded like something I wanted to do with Finn. Thank you for sharing the specifics of your system and offering some suggestions for the various categories. I just discussed it with my husband, and we may be starting it this year. I think it would be so much easier to start now while Finn is only 3 rather than wait until he’s older and then try to switch to this system. Now, if I could just go back in time 4 or 5 months and start making some gifts myself as you’ve been doing….

  14. LOVE this, Kara! We’ve used want/need/wear/read before because it TOTALLY cuts down on clutter and expense as well as making it SO easy to organize. Thanks for sharing your other categories with us. So encouraging and practical!
    Megan@SortaCrunchy´s latest post: Links for 2010-11-09 delicious

  15. I may be one of the only dissenters here, but that sure seems like a lot to me. We personally (as in from mom & dad) give our children small Christmas gifts and will give ideas to the grandparents along the lines you’ve given here. So altogether they may get 3-6 presents, total.

    But I readily admit we buy them craft supplies, clothing and other things you listed throughout the year as needed. I know everyone’s idea of simple gift giving and Christmas is different but with all those gifts comes packaging & environmental impact, not to mention the labor conditions of the workers etc… These are all things to think about and for us less is just better because there is less to think about (smile).

    One other consideration of course is people’s love languages. Our daughter’s is gift giving so we try to figure out ways to give her more little things even though the rest of us do not rank gift giving high on the love-o-meter.

    Love your idea of something to eat idea in the stockings – sweet and small.

    • Renee,

      At the risk of stirring up more to think about, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on poor labor conditions versus unemployment. I haven’t researched the issues as much as I should, but it sounds like you have.

      I also appreciate your note to consider love languages. My mother’s is gift giving, and realizing that ten years ago would have saved us both considerable strife.
      Whitney´s latest post: birthday bunting tutorial

      • Whitney, I actually haven’t researched that at all. We just do our best (not successfully all the time) to not buy stuff that is produced with poor working conditions, labor standards, environmental ethics etc. Sometimes the only way to do this is to simply buy much less (quality goods cost a lot). We are NOT perfect in this regard, nowhere near, but it is a direction we are moving in.

        I am not an economist but I don’t believe in the “we must support the economy and other economies” buy buying goods. Yes, this employs people but I think (very naively, no doubt) that if we just all scaled back our standard of living, grew more of our food (or traded our services with farmers who do) made more of our own goods (locally and globally) we could all have decent quality of living. Not high on the hog living, but good, quality lives.

        This is pie in the sky talk I know and I still buy so many goods it would make some people blush but I’m a bit of an idealist and shoot high so I at least reach halfway (or less). It’s better than not moving forward at all.

        My MIL is a gift giver also and learning this about her and accepting love from her this way has been a growing experience for me.

        I think it’s good to stir the pot a bit with this kind of conversation if we (read: me) can do so respectfully and with kindness.

        • I appreciate your thoughtful reply, Renee. We also try to live by the same principles: scaled back, locally sourced, high quality. We began our sustainability journey years ago for a variety of reasons, but most of them were self-centered (our health, our economy, etc.), and those reasons continue to drive most of our purchasing decisions today.

          I am the type to lie awake at night trying to solve the world’s problems, so in an effort to avoid insanity I try to concentrate my efforts on only one or two issues that most directly impact my family. When I feel I’ve got some control over those, I’ll add another to the mix. (e.g. We began buying organic produce at the grocery store, and very gradually became rather strict locavores.) I’m not ready to throw myself into world economics and labor issues, but as the topic has crossed my consciousness more than a few times recently, I feel that it’s one of those whispers I should listen to, and at least be aware of as I consider holiday purchases. Thank you for the gentle push I needed to move forward.

          “My MIL is a gift giver also and learning this about her and accepting love from her this way has been a growing experience for me.” These words speak loudly to me. Thank you.

          Kara, thank you again for opening the door to this discussion . . . and for letting the door stay open–I am hopelessly long-winded.
          Whitney´s latest post: birthday bunting tutorial

  16. I agree, everyone’s idea of simple and the holidays are different, Everyone has to find their own balance. One family’s excessive is another’s meager. A look at Christmas morning at our house back in 2002, for example, would look really different than 2010.

    As I said in my post, this list is just a guideline and not a guarantee – even for me. :-) Some categories might double-up (need and wear for example) and some might be shared between them.

    Many of our gifts are homemade, by my hand or someone else’s, which to some might not be “simple” but the effort is worth it to me and does, as you point out, limit packaging not to mention brings me peace of mind and happiness to see them enjoying something I’ve made them.

    But, you bring up an important point that everything is made somewhere. I agree, packaging and environmental impact and labor conditions are all important considerations. I’m glad you brought that to the conversation, Renee!

    (And something sweet in a stocking is nice for moms, too, am I right? LOL)
    Kara @Simple Kids´s latest post: Simple Stocking Stuffer Ideas

  17. I can’t tell you why but this post really hit home with me. I LOVE how distinctly you put this. We’re paring down for christmas and this has really helped me put a perspective on what to purchase for my kids.

    Thank you so much.

  18. I have felt so much better now with Christmas buying almost done basing it on this idea. And I went over it with my son…I posted a link to your list here http://parentplanet.info/?p=1703
    Nina´s latest post: 4th grade- age 9

  19. My mother first mentioned this idea to me–mostly because she ends up getting carried away with a trillion “little” things….I just wish she would stick to it! LOL.

    One thing that is nice to add (or just to replace all other gifts)–especially for kids whose love language is “quality time”–is an event/outing.

  20. I love this. It ought to cut down on the number of stuffed animals my boys receive as well.
    Jaci´s latest post: Healing Mama Jewelry Giveaway

  21. Another idea, while not as exciting is money or out of the ordinary “gift cards”. With the economy the way it is it’s always nice to have a little extra cash to put towards something.
    This can be done in a number of ways–for example it could be put in a savings account or given as savings bonds or a particular investment account.
    Depending on the amount you plan to give it can be given as a trip (a hotel stay somewhere in driving distance for a couple or the family, airfare to visit a friend or relative, etc).
    Another way is to do what my mom did one year and I LOVED it! She paid for a landscape architect to come to my home and draw up plans for a new garden (the gift also included the new plants). It was a hell of a lot nicer than opening a hundred different gifts that I didn’t really need.

  22. I had heard the want, need, wear, read this year, great idea! I have also heard of giving \”flat\” or edible items. This doesn\’t apply so much to little kids, but the \”flat\” are books, artwork, photos, money, gift cards, etc. We are giving our daughter, husband and 6 kids annual membership to a local natural attraction/park, 10 minutes from their house! The gift that will keep on giving! Great post!
    Living the Balanced Life´s latest post: Focus on BE-ing

  23. I think this is a perfect way to keep children from becoming spoiled and expecting to get everything they ever ask for, and also keep the parents from feeling so much pressure to produce lots of unnecessary gifts that tend to break the family budget. Thank you for this. I intend to have a friend paint a Christmas sign to hang by our tree and says those exact words. Perfect.

  24. Hello, I’ve been following your blog for a few months and love it! Thank you for all the great ideas. I know I’m a little late getting in on this post, but had a question for anyone with any ideas. My kids are 5 and 9. In the past, as well as this year, I feel we have given them way too much. In addition, they get a lot from both sides of the extended families. Does anyone have any ideas on the best way to begin to change the expectations of our children for next year? Thank you.


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