It's Not Too Late To Implement The '4-Gift Rule' This Christmas

by Rachel Garlinghouse
A person carrying gifts, implementing the 4-gift rule while walking through a hallway
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

I’m in several social media parent groups, and multiple times a day, a parent (or two, or twelve) posts the same question: What can they get their child for Christmas? They report that either their kids have everything imaginable, or their budget doesn’t allow for big purchases this year. The other issue, brought on by the pandemic, is that hot toys are sold out — everywhere. No matter the reason for the parental quandary, we’re all asking what in the world can we can put under the tree for our kiddo this year.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to make Christmas merry and bright. The four-gift rule is here to rescue parents this holiday season. If you haven’t heard about the four-gift rule, let me fill you in. Grab yourself a cup of cheer and listen up.

The four-gift rule became popular a few years ago. The premise is that each of your kids receives four gifts from you at Christmas. Gift one is something your child wants. You might be thinking, don’t they want everything? My kids, and maybe yours too, have circled almost every item in the Target toy catalog. The first item we should get — if we can find it and our budget allows — is that one thing they have been talking about for months.

Now, there’s a lot parents can’t get their hands on right now due to budget constraints, shipping delays, or product shortages. Prompt your child to tell you several things they want this year. If they’re old enough, explain why you need them to prioritize and give you options. If you will definitely not be getting them a certain item, say the absolutely impossible-to-find Gabby’s Dollhouse, give your child a heads up prior to Christmas morning. Better to break their heart now than on December 25th.

The second item you will be finding is something your child needs. This is every parent’s dream come true, by the way. If your kiddo is only wearing mismatched socks due to losing so many, you’re going to be buying your child new socks in their favorite cozy style. Maybe your child needs a new beanie, a lanyard for their mask, or a budget-friendly pair of headphones. Whatever the item is, keep in mind what their preferences are.

Next up is something your child wears—and we’re not talking about learning to knit a hideous, itchy sweater (ahem, Great Aunt Judy). Maybe your child could use a new pair of pajamas, or a hoodie for school. The nice thing about the “wear” item is that we know our child will use it. You can get as creative as you want. Maybe it’s a new pair of basketball shoes, or it could be as simple as tech-friendly gloves.

Finally, the last item in the four-gift rule is something to read. Think outside the box on this one. Options include a magazine subscription, a comic book, or a “coffee table” book of art or luxury cars. “Something to read” isn’t limited to a chapter or picture book—though those are both really great, too. Many bookstores have a bargain section where you can find interesting books for reduced prices, or hit up a used book store.

The beauty of the four-gift rule is that not only is it budget-friendly, meaning it helps limit how much you fork over, but it also promotes equity among the kids. How many times have we worried about Christmas morning being unfair? When the gifts are limited to just four — and in the same categories — there’s not as much to worry or complain about.

If you can keep the four gifts for each child around the same budget, even better. However, this isn’t always necessary. Older kids tend to want more expensive items. You can balance that with younger kids who have little to no concept of how much something costs — and you can drop less dough on their gifts.

Maybe you can afford to buy your kids a stack of gifts, but you just don’t want to. My kids get tons of gifts from their grandparents, cousins, and their aunts and uncles already. We certainly don’t feel like our kids are missing out when we stick to the four-gift rule. In the case of the holidays, sometimes less really is more. A few carefully selected gifts can be more meaningful than a mountain of “meh” gifts — no matter how much was spent on them.

If buying for your partner is too overwhelming, guess what? Yes, the four-gift rule can save the day. If your partner is working from home, house slippers and some flavored coffee, plus a book and something they need, might just be the way to go. (I don’t know about you, but we can’t ever have too much coffee.) As adults, we can get pretty pumped about a new phone charger.

Don’t forget about those holiday stockings, either. That’s where families can really blow their holiday budgets. We tell ourselves we’re just buying “a few more” stocking stuffers, but that can add up — fast. You can apply the four-gift rule to stockings. A graphic tee (something to wear) can be rolled up and placed in the stocking. You can replace the something to read with something to eat — that is, a favorite snack or king-size candy bar.

The worst part of the post-holiday blues is the long, winter days and the credit card bill that arrives in January. By applying the four-gift rule to our family holiday gift buying, we can drastically cut down on the excess spending (and stuff). With Christmas just a mere two weeks away, the four-gift rule will save you time—leaving you with some precious minutes to binge Netflix while you wrap.