11 ways to do your holiday shopping without going insane

This year, avoid the crowds and give the people you love something they'll really love

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published November 29, 2013 7:00PM (EST)

   (AP/Julie Jacobson)
(AP/Julie Jacobson)

Now that Thanksgiving is over and we have entered into fully sanctioned retail hysteria, the dread of what the next few weeks have in store for you may be kicking in. The stores you normally haunt comfortably have already been transformed into teeming hellscapes – and it's only going to get worse.

Is it possible to get through the season in a manner that is both generous and not crazy-making? Can you shop without losing your mind? Yes. And it's easier and less likely to leave you sobbing in the corner of a Wal-Mart. It just takes thinking outside the big box.

Get a game plan. Holiday gift giving is not a magical, somehow spontaneous thing. Let's not pretend otherwise. So have the potentially awkward conversation with your loved ones about expectations now. Rather than winding up this year, again, with a big pile of mutually exchanged useless crap, talk about setting limits. Be frank about the number of gifts you all can reasonably exchange, and the budget you can realistically abide by. Beats the hell out of spending the post-holiday season broke and dealing with customer service at the exchange window.

It's called the Internet. Perhaps you've read about it in the papers. You can order anything off it, and have it delivered! Amazing. But in case you're unpersuaded: Many sites offer free shipping, and their Cyber Monday deals are as good as whatever's going on in their chaotic stores right now. And it sounds obvious but -- when you go on a site, look for any discount code that may be offered. Write it down so you can claim it at checkout. If you don't see any, check on sites like retailmenot.com – there may be hidden savings codes you can use anyway.

Not all stores are evil. Saturday is traditionally "Shop Small" day, but any day this season that you put your money in a local business is a good one for your community.

Buy refurbished. Almost any company that makes things with an on/off switch sells refurbished models. Factory refurbished items are generally high quality and deeply discounted, and you can usually order them directly from the manufacturer. You can, for instance, right now save $200 on a MacBook Air, or get a KitchenAid mixer that normally goes for $350 for only $200. Who needs to stampede the store for Black Friday deals?

Think "game show runner-up" prize. There's something surprisingly impressive about a big quantity of an ordinary item. You can get the starving grad student in your life a case of macaroni and cheese for under $40. Or give the lip balm addict in your life a year's supply of Carmex. Bonus points if you can gobble up the last of a beloved, recently discontinued item.

Give something that keeps giving. Everything you could want has an "of the month" club. Surely someone you love would enjoy 12 months of jerky. Or get a subscription to something beyond the usual magazine rack fare -- go old-school and bestow a zine.

Give the gift of nostalgia. Truly, this was what eBay was made for: the chance to reconnect with a talisman from a fondly remembered time. Get a stack of comic books from your boyfriend's childhood, a promotional photo from your BFF's teenaged TV show obsession, or a not-so-vintage college-era item of clothing for a family member. Trust me, the nineties girl in your life would love a copy of Sassy.

Go for experiences over items. I'm not talking about those "Good for one [household chore]" coupons that will be either forgotten or resentfully carried out when actually redeemed at some future date. I'm suggesting instead that it's nice to have something tangible that doesn't contribute to the household clutter – a restaurant gift certificate, tickets to a show or sporting event, or a series of classes. Be unexpected – isn't it time your recipient saw some professional bull riding or a Zydeco band?

Get artsy or crafty, even if you are not artsy or craftsy. If you can bake or build or write a song, have at it. But if not, you can still make something creative and personal. Buy some vanilla beans today. Split them and put them in a clean glass jar. (You probably already have a few in your recycling.) Pour some not-even-top-shelf vodka, bourbon, or rum over, cover, and shake every few days. By Christmas you'll have amazing vanilla extract for a baker friend. Or just grind up some dried fruit – apricots or prunes work nicely – with a little water, a pinch of salt and a few drops each of honey and balsamic vinegar. Bam! Fruit spread! Or two words: Homemade. Nutella. 

Many photo-printing sites, like Snapfish and Mpix, offer square prints, so you can turn your favorite Instagram shot of some clouds or your feet into something totally wall-worthy. Or get a small stretched canvas and a basic set of acrylics, and let your kid create an abstract masterpiece the grandparents will go nuts for. And never underestimate the power of a great music mix.

Or just buy some art. The wonderful 20x200, which was offline almost all of 2013, just relaunched as YouShouldBuyArt. Prints start at just $24. The name is a hint. Tiny Showcase has a brilliant selection, and a portion of the proceeds from many of the works go to the charity of the artist's choice.

Know that everybody is a fangirl/boy for something. If you can't score something brilliant that speaks to your recipient's favorite movie/book/TV show/game on Etsy, you fail at Internet. Right now, there are people in your life who don't even know how much they'd love a "You crapped on my heart" shirt or a Redrum necklace. But I promise they would. And it won't give you a nervous breakdown to get it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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