Sometimes, the holidays sneak up on us.

The stress can snowball as we try to buy the perfect gift as we scramble to create the glowing holiday environment, along with the requisite holiday food.

If you find yourself with just a few days to go before your celebrations with family and friends, step back and think before you start running up those credit card bills. You may be tempted to spend more money on more gifts out of expediency, and in the glow — and stress — of holiday shopping.

Some points to consider: If that family member or friend really cares about you, would they want you to go into debt to buy them a present? Is there something that would make them happy that doesn’t cost a lot? What gifts have you received that stood out, despite a low price tag?

And, most of all, do you remember how you felt in January, the credit card bills from the 2016 holidays came due?

Here are a few ideas that can work for last-minute, but meaningful, gifts:

  • Find a favorite picture of your relative or friend during a special event or gathering, perhaps with you in the picture, too. Have it printed (and possibly enlarged) at a local drug store. Frame it.
  • Provide “coupons” for babysitting, mowing the lawn, lunch dates, or other gestures that can give a much-needed break for a friend, especially if his or her spouse is on deployment. Just make sure you follow through.
  • Write a letter to the person, by hand, describing why he or she is special to you: character traits, things they’ve done for you and for others, and so on. You might be surprised at how long they’ll cherish that letter.
  • Making homemade cookies, cakes, candy, jams or other treats.
  • Target simple pleasures. One friend gave her grandfather a big jar of peanut butter and a big jar of jelly, because that’s his daily treat. She was delighted when his face lit up as he opened it. 
  • Donate to a charity that is important to the friend or relative, such as one that helps wounded warriors or military families.

Another option for those with commissary and exchange privileges: Consider a gift card to one, or both. Service members overseas can buy online and ship to relatives back home who have shopping privileges. You can buy both online, although if you live near a commissary and have shopping privileges, it’s cheaper to buy in the store.

Commissary cards can be purchased online here. You can buy exchange cards at your local exchange or online at, or

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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