Recession-minded shoppers paring holiday purchases

People are making their lists and checking them twice, but who makes it on isn't necessarily about who is naughty or nice.

This holiday season, more people are cutting back on their gift giving because of their continued economic hardships. Extravagances have given way to a focus on the family and personal presents.

And, just maybe, that old adage "It's the thought that counts" finally is getting its due.

Carol Swope and her husband, Jess, were browsing at the Modesto Dickens Faire last weekend, enjoying the outdoor market's holiday cheer and sizing up the vendors' wares.

Swope, who retired in May, took a different approach to holiday gifts this season, starting in August: She's only shopping sales and using coupons.

"I budgeted over the months," said the Modesto resident. "And I'm making more handmade things — baking and such."

She still plans to spoil her new grandchildren, but she has cut her former co-workers from her gift list.

A survey this fall by market research company NPD Group found that 27 percent of people said they would trim their personal or business lists this year. Not all those who plan to give less can stick to their promises, however. Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst, expects about 19 percent will pare the list.

Still, it's the first time in the five years the question has been asked that the number has topped 10 percent. It's usually 5 percent to 8 percent.

"Every year, the consumer's gift list got longer and longer and, during affluent times, you didn't think anything of adding people to the list," Cohen said. "Now, with consumers having to be frugal, the list is not only getting checked twice, but cut twice."

It might lighten your load to not have to buy for your co-workers or next-door neighbors or third cousin twice removed, their elimination from your list must be done with tact.

To avoid hurt feelings and awkward situations, experts advise, be kind and tell the truth.

"Be honest, and say, 'Times are tight this year, and I'm having to cut back. Do you mind if we don't do gifts?' " said Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, which offers etiquette advice.

Don't wait too long. "Do it early" so your friend doesn't buy you a present before you break the news, Post said.

But in place of the latest best- seller or a pair of gloves, come up with an alternative.

"Don't forget there's a lot of gifts that are free — your attention, your time, maybe your talent," said gift expert and author Robyn Spizman.

That's what Alicia and Michael Lopez are doing this season.

The Modesto couple has taken up long-standing but sometimes forgotten family traditions this year. They plan to prepare food as part of their holiday gift giving.

They'll use family recipes to make empanadas, cookies and other goodies.

"It's rewarding," Alicia Lopez said of the handmade treats. "I'm learning the recipes from the older generation. And (when you give them out), you get a better smile back."

Merchants also have noticed a trend toward more homey gifts. Marie Uber, Modesto Certified Farmers Market assistant market manager, said she has seen a lot of interest in handmade soaps and and candles.

"People could go to Bath & Body Works for the same sort of thing, but this has a more personal, thoughtful feel," said Uber, who sells bath and beauty products at her Take Time Healing Arts Center booth.

Offering to get together with friends and neighbors is another way to celebrate the season without breaking the bank. This can be as big as a dinner at home or as small as a cup of coffee at the corner shop.

When it comes to family gifts, if the budget is particularly tight, focus on children and skip the grown-ups. Or draw names for the adults so each person buys and receives one gift.

"The key is not to live beyond your means," Alicia Lopez said. "It's really about spending time with family anyway. That's what makes it Christmas."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.