Gift Thrift: the Home Made Present!

Too many parties and a tight budget make Jen Cunniffe get crafty.

I have a new policy, and it’s changed my life. I am now a true believer in the worth of a Home Made Present.

Once there was a time when I bought stuff for other people’s kids. When my kids were invited to a party, I would think about the birthday child’s age, sex, interests and family background. Then I’d buy the cheapest piece of flashing plastic I could get away with. But things came crashing down when my girls were invited to five parties in one week, at a time when we were feeling the pinch financially.

However much I wished it were not so, I could only afford to spend a limited amount on presents for other people’s kids. We could have politely declined some of the invitations, but that seemed unfair to my children. I could have bought some tiny plastic trinkets, but that seemed mean to the birthday children. So I took the matter into my own hands – literally.

The week before that massive birthday weekend, I designed, cut out, decorated, glued, painted and sewed late into the night. Now, I have heard stories about high-achieving supermums who make glittering fairy skirts with matching sequinned wings before breakfast, but I am not in their league. I am not even close. In fact, I am severely lacking in the skills and training required for all sorts of specialist craft activities.

It’s great to invoke a Home Made Present (HMP) policy, but it would really help if I had an incredible talent in, well, just about anything. If I could knit, crochet, or cross-stitch like my nana, this new policy would be easy. It would help if I was a brilliant artist with a full palette of watercolours, or maybe if I was good with woodworking tools, or if I could simply draw a straight line. My mind boggles at all the wonderful things I could create if only I had the talent. However, I am stuck with the hard truth that I am an ordinary mortal mum with average skills and a tight budget.

I was beside myself with nerves the first time I sent my daughter off clutching an HMP. Having tested the HMP’s ‘fun factor’ on my own children, I was confident the birthday girl would love it, but I was anxious beyond belief as to whether the child’s mother would be impressed and appreciative or unimpressed and disparaging. Can a homemade gift compare with a store-bought present?

The thing is, the materials needed to create a stunning present are in every craft shop. It would be easy to make absolutely beautiful birthday gifts if you let yourself go crazy with your credit card because any art shop worth its salt is so jam-packed with interesting stuff that anyone with a touch of creativity in their little toe starts drooling as soon as they step inside. However, you could easily spend more on the raw materials to make a present than if you had wandered down to the nearest market and bought a unique toy lovingly crafted by a classically trained Swiss woodcarver specialising in softwoods and painted by an Italian virgin from a noble family with seven generations of enamelling history.

Fortunately for my family’s budget, the details of my HMP policy preclude me from spending lots of money in craft shops. Instead, I use bits and pieces from our Bits and Pieces Box and as much imagination and creativity as I can muster. I cannot express how racked with angst I am that the birthday child’s mother will think I am a cheapskate when my child presents what is essentially a piece of coloured-in cardboard (I’m thinking, specifically, of the personalised ‘spaceman snakes and ladders’ game for Sonny, and the ‘fairy-princess 3D castle’ for Renee).

True, I spent no money at all on each child’s present. But what else did I spend? Surely the most valued things in our society are thought and time? Each HMP is made for a particular child and personalised accordingly. I have spent long hours at night designing, constructing and decorating each present.

Reactions have been remarkable. Some mums have said how nice it is to receive an HMP rather than yet another piece of plastic that will break after 20 minutes. One mum said, “That’s something he’ll have forever”. It’s true that homemade treasures are harder to throw out. My girls have several under-stuffed scratchy wool teddies with staring eyes that I am unable quietly to dispose of because they were made with love by Aunty Glenys. Made with love, and specifically for my child. Sound familiar? Other mums have expressed real surprise that things were homemade – but perhaps that’s just indicative of our easy-come, easy-go see-it-and-buy-it society.

Oh, I admit that I still want to buy a cheap plastic toy made in China, imported by sea container and trucked conveniently to a warehouse in my suburb. There have been several times when I have ached to nip into the nearest mall and buy a shiny plastic toy with a Try Me button and 40 little wire ties holding it to the box. But I have resisted and, like buying organic, the deeper I get into this project, the more passionate I am about it.

The HMP policy has had an unexpected and pleasant side effect. Craft had always been something I’d done with my kids, and all mums know the first thing you put aside when creating with your children is your own sense of how things should be done or should look. I had been assisting my kids in their gluing and sticking and cutting and colouring-in for so many years that I had forgotten how much I enjoyed creating something myself, my way.

It has been very satisfying having a policy that increases my fulfilment in life. I’ve learned that sometimes a spur-of-the-moment decision can become something to stand up for. And, of course, if I expect other people’s kids to be happy with an HMP, I have to be true to my policy – I also give them to my own children.

Illustrations by Amanda Upton