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Finding the perfect holiday gift on a budget for someone you need to impress is always hard. With many people now
spending less than in past years, the pressure to be thoughtful _ but frugal _ has intensified.

Consider the case of Adam Herzog and Jasmine Kounang. The couple have known each other for about two years, but only started dating seven months ago. And theirs is a long-distance relationship, with Herzog living in New York where he works at Glassnote Records, while Kounang is a student at the Creative Circus advertising, design and
photography school in Atlanta.

“It definitely ups the ante and adds some pressure” to this year’s gift, Herzog says, adding that living in different cities makes it impossible to pick up hints on each other’s wants and needs in casual conversation. On top of that, Kounang is in school so funds are tighter than ever.

“I don’t think cost is really the issue, the pressure is to deliver a good gift,” Herzog says. If he fails, it could “always be in the back of her mind, that ‘He doesn’t know me as well as I thought he did’ or ‘He doesn’t understand me.'”

Herzog says he’s been dropping hints during their frequent phone calls, “letting her know how special she is and how difficult she is to shop for.”

Kunang isn’t shopping at all for her boyfriend. She’s making him an album filled with ticket stubs from all the concerts they have attended together.

“I’ve resorted to making things for my family and my boyfriend,” she says. The album for Herzog also will include interesting facts from the day of each concert. It replaces shirts, sneakers or the high-end headphones of years past.

“It’s more thoughtful to do it this way … (but) I’m making something because this is all I can give,” Kounang said.

While not all shoppers face the pressures of a long-distance relationship and a first holiday gift for a loved one, many are
struggling to get the right present without appearing cheap.

Douglas Stahl, 22, a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, endorses books as cost-efficient, but thoughtful gifts.

“It’s easily to personalize it … and you can go into Barnes & Noble and get three or four books for different people,” Stahl said.

In the past, his dad would receive a nice shirt or tie and his sister got a box set of DVDs, each valued at around $50. The two books for Stahl’s father will receive this year cost about $35 total and the London travel guide for his sister was even cheaper, “but she’s a student too so we mutually agreed to spend less,” he said with a laugh.

Kelly Barrett, a 6th-grade teacher in Springfield, Virg., is framing a picture of her parents from their college years to stay under the $30 limit her family enforces.

“It’s just a frame, but the meaning behind it is more,” Barrett said last month while eating lunch with three friends at a mall in northern Virginia.

Angela Colmone almost didn’t get her brother anything last year. She didn’t want him to feel the pressure of reciprocating after being laid off. In the end, Colmone and her husband, who also lost his job amid the recession, got her brother an automobile tool kit. This year he can expect one nice tool.

“We’re definitely cutting back,” Colmone said while taking a coffee break with her husband Andy in a Bethesda, Md., mall. Their 21-month-old son Brooks slept on his dad’s shoulder while his parents planned their gift-giving strategy.

It includes a lot more group exchanges within the family “where you can spend more money on that on person instead of buying lots of little things for everyone,” Angela said. “We’re pooling more resources,” Andy added.

The Colmonees said their total holiday spending budget will be about 25 percent less than in years past. The spending drop comes even though Andy is back to work at as a financial analyst at firm outside Baltimore.

American household wealth actually grew this spring by $2 trillion ending a record stretch of six straight quarterly declines on Federal Reserve records that date to 1952. But some analysts say it could take four years for households to recoup the remaining $12 trillion in losses incurred since the recession struck in December 2007.

“This year has had a big effect on how I spend my money in terms of the economy,” said Kounang, who worked at a New York add agency before enrolling at the Creative Circus in hopes of landing a better job when she graduates in 2010.

Ty Gibson bought her 5-year-old niece a Vtech video game player last year. The toddler can expect a game, maybe two, this year. A cologne set for her brother won’t exceed $50, down from last year’s $70. Other family members can expect sweaters, just not cashmere.

“There will be pretty decent gifts but not as pricey as they used to be,” she said, smiling.

Hersog has not bought anything for Kounang yet. With her in school, he knows he’ll spend more, “but money is not an issue with Jasmine.”

He’s looking in New York City boutiques to match his girlfriend’s “quirky and cool” style, but event-oriented options like a picnic or day trip remain on the table.

“I definitely need to go the more creative route, make her stop and think, ‘He really understands me.”

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