Della is upset when the story begins because she wants to buy her husband, Jim, a lovely Christmas present, but she only has "One dollar and eighty-seven cents." She's been trying to scrimp and save up more money for several months, but it just has not been possible, due to various family expenses. Her relative poverty (Jim used to make quite a bit more money than he does now) has made getting by much more challenging, and so she seems to feel that "There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl" about her inability to buy Jim the kind of gift she feels that he richly deserves. Everything in her life seems a bit shabby: she powders her face with a "rag" and looks out "dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard." Della desperately wants to purchase "Something fine and rare and sterling," something nearly worthy of being Jim's. Contemplating her situation, Della decides to sell her hair—her own most prized possession, because it is so beautiful—so that she can buy such a gift for her husband. She decides on a gold watch chain to go with the gold watch that had belonged to both Jim's father and his grandfather. The watch is his most prized possession.