The holidays may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but they’re also the most expensive. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), in 2019, the average American expected to spend a total of $1,052 on gifts and other holiday-related items, such as decorations and food. And that doesn’t even include the cost of holiday travel and activities.
If the high price tag is turning your holiday cheer into holiday stress, here’s some good news: There are ways to save on every item on your holiday to-do list. These seasonal tips can help you get your holiday spending under control and put the focus back on family, friends, faith, and fun.
Saving on Gifts
According to the NRF, the single biggest expense December brings for most people is the money they spend on holiday gifts. The average consumer said they planned to spend $659 on gifts for family, friends, and co-workers in 2019. If that number is uncomfortably high for you, there are many ways to bring it down.
1. Limit Your Gift List
Think about all the people you give presents to every year: family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers – many people even buy their kids’ teachers gifts. Ask yourself: Do you really need to exchange gifts with all of them? How many of them are you buying gifts for only because it feels like an obligation?
If you’re buying presents for distant relatives and friends you hardly ever see, consider dropping them from your list. Alternatively, exchange cards with them instead of presents or give each other holiday treats, such as homemade cookies. These options also work well for co-workers, neighbors, and teachers. Downsizing your gifts to these folks allows them to do the same with yours, so they can lighten their holiday budgets as well.
2. Agree to Scale Down
Even if you limit your gift-giving to just your nearest relatives, if you have a big family, that’s still a lot of presents. Shopping for over a dozen parents, siblings, spouses, and children isn’t just expensive – it’s time-consuming and exhausting. Chances are at least some of them would welcome the opportunity to scale back your holiday gift exchanges to a more manageable level.
To make this happen, talk openly with your family to find out if they’re interested in downsizing this year. For instance, perhaps they’d prefer to do a secret Santa-style gift exchange. Just put all your names into a hat and have each person draw one. Then, instead of shopping for dozens of gifts, you can devote all your time and money to choosing the perfect gift for just one person.
Another way to make gift-giving more manageable is to limit the cost rather than the number of gifts. Set a price limit and challenge each other to keep all your gifts below that dollar amount. Alternatively, you can agree to give big gifts only to the kids in your family and exchange token presents with adults.
If everyone agrees to it, you can even decide to quit buying gifts for each other altogether. Instead, pool all your funds and redirect them to worthy charities. You can make one large donation to a charity you all like, or each choose one charity and divide your money equally among them.
3. Shop Early
If you can’t pare down your gift list, the next best plan is to make your dollars go further by shopping strategically. One way to do this is to get an early start. By spreading your holiday shopping throughout the year instead of waiting for Black Friday or Cyber Monday, you can take advantage of sales on specific items at other times of year. For instance, Yahoo tech columnist David Pogue writes in his 2016 book “Pogue’s Basics: Money” that you can find the best deals on cookware in April and May, jewelry in July, computers in September, and bicycles in September and October.
Another perk of shopping at other times of year is that you run less risk of getting carried away in the atmosphere of the holiday season. In December, every store is in full-blast holiday mode, with sights, sounds, and smells all designed to make you spend freely.
4. Shop Online
There are many advantages to doing at least part of your holiday shopping online. For starters, like shopping early, it allows you to avoid the frenzied holiday atmosphere at brick-and-mortar stores, which can tempt you to overspend.
Shopping online is also convenient. You can shop at any hour of the day or night, even in your pajamas. You don’t have to venture out in the chilly winter weather, fight traffic on the roads, circle the lot looking for a parking space, or push your way through crowds of other bargain-seeker. And instead of being forced to listen to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on an endless loop over the mall’s sound system, you can set your own to play whatever you like.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of online shopping, though, is how easy it makes it to compare prices. Instead of going from store to store, just fire up a handy browser extension like Honey, that automatically checks prices all over the Web. These browser add-ons also help you find and apply coupon codes to save money. And some, like Ibotta and Rakuten, earn you cash back on all your online spending.
5. Shop Secondhand
Many types of gifts – including books, handbags, and jewelry – are much cheaper if you buy them secondhand. Shopping this way is also an eco-friendly gift-giving choice, and it allows you to give rare items that are no longer available new. Places to look for secondhand bargains include thrift shops, used bookstores, Amazon, eBay, and even yard sales.
Giving secondhand gifts is more acceptable than it used to be. According to a 2019 Mercari survey, over 60% of Americans are comfortable receiving secondhand gifts, and between 38% and 49% are comfortable giving them. However, 4% of respondents said they would be turned off by any pre-owned gift, so use caution with this type of present. Make sure you only give them only to people who don’t mind receiving them.
Also, check all your finds carefully to make sure they’re in good condition. No one is going to be delighted about unwrapping a sweater with holes in it or a puzzle with missing pieces.
6. Give Homemade Gifts
Like secondhand gifts, DIY gifts are a bit tricky. A beautiful handmade gift you obviously put lots of time and effort into, like a handmade quilt, is much more personal and moving than something you just picked up off a store shelf. But a gift that looks shoddy or thrown together at the last minute comes across as insulting.
To make sure your homemade gifts don’t fall flat, know your limits. If you’re just getting started as a knitter or woodworker, it’s probably not a good idea to make gifts of your first few clumsy projects. Wait until you have enough skill to give presents that really show how much work went into them.
Other DIY gift ideas include:
- Edible Gifts. Instead of buying your mom a box of chocolates from a fancy store, why not make her some? A quick search online turns up recipes for lots of easy-to-make chocolate treats, such as peppermint bark, mocha truffles, and countless varieties of fudge. Or for a healthier edible gift, give an arrangement of fruit skewers or a jar of homemade pickles.
- Bath and Beauty Gifts. There are lots of online recipes for luxurious bath and beauty products made from pure, natural ingredients. Check out Boulder Locavore for a roundup of homemade face and body scrubs, facial cleansers, bath soaks, body butters, and lip gloss.
- The Gift of Your Time. We all have at least one person on our gift list who doesn’t need any more stuff. For this person, make homemade coupons for a service like babysitting, cleaning out the basement, a home-cooked meal, or a massage. When you give this gift, schedule your service right away to make sure you don’t both forget about it. Or take your friend out for a special experience together, such as a fishing trip or museum visit.
7. Maximize Your Savings
For the items you have to buy new in a store, make sure you’re getting the best possible price. Use a shopping app like ShopSavvy to make comparison shopping easier. Instead of running around from store to store to check prices, just scan an item into the app and instantly see its price at nearby stores and on websites.
Also, when you hand over your credit card to the cashier, make sure it’s the right card. Different cash-back credit cards and rewards credit cards offer different perks for holiday shopping at particular stores. So choose the one in your wallet that’s the best credit card for holiday shopping based on what store you’re in.
For instance, at Target, your Target RedCard nets you an immediate 5% discount on everything you buy, plus free shipping if you shop online. For food, choose a card like Capital One Savor, which gives you 2% cash back at all grocery stores.
However, don’t charge more on any credit card than you can afford to pay off at the end of the month. Although credit card rewards are a nice bonus, you cancel out their benefits if pulling out the plastic leads you to overspend.
If you find you have trouble controlling your spending, consider using cash for your in-store purchases instead. With a limited amount of cash in your wallet, it’s impossible to go over your limit. If you don’t like carrying around that much cash, gift cards or reloadable prepaid cards can also help keep your spending in check.
8. Don’t Go Overboard
If you start your holiday shopping over Thanksgiving weekend, be careful. Although there are many excellent deals on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, other deals aren’t as good as they seem. Before adding something to your real or virtual cart, use your handy shopping app to check its price elsewhere. And no matter how good the discounts are, don’t go overboard and buy things that aren’t on your list, or you’ll blow your budget in no time.
One particular thing to watch out for during your holiday shopping is the lure of “extras.” When you visit the mall, it’s easy to yield to the temptation of a little something extra, such as a photo with Santa, a peppermint latte, or a little present for yourself. Buy too many of these extras, and you can run through your whole holiday budget without having any idea where your money went. If giving up these little treats completely sucks all the joy out of holiday shopping for you, set a budget for them, and keep your spending within that limit.
Finally, know when to stop. Once you’ve bought gifts for everyone on your list, it’s time to head home and stay away from the mall. Resist the urge to stop by one more time “just to see what they have,” or you could come home with more than you budgeted for.
Saving on Gift Wrapping
Once you’ve bought all your gifts, you need a way to wrap them. Wrapping paper and gift bags don’t seem like major expenses to most people, but they add up. According to a 2016 piece by Minnesota Public Radio’s Marketplace, Americans spend more than $7 billion on them each year. And they’re bad for the environment since most wrapping paper can’t easily be recycled.
9. Reuse Paper
The simplest way to save on gift wrap is to reuse it. When you finish unwrapping holiday presents, there’s often a lot of leftover paper that’s in perfectly good condition. Rather than just tossing it, fold it and set it aside for next year’s presents. Reusing gift bags is even easier. All you have to do is replace the tags.
You can also reuse other kinds of paper – like newspaper, butcher paper, or brown kraft paper – for gift wrapping. The colorful Sunday comics make a particularly cheerful wrapping material. And you can brighten up plain paper with a bright-colored ribbon or a message scrawled in colored marker. And unlike gift wrap, they can go in the recycling bin after use.
10. Use Fabric
If you use the same piece of wrapping paper for a couple of years in a row, it will eventually wear out. But fabric wrapping lasts for years.
In Japan, it’s traditional to wrap gifts in decorative fabric called furoshiki. You can achieve the same effect by wrapping a package in any lightweight cloth, such as a scarf. An article on Wikihow provides several different techniques for wrapping and tying the fabric. For wrapping irregularly shaped objects, cloth works much better than paper, which is prone to tearing.
Or with some basic sewing skills, you can make reusable cloth bags. Any kind of fabric works for these, and you can make them whatever size you want. The bag then becomes part of the gift, and the recipient can reuse it next year.
Saving on Decorations
You can reuse most decorations each year, so you only have to buy them once. However, according to a 2017 GoBankingRates survey, Americans still spend an average of $58 per year on new decorations like candles or live Christmas trees. That’s not a huge expense compared to some other items on the holiday list, but it’s still more than you need to pay. There are other ways of decking the halls that cost little or nothing.
11. Use Found Objects
You don’t have to buy holiday decorations specifically for that purpose. Instead, create beautiful and festive arrangements with items you already have around the house. Examples include collages of family photos, bowls of fresh fruit, and collectibles.
Nature elements also make lovely decorations. Take a walk in a wooded area, and gather pine cones, acorns, and colorful berries from the ground. Christmas tree vendors are often willing to give you their extra trimmed-off branches for nothing or sell you a big bunch for a dollar or two to use in garlands and centerpieces.
12. Make Your Own
There are all kinds of homemade decorations you can make from inexpensive household items. For instance, stringing popcorn and cranberries together with a needle and thread makes an attractive garland for your Christmas tree. You can also make paper garlands from strips of construction paper taped or glued together to form interlocking loops.
Paper snowflakes are an ever-popular holiday craft. Martha Stewart offers a simple technique for making them, and a dusting of glitter makes them sparkle. Other classic DIY decorations include clove-studded oranges and miniature wrapped packages.
13. Hit the Dollar Store
In December, dollar stores stock their shelves with all kinds of affordable items that make pretty and inexpensive decorations. Check your local dollar store’s aisles for:
- Christmas ball ornaments
- Jingle bells
- Colorful ribbon
- Candles and candleholders
- Glass vases
Saving on Travel
According to AAA, roughly 1 in 3 Americans – over 112 million people – travel during the holidays. This includes 102.1 million people making road trips, 6.7 million flying, and 3.7 million traveling by train, bus, or cruise ship.
With the cost of travel tickets, hotels, and rental cars, holiday travel can quickly become a serious expense. However, if you plan ahead, there are ways to keep your holiday travel costs down.
14. Drive, Don’t Fly
In most cases, traveling by plane is much more expensive than driving – and this goes double around the holidays. According to AAA, the average cost of a single plane ticket on or near Christmas Day is over $500. And that doesn’t include such added costs as checked luggage, parking at the airport or taking a shuttle, food and drinks on the plane or at the airport, and renting a car at your destination if you need one.
Our analysis of holiday travel costs for two trips – one around 300 miles each way, the other about 700 miles – found that driving costs less than one-fifth as much as making the same trip by plane. The more people you have in your group, the more cost-effective driving is. It’s also less than half the cost of taking a bus or a train.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If you live on a well-traveled route or can find a really inexpensive ticket, flying could be cheaper than driving. You can use the Drive or Fly Calculator from BeFrugal to crunch the numbers for your trip and see which option is less expensive for you. This calculator also shows the carbon footprint for each type of trip.
15. Look for Travel Deals
Of course, driving isn’t an option for everyone. If you live in California and are heading home to visit your parents in Kentucky, driving or taking a train would add several days to your trip. If you have to make your holiday trip by air, there are several ways to reduce your airfare costs:
- Book Early. If you book your trip in the fall, you pay less than you if you had waited until after Thanksgiving. According to AAA, you can sometimes find cheap fares if you book the week before Christmas, but you run the risk the flight you want will be sold out.
- Be Flexible. The more options you consider, the better your chances of finding a deal. Look into multi-leg flights, alternative airports near your home and destination, various travel dates, or two one-way flights rather than one round-trip flight.
- Seek Out Discounts. Once you find a flight you like, look for coupons and online discount codes to reduce the cost. You can also get cash back by booking your flight with a cash-back card or cash in miles with a travel rewards card.
Saving on Entertaining
If you plan to throw a holiday party this year, it’s likely to take a big chunk out of your budget. As the New York Post reports, a 2019 survey found that the average American party host spent a total of $1,422.65 per year on entertaining. Since the average host throws seven parties a year, that works out to more than $200 per party on average. However, holiday parties are often big ones, so they could account for an even higher share of the total.
The three highest costs for a holiday party are food, drink, and decorations. The tips listed above for decorating your home on a budget can also help you save when it comes to decorating for your holiday party. However, to save on food and drink, you need to consider other options.
Pro tips: If you’re not planning on cooking all the food yourself, consider DoorDash. You can order from your favorite restaurant and you can get the delivery fee waived on your first order.
16. Limit the Guest List
It’s simple math: The more people you entertain at a holiday party, the more you must spend on food and drinks. For example, suppose your menu for a dinner party is stuffed mushroom hors d’oeuvres, baked salmon, scalloped potatoes, green beans amandine, and chocolate cake. According to The Spruce, for each guest who attends, expect to provide:
- Six bites’ worth of hors d’oeuvres
- 6 ounces of salmon
- 5 ounces of potatoes
- 4 ounces of green beans
- One slice of cake
If you’re serving wine at your holiday party, that’s another expense that rises with the head count. According to Bon Appétit, a bottle of wine contains about four generous servings, so if you allow two glasses per guest, you need one bottle for every four people who attend.
Inviting fewer people not only keeps your grocery bill down but also allows you to devote more attention to each of your guests. That makes the party more enjoyable for everyone.
17. Skip the Dinner
If you can’t bring yourself to slash your guest list, slash the cost per guest instead. Rather than having a sit-down dinner party, consider these less expensive options:
- Brunch. At a brunch party, you can get away with a less expensive menu. Foods like sandwiches, muffins, pancakes, fruit, and eggs are all less expensive than a dinner menu like the example above but still leave your guests feeling satisfied.
- A Finger-Food Reception. The Spruce calculates that if your party doesn’t include a full meal, you should provide enough hors d’oeuvres for each guest to consume four to six bites per hour. For a four-hour party, that’s 16 to 24 bites per guest. To keep costs down, go easy on the fancy canapes and provide cheaper options like sandwiches, cookies, and veggies with dip.
- A Dessert Buffet. Everyone likes desserts, so no one will complain about being invited to a dessert-only party. Provide one fancy dessert to impress your guests, such as an elaborate cake or a chocolate fountain, and fill out the rest of the table with simpler sweets like cookies and fruit.
18. Go Vegetarian
Another way to lower the cost of feeding each guest is to serve a vegetarian meal. Meatless options like pasta or beans cost much less than beef, salmon, or even poultry. According to The Spruce, you need only 2 uncooked ounces of each per guest.
You can find a wealth of meat-free recipes for your holiday party by searching vegetarian cooking magazines and websites. Good options for feeding a crowd include:
- Bean chili
- Veggie pizza
- Veggie lasagna
- Pasta primavera
- Roasted cauliflower
- Butternut squash soup
19. Have a Potluck
The most common ways to feed party guests are to hire a caterer, which is costly, or make all the food yourself, which is a lot of work. However, there’s one other option that cuts both labor and cost: Make your event a potluck. Everyone shares the work of hosting the party, and no one has to feel obligated to issue anyone a return invitation afterward. Plus, you get a wide variety of different foods to sample.
A successful potluck is mostly a matter of coordination – both before the party and while it’s going on. To keep yours running smoothly, keep these tips in mind:
- Assign Dishes to Guests. To avoid having too many of the same dish, give your guests assignments. Figure out how many main dishes, sides, appetizers, and desserts you need, and divide up these dishes among your guests. Make sure to include entries for gluten-free or vegetarian dishes if any of your guests require them.
- Arrange the Table. Set up a buffet table with plenty of room for everyone’s contributions. Set out dishes, cups, napkins, and utensils at the head of the buffet. Group similar types of food together – for example, salads next to the flatware, then mains, sides and casseroles, and desserts on the end. Provide any serving utensils, like tongs for salad or a knife to slice cake.
- Label the Plates. If you’re using disposable dishes, provide a marker so people can write their names on their cups and the bottom of their plates. That way, when they go back for a refill, they won’t have to take a new cup or plate because they forgot which one is theirs.
- Deal With the Trash. Make sure you have trash cans available in plain sight. Label them clearly so guests know where to put trash, recyclables, and scraps for the compost bin if you have one.
20. Lower Your Liquor Bill
When people talk about drinks for a holiday party, they’re not usually talking about soft drinks. What they mean is liquor, which costs considerably more per person.
You can eliminate this cost by having an alcohol-free party. In addition to saving you money, it’s more family-friendly and safer for any guests who need to drive home. For daytime parties in particular, it’s perfectly appropriate to stick with a nonalcoholic punch, hot cider, or hot chocolate, which is festive and tasty with no alcohol.
However, if you want to wine your guests as well as dine them, there are several ways to do it on a budget. You can limit yourself to just one holiday-appropriate cocktail, such as eggnog or rum punch, or stick to one relatively inexpensive wine. Or you can host a BYOB, or bring-your-own-booze, party – a variant on the potluck in which guests bring wine, beer, or spirits rather than food.
For some people, trying to stick to a holiday budget is frustrating. Trying to restrain their spending seems to suck all the joy and magic out of this special time of year. But if you think about it, that doesn’t really make sense. What makes the holidays most enjoyable isn’t the money you spend, but the time you spend with the people you love.
Think about your most precious holiday memories from childhood. Chances are what stands out in your mind are the things money can’t buy: trimming the tree, lighting candles, playing games, or seeing relatives you don’t see all year. By limiting the amount you spend, you can refocus your holidays less on material things and more on special experiences like these. In other words, a holiday on a budget can actually be a more magical, memorable one than a wild spending spree.
Are there any other strategies you use to save money during the holidays?