This holiday season, the average U.S. shopper will spend $805, according to the National Retail Federation. With sky-high prices on gifts, food, decor and more, the holidays can take a big bite out of your savings. Rather than start the new year off on a low, find out how you can trim the fat off your holiday spending. Here are 40 tips for saving money this holiday season from experts.
1. Create a Detailed Budget
Before you buy anything, you need to know how much you can afford to spend so you don’t rack up debt or wreak havoc on your finances. Financial educator Natasha M. Campbell, "The Wealth Stylist," said you should write down a list of everyone you plan on giving gifts to and identify the maximum amount you’re willing to spend per person.
Jose Figueroa, a Christian personal finance coach, said to assign a specific amount you want to spend for each person on your shopping list. Afterward, determine how much you'll need for gifts — and stick to that amount.
Also, identify the amount you plan to spend on food, decorations and entertainment during the holidays. Keeping a log of all of your purchases or using a free mobile app like Gift It to track your holiday spending can help you keep tabs on where your money is going.
2. Buy Gifts Little by Little
Buying everything in a single day during the holiday rush not only means you'll overpay on certain items, you'll put a bigger strain on your wallet all at once, said Regina Conway, consumer expert for Slickdeals. “By spreading out your purchases throughout the next few months, you’ll be able to budget accordingly and not have a credit hangover in January,” she said. Plus, it will allow you to take advantage of the various sales throughout the holiday season.
With more time to shop, you also have the opportunity to stick to a stricter budget. John Schneider and David Auten of Debt Free Guys said they calculate budgets and then "commit to spend 20 percent less each year. Then, we put our 20 percent savings in a holiday savings account for next year or celebrate the new year by investing it in the stock market."
3. Establish Reasonable Expectations
Your kids might not understand the ins and outs of your finances — and that's okay, as long as you help them establish reasonable expectations for gifts. Rather than allow your kids to fawn over every new toy and gadget that's coming out this holiday season, help them come up with a holiday wishlist by establishing a clear budget for their presents.
Knowing your kids aren't expecting the latest consoles, a pony or other outrageously expensive gifts will alleviate some of the pressure that comes with shopping for loved ones. It also helps your kids understand that the holidays aren't necessarily about getting the coolest toys they can flaunt at school.
4. Know When to Shop
“Retailers are trying to get shoppers into stores earlier and earlier each year, but that doesn't mean shoppers will get the best deals,” said Kristin Cook, managing editor of Ben’s Bargains. For example, the best prices on toys and video game consoles often appear in December, she said.
Sites such as BFAds.net create comprehensive buying guides to help you understand when and where the best values are. FatWallet shows the best current deals next to upcoming Black Friday deals, helping you make smart decisions on whether to buy early or wait. “Knowing the times that things go on sale can help you be one of the lucky ones that nab those limited, time-sensitive deals,” said Brent Shelton, an online shopping expert with FatWallet.
5. Get Black Friday Prices in Early November
You don’t have to leave your Thanksgiving dinner or battle the crowds on Black Friday to get the best prices of the season. Several product categories — including HDTVs, laptops, tablets, cookware, small appliances, digital cameras and power tools — will be marked down to Black Friday prices starting in early November, Cook said. Look for these early discounts from retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, Dell, Home Depot, Lenovo, Microsoft, Newegg, Sears, Target and Walmart.
6. Set Up Deal Alerts
A good way to track sales so you don’t miss out on them is to sign up to receive alerts from sites that feature deals, Shelton said. For example, you can get alerts when savvy deal hunters post price drops in the FatWallet hot deals forum. Slickdeals, meanwhile, will send you alerts when a deal is posted that matches keywords or products you select.
7. Stay Up Late the Night Before Thanksgiving
All of the best advertised — and unadvertised — online deals on Thanksgiving will start going live Wednesday night, Cook said. In fact, many stores advertise at midnight but will unofficially start an hour earlier to get a jump on competitors.
To snag the best deals before inventory runs out, you need to be watching retailer sites as deals go live. Cook said that the Ben’s Bargains team saw some of the best deals sell out in an hour, but most lasted a few hours. “While retailers will intentionally time sales of different products throughout Thanksgiving, staying up late the night before Thanksgiving will pay off significantly,” she said.
8. Get Black Friday Prices After Black Friday
You don’t have to stand in line outside a store at the crack of dawn to get doorbuster prices. You can get many items at a discount on eBay a day or two after Black Friday, said Kyle James, founder of coupon and deal site Rather-Be-Shopping.com. It’s commonplace for people to buy items during Black Friday and then sell them for small profits online. “So be sure to check eBay on Black Friday weekend and pay only slightly more than if you had stood in line for hours,” he added.
9. Turn Old Gadgets Into Holiday Money
Unused tech gadgets like mobile phones, tablets, computers and video game consoles can easily be turned into cash for the holidays. You can sell your unwanted electronics — even damaged ones — on sites like Gazelle, NextWorth and uSell. Or you can trade them in for gift cards at retailers such as Best Buy, Target and Walmart, said consumer expert Andrea Woroch.
You can even turn used ink cartridges into holiday gift money. Stores such as Staples offer $2 in rewards for every cartridge you recycle, she said.
10. Buy Used and Refurbished Electronics
The latest gadgets are cost prohibitive for many holiday shoppers. Rather than buying tech like the newest iPhone fresh from the package, look to stores that sell refurbished or used devices for less. Even buying a slightly older model can save you hundreds of dollars.
Brian Kramer of Gazelle recommended buying preowned electronics. In a survey of 750 Gazelle users, "70 percent feel the high price of a new iPhone or iPad prohibits them from buying it as a gift," Kramer said, noting that many shoppers can find some devices for "up to 40 percent off when compared to buying a new device." One thing to keep in mind when buying used from an online or brick-and-mortar shop: Make sure there is a rigorous inspection process to ensure the device you buy is high quality.
11. Stock Up on Discounted Gift Cards
You can save money on holiday purchases by buying discounted gift cards from sites such as CardCash, GiftCards.com and Raise. Or visit Gift Card Granny, which aggregates discount gift card deals to help you find the biggest savings across all the major resellers, Woroch said.
“Not only can you give a discounted gift card as a gift, you can also use it as your currency to shop,” Conway said.
12. Sell Unwanted Gift Cards for Holiday Cash
If you have a stash of gift cards from last Christmas you never used, you can sell them online for 80 percent to 90 percent of their value, said Phillip R. Christenson, a financial advisor for Phillip James Financial. You can get cash for your cards on sites such as CardPool and Giftcard Zen.
13. Avoid the Upsell
Don’t spend more than you have to — avoid upsells. Say no to extended warranties; your purchase might already be covered if you use a credit card, or you can get a lower-cost warranty from a protection plan service such as Square Trade, Shelton said.
14. Avoid Shipping Fees
For online shoppers, when it comes to learning how to save money at Christmas, you don't need to look much further than shipping fees. Shopping online makes it easy to compare prices while avoiding crowds, but shipping fees can wipe out your savings. Woroch recommended shopping with retailers that offer free shipping for purchases and returns or that have a physical store near you where they’ll ship for free or accept returns.
You can also look for free shipping coupon codes on sites like FreeShipping.org or sign up for a 30-day Amazon Prime trial membership to get free shipping, Woroch said. Free Shipping Day on December 18, meanwhile, is a day when hundreds of retailers offer free shipping with guaranteed shipment by Christmas Eve.
15. Get Cash Back Shopping Online
You can earn cash back on purchases to alleviate the cost of holiday spending. Sites like BeFrugal, Coupon Cactus and Ebates allow members to earn cash back from thousands of online retailers. Cary Carbonaro, the author of "The Money Queen's Guide: For Women Who Want to Build Wealth and Banish Fear," said to "Bring your smart phone and check RetailMeNot before you buy."
A representative for Upromise said the service "has several different components, but the most popular is its cash back for online shopping. By shopping through the Upromise portal with popular retailers, you can earn 5 percent cash back for college."
16. Always Check for Coupon Codes
Before you buy anything online, visit sites such as CouponCodes.com, Offers.com and RetailMeNot to find coupon codes that can be entered at checkout. You can also follow your favorite retailers on Facebook and Twitter and sign up to receive coupon codes via email.
Use a mobile app such as Coupon Sherpa while you shop to see what coupons and discounts are available at nearby brick-and-mortar retailers. If you find a coupon you can use, you can pull up the barcode at checkout to get a discount.
17. Chat With Customer Service When Shopping Online
Some holiday shopping tips require you to be a little more proactive. This holiday season, take advantage of the live chat features on retailer sites. Ask about promotions or even unadvertised discounts that might be available. To encourage a one-time discount, you can even mention that you’re considering a competitor’s product.
You can also pick up the phone and call customer service to ask about discounts and whether they will honor an expired coupon or recent sale price. Other times, it's as easy as asking for a discount: "Wherever I shop, I always ask for a discount, and I usually get it," said Teri Gault, CEO and founder of The Grocery Game.
18. Take Advantage of Price Matching
“Price matching is a great way to grab the lowest prices without bouncing from store to store, but it does require a bit of initiative,” said Howard Schaffer, VP of Merchandising and Partner Management at Offers.com. As a shopper, it's up to you to keep an eye on the prices of products and show proof to retailers that competitors are offering the same product for lower prices. Apps such as RedLaser and ShopSavvy can help.
You also need to be aware that some retailers’ price-matching policies are better than others, Schaffer said. Major retailers like Target and Best Buy boast some of the best policies, matching local competitor's prices as well as the prices of online retailers, such as Amazon.
19. Download Browser Tools
You can download free browser tools that help you comparison shop and hunt for discounts. FreePriceAlerts.com, for example, has a downloadable tool that will alert you if a product you’re viewing on a retailer’s site is selling for less elsewhere.
FatWallet, which partners with retailers to offer cashback on purchases, has a tool called FatWallet Express that shows you the cash-back status of stores you visit online. It also shows whether there are coupons or deals available.
20. Track Price Drops
Even if you buy items at full price, you still might be able to score savings if they go on sale. Several retailers — including Best Buy, Macy’s, Sears, Target and Walmart — offer price adjustments if an item you buy at full price is marked down within a certain number of days from the purchase date. Typically, if you present your receipt to a sales clerk showing the price you paid, you’ll be credited the difference.
Woroch recommended tracking price drops on your purchases by using sites such as TrackIf or apps like SnapUp. These tools will alert you if something you buy goes on sale. Then, you can request a price adjustment.
21. Clear Your Cookies
Brian, a money coach and founder of Debt Discipline, said, "The best way to save money during the holiday is using research." He said to use the "power of the internet" and your smartphone to seek out free shipping, low prices and upcoming sales.
But first, you'll want to clear out your cookies. Cookies are generated by websites and stored on your computer. They allow sites to load faster, but can also be used to gather information about you. Woroch said you should clear your browser’s cookies so stores can’t track your purchases and browsing patterns, which they might use to adjust the prices you see on their websites.
22. Use the Right Credit Card
If you are in the habit of paying off your credit card balance each month, you can benefit by using credit cards during the holidays. “By choosing and using credit cards strategically, you not only can track your spending more easily, you can save money and earn rewards on purchases,” Schaffer of Offers.com said.
For example, the Citi Double Cash Card lets you earn 1 percent cash back on every purchase you make and another 1 percent when you pay off your purchases. The Price Rewind feature on Citi cards allows cardholders to register purchases to get up to $300 back per item if the price drops within 60 days.
23. Redeem Rewards for Holiday Cash
You might have a source of untapped cash for the holidays — your credit card rewards. According to CardHub, Americans fail to redeem $4 billion in rewards annually. Take the opportunity to cash in your points for cash or gift cards to help cover some of your holiday spending.
24. Don't Drink and Shop
The holidays are a time of cheer and celebration, but a bit of drinking before hitting the mall can derail your gift budget. April Masini, a relationship expert, author and founder of Ask April, a relationship advice site, said, "Drinking and shopping won’t get you killed, but it will get you buying what you can’t afford because you slide into purchases on a wave of martini-fueled good cheer. Starbucks and shopping, yes. Cocktails and shopping, no."
25. Shop With Cash
A good way to limit your holiday spending is to shop with only enough cash to buy items on your list. This tactic is ideal for someone who already has credit card debt and doesn’t want to rack up more. Shopping with cash will not only help you avoid impulse purchases, but it can also stop the trend of buying gifts for yourself, Woroch said.
26. Sign Up for Store Rewards Programs
Signing up for rewards programs with retailers you'll visit during the holiday season can help you save money, Schaffer said. For example, by enrolling in Kohl’s Yes2You Rewards, you earn one point for every dollar spent and get a $5 reward for every 100 points you accrue. Often retailers with rewards programs will send coupons to members, while others will increase rewards during holiday sales.
27. Shop Garage Sales
Cat Alford of the Budget Blonde blog said she saves money by buying gifts for her children on Craigslist and at garage sales. “All kids want on Christmas morning is to have fun and play with toys,” she said. “They have no idea how much you spent on them or who played with the toys before they did — nor do they care.” For example, she paid less than half the retail price for a train table with tracks and trains by buying a gently used one.
28. Use Your Warehouse Club Membership
If you belong to a warehouse club such as BJ’s, Costco or Sam’s Club, you can score savings during the holidays. Costco, for example, sells gift cards for major retailers at 15 percent to 30 percent off their face value. Plus, you can get wine for holiday gatherings or for gifts at a discount.
29. Don’t Ignore the Dollar Store
If you want to know how to save money for the holidays, look no further than your local dollar store. You can save big by purchasing certain holiday items at discount stores, such as Dollar Tree. Rather than spend several dollars on a roll of gift wrap or a gift bag, you can get both of these items for just a buck. You also can find ornaments, decorations, candles, stocking stuffers, Christmas cards, paper plates and napkins for just $1.
30. Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
Despite all of the sales in November, Christmas Eve was actually the biggest spending day during the 2014 holiday season, according to eMarketer. Waiting until the last minute to do holiday shopping can be a mistake, though. “If you wait until December you may not find what you're looking for and end up spending more on an alternative gift,” said Barry Choi, personal finance expert at Money We Have.
31. Opt for Low-Cost Gifts
You don’t have to spend a lot to give a memorable gift. Susan Kessler of The Frugal Diva recommended giving magazine subscriptions. “Every month they remember what a considerate person you are,” she said. And you can find annual subscriptions for a variety of magazines for just $5 on Amazon.com.
You can also turn a holiday gift set that features several items into multiple gifts for coworkers and neighbors. Woroch said you can buy a big box of chocolates from a warehouse club and then divvy up the chocolates into cellophane bags with bows. You can also make homemade jams. “This allows you to get more mileage from your gift shopping,” she said.
32. Focus on Meaningful Gifts
Rather than spend money on presents, show friends and family how much you care by giving them your time, personal attention and affection, said Campbell. “That could mean anything from quality time with loved ones, babysitting or an hour volunteering your gifts and talents to help others,” she said.
Pam McMurtry recommended "giving gifts that facilitate family or friend interaction, such as a game night or trip to a museum or family outing. One year, I made pioneer bonnets and vests and sent my grandchildren activities to recreate the work and play of their pioneer ancestors."
33. Make Your Own Ornaments
Cut the cost of decorations for your Christmas tree by making your own ornaments. You can pick up a bunch of inexpensive supplies from craft stores and even host a party with friends to make it fun, Woroch recommended. If you have kids, get them involved and start a holiday tradition.
34. Save on Meals Out
You might find yourself picking up more meals on the go during the busy holiday season — or dining out with friends to celebrate. You can keep the cost of restaurant meals under control by buying discounted restaurant gift certificates at Restaurant.com. Or look for discounted restaurant gift cards on Gift Card Granny.
McMurtry plans ahead for the treats she'll serve over the holidays: "I buy Halloween candy like chocolate bars and peanut butter cups after Halloween for 50 percent or more off and freeze them to use for toffee, fudge and cookies for Christmas."
35. Host Holiday Potlucks
Rather than provide all the food for holiday gatherings you host, ask friends and family to bring their favorite dishes, desserts or beverages to share. Not only will this help you save money, it can make the event less stressful for you.
On this, Kristin Wong of Brokepedia said to "Find a good dessert recipe and ace it." A frugal but delicious dessert or other dish ensures you save money while showing off your cooking chops at the holiday party.
36. Invest in LED Bulbs
"Lighting accounts for a significant portion of electricity usage, and LED bulbs are up to 10 times more efficient and last up to 50 times as long as compared to incandescent bulbs," said Alex Goldstein of Eligo Energy. So while decorative lights might be the highlight of your holiday decor, don't let them sap your monthly budget. Invest in LED bulbs that will last you for years to come.
37. Ask for Money-Saving Gifts
If you're expecting gifts from others this year, consider asking for presents that will help you save money over time. Goldstein recommended the Nest Thermostat, a self-programming thermostat, and a programmable sprinkler system that can help you cut back on water costs throughout the year.
38. Give the Gift of Volunteer Work
Save money by spending less on gifts and giving more of your time to help others by volunteering during the holidays, said Steve Repak, CFP. Get friends and family to agree to donate some of their time to a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or charity of their choice rather than exchanging gifts, Repak said. “This is a great way for everyone, especially kids and teenagers, to feel in the spirit of the holidays,” he said.
39. Institute a No-Gift Christmas
Christenson said he recently tried to orchestrate a no-gift Christmas with his family. “Instead of gifts, I suggested we do something together as family like go to a nice restaurant, a movie or some other memorable event,” he said. “The holidays are normally a stressful and expensive time, so this would reduce that stress and save some money. You might even create a new family tradition that could last for years.”
40. Celebrate Christmas After Christmas
"I know this is holiday heresy because everybody wants to go home for the holidays. However, you can save a lot of hassle, stress and money by simply delaying your visit until January," said Greg Geronemus, a travel expert and co-CEO of smarTours. "The prices will be far better, much lower, there will be less hassle and chaos at the airports and train stations, and certainly less stress." You can also choose to delay exchanging gifts, allowing you to take advantage of after-Christmas sales.