Retail spending is expected to jump 3.6 percent to 4 percent in November and December, up to $682 billion, reported the National Retail Federation. And in 2016, the average person planned to spend over $900 during the holiday season, according to American Research Group.
Between the holiday ham and toys for the kids, end-of-the-year spending can blow any devoted saver’s budget. Here are 40 ways to cut down on spending and make this holiday season (financially) stress-free.
Create a Spending 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. Personal finance expert Natasha Campbell said you should write a list of everyone you plan on giving gifts to and decide how much you’re willing to spend per person.
Once you’ve established a realistic gift budget, think about how much you’ll need to spend on food, decor and entertainment during the holidays. Knowing how much you can expect your expenses to increase will help you save ahead of time and keep you mindful when you’re at the store.
Buy Gifts Little by Little
Buying everything in a single day during the holiday rush not only means you’ll overpay on certain items, but also that you’ll put a bigger strain on your wallet, 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.
Establish Realistic 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 gift 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.
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 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 BFAds.
Shop in Early November
You don’t have to leave your Thanksgiving dinner to battle the crowds on Black Friday to get the best prices of the season. Several product categories, such as electronics and home appliances, will be marked down to Black Friday prices starting in early November, said Cook. Look for these early holiday discounts from retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Walmart.
Set Up Deal Alerts
A good way to track sales so you don’t miss out is to sign up for deal alerts, said Shelton. 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 selected.
Shop Online the Night Before Thanksgiving
All of the best advertised — and unadvertised — online deals on Thanksgiving will start going live Wednesday night, said Cook. 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, watch retailer sites as deals go live. Cook said the Ben’s Bargains team has seen 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.
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. 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 said.
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. In fact, there are lots of hidden sources of income lying around your house that will pay off come holiday time.
You can even turn used ink cartridges into holiday gift money. Staples offers $2 in rewards for every cartridge you recycle up to 10 cartridges a month, she said.
Buy Used and Refurbished Electronics
The latest gadgets, like the newly released iPhone X, are cost prohibitive for many holiday shoppers. Rather than buying the latest tech, 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, former director of communications for Gazelle, recommended buying pre-owned 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,” he said, noting that many shoppers can find devices for up to 40 percent off, compared to the cost of a new device.
Stock Up on Discounted Gift Cards
You can save money on holiday purchases by buying discounted gift cards from sites like CardCash, GiftCards and Raise. “Not only can you give a discounted gift card as a gift, you can also use it as your currency to shop,” said Conway. Using discount gift cards as currency is a great online shopping hack to save you money.
Sell Unwanted Gift Cards
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 Christenson, a financial advisor for Phillip James Financial. You can get cash for your cards on sites such as Cardpool and Giftcard Zen.
Avoid the Upsell
Don’t spend more than you have to. Say no to extended warranties, or at least pick up a lower-cost warranty from a protection plan service such as SquareTrade, said Shelton.
Avoid Shipping Fees
For online shoppers, when it comes to saving money at Christmas, don’t 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 recommends 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.
Earn Cash Back Shopping Online
You can earn cash back on purchases to alleviate the cost of holiday spending. Sites like BeFrugal and Ebates allow members to earn cash back from thousands of online retailers.
Cary Carbonaro, author of “The Money Queen’s Guide: For Women Who Want to Build Wealth and Banish Fear,” said, “Bring your smartphone and check RetailMeNot before you buy.”
Check for Coupon Codes
Before you buy anything online, visit sites such as Offers.com 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, pull up the barcode at checkout to get a discount.
Use the Online Chat Service
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, author of “Shop Smart, Save More.”
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 of 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 less. 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 Walmart have some of the best policies, matching local competitors’ prices as well as the prices of online retailers, such as Amazon.
Download Browser Tools
You can download free browser tools that help you comparison shop and hunt for discounts. For example, the browser extension Honey finds coupon codes and automatically applies them to shoppers’ purchases at checkout. Additionally, this tool locates savings opportunities on Amazon and shows buyers which seller is offering the best deal.
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 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.
Clear Your Cookies
The internet is a great place to score deals. But first, 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.
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 said.
Redeem Rewards for Holiday Cash
You might have a source of untapped cash for the holidays — your credit card rewards. Take the opportunity to cash in your points for cash or gift cards to help cover some of your holiday spending.
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 and author, 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.”
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.
Sign Up for Store Rewards Programs
Sign up for rewards programs with retailers you’ll visit during the holiday season to help you save, 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.
Shop Garage Sales
Personal finance expert Catherine Alford 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. There are some items you should never buy new.
Use Your Warehouse Club Membership
If you belong to a warehouse club such as Costco or Sam’s Club, you can score savings during the holidays. Costco, for example, sells gift cards for major retailers at a discount. Plus, you can buy wine for holiday gatherings in bulk.
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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 a lot by purchasing certain holiday items at discount stores. Rather than spend several dollars on a roll of gift wrap or a gift bag, you can get these items for just a buck. You also can find ornaments, decorations, candles, stocking stuffers, Christmas cards, paper plates and napkins for just $1. The dollar store is a good place to find especially good deals on shelf-stable food products.
Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
Waiting until the last minute to do holiday shopping can be a huge mistake. “If you wait until December, you might 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 said. If you have kids, get them involved and start a holiday tradition.
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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.
Host Holiday Potlucks
Rather than provide all the food for the 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, but it can make the event less stressful for you. Hosting a potluck is a great way to feed holiday guests on the cheap.
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.
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. Even a simple gas gift card can help you save. It’s not glamorous, but anything that helps you lower your energy bill is a great gift.
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, author of “6 Week Money Challenge.” Get friends and family to agree to donate some of their time to a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or charity 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.
Institute a No-Gift Christmas
Christenson said he once tried to orchestrate a no-gift Christmas with his family. “Instead of gifts, I suggested we do something together as a family, like go to a nice restaurant, a movie or some other memorable event,” he said. “You might even create a new family tradition that could last for years.”
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.
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About the Author
Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Fortune, MSN, USA Today and many more print and online publications. She also is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.
U.S. News & World Report named her one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named her one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR, WTOP in Washington, D.C., KGO in San Francisco and other personal finance radio shows nationwide. She also has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch and more.
She has an MA in economic journalism from American University and BA in journalism and Russian studies from Washington & Lee University.