The holidays have a strange ability to stretch us to our limits — our sanity, our time and especially our savings accounts. The best way to make sure you don’t start out the new year with a mountain of holiday debt is to start planning and saving now. Get ready to enjoy the most magical time of the year, and start with this list of ways to save money for the holidays.
Set a Budget
Whether you’re attending holiday-themed events, going out to eat or paying for holiday travel, identify exactly how much you can afford to spend. Microsoft Office users can download a holiday budget calculator template online for free.
Don’t get too caught up in the buying frenzy or fall for marketing tactics retailers use to get you to spend more. Avoid advertisements, and try not to compare your holiday spending habits with others’ habits.
Go through your closets and set aside unwanted or unused items. Often, these can be re-gifted or repurposed into DIY Christmas projects. Or, try selling some of these items on an app like OfferUp or Letgo.
Begin shopping and planning early to give yourself plenty of time to wait for the right deal, make sure items will be shipped and received on time and start on your money-saving DIY gifts or decorations.
Redeem Credit Card Points
Now’s the time to redeem the credit card points you’ve been earning all year and increase your purchasing power for the holidays. Depending on how much you’ve saved up, you might be able to fund entire gifts with just rewards points.
Did You Know? 6 Surprising Uses for Your Credit Card Rewards
Avoid Paying on Credit
It might be a good strategy to charge holiday gifts to your credit card to earn points, but make sure you don’t spend more than you can pay off right away. Getting hit with credit card interest could make your holiday purchases 15 to 20 percent pricier.
Raid the Pantry
Check your cupboards before grocery shopping to make sure you’re not buying extras of food items or spices you already have. Plus, see if you can change recipes slightly to use what you already have.
Plan the Portions
Figure out how much food you’ll need for the number of guests you expect to feed. The Instructables website has a calculator to decide how much of different ingredients you’ll need, which can help you avoid over-buying and wasting food.
Cook the Favorites
Focus on having a lot of what people really love to eat, and skip the dishes that always seem to get passed over to avoid wasted food — and money. Just be sure no one is going to miss that dish.
Make It a Potluck
Just because you’re the host of a holiday gathering doesn’t mean you have to foot the whole bill. Ask your guests to bring a side dish, dessert, disposable dishes, table settings or beverages.
Buy Smaller, Frozen Turkeys
Frozen is cheaper than fresh, and buying two 8-pound birds will cost less than one 16-pound turkey. Just be sure to give your frozen turkey enough time to thaw. A 16-pound turkey takes about three and a half days to fully thaw.
There are plenty of recipes you can make from holiday leftovers. If the kids leave food on their plates, plastic wrap it and save it for them to finish later. Also, consider using the turkey carcass to make soup or broth — it’s delicious and easier than you’d think.
Shop With a List
Whether you’re shopping for groceries for Thanksgiving or gifts for the family, go with a list to avoid buying unnecessary items and going over budget. Also, consider asking others to bring a few items to dinner.
Consult Promotional Mailers
Use mailers to find the items that are steeply marked down, and cross-reference with your grocery or gift list to identify the best deals for your family. These can also help you find the best days to shop.
Thanks to coupon sites, you no longer have to sift through the newspaper with a pair of scissors. If you want to save some dough, check your favorite retailers’ websites for coupons or codes before heading to the store.
Use Shopping Apps
A majority of smartphone users plan to use their devices to help them shop, compare prices, find deals and more, according to a holiday spending survey from Deloitte. Plan ahead even if you don’t shop on your phone.
Claim Price Adjustments
After buying an item, watch out to see if it goes on sale in the next two weeks and ask for a price adjustment. Many stores will also price match with competitors. Be sure to check the fine print, as some stores might have exclusions on certain dates or products.
You’ll need these to return or exchange items, or to claim a price adjustment. Extra points if you keep them organized. Take note of return and exchange policies — as these can vary greatly from store to store.
Bundle Online Orders
Try to order multiple gifts from the same store. This will save on shipping, and ordering all at once could help you reach the larger spending limits that often come with larger savings.
Have Items Shipped to the Recipient
If you’re ordering online or giving to someone who lives far away, this will save you the hassle of forwarding the package. Many stores also offer gift-wrapping or personalized-note services, often for a small fee.
Decide How Much to Spend
Write out a list of everyone you plan to give a gift to, as well as the amount you plan to spend on each. Then, when it comes time for shopping, make sure you stick to the plan.
Cut Down on Your Giving List
Inevitably, there are those people on your list who you exchange gifts with out of sheer habit. Try having a conversation and suggest that you forgo gifts this year, and instead spend some time together.
Set Up a Secret Santa
For big groups, such as family or coworkers, a Secret Santa gift exchange can be a great way to make sure everyone gets a gift, without breaking the bank. Plus, it adds an extra fun element to the gift-giving process.
The same Deloitte survey found that gift cards are the top gift that shoppers plan to give. However, the No. 1 gift respondents said they’d like to receive is cash. Plus, the gift recipient will get your full money’s worth as opposed to a gift card.
Buy Gift Cards for Less
If you’re determined to give a gift card this year, at least buy the best holiday gift cards. Warehouse stores like Costco or Sam’s Club often sell gift cards to movie theaters, restaurants and even amusement parks for less than their retail value.
Get Gift Cards Secondhand
Buy unwanted gift cards for less than their value on sites like CardPool and CardCash. Keep these sites in mind, should you receive gift cards you don’t plan to use. You can resell them for cash at a later date.
Give a Certificate of Deposit (CD)
A great idea for a child, a CD will teach the benefits of saving money, such as earning interest. At the end of the CD’s term, the kid will be happy to get a bit more than you deposited.
Give Handmade Gifts
Whether it’s your famous homemade fudge or a knitted scarf, you can save a lot by giving handmade gifts — and the extra thought and effort are appreciated. Reuse or recycle or items you already have on hand.
Send an E-card
Paying for Christmas cards, a family photo and the postage can really add up. Skip the snail mail and opt for an electronic greeting. These days, you can find fun, interactive e-cards for everyone on your list.
Borrow What You Need
You’re likely only going to be using these items for one occasion, so if you don’t have a holiday tablecloth or serving dish, check with friends and family before rushing out to make a purchase.
Get a Cheap Christmas Tree
Check different lots to find the best price, and ask for less-expensive species, such as Balsam and Douglas firs. You might also be able to talk the price down if it’s after the first week in December or if the tree is less than perfect.
Invest in an Artificial Tree
A fake tree or wreath might be pricier than the real deal. But, it lets you cut down your holiday finances in the long run, rather than having to buy a new one each year — and it’s less messy.
DIY Wherever Possible
There are a hundred ways to turn free or already owned items into holiday decorations. Some of the easiest items to DIY are fall decor — gather leaves and pine cones from your backyard — and tree ornaments.
Try LED Christmas Lights
They are more energy efficient, which will help keep your electrical bill low. They also last longer and are less fragile than conventional lights, so you can reuse them — or keep them up — year after year.
Recycle Gift Wrap
Ask for paper grocery bags, and use these as wrapping paper. And, use fun tags or bows to add holiday flavor. Save gift bags and bows, as these can easily be reused. You’ll be helping the environment, too — people tend to waste 25 percent more during the holidays.
Borrow Holiday Music and Movies
Check with friends or family and see if they’ll lend you some holiday music. Better yet: Check out which holiday movies you can stream on Netflix or Hulu (if you’re already paying for them).
Make Memories Instead of Gifts
Create memories by spending time with the people you love, rather than buying the perfect gift. Focus on spending time together and having fun instead of spending money.
Choose Free or Low-Cost Activities
Going caroling is a free and memorable activity. Some other fun options include getting together to decorate cookies, building a snowman or setting up a goofy white elephant gift exchange.
Find Free Local Events
Check with your local paper to find free local events, such as a holiday parade, tree lighting ceremony, Santa’s workshop, live nativity or Christmas light display.
See the Lights
Take a stroll or drive around the neighborhood and enjoy the lights for a completely free evening activity. Search online to find the best holiday light displays in your area before heading out for the evening.
Holiday travel isn’t cheap — but you can save if you plan ahead and stay flexible. Do a bit of research on fares and the best dates to fly before booking your trip. That way, you’ll have more holiday money to spend on more enjoyable things than transportation.
Take a Bus Instead of Flying
Megabus offers intercity travel for as cheap as $1 each way. A round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco could cost you around $50, which is much cheaper than a $200 plane ticket.
Of course, you want to be with our loved ones for the holiday. But, it might be a much better use of your money to stay home through the end of the year and visit in January or February instead when travel will be cheaper.
Be the Host
Hosting others provides its own level of stress and certainly isn’t cheap — but it will likely be cheaper than paying for air travel elsewhere. If traveling isn’t in the budget this year, invite others to come to you.
Spread the Joy Out
Giving everyone in your life gifts all on one day can really take a blow to the wallet. Instead, offer them the gift of you — later in the year. Devise a thoughtful card or box, filled with print-outs of events, restaurants and items they could choose from — and give them a day in the coming year where they can have their “All About Me” extravaganza. It will be a little easier on your wallet to spend one at a time, one paycheck at a time.
Return Unwanted Gifts
Make good use of the gift receipt included and return any items you don’t intend to use. Check out gift card-reselling sites like CardPool or CardCash to get cash for your unwanted gift cards.
Check Return Policies
Even if the gift didn’t come with a gift receipt, you might be able to return it for store credit or exchange it for a different item. Do your research before waiting in line at the customer service desk.
Shop Post-Holiday Sales
Just like we know to check out the candy sections the day after Halloween or Valentine’s Day, after the holidays is the best time to stock up on holiday decor and themed gifts for next year.
Save Up for Next Year
Open a holiday savings account and start saving now for next year’s season. It will make it so much easier to plan ahead — plus, you can take advantage of a year’s worth in savings account interest.
Kaitlin Willow contributed to the reporting for this article.
About the Author
As a finance journalist and editor with GOBankingRates, Elyssa Kirkham covers finance news, consumer savings and deals, and banking. Kirkham’s work has appeared on major sites like Huffington Post, MSN, Investopedia, CU and CB Insight, The Motley Fool and a range of major local newspapers.