Between presents, parties and travel, the holidays are exceedingly expensive for most Americans. In fact, 57 percent of respondents in a GOBankingRates survey said they planned to blow a paycheck on the holidays, and 22 percent said they would spend a month’s pay. But winter festivities don’t have to leave you broke. There are plenty of free things to do that are just as fun — if not more so — as a pricey outing.
GOBankingRates asked 21 people to share their families’ most heartwarming holiday traditions that don’t cost a thing. So, if you’re dreading the holidays because of the toll on your finances, learn about all the free things you can do on Christmas.
Watching Holiday Movies
Marsha Barnes of The Finance Bar said that watching holiday movies while cooking a family dinner with her mom is her go-to tradition. “All snuggled up in our PJs,” she said. “It’s the best time ever.”
You can watch something you already own on DVD or turn to a streaming service for help. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu all have an impressive store of holiday films to choose from. You might discover a new movie favorite, or you could end up sticking with your family’s tried-and-true classics.
Finance writer Joel Anderson echoed this sentiment. After a day out in the cold, his family always “heads home to watch a double feature of ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ whilst consuming Christmas foods.”
You can even have fun selecting the movie by taking turns or making it into a competition. For instance, the first child to put something red and green on the living room table gets to pick the movie that night. Transforming normal tasks into a free game is just one way to entertain your family and save money during the holidays.
Cooking a Special Breakfast
“We like to enjoy a nice, big breakfast together as a family Christmas morning after opening our gifts,” said Jaclyn Shimmel, the creator of Crayons & Cravings. “It is the perfect way to spend quality time together as a family.”
Although ingredients cost money, you might be able to use things that you already have on hand. Oats, nuts and brown sugar are typical pantry staples and can be made into a hearty winter meal in no time. Or, you can upgrade your morning with this cinnamon raisin breakfast bake.
Viewing Christmas Lights
Brynne Conroy of Femme Frugality said, “Starting after Thanksgiving, we’ll drive around the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights when we’re on our way home from anywhere. It’s fun to count the houses with lights, watch the neighborhood get progressively more festive and watch the kids pick out their favorite displays.”
Some neighborhoods go all out for the holidays, and it can become a community event.
“Growing up, there were some parts of our city, as well as a few surrounding cities, that had a few neighborhoods that participated in insanely elaborate outdoor Christmas decorations,” said talent acquisition specialist Sarah Fennell. “These neighborhoods were packed car-to-car with everyone moving 5 miles per hour, so when we were small, my dad used to let us sit on his lap and ‘drive,’ aka hold the steering wheel. The lights were beautiful, there were always fundraisers for local schools set up on sidewalks selling Christmas goodies, and everyone driving (even some of the houses) used to blast Christmas music. We used to go multiple times during the holiday season and it was a great way to get four kids out of the house and in the Christmas spirit — for free.”
Reading Holiday Books
“A few weeks before Christmas, we start reading an illustrated version of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ every night before bed,” Conroy said. “It gets the kids excited without getting them hyper — they remember that Santa’s coming and that they want to stay on the nice list.”
You can find a book that your family enjoys reading and pass it down through the generations. That’s exactly what editor Mark Evitt’s family did.
“For three generations, my family has been reading the same book of Christmas stories,” he said. “Even though it was published over 100 years ago during World War I, the messages of the book are timeless and relevant today. ‘This Way to Christmas’ is really two books in one: a collection of Christmas tales from all over the world, and the story of an 8-year-old boy who comes to learn that Christmas isn’t buying gifts for people — it’s celebrating the season with people you love.”
Evitt’s dad reads the book aloud every holiday season, just like his mother and grandmother before him. “I have a 4-year-old daughter, and this is the first year she’s old enough to understand the stories. I can’t wait to share my favorite — and free — Christmas tradition with her,” he said.
Every family has different methods for opening gifts. Some have a free-for-all, with everyone grabbing gifts and tearing them open, and some take turns. Nicole Diaz, an editor at West Corporation, said that her family turned opening gifts into a unique, free Christmas tradition. “We have this thing where we pick someone each year to ‘play Santa,'” she said. “The person puts on a Santa hat and picks each gift that will be unwrapped next.”
When children start to grow out of the all-about-me stage and learn about patience and sharing, they might find playing Santa to be a fun responsibility.
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Holding a Dance Party
Partnerships coordinator Johanie Menendez celebrates her Honduran roots during the holiday season. “We always celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. From the moment I wake up, music is blasting. All the salsa and merengue jams from my childhood are playing all day,” she said. “My mom spends the day cooking dinner, which includes rice, potato salad and pernil, which is pork shoulder. We then have dinner together.”
The fun doesn’t end with their big meal, however. “We usually spend the night talking, drinking and dancing until the clock strikes midnight, and we each open one gift,” Menendez said. “But sometimes my mom gets impatient and we open all the gifts at midnight.”
Organizing a Clothing Drive
Author Sean Cooper is a big proponent of volunteer work — and it’s especially impactful during the holiday season. One year, Cooper and his sister organized a clothing drive for Syrian refugees in his home city of Toronto.
“The government of Canada was nice enough to open its doors to Syrian refugees; however, when the refugees left their homes and lives behind, many of them had very few belongings. Pretty much all they had were the clothes on their backs,” said Cooper. “Winter was coming — and if you know anything about Canada, you know that it gets pretty cold up here.” After gathering 20 bags full of clothing, they rented a pickup truck and delivered the massive haul.
“It would have been easy to write a check and donate to the Syrian refugees or simply turn a blind eye and not help out at all, but that’s not how my family is,” Cooper said. “We’re grateful for all the opportunities we’ve been given and always looking to give back. Helping out these people was the most rewarding and memorable thing we’ve ever done. It brought us closer together as a family and helped out those in need. I can’t think of a better holiday gift than that.”
Holding a clothing drive can become a yearly family event. Have everyone clean out their closets — hunting for outerwear, thick socks and closed-toe shoes that are no longer needed — then go to a shelter together to donate everything. Not only is this a free thing to do for the Christmas season, but it will also put things in perspective and help your family bond.
Having a Posada
Victor Diaz, a creative executive assistant, observes a Mexican Catholic family tradition called a posada each year. “People in the neighborhood or family and friends reenact Mary and Joseph searching for lodging,” he said. “So, it starts with my family walking around the neighborhood with candles and sparklers, singing hymns in Spanish. And then the group breaks up into two. One group is behind a closed door and the other group is outside of the door. They have a set of lines they sing, where the group outside is asking to come in and receive lodging, and the group inside sings about how there’s no room at the inn. This goes on for a while until it gets to lines where the group inside lets the group outside in.” From there, a huge nativity scene is set up, and everyone in line goes up to kiss the baby Jesus.
Church-related events are usually free and can be a time for showing both gratitude and love for your community. Some churches offer events like card making, hot cocoa tastings and the opportunity to get a family portrait taken.
Donating Goodie Bags
Goodie bags might not be free to assemble, but the experience of handing them out sure is. “Throughout the fall, our family gathers on-sale items (snacks, warm socks, mittens, pet snacks, toiletries, candy, etc.) to use in holiday bags for the homeless,” said Jenny Foss, creator of JobJenny.com. “We add in some fresh produce right before our ‘holiday bag night’ and head to downtown Portland. There’s a big population of homeless here. Our kids take the lead in approaching people to see if they’d like a holiday bag. The experience teaches them kindness, how to interact with and appreciate diverse people and how to not take it personally when someone rejects their offer.”
And if the weather is bad? “We do it rain or shine, and in Portland, it’s often rain,” said Foss.
Don’t be afraid to regift items you’ve gotten throughout the year, so long as it makes sense and the item is in good condition. For instance, if you received a pair of fuzzy pink socks and pink really just isn’t your color, make them part of your goodie bag — the socks will be a welcome gift.
And, if you’re concerned that your kids won’t be enthusiastic about this holiday tradition, don’t be. “Our kids have created school projects listing this as their favorite holiday tradition, above the gifts and the meals and the travels,” said Foss.
Listening to Music
Michael Taylor, a senior data architect, said that music is an integral part of his holiday fun. “One family tradition I’ve always inflicted … ahem … shared lovingly with my children is to play continuously looping versions (at least three) of Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ while traveling for Thanksgiving. Aside from the therapy they’ve required, it is a quaint and well-appreciated tradition in our household.”
Consider making a holiday playlist. If you have a Spotify or iTunes account, the whole family can collaborate so that dad isn’t the only one in charge.
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You can’t have Christmas without cookies. Although you could run out to the store and buy fancy ingredients to make them, challenge yourself to work with what you have in the kitchen. You can even try your hand at a family recipe. “Our grandmother loved making Rosette cookies using a special family recipe she brought back from Poland,” said Sebrin Elms, the travel blogger behind The Clumsy Traveler. “We still make these cookies every year and the tradition is priceless (though it costs nothing).”
If you’re not a fan of sweets, you don’t have to limit your Christmas to sugar cookies and gingerbread. Wallet Hacks creator Jim Wang said, “Every year we make pretzels in the morning. It’s a fun little tradition where the kids get to mix the dough, wait for it to rise, boil the pretzels, bake and then eat them.” It might seem unconventional, but “pretzels are one of those things you really can’t mess up,” said Wang. “It’s OK if they don’t look perfect, and the kids like to put food coloring in it so the pretzels are crazy colors. (Mostly they end up looking purple with all the colors mixed up.) It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a lot of fun for us.”
Crafting DIY Decorations
One of the easiest ways to save money on holiday decorations is to make them — and it can be a fun activity for those days when the kids are snowed in. “One of my favorite Christmas memories with my family was decorating the windows at home with the most elaborate Christmas stencils we could make,” said Pauline Paquin of Reach Financial Independence. “We had learned at school how to cut the sheets of paper to make some symmetrical shapes, and we would spray them with foam that resembled snow. It was nothing like the fancy stencils you can buy anywhere now, but it was a nice evening shared together, and we would enjoy the result for a month.”
Though many people are in hibernation mode during the winter, editorial associate Priscilla Aguilera treats the season a little differently. “On holidays, my family and I will go on an early morning hike,” she said. “My mom has always tried to keep the family healthy by offsetting the large calorie consumption during a holiday meal with a hike. I love this little tradition she started. Trails are usually less crowded on holidays, and I always end up with so much gratitude for nature and family. It keeps my brain mellow during the craziness of cooking a meal for a dozen people.”
Throw a football, play in the snow or hike a mountain — whatever you decide to do, you’re sure to be one step ahead of everyone starting their exercise resolutions on New Year’s Day.
Hosting a Slumber Party
“I liked to stay in on New Year’s Eve, so we would plan a slumber party for our friend’s kids,” said lifestyle expert Greta Brinkley of the website Greta’s Day. “All the parents could have a free babysitter, stay out late and not have to worry about having to pick up their kids. The kids had a party and didn’t even realize their parents weren’t at home.”
If you know you’ll be home for a major holiday with nothing on the agenda, offering to baby-sit, pet-sit or house-sit will always be appreciated. In fact, you can offer your services as a gift and get out of buying a traditional present altogether — a win-win.
Spicing Up Mealtime
Eric Rosenberg of Personal Profitability said his friend’s family had a tradition that he always thought was fun. “Whenever a dish becomes a part of their Thanksgiving, it is there for good,” he said. “One year, one of the kids (now in his mid-20s) wanted cereal at Thanksgiving, for example, so they make sure that is an option every year. They always have a fun and eclectic mix of foods, some traditional and some far off the beaten path. But one thing’s certain: There’s always something that fits your mood.”
You can play a number of games like this. For instance, if you’re having a potluck, challenge each guest by giving them a secret ingredient that they must incorporate into their dish, or ask that everyone make something new or nontraditional. It’s an easy way to spice things up when you’re hosting a holiday feast on a budget.
“My mom always buys small gifts from the dollar store and prints a copy of this ridiculous ‘lefty-righty story,’ where every time the story says ‘left’ or ‘right’ you have to pass the gift,” said financial coach Whitney Hansen. We all laugh, get a little competitive and end up with some of the most pointless gifts, but my mom loves it.” Of course, you can do this with items you have around the house, so it doesn’t have to cost a thing.
There are many takes on the holiday gift swap. “A silly, fun tradition I started with friends is a mystery gift game,” said author and public speaker Kelly Hoey. “Over the course of the year, I am the recipient of numerous gift bags at conferences and events I speak at. I save these swag bags up for the mystery gift game, wrapping the items, and then at a holiday gathering with friends, playing the game, which simply involves selecting and unwrapping a gift in some random order decided by the players. Predictably, the unwrapping process involves many laughs, plus a few amicable fights, as inevitably in all the swag there is one item everyone wants.”
Attending Free Holiday Events
Kathryn L. Bradt, creator of Dames in Debt, takes advantage of local, free events during the winter. “For the holidays, my medium-sized city outlines every skyline building in lights and places around 100-plus lit-up reindeer throughout the city center,” she said. “Then, for the Grand Illumination, everyone comes together to watch the Sugarplum Fairy light up the holiday tree and all the other lights, surrounded by nutcrackers and Santa Claus. Watching every building light up, with what feels like the entire city, makes everyone feel like a kid again.”
You can also bring your own snacks and drinks — it’s a smart way to avoid the holiday season’s sneaky expenses. “We bring our own hot cocoa,” added Bradt.
Be sure to check your chamber of commerce’s calendar for free seasonal activities. Sites such as Goldstar also allow you to search by ZIP code to find events, many of which offer comped tickets.
Decorating the House
Decorating for the holidays can feel like a chore, especially if you have a lot of square footage to cover. However, you can turn it into a special time for the whole family by letting the kids decide where things should go. Even hanging ornaments on the tree can be turned into a fun, free Christmas tradition.
“While decorating our Christmas tree every year, my family plays a game where everyone has to bring a newly released holiday album with them,” Bradt said. We listen to each one while putting on the ornaments and try to guess the artist — it’s a lot of fun, and now we have an extremely eclectic collection of holiday albums.” So, turn up the volume on the stereo and start tossing on that tinsel.
Click through to discover the most expensive holiday traditions around the world.
More on Saving Money Over the Holidays
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- 48% of Americans Make This Costly Mistake When Holiday Shopping — Do You?
- Watch: How to Get Free Stuff
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