The majority of Americans are willing to open their wallets wide during the holidays. A recent GOBankingRates survey found that 57 percent of respondents plan to spend one full paycheck on the holidays. Nearly one in 10 will actually expect to blow six full paychecks on the holidays.
For some, spending that much is entirely out of the question. In fact, you might even be wondering how you’ll pay for Christmas gifts.
Believe it or not, you can get through the holidays even if you can’t afford them. Here’s how to enjoy a cheap Christmas without sacrificing the joy of the season.
Start by Setting Spending Limits
If you want to save money during the holidays, start by figuring out how much you can actually afford to spend.
“Just grab a sheet of paper, jot down the names of everyone that you’re buying for and list a reasonable amount of money to get — or make — a gift,” said Rosemarie Groner, creator of the Busy Budgeter blog. “Add in the cost of your Christmas tree, an amount for any decoration you plan to buy, food for any holiday parties and any special events you plan to go to.”
Groner has a free Christmas budgeting spreadsheet on her blog that you can use to plan your holiday spending.
Profit From the Holiday Rush
Even if you budget for the holidays and set spending limits, you might need to look for ways to make more money to pay for Christmas gifts. Winnie Sun, co-founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners, said some of her younger clients take advantage of the holiday rush to make money.
One picks up gifts for busy entrepreneurs and wraps them. Creative types can offer Christmas decorating services. Or look for a seasonal job with a retailer or even a delivery service such as UPS, which is hiring for the holiday rush.
“There’s so much money to be made over the holidays,” Sun said.
Turn Unwanted Items Into Christmas Cash
You likely have clothing, furniture, old electronics, knick-knacks or gifts from holidays past that aren’t being used. You can turn those items that are collecting dust into cash for the holidays.
You can sell clothing and home goods at a local consignment store, Craigslist or the Facebook marketplace for your town. Smartphone, tablets and other tech items can be sold on sites such as Gazelle and uSell. Even gift cards can be sold for cash on sites such as Cardpool and CardCash.
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Stick to the Four-Gift Rule for Kids
To save money for Christmas, don’t feel the need to give your kids everything on their wish lists. Instead, stick to the four-gift rule, said Donna Freedman, author of “Your Playbook For Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs And Wants Edition.”
Limit gifts for your kids to one thing they want, one thing they need, something to wear and something to read. “Really small kids might not even notice the cutbacks,” Freedman said.
Commit to Not Buying Gifts for Your Significant Other
If you and your significant other are on the same page financially, agree not to buy Christmas gifts for each other. After all, you likely would’ve picked out what you wanted and given your spouse or partner a list. There’s no surprise in that.
Instead, you each could write a list of your financial goals and dreams for your life together. That list might motivate you to skip gift-giving from that point on so you’ll have more money to reach your goals.
Draw Names for Family Gifts
Annual family gatherings can be a big financial drain if you’re expected to buy gifts for everyone in your family. “Throttling back on Christmas can be even trickier if you have an extended family celebration that turns into a game of red-and-green one-upmanship,” Freedman said.
Instead, Freedman recommended suggesting a new holiday tradition: drawing names. Then you only have to buy a gift for one family member.
“Some relatives might be silently grateful that you had the guts to suggest it — especially recent grads who have a lot of student debt or young families finding it tough to make ends meet,” Freedman said.
Put a Dollar Limit on Gift Exchanges
To have cheap Christmas holidays, Groner suggested that her family place a $10 limit on gifts. “It was such a great experience,” she said. “It made the hectic season a little less hectic, it reduced our Christmas budget by about 35 percent and I had a blast thinking up gift baskets for under $10.”
Suggest Creative Gift Swaps
To make giving cheap Christmas gifts acceptable to friends and family, turn it into a fun challenge. For example, you could do a best of the dollar store, yard-sale finds or re-gifting gala gift exchange, Freedman said. “Expect hilarity during the gift-opening process,” she said.
If you’re looking for cheap gift ideas, consider making things for friends and family. “I find handmade Christmas gifts to be so thoughtful and meaningful, and I’m sure the people on your gift list will as well,” Groner said.
Pull out the craft or baking supplies and enlist the kids. “Get the whole family helping like Santa’s little workshop, and you’ll have Christmas done in no time,” Groner said.
Give Office Swag
If you work for a cool company, your office might be stocked with swag that you can hand out as gifts. Sun said she has a cousin who works at Facebook and brings pens and Post-it notes with the company logo as gifts.
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Create Alternatives to Gift Exchanges
Eliminate the cost of buying Christmas gifts for extended family or friends by suggesting an alternative activity for your holiday gathering, Sun said. For example, you could tell everyone to bring their favorite board game to play or icing and sprinkles to decorate cookies.
“We need to get over the fact that you need to give someone something in order for it to be the holidays,” Sun said.
Make IOU Coupons
To save money for Christmas, you can give people what they need without spending a dime. “I love the idea of giving ‘coupons’ for the holidays for things that are useful,” said Melanie Lockert, the founder of Dear Debt who paid off $81,000 in student loans while broke.
For example, you could give a coupon for an evening of babysitting for friends or family members with kids. Or you could make a coupon for your significant other for a night off from cooking and cleaning.
Give a Jar of Inspirational Notes
Cheap Christmas gifts can actually be the most memorable ones. Arlene S. Cogen, a certified financial planner and philanthropic leadership consultant in Portland, Ore., said one of her favorite gifts was a decorated jar her daughter gave her filled with notes. Each note had an inspirational quote, reflection or appreciation, and Cogen opted to read one each day.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “I still have all of those little slips of paper. When I look at them they continue to bring me joy.”
Keep Down the Cost of Holiday Cards
Sending holiday cards is a nice tradition but can be costly. Instead, save money for Christmas by opting for an alternative to mailing printed cards, said Jamie Bosse, a certified financial planner with KHC Wealth Management in Overland Park, Kan.
“Consider emailing your holiday message or order actual picture prints for 10 cents a pop instead of $2 for the same photo printed on a card,” Bosse said.
Get Dressed for Holiday Parties on the Cheap
If your mailbox or email inbox is filling up with invitations to holiday parties, you can go without having to buy a new outfit for each event. “Do a deep dive into your closet and see what you have to work with,” Bosse said. “Many times, you can wear the same dress but completely change your look by changing it up with a different scarf, shoes or jewelry.”
Or borrow outfits from friends so you have something “new” to wear to every event, she said. Another money-saving option is to rent formal attire from sites such as Rent the Runway or get inexpensive used attire from a site such as ThredUp, Bosse said.
Decorate on the Cheap
Rather than head to big-box retailers or department stores, look for cheap Christmas decorations at thrift stores or consignment stores. You’ll likely find gently used items for a fraction of the price you’d pay for something new.
Find Free Christmas Decor
You can make your home look festive for the holidays without spending hundreds of dollars — or anything at all. You can save money on your Christmas decorations by using greenery from your yard or a friend’s.
Another option is to ask home improvement stores that sell Christmas trees if you can collect branches that have fallen on the ground — employees won’t balk because it means less clean-up for them. Then arrange your greenery in vases, on your mantel or over doorways.
Have the Kids Make Christmas Decorations
You can create an awesome Christmas display on a shoestring budget if you ask your kids to make decorations. You could hang their drawings of snowmen and Christmas trees. Help them make a paper garland or snowflakes to deck the halls. Or show them how to string popcorn to hang on the tree.
Not only will you get inexpensive decor, but you’ll be able to keep your kids entertained for free.
Make Your Own Christmas Tree
If you don’t have the cash to buy a Christmas tree, you can make one. Freedman, a journalist, said she once interviewed a family who had been going through tough financial times.
“When I entered the apartment, one of the kids eagerly said, ‘Do you want to see our Christmas tree?'” Freedman said. “The beaming children pulled me over to an evergreen tree shape they’d cut out of holiday gift wrap and taped to the wall. Instead of pouting about having nothing, they were excited to show off their decor.”
Embrace the Dollar Store for Cheap Gifts, Decor and More
Although some dollar store items aren’t worth the buck, you can save a lot by doing some of your holiday shopping at one of these discount retailers. For example, Freedman suggested avoiding cheap toys but hitting the aisle with books and educational supplies.
“A buck could get you a hardback novel or Sudoku book for your spouse or a huge Spider-Man activity book for your kindergartener,” she said. You also can find stocking stuffers, holiday decor, gift wrap and gift bags for just $1.
Take Advantage of Free Festivities
You can get in the holiday spirit without forking over big bucks for Christmas entertainment. For example, you could go to church — even if you’re not religious — to listen to Christmas choir performances, Freedman said.
Take walks to look at holiday decor in your neighborhood or public light displays. Attend free holiday concerts or tree lightings. Read holiday stories or borrow Christmas movies from your public library.
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Host a Holiday Potluck
If you host your family’s holiday gathering, don’t feel compelled to shoulder the entire cost by making all of the food. Instead, ask family members to chip in by assigning them a dish or beverage to bring. Because you’re providing the gathering spot, you might even be able to get another family member to provide the turkey, ham or main dish.
Make Your Holiday Gathering a Volunteer Day
You can enjoy spending time with friends and family without throwing an elaborate party or hosting an expensive meal. “Organize a volunteer day and brand it as holiday gathering,” said Hui-chin Chen, co-owner of Pavlov Financial Planning in Arlington, Va. “Invite your friends in the area to spend a meaningful few hours together to serve others.”
Not only will you save money with this free holiday gathering, but also you’ll be giving back to your community.
Create Cheap Christmas Gifts for Teachers
If you have kids in school, buying gifts for all of their teachers can be expensive. You can save money by opting for cheap gifts made by your kids, Sun said. She buys pots when they go on sale, has her kids paint them, and then adds soil and a seed or small plant. She does this several months before Christmas to give the plants time to grow.
“It teaches my kids to save money,” Sun said. “And it teaches them that for the people they care about, it takes time.” Plus, many of the teachers still have the plants her children gave them.
Get Free-After-Rebate Items
Drug stores such as Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid frequently have offers for items you can get for free with a rebate, Freedman said. Usually, the rebate will be in the form of store credit that has to be used within a couple of weeks, so pay close attention.
“Do it right, though, and you’ll get free toiletries, cosmetics, food products and household goods,” she said. “Some could be wrapped as gifts and others make great stocking-stuffers.”
Enter Giveaways to Win Gifts
You might score freebies you can use as gifts if you’re willing to give out your name, email or home address. “Drop your name in the box for whatever a store is giving away, whether that’s a stuffed animal or a snow machine,” Freedman said.
Also, sign up for giveaways offered by blogs you read. Follow your favorite retailers on Facebook and watch for contests. “Your chances are as good as anyone else’s,” Freedman said. “If you win a big-ticket item, you can sell it and use the money for presents, or make it your family’s main gift.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Re-Gift
Giving a gift you received to someone else might seem inappropriate, but it might be necessary to have a cheap Christmas. “If you’re stretched financially, in this situation, re-gifting is not only acceptable, it’s survival,” she said. “I don’t think your friends and family want you to go into debt.”
Just make sure that the person who gave you the gift isn’t present when you re-gift it or is friends with or related to the person who gets the item the second time around.
Wrap Up What You Already Have
A cheap Christmas tradition Groner started for her son is wrapping 25 holiday books they already own. The books are kept in storage during the year so they can be enjoyed during the holidays as her son opens his “gifts” during the days leading up to Christmas. “My goal is to pack in as much fun for the least amount of money,” Groner said.
The wrapping paper only costs a few dollars. And if you don’t already own 25 Christmas books, check local thrift stores or on eBay.
Skip Gifts in Favor of Charitable Giving
You still can give during the holidays without buying gifts for everyone you know. “I send a letter to friends and clients stating that we are going back to the real meaning of Christmas and the holidays — the joy of the season,” said Jon L. Ten Haagen, founder of Ten Haagen Financial Group in Huntington, N.Y. “I tell them that rather than fancy, expensive cards and gifts, we are giving a donation to a worthy charity in this time of need, and we hope they understand and agree with us.”
Take Advantage of Others’ Charity
If you can’t afford to put any gifts under the tree for your kids, seek out community programs that help families in need such as Toys for Tots or the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.
“Try hard not to be embarrassed about this,” Freedman said. “People who can afford it have donated these things to make kids like yours happy; when you can afford it, you can donate, too.”
Dial Down Expectations
If you simply can’t afford the Christmas you and your family want, it’s time to dial down expectations. “Scaling back can be a hard sell if the holidays have typically been a big deal,” Freedman said. “But if times are tight, going deeper into debt is not the answer.”
You might need to have a conversation with your family about your situation. “Getting used to the idea of a less-spendy Christmas could take time,” Freedman said. “It’s up to you, the adult, to walk your talk. Take that walk with this thought uppermost in mind: The holiday is what we make it.”