I'm Dreaming of a Cheap Christmas

...or Hannukah, or Kwanzaa, or Solstice...

Whichever holiday(s) your family celebrates, the year often ends with a major blow to the checkbook. Family, friends, co-workers, caregivers--at this time of year, we all want to show our love and appreciation for them with gifts. And as the list grows, and prices rise, we often spend far more time saying "Bah Humbug" than celebrating the joy of the season.

When I hear how much friends are spending this year--$200 or more per child, in most cases--I just shudder. I suspect I haven't spent that much on my two children combined. Probably not even on them and the other kids on my list.

It is possible to do holiday shopping and still start the new year with a positive bank balance. The trick is planning. When you wait until the last minute to shop, you often end up spending more than planned on gifts that you ultimately feel aren't really what the person would like, but hey, it's better than not giving a gift, right?

Here's my approach to holiday shopping. In addition to making life easier on my wallet, it also usually means I've finished ALL my shopping before Thanksgiving. "The official start of the holiday shopping season?" No way! That's the official END of my holiday shopping season. Which means...

Many of these ideas are useless for this holiday season (unless you have a time machine and can go back to January to start your shopping; if so, I want to talk to you). However, even by using a few now, and trying others next year, you're likely to have a less expensive, more enjoyable holiday season this year and next!

Make a list. Cull the list.

This is the first step, and often one of the hardest. Who do you want to or "need to" buy a gift for? Start by listing everyone you think you might want to send gifts to.

Then sit and think about this seriously. Does your fifteenth cousin seven times removed really need a $50 gift, or would she be equally happy with just a card? If the latter, scratch her off your list.

There are two great ways to cut down on the sheer number of gifts you would normally buy. The first is to work with others to buy group gifts. If two people decide to buy a gift together to give a third person, it often means that each can spend less money, and still find a nicer gift. Also, having two or more people brainstorming gift ideas often makes it easier to come up with ideas.

The second way to cut down on sheer number of gifts is by doing gift exchanges. Have each person in the family draw the name of one other person, and only buy a gift for him or her.

Set a budget

How much money do you want to spent in total? Per person? For a specific person? Whichever way you set it up, keep to your budget.

When budgeting, plan on saving money for the holidays through the year. This makes it less likely that suddenly you will end up in major debt at the end of the year. If you get a tax return, consider simply putting that money aside as a start to your holiday budget.

Brainstorm. Make a list of gift ideas.

Don't go out with just a list of who needs gifts. Think ahead about gift ideas. Consider each person's likes and dislikes, favorite colors/scents/foods, hobbies, career, etc. By thinking ahead about these issues, you're more likely to find a gift that is perfect for each person.

Keep track.

Keep all purchased gifts in one place. Keep a list of what you've purchased. Keep that list WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT. This is usually my downfall; I make a list of what I've bought, then lose it and can't remember if I have a gift for someone yet.

Shop year-round.

The "great sales" don't always happen the day after Thanksgiving. Plan on shopping through the year. In addition to not taxing your budget all at once, this also will cut down on the stress of doing all the shopping in a 30-day period.

If someone on your list adores Christmas ornaments, the week after Christmas is often the best time to shop, as all the holiday items are on clearance. Conversely, if you have a father who loves fishing or boating, you may find the best deals in late summer or early fall.

It's a matter of keeping an eye out, and buying the right gift when you see it! Don't expect that the great item you saw in May will still be available in December. I've had this happen before; thinking "Oh I'll get this next month" has cost me far too many "perfect gifts."

Shop sales.

Always read advertisements for sales. Taking just a few minutes each weekend to read the ads in the newspaper can save many dollars.

The best sales I have ever found are at catalog warehouses. I'm lucky enough to live near the National Wildlife Federation's distribution warehouse. Each year they have a HUGE sale of overstock and "no longer available" items. This method of shopping takes a fair bit of time; the sales are usually crowded and the merchandise incredibly disorganized. But the prices are worth it! $30 wildlife sweatshirts for $5, wildlife books for $2 or less.

Outlet centers may LOOK like great sale places, but be careful. Many "outlet stores," especially those in large outlet centers, often have prices as high as those in normal retail stores. Be aware of prices before buying.

Build your own gift baskets.

[giftbasket graphic]
You could go into a store and spend $45 for a premade gift basket. Or you could buy a $3 basket and $15 worth of goodies, and put it together yourself.

Some basket ideas: Chef's basket (cooking utensils, oven mitts, and a specialty pasta or spice item), bath basket (bath beads, bubble bath, a candle, washcloth), tea basket (tea bags or leaves, mug, biscuits). Think of what the gift recipient would like, and find a few items that fit the bill! Put them in a basket, add a ribbon, and you have a gift that looks like you spent at least twice as much as you did!

Shop online.

This year, the most effective money-saver I have found is online coupon codes. As more stores start setting up web sites, they often publicize their presence with special offers and discounts. For instance, $25 off an order of over $25. So, if you order $25.01 in merchandise, and use the correct coupon, you only have to pay one penny plus shipping (in many cases, shipping is free as well)! Then, once you are in a store's database, you will often get more coupons via email.

My favorite site to find coupon codes is Flamingo World. Connie has information on coupon codes and special deals at over 100 online stores ranging from bookstores to petstores to baby item shops. Her site is arranged alphabetically, and updated daily with the latest and greatest deals.

If you are concerned about shopping online with your credit card, many of the stores will allow you to simply call in your card number to their customer service line.


So you have an extra toaster, still in its box, from when you got married. You'd rather have a few hand-painted trivets. What do you do?

Barter! This once-popular method of trade is making a major comeback. There are mailing lists, newsletters, and web sites for bartering and/or selling items.

Make it yourself.

Finally, and certainly far from least, consider giving homemade gifts. Baked goods, candles, ornaments--the ideas are endless.

Just think of things you do well, and can make for someone else. Then go ahead and do so! Supplies are often less expensive than purchasing finished items, and the gifts will be even more special if you put the time into making them.

Noël-Marie is a freelance writer located in Columbia, Maryland. Her work has appeared in many magazines, including PC Magazine and The Mother Is Me. A stay-at-home mom to two children, she is also the designer of several cross-stitch kits for children