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Frugal Holidays

Karen Y. Larkin
Holiday Celebration

Do you love celebrating the holidays with amazing foods and lavish gifts, but then hate to see the bills roll in January, February or even March? Holiday celebrations don't have to be all or nothing. By utilizing a few simple tips, you can have joyous holidays without breaking the bank. In fact, you can probably enjoy your celebrations more fully when you don't have the worry of how you'll pay for extra expenses.

Giving Gifts

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF) the average family spends approximately $750 on the holidays, and roughly $550 of that goes toward gifts. Some ways to scale back include:

Re-Think Your Timing

Black Friday is the kickoff of the holiday season for many, but it doesn't have to be. Make a list of the people in your life you want to buy gifts for. Throughout the year, keep your eyes open for items that remind you of those people. If the price is right, buy it. While others may be starting their holiday shopping in November, challenge yourself to have yours completed by then.

Only about 12 percent of the population begins shopping prior to September, according to the NRF. Joining that group puts time on your side, giving you have the opportunity to shop great sales and pay for gifts well in advance of the holiday.

Another option is to choose an alternate date to host your holiday celebration. For example, if you chose a date in late January you may be able to:

  • Take advantage of post-holiday sales
  • Avoid scheduling conflicts with extended family
  • Find cheaper airfares

Remember Your Favorite Things

Take a page from Oprah's playbook and make a list of your own favorite things. Did you read a great book that you wish you could share with the world? Maybe you discovered a kitchen gadget and don't know how you ever lived without it. Buy several of these items when they are on sale, and give them to the people on your list. Retailers frequently offer two-for-one sales or free shipping when you purchase more than a certain amount. To save even more money review fliers and shop coupon sites.

Buy Sets

A set of Christmas tree ornaments, a box of coordinating picture frames, or a scented candle sampler box can be broken apart and redistributed to make several smaller gifts. Add your own special touches like a favorite photograph or a pretty glass candle holder from a dollar store.

Turn Hobbies Into Gifts

Shift your thinking from "homemade gifts" to "one-of-a-kind designs." Do you make jewelry, knit, sew, do needlepoint, or counted cross-stitch? Use your talents and skills to create unique personalized gifts. Most family and friends will delight in your creations.

Homemade fudge, peanut brittle, and other delectables also make great gifts and are surprisingly inexpensive to make. If you aren't crafty, offer services. Busy parents would be thrilled to receive coupons for free childcare one evening each month.

Buy Fewer Gifts

Suggest to family members that adults draw names. That way each person gives one gift and receives one gift. Another option is to agree to buy gifts only for the children or limit yourself to the quantity or price of the gift each child receives. Coordinate children's gifts with other relatives. If you buy Susie a bicycle, suggest that someone else buy her a helmet or pads.

Also according to the NRF, about 60 percent of American shoppers haven't quite bought in to the old adage that it is better to give than to receive, spending approximately $140 on self-gifting. Many of these are impulse buys. Instead, treat yourself to little indulgences throughout the year so you feel less of a need to self-gift during the holiday season.

Frugal Feasts

Many holiday memories are created around special foods, and enjoying them every year becomes a part of your heritage. Decide which foods are most important to you, and, by all means, have them. As for the other foods, learn to economize without sacrificing quality.

  • Serving a turkey is far less expensive that prime rib. Frozen turkeys frequently sell for less than a dollar per pound in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.
  • Purchase perishables well ahead of time and when on sale.
  • Plan your menu well in advance, so you know exactly what you need. Running out to locate that one last item that always seems to be missing can be expensive and stressful.
  • As a general rule, serving homemade foods is less expensive than pre-packaged or convenience foods.
  • Ask for help. Most people are happy to contribute to the holiday meal by bringing a dish or two. Even friends and family members who hate to cook are often willing to help with providing napkins, plates, or cups for the guests.

Decorate for Less

The average expenditure for holiday decorations is approximately $40. When decorating for a holiday celebration, think of ways you can creatively reuse items around your home. For example, to decorate for Christmas, try the following:

  • Add a base of pine cones or extra Christmas tree ornaments around a centerpiece of plain white candles.
  • Tie ribbon bows around throw pillows to make them look like Christmas presents.
  • Fill a glass vase with peppermint candies and oranges for a simple and colorful decoration.
  • Replace your everyday framed photos with pictures of your family and friends celebrating the holidays mounted on mats made from patterned paper that coordinates with the rest of your holiday decor.
  • Visit your local thrift or dollar store. Sometimes they offer holiday dishes for little more than you might expect to pay for paper plates. They also carry glass bowls, wicker baskets, ribbons, wrapping paper, tape, cards, and more.

If you have children, remember that handmade decorations have a special appeal of their own. Plus, kids love to get into the holiday spirit by cutting hearts from construction paper to decorate for Valentine's Day or making paper bag turkeys to use as a centerpiece for Thanksgiving dinner.

Cut Travel Expenses

Traveling can be quite costly, particularly during the holiday season.


If you plan to fly:

  • Use sites like Priceline or Travelocity to check for discounts.
  • Many clubs, and organizations, like AAA and AARP offer member discounts.
  • Pay with points if you can. Many credit card rewards programs offer member discounts on airline travel.
  • Ship gifts in advance to avoid hefty airline charges.


If you're driving, be sure to:

  • Take your car in for routine maintenance before you leave to make sure it's operating at maximum efficiency.
  • Pack a small cooler with snacks and drinks to eliminate the need for pricey stops at restaurants on the way to your destination.


If your budget really doesn't allow for travel, there's always Skype. Someone from afar can actually join your celebration via the Internet. When both parties have Skype accounts, you simply place a call to the other person on your computer, and aim your computer camera at whatever you want them to see. For example, if they sent a gift, this technology allows them to watch you open it, and you can thank them in real time.

If your video call is from computer to computer, with both parties logged in, Skype is free. Otherwise, U.S. rates start at $2.99 per month.

Frugal Celebrations

Center your holidays around family and friends or spiritual celebrations. Consider the idea of how to bring light into the darkest time of the year. Spend time with the people you love. Listen to music that lifts your spirit. Sing, dance, and laugh. These things are free, yet priceless.

Send heartfelt notes to those far away. Reconnect with people. By all means, celebrate and give and receive gifts; just don't allow busy-ness and retail mania to dominate your holidays. Sometimes frugal holidays bring riches untold.

Frugal Holidays