Cut Your Christmas Costs

by Fiona Soltes

When visions of sugarplums dance through your head, do they have price tags attached?

It happens easily enough. Looking ahead to holiday get-togethers, gifts, and travel can create a flurry of emotions — including, unfortunately, that pit-of-the-stomach sensation that this one, too, is going to cost you. Can't it just be about the birthday of Christ?

"So much of our country has an obsession with Christmas," says Nancy Twigg, author of Celebrate Simply: Your Guide to Simpler, More Meaningful Holidays and Special Occasions. "Advertisers have helped create this idea of Christmastime as a magical, wonderful, dreamlike holiday, when all wrongs are supposed to be righted, troubles are supposed to be gone, and all broken relationships can be fixed. If we go along with all of that, it makes us a little more free in our spending, thinking maybe we can make it happen."

And for Christians, the problem may be compounded.

"We want it to be all the more special," Twigg says. "We think that maybe, if we do everything just right, we can honor the Savior's birth the way we want to. But that's never going to be done through buying and spending."

But the Christmas rush can be a success with a little planning, a slight shift in focus, and a step off of the bigger, better, busier holiday "machine."

1. Plan here, save there

By now, Lynette Mays has it all figured out. If this year's like every other, the 37-year-old pharmaceutical researcher has already picked holiday crafts and begun making them for family and friends. Past efforts have included beaded wire candleholders, "memory" books, molded candles, and CDs.

She might save a little money — candle-making supplies were purchased and shared with a friend, for example — but creating gifts serves another purpose. "For me, it's more stressful to shop, especially when I've got a big list of people. It's a whole lot more fun to craft, and it's almost therapeutic," she says.

Mays knows that pulling creative ideas together takes planning ahead. The same is true whether you're talking about making gifts, budgeting your time, or keeping holiday costs in check.

Without planning, according to Mary Hunt, founder of The Cheapskate Monthly® and author of Debt-Proof Your Holidays, Christmas is "the one single event during the year that has the greatest possibility of throwing us into a financial tailspin."

But, she says, if you can come up with a plan, you can sail right through. It might include taking advantage of bank or workplace programs that allow you to deduct a portion of your paycheck all year long. (It's a little late for this year, but consider it for next.) It could include removing credit cards from your wallet and committing to use cash. Or it might include eliminating habits (such as the morning coffee run) that add up over time.

While you're at it, the plan should include a budget as well. Begin with making a list of people you'd like to give gifts to and how much you plan to spend on each. Next, Hunt and Twigg offer several suggestions for reducing the costs of shopping, gift-giving, wrapping, and more.

2. Budget the small stuff

When making out a holiday budget, don't forget the incidentals. Not sure what we mean? What about clothes for that party? Postage? New ornaments? "Last-minute impulses can really spell trouble if you haven't planned ahead," Hunt says. offers a free holiday spending worksheet that can help you get started.

3. Shop elsewhere

Unless your holiday experience will be incomplete without seeing Santa, you're probably better off staying away from the mall. Your dollars, according to Hunt, can go a lot further elsewhere. Check out art-supply stores for stationery, writing instruments, and photo albums. Try hardware or home-improvement shops for other creative ideas, not to mention garden centers, health-food stores, antique stores, damaged-freight outlets, or even military-surplus outlets. Twigg also suggests shopping at yard sales, if you can find items in like-new condition.

As for next year, shop from your own "gift shelf." Twigg suggests setting aside some space in a closet or cabinet to store gifts throughout the year. Learn to pick up presents as you find them - rather than the moment you're frazzled trying to come up with something - and you're likely to choose more meaningful gifts that cost less.

4. Wrap it up

Sure, gift bags are easy, but they can also be expensive. Hunt recommends buying a large roll of white butcher paper and adding some ribbon. You can also use brown craft paper or recycled grocery bags turned inside out. Snip sponges into fun shapes, dip them in poster paint, and decorate. Other wrapping suggestions from Hunt and Twigg include reusable containers such as tins and jars with a bow, scraps of opaque fabric, pages from magazines of interest to the recipient, pages from comic strips, handkerchiefs, painted shoeboxes, and old movie posters.

5. Be honest

Ever feel like you're trying to "keep up" with the people who give you gifts? You don't have to spend the same amount they do - especially if you don't have it to spend. Go for meaningful instead. "Most likely," Twigg says, "your friends and relatives wouldn't want you to spend more than you can comfortably afford anyway."

If it really is a problem, address the subject directly. Ask family members if they'd be willing to draw names for gifts, rather than give something to everyone. Or suggest sharing a meal, service, or activity with a friend rather than exchanging presents.

6. Host a party

Save some get-togethers for after the holidays, and you'll have something to look forward to. Why not throw a party the week after Christmas? Chances are, everybody will be less stressed, and you can take advantage of after-Christmas sales.

If you simply must have everyone over before the blessed day, consider holding a joint party to split costs and labor, Hunt says. Or, if you need to throw more than one party, schedule them back-to-back and serve a similar menu. It will be less expensive and less time-consuming to make double batches and only clean once.

7. Find true meaning

No matter what's on your holiday plans list, including times of spiritual significance - anything from church services to Christmas pageants - can help keep things in perspective.

"This is the birthday of Jesus," Twigg says. "And we have to ask ourselves what He would want us to do to celebrate it. If we focus on Him, and then on others, it doesn't leave much time for worrying about ourselves and what we want. And that's when it turns out to be a good holiday."

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