Thanksgiving. Hanukkah. Christmas. The holiday season can be painfully expensive, with gifts and meals and beverages and snacks and lodging and travel revolving around many of us.
With all of those incidental expenses floating around, there are also a lot of ways to save money. Here are twenty ways that we’ll be saving money this holiday season, broken down into three different categories.
Saving Money on Travel and Lodging
Schedule holiday celebrations at an alternate time.
Rather than trying to celebrate things on the actual holiday itself, talk to family and friends about celebrating the event a few days early or a few days late. Doing so can allow you to take advantage of less expensive flights.
The best thing to do is to fire up a travel website and try lots of alternative dates for your flight. Is it cheaper to fly on the Thursday before the holiday and fly back on the following Sunday? Look at different scenarios, particularly if you’re traveling as a family and particularly if you have lots of people flying for holiday events.
Use shipping services instead of luggage.
Instead of paying the fees at the airport for an extra bag, use a shipping service to send your items to the destination. A big box with clothes and gifts inside can be shipped relatively cheaply, usually cheaper than the cost of checking a bag at the airport.
Doing things this way also saves you on additional stress at the airport. You’ll only need a carry-on bag if you do this, meaning you can quickly zip through the airport on your way to your destination. It’s cheaper and more convenient on a hectic travel day.
Air up your tires before you leave on a long road trip.
Most gas stations let you do this for free (at least in our area) and many will let you borrow a pressure gauge. Just read the maximum recommended pressure in your owner’s manual, then fill up the tires to that pressure. Every 8 PSI you add to any tire improves your gas mileage by 1%.
So, let’s say you have to drive 400 miles this holiday season. You air up your tires before you leave on your 20 mpg vehicle and discover that each tire needs aired up an additional 10 PSI. That’s a 5% improvement in gas mileage, bumping your car up to 21 mpg. That means buying 19 gallons of gas instead of 20, just for spending a couple of minutes before you leave. It also significantly reduces the chance of a blowout on the road.
Pack meals, not just clothes.
A simple meal that’s made out of items at home is far less expensive than getting fast food or stopping at a restaurant on the road. Before we leave, we’ll spend five minutes packing sandwiches, finger foods such as baby carrots, and drinks in a cooler.
Then, along the way, when everyone is hungry, we can simply eat a quick, healthy, and inexpensive meal. We don’t have to stop, recouping the time we spent prepping the food, and everyone gets satisfied without the cost of fast food.
Have a gas plan.
Planning out your fueling is an invaluable tactic. It is well worth stopping to fill up your tank near a state line if you’re going to enter a state where fuel prices are higher. Before you depart, spend some time researching fuel prices and plan your fuel stops in advance.
I use this tool as a quick approximation of fuel prices. Any time that I’m about to cross a state line moving from a state higher on this list to a state that’s lower on this list, I stop for fuel. I also have memorized what the relative prices for fuel are in the states bordering Iowa – for example, if I’m crossing into Illinois, I should gas up before I do.
Stay with friends and family.
If you’re traveling to visit family members, there’s a good chance that you have lots of family and friends in that area. Why not stay with them for a few days?
Staying with someone is a wonderful way to reconnect. Many of my best memories of extended family took place late in the evening in situations that couldn’t happen if people weren’t staying together. If there’s a cost concern, a small amount of money slipped to the host will help and it will still be far cheaper than staying at a hotel.
Negotiate a group rate.
If you have a lot of people coming in and staying at the homes of friends and family simply isn’t an option, consider negotiating a group rate at a single nearby hotel.
Get everyone who’s considering staying at a hotel for the family event together and have them agree to have one person negotiate on their behalf, then have that person directly call some of the local hotel branches and seek out a group rate. Many hotels will cut their prices if you call them directly and mention wanting several rooms at once.
Another option is to simply share hotel rooms. Get rooms with two queen beds, for example, and two adult couples can stay there just fine. Have the kids crash on sleeping bags on the floor.
Remember, a hotel room is just a place to close your eyes for the night. It’s not the centerpiece of a family holiday trip. It’s merely a roof over your head while you rest. Sharing this space with family can drastically cut costs.
Saving Money on Food
Have a potluck meal.
I think that having a potluck is more in the tradition of Thanksgiving than just about anything else you can do. People bringing things to share with everyone else is just a wonderful way to connect with others. Of course, it also cuts the price down for the host.
If you’re having a holiday filled with local people and are serving a meal, strongly consider having it in a potluck fashion. Just request that each person bring a side dish. If you want, you can give more specific assignments than that, but it’s really up to you.
Make parts of the meal in advance and store them.
It can be expensive to buy everything in a partially- or mostly-processed state. It can also be incredibly time-consuming to prepare the full holiday meal from scratch over a single day or two. Why do either?
Make as many of the elements from scratch as you can (saving money), but spread out the effort. Quite a few pieces of recipes can be done many days in advance and stored until they’re needed. Need croutons for your dressing? Take a loaf of bread out right now, bake it in the oven at 200 F for a while, then cut them up into squares and keep them stored. There are countless ideas just like that one that can make a holiday meal much cheaper.
Send leftover “doggie bags” home with everyone.
This doesn’t save money for the host, but it does save money for every other guest that attends and can easily take food home with them. It also assures that less food goes to waste due to an overabundance of leftovers.
One way to do this effectively would be to encourage everyone to bring a few containers with them. That way, there’s no worries about returning borrowed containers or anything like that.
Be creative with the remaining leftovers.
You can turn the remnants of a good holiday meal into countless different things. Make potato pancakes out of the leftover mashed potatoes. Turn the leftover turkey into turkey cacciatore. Remix the remaining ham into a wonderful basis for a soup.
Our family likes to also use the remaining carcass and bones to make stock. Just break it up, throw it in a slow cooker with a few other leftover vegetables, fill it up with water, and let it simmer for a bunch of hours. When you’re done, strain it and save that delicious liquid.
Most of these ideas can easily be frozen as well. You don’t have to eat the same leftovers over and over again until you hate them.
Stock up for Christmas before Thanksgiving.
Many stores right now are offering sales on staples that people will use for Thanksgiving dinners. Of course, a lot of those items are things that people will use again for Christmas dinners, so take advantage of that.
Canned pumpkin and cranberry sauce, regular and sweet potatoes (and other root vegetables), and anything that can be frozen are well worth picking up in advance. They can easily be stored until Christmas, so if the deal is good, take advantage of it now.
Stock up immediately after Thanksgiving, too.
Many items that stores have on the shelves for Thanksgiving go on very steep discount on Black Friday. Yes, Black Friday is actually a pretty good time to hit the grocery stores.
Many stores drop the price of turkeys through the floor on Black Friday. Pick one up and stick it in the freezer – it will last for a year. Buy two or three and cook them throughout the year. Turkey is a reasonably healthy meat and can be used in a lot of ways.
Saving Money on Gifts
Switch to an alternative gift exchange.
There’s no need for everyone to buy everyone else a gift at a large extended family gift exchange. Such exchanges exhaust everyone, both in terms of their time and their wallet.
Instead, do a “Secret Santa” exchange or do a “White Elephant” exchange. Instead of bringing home a bunch of small things that you don’t really want, you might wind up with one item that you actually do want or that someone carefully thought about for you. Not only that, you’ll be spending a lot less time and money on gifts.
Plan a budget in advance and stick to it.
Figure out what you’re going to spend on each person this holiday season and stick to that number.
Sure, it might mean that you don’t buy them the “perfect” gift. It might mean that you have to really hunt for an item they’ll like in your price range. However, sticking to a budget means that your spending is guaranteed to stay under control and you won’t end up with a loaded-down credit card after the holidays.
Make gifts from scratch.
Make a few dozen of your best cookies, wrap them in bundles using cellophane, and tie a ribbon around them. Make “meal kits” using good ingredients so that busy families can quickly put together something tasty for their families (soup mixes are always a hit for our family). There are many, many ideas like these.
All you need to do is think about what you can make and think about what they’d like to receive. The time you put into the gift will almost always end up creating a thoughtful but inexpensive item that the recipient will really enjoy.
Give gifts of “experience” rather than stuff.
Rather than looking for a perfect item for someone, look instead for a perfect experience.
If you have new parents in your family, give them a free night of babysitting. If you have nieces and nephews, give them a day of doing fun stuff with their favorite aunt. If you have an elderly grandparent, give them five different afternoons of housecleaning and chores.
It doesn’t cost you anything, but it can really make a difference to the people you’re giving the gift to.
Use alternative gift wrapping.
If you’re spending more than a buck or two on wrapping, you’re spending too much. Keep in mind that the paper is just going to get torn up in a few days and then completely forgotten.
Instead, recycle gift bags, use brown paper bags, or buy cheap bulk paper. You can use old newspaper sheets, too. There are lots of things that make for perfect wrapping – because the perfect wrapping merely disguises the present.
Buy gifts throughout the year.
Instead of waiting until the holidays and hoping the perfect item just happens to be on sale somewhere, start shopping on December 26.
Make up your holiday list for the next year just as soon as the holiday season for this year is over with. Set that budget in stone and try to brainstorm some rough ideas. Then, as the year goes along, keep your eyes open for sales that match those ideas. Stick the items you pick up in the closet. This leads to a much cheaper holiday season and a less stressful one, too.