Dreaming of a Frugal Christmas? It’s Easy — If You Start Now

The National Retail Federation predicted that U.S. residents would spend as much as $682 billion during the 2017 holiday season.

The NRF was wrong. We actually spent $691.9 billion.

And I have to admit that I didn’t do my share, even though I gave presents to 10 people and made some delicious holiday treats.

Understand: Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year and giving is very important to me. But I can’t – and won’t – break the bank to celebrate. Neither should you.

The good news: A mix of smart planning and savvy hacking will result in a Christmas (or Chanukah, or Kwanzaa) that’s satisfying, special, and solvent.

The better news: You’ve got almost nine months to set your holiday plans in motion.

As noted, I didn’t spend very much last year. These tactics really do work.

1. Start your own Christmas club.

Add up everything you spent on the holidays last year. Divide the total by number of weeks between now and Christmas, and start saving that amount each week. Bonus: If you use some of the other tactics in this article, you’ll likely spend less – which means money left over to seed the following year’s celebration.

2. Make a list.

Write down who you’ll be buying for and carry it with you (on paper or electronically). This positions you to start looking for great gifts the next time you encounter a clearance rack, a thrift store, or a garage sale full of like-new items.

3. Join a Buy Nothing Day group.

These Facebook-based organizations exist to keep useful things circulating. You might find some great potential gifts here and/or the materials to make your own presents. (I’ve seen a lot of craft supplies on a local BND group.) They’re like Freecycle, only smaller.

Speaking of which…

4. Start watching the Freecycle pages.

You may or may not luck out with regiftable goodies or the hobby supplies of your dreams. Bonus: You might also find things you need and had planned to buy (furniture, clothing, and the like) – and if you do, send the money you would have spent into your homegrown Christmas club.

5. Get a rewards credit card.

I use points from my rewards cards to buy holiday (and sometimes birthday) gifts. Get a rewards card only if you can trust yourself to use it wisely – that is, to buy only things you’d normally buy and to pay the balance in full each month. Many cash-back cards allow you to redeem your points for gift cards; Discover even boosts the value, so that cashing in $40 of points might fetch you a $50 gift card, for example.

6. Look for free-after-rebate items.

Toiletries, beauty supplies, and other items make great stocking-stuffers, and can really boost the recipient’s budget. (Have you priced body washes or makeup lately?) The Coupon Mom website matches coupons, rebates, and sales for you at major supermarkets, drugstore chains, and dollar stores.

7. Join an online rewards program.

You earn points for activities like doing online searches, watching short videos, playing games and shopping, then cash them in for gift cards to major retailers – or even for PayPal, which means you could get extra cash for holiday shopping. I belong to MyPoints and InboxDollars but my favorite is Swagbucks.

8. Join Coca-Cola Rewards.

This program changed in summer 2017 and isn’t as generous as it once was. Rewards vary, but I’ve gotten things like free magazine subscriptions, Amazon movie rentals, gift cards, and free Coke-and-popcorn combos at the AMC movie theater chain. Think “stocking stuffer.” If you don’t drink much soda (or any soda at all), ask relatives and friends who do to save you their points. (Pro tip: Check the lunchroom recycle bin, if you’re comfortable doing so.)

9. Join Pepsi Stuff.

Another soda-points program, with fun items like shirts, hats, clocks, signs, coolers, and even a full-sized refrigerator (honest!). It’s harder to find the Pepsi Stuff points than the My Coke Rewards ones, since not every Pepsi bottle/box has a rewards code. Keep at it, though; you’ve got months to save them.

10. Think about regifting.

The next time you get a book, purse, knickknack, or anything else that isn’t a good fit, consider whether it would be a perfect gift for someone else. For example, after volunteering for a big community event, my partner received a thank-you note with a gift card – to a restaurant he doesn’t like. Since a relative of mine loves that restaurant, it became one of her Christmas gifts.

11. Reimagine the holidays.

Are they too much for you? Specifically, are you feeling not just financially but personally stressed by all the hoopla?

One year I watched a young relative, overwhelmed by the piles of gifts, become stressed and even a little cranky before it was all over. In fact, he had to be convinced to open the last few gifts.

Ho, ho, no.

Personally, I love the four-gift rule: something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. Maybe your household doesn’t need stacks of gifts for each person. (Pop quiz: Can you remember every single present you got for Christmas last year?)

The holidays are particularly challenging if your extended family gets together with the understanding that everybody gets gifts. If you can fit this kind of celebration into your budget and it’s important to you, go for it. But if you find it takes months to pay off this celebration, ask yourself whether the annual hit to your financial security is worth it.

Brainstorm what a lower-key celebration might look like. For example, you might suggest the rule be changed to: “Gifts only to those 18 and under and 80 and over.”

Or if your household/extended family already has enough stuff, suggest people bring items to be donated:

  • Personal care items, such as toiletries and socks, for the homeless shelter
  • Boxes of disposable diapers for the family shelter
  • Pet supplies for animal rescue organizations
  • Books for a veterans hospital, nursing home or social services agency

Bring up the notion of change soon, to give your family months to get used to the idea. Remember: Some relatives might be feeling similarly stretched but too embarrassed to speak up. Those folks will silently thank you for starting the conversation.

Again: There’s no need to give up on giving, if it’s important to you. Just get smarter about what you buy and how you pay for it. Starting now.

Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

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