Updated on 10.30.14

Kids, Christmas, and Frugality

Trent Hamm

If you check your calendar, you’ll note that Christmas is just five weeks away, which for many of us means that planning has already begun. This year happens to be the first year that my son is old enough to really begin to understand and participate in Christmas-related activities. He can open his own gifts and can help with a lot of the normal tasks, like decorating the tree and making Christmas cookies, and he’s actually made at least one gift suggestion to us (“more Legos,” which means that this is likely in his future).

Even though we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, my parents always made Christmas very memorable growing up, so I asked my parents for some advice on how they did it, and I also did some research on my own, collecting ideas from various places. Here are eight suggestions on how to create a wonderful Christmas that minimizes the materialism and unnecessary expenses but creates great memories for your child and maximizes their creativity.

8 Tips for a Fun and Frugal Christmas Experience

1. Use end roll sheets from a newspaper, let the kids decorate it, and use it for wrapping paper.

This idea came from a friend of mine who indirectly suggested it with some other parenting tips. Just go to your local newspaper’s office and ask if they have any end rolls for sale – most of them do for $1 or $2. This roll will provide more than enough paper to wrap all of your gifts. Then, go home and cut a sheet off of this roll big enough to cover your table, bust out the green and red and black and yellow crayons, and let the kids color up a storm on them. Suggest that they draw Christmas trees, wreathes, candy canes, etc. When they’ve really covered one side of the sheet well, you have a ton of unique wrapping paper for gifts.

2. Minimize the gifts you buy your child.

Once you get past the third or fourth gift, no matter how great the gifts are, you hit a wall of diminishing returns with your child where some of the gifts won’t be met with much enthusiasm and will be tossed aside. Instead, focus on three or four quality gifts for them instead of a pile of junk. It was because of this tactic that my parents were able to get me some very memorable Christmas gifts even though they were quite poor – they just focused usually on one or two incredible presents.

3. Use LED Christmas lights.

Now that LED technology is becoming prevalent, one common place for them to pop up is in Christmas light strands. LEDs largely look the same as normal lights, but they eat far, far less electricity – as little as 20% as much – and they have a much longer life than incandescent Christmas tree lights. The only drawback is a higher initial cost, but that cost difference can be recouped in two years and the strands can easily last ten years (whereas incandescent strands seem to die out much quicker).

4. Use natural Christmas tree decorations – and let the kids help.

Almost everything on our tree aside from the lights (and a few sentimental ornaments) is natural and edible. We usually make a giant bowl of popcorn and make popcorn strands (interspersed with some dried cranberries) and use pinecones and small red ears of colored corn with ribbon to hang them with. It’s pretty inexpensive and then virtually everything can be eaten or naturally recycled/composted, and it makes for a gorgeous tree, plus it has extra meaning because it reflects our values.

5. Involve your children in any and all Christmas food preparation.

Seriously, there are few things more fun than making frosted sugar cookies from scratch with your child on a lazy Saturday afternoon before Christmas – and even the frosting is every easy. You can do similar things with other foods you might prepare for the holidays; getting your children involved with the process teaches them how to cook things from scratch, which can be a valuable (and very frugal) life skill later on.

6. Make sure at least one of the gifts for your child is very open-ended.

Open-ended toys – meaning ones that encourage creative play – are often ones that have huge amounts of replay value for the kids. Compare, say, Legos to a Tickle Me Elmo doll. The Tickle Me Elmo doll gets tickled a few times, it rolls around, and the kid laughs, but it grows old quickly. On the other hand, Legos can be used to build an infinite array of items (at least until you get into the “kits,” but even those can be modified by a creative child).

7. Videotape Christmas morning.

My parents did this a few years and those are absolutely wonderful videos to watch – my sheer excitement the year I received my Nintendo Entertainment System makes me smile even now. Best tip: put the tripod across the room from the tree and have everyone open gifts near the tree with no one sitting behind the camera – that way, the whole event is captured without any interruptions, changes in perspective, or cuts. You can also do the same with decorating cookies or decorating the tree. I’ve heard from other parents that they often build up to Christmas morning by watching several of these tapes and enjoying memories.

8. Have your children write thank-you notes for the gifts they receive.

Many parents eschew this, but I’ve found that time and time again it’s a very good way to teach your children the importance of being thankful for the gifts that they receive. A package of blank thank-you notes is very inexpensive and the process can easily be managed in the afternoon – and you can set an example by writing your own thank-you notes.

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  1. We moved over to LED lights this year, they’re not much more, they look great, and I’m sure our power bill will be a lot less too!

  2. Tiffany says:

    Thanks for the article, it’s great!

    About half of the ornaments on my parents’ Christmas tree were hand-made. Will you be doing that too, or sticking to the natural decorations?

    My family also has a tradition of each child recieving an ornament as a gift every year. Now I’m a parent myself, and I have enough ornaments in my box (each with the year given marked on the bottoms) to decorate my own tree!

  3. !wanda says:

    Do any of those natural ornaments last? My parents have been using the same ornaments for at least 20 years now.

  4. Sarah says:

    My mother tells me that the Christmas I was 3, we were not able to finish unwrapping all the gifts on Christmas morning. Not that there were so many – my father was untenured faculty at a junior college – but because I insisted on playing with each as I opened it. I still think this is a great idea for finding some real meaning in the materialism of gift piles, and providing a way of editing down the pile for next year.

  5. !wanda says:

    Also, my parents would buy things I needed, like clothes, toothpaste, and school supplies, and wrap them and put them under the tree. This practice inflates the box count without really incurring extra costs, aside from the wrapping paper. We kids didn’t mind, since there were lots of boxes under the tree.

  6. Allie says:

    Great idea on the thank you notes. I love receiving them from the children of a friend of mine. They encourage so much, from matters, to writing skills, thinking skills, etc. Instead of purchasing impersonal notes, what about using card stock and letting the child draw a picture instead. An adult can write the words and a handmade note is so much more special.

  7. km says:

    If your kids whine about writing thank-you notes, explain that people who write thank-you notes get more presents. I’m living proof!

    Of course people should write notes because they *want* to so they can express their gratitude, but the materialistic argument doesn’t hurt, either. :-)

  8. SomeFatChick says:

    A note on Christmas videos – once your children (read: daughter) reach teenagerdom, you may need to rethink how this is done. At the very least, don’t argue when she wants to shower and/or put on some makeup first. Really, it’s worth the extra 15 minute wait to avoid the pure grumpy/evil that will show up on the video and haunt her forever. Not that I would know or anything…

  9. Great points. I have to agree also with investing in ornaments – we have a collection of glass ornaments that predates our marriage 12 years ago, as well as ornaments that my parents gave me each year as a child. Just about all of our ornaments have treasured memories, and our tree is beautiful.

    Our daughter will receive just a few gifts this year, but all gifts she wants. And we’re leaning toward things that are expensive — but she’s been asking for them consistently for over a year, so I’m sure she’ll be interested and they will endure.

    Now to persuade Grandma to stop the onslaught …

  10. Elaine says:

    Three or four gifts, for one person? Even that seems excessive to me. It was a rare Christmas that I got TWO from the same person. I can’t remember if my parents gave gifts separately or as a unit, though.

  11. plonkee says:

    When we were younger, we used to each get one “main present” from our parents and one from Father Christmas (Santa). We also had Christmas stockings full of things probably bought at the equivalent of the dollar store.

    As we got older, my parents made the Christmas stockings bit last longer by turning it into a treasure hunt with clues from Father Christmas. It’s a tradition that lasted a long time, and is still looked back on fondly.

  12. Getting kids started on writing thank you notes young is a great idea. I’m guilty of not being very responsive (a bit lazy I can admit). Having my parents reinforce the importance of writing a note–priceless.

    I style myself as the literary aunt–the one who gave all the nieces and nephews books as gifts. It has been hard to find toys that stand up to the test of time, use creativity and aren’t completely annoying. Some toys in our family are on their third generation of use!

  13. Appfunds says:

    I`ll buy some gold jewelry. It`s nice and provides real value.

  14. Jason says:

    My parents did the video thing, on a huge Canon camcorder with a separate VCR unit that dad had to sling over his shoulder. We pulled it out of the closet recently and marveled at the sheer monstrosity of what was once the state of the art in home video recording, and how incredibly compact the advances in technology have allowed devices like that to become. Like the tip suggested, we watch several years of Christmas videos on Christmas eve then go ride around to look at all the Christmas lights in our area. Watching those videos with my parents and sister, and being able to share them with my wife and daughter, is more satisfying to me than any gift under the tree. I firmly believe that any purchase that allows you to capture memories like that to share with your own family years or even decades into the future is money well spent.

    My wife and I both agree that LED lights will be on our shopping list, maybe when the Christmas stuff goes on clearance soon. Happy Thanksgiving!

  15. Thank you for this great information! Now that I have 3 children I am on a strict budget this Holiday season.

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