Your Holiday Survival Kit: 28 Smart Strategies to Keep Last-Minute Holiday Costs from Exploding

You’re probably reading this during the “calm before the storm.” There’s a good chance that sometime in the next several days, there’s at least one big holiday event that you’re just utterly unprepared for with seemingly 80 things left to do.

You have to travel. You have to help prep a meal. You have to get a last-minute gift (or three). There’s probably a combination of things going on. You’re also probably stressed out about it. It’s probably very, very tempting to just throw money at the problem… but that’s not going to help in the long run, is it?

(I know this sounds like me right now. This has been the holiday season to end all holiday seasons.)

Well, here’s my survival guide. What follows are seven tips for each of those issues that will help you get right through the problem without just throwing your wallet up in the air and watching the cash blow into the wind.

Let’s dig in.

Travel Tips to Help You Get There

You have to get from point A to point B during an absurdly busy travel period. You probably have to eat along the way. If you’re like me, you’re probably also hauling along some children. The costs are adding up (and so is the stress). Here are seven little things you can do to take the burden off.

Prepare your car a day or two before a road trip. Fill it up with gas and, while you’re there, air up your tires. Get an oil change if needed. Make sure you have some extra warm clothes and a blanket in there at least in case of an accident. Get everything prepped and ready to go so that you’re minimizing the chances of getting stuck somewhere and having to throw cash at a problem.

Use a packing list, like this one. Packing can be a stressful task on its own. A good approach is to have a packing checklist, and the “ultimate packing list” can be a good starting point. I keep a checklist on my phone for packing for any trip so I don’t have to think about it – I just go through the list and know that everything I need is packed away.

Fill up a water bottle and grab some snacks before you go. Not only will this give you a convenient treat in the car or on the bus or on the train or on the plane, it’s way cheaper than buying it at a convenience store or at an airport along the way. Just grab any old water bottle you have in your cupboard, fill it up with water, and grab some kind of snack from the pantry before you head out.

Don’t speed. If you speed 15 miles an hour over the speed limit on a 65 mph four lane highway, you’re only gaining about 14 minutes per hour of driving assuming you never stop and never have to slow down for any reason – so in reality, you’re saving less than that. The gap is even smaller in cities and on two lane highways. What do you get for saving a few minutes? You get a much higher likelihood of getting pulled over, which devours all of your time “savings,” gives you a fat speeding ticket, and probably causes a bump in your auto insurance. It’s not worth it. Don’t speed. Just set your cruise control to the speed limit and let the miles go by.

Give yourself tons of time at the airport. The airport is going to be crazy this time of year. The parking lots are going to be quite full and the lines are going to be long. Going to the airport when time is tight is begging for stress and a strong possibility of a missed flight. Instead, just give yourself tons of time at the airport and handle those last minute emails at the gate. This allows you to park with minimal stress in inexpensive parking, lets you go through the airport without worry, and you can take care of last minute electronic tasks when you get to your gate.

Travel with a minimal wardrobe. There’s no need to take a bunch of clothes changes for a few days with family. Take a small wardrobe and, if you can, fit it into your carry-on. This saves you the cost of checked luggage, saves you time and stress when you arrive at your destination, and eliminates the risk of lost luggage. If you’re driving, it makes filling up the trunk or the back of the van much easier.

If flying, take what would get you through the trip in your carry-on, so that lost luggage isn’t disastrous. If there’s something that if it didn’t arrive at your destination would cause a disaster, try to get that item into your carry-on or, if that’s impossible, have a backup plan for it that you’ve already thought through. Make sure you have at least a day’s worth of clothes and a few basic toiletries in your carry-on so that if your luggage doesn’t arrive, you’re not making a panicked trip to a retailer and throwing money at them to get those simple things.

Last-Minute Meal Preparation Tips to Make Sure You’re Fed

Whether you’re in charge of preparing a big holiday meal or just a guest at one (and need to bring something), holiday meals can add another layer of challenge on top of an already difficult day. Here are seven simple things you can do to avoid some big costs and a bit of stress.

Have a really simple meal backup plan. What do you do if you burn the Christmas ham or if your oven breaks down on Saturday or Sunday or Christmas Day? That could be cause for panic and maybe a huge emergency bill from a repairman and probably a huge emergency food bill. Don’t let that happen. Instead, have a simple backup plan. Our backup plan is that we have some frozen soups in our freezer that we could simply thaw and serve with sandwiches. If you want to do that, make a big batch of soup in a slow cooker sooner rather than later and put the whole batch in containers in the freezer. That way, if things go sideways, you can pull that out and avert a big emergency repair bill and a big emergency food bill. (Plus, you end up looking like you have things completely under control.)

Do as much meal prep as possible in the days before the meal. There are many, many things you can prepare ahead of time. You can cook a lot of the items and store them in the fridge so that all you have to do is essentially heat them up. Cook the potatoes. Cook the grains. Make the pies. Whatever possible tasks you can do before the big meal, do them a day or two early and just stock the fridge with mostly-ready items.

Encourage a potluck from local guests. Ask local guests to bring specific things for the meal, both to take stress off your shoulders and to save a bit of money. Be as specific as you need to be while still giving the guest a little bit of freedom of choice (so they’re not running all over town looking for an exact product). For example, you don’t need to be more specific than “a good bottle of red wine” or “a nice loaf of French bread.”

If you’re a local guest, ask specifically what you can bring. There’s an expectation when you’re a guest at a meal that you bring something, but often, guests have no idea what to bring and they might just end up bringing something that doesn’t match the meal at all, which is a waste of money and doesn’t help the host. Just give the host a ring a few days before the meal and ask specifically what you can bring that will help make the meal go more smoothly. This not only helps the host by taking a stress and a cost off their shoulders, but it allows you to bring something genuinely meaningful to the meal.

If you’re a remote guest, offer to help. Offer to be a sous chef or to run quick errands or to do tasks like setting the table. Not only does this give you something to do, it also can give you an opportunity to bond with family members when you’re handling a task together. It’s also a good way to get to know someone new, like your niece’s apparently-serious boyfriend, and make them feel involved. While this isn’t strictly a money saver, it is a way to make everything flow easier.

Don’t buy overly expensive meal items; just serve them well. Don’t buy a $50 bottle of wine. Buy an inexpensive quality one and put it in a decanter so it can properly aerate and it’ll taste better anyway (and seem classier). Don’t buy expensive dinner rolls or bread; just select something that looks and smells good. No one is going to be impressed by some overly pricey food item at the holiday meal table; they just want good food and people they care about. Keep your wallet in your pocket.

Don’t throw away leftovers. At the end of the meal, there will likely be some leftovers. Simply box them up, put them in the fridge, and figure out what to do with them tomorrow. Don’t toss perfectly good food in the trash as you’re cleaning up, but don’t stress out about what to do with them. Just store them and make the decision later. In the end, you can make more meals out of them and you can end up freezing some of them for later use in the winter.

Last-Minute Gift Ideas That Aren’t Awful

It’s your Christmas event and you realize that your niece just brought her boyfriend and he has nothing to open, or maybe you simply completely forgot about Uncle Frank when doing your shopping. It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of really good general items on hand to give as gifts, things you might enjoy yourself if you don’t end up needing to gift them.

Here are seven last-minute gift ideas that will surely please anyone for whom you have an unexpected need to provide a gift. They’re easy to pick out, you can stow them away out of sight and just bring them out if needed, and you can open them after the holidays and use them yourself if needed. Hint: they’re mostly consumables, as that’s always a great route to take in this situation.

Simply put a $20 bill in an envelope. This is almost always the most appreciated gift, especially for younger people who don’t have very much money at all with which to buy things for themselves. Just pair it with a nice card signed by you. This might seem “thoughtless,” but it’s often very appreciated. Again, if you don’t need it, just open the envelope and retrieve the $20 bill. I can certainly vouch that between the ages of about 10 and 24 or so, this would have been the best thing I could have possibly received from a lot of people that I didn’t know incredibly well who were giving me gifts (i.e., everyone but my parents).

Buy a six-pack or a bomber of an unusual craft beer. Just go to a local liquor store and ask for something a bit unusual in either a bomber or a six pack. Take it home, wrap it up, and stick it in the closet. If there’s no need to give it as a gift, discreetly unwrap it and share it with guests as appropriate (or enjoy it yourself).

Buy a couple of bars of high quality chocolate. Get a few bars of something that seems interesting and delicious and wrap them up to have on hand. Just look for something interesting at a local candy store. You can always unwrap them and share them (or eat them yourself) if they aren’t needed.

Buy some good quality beef jerky. The easiest way to do this is to stop by a local meat market and buy a pound of their jerky, then wrap it up. Again, buy this if you could see yourself opening it after the holidays and enjoying it yourself. (This is kind of the “default” gift for my extended family, actually, because everyone enjoys it.)

Buy a nice journal and some good pens. I usually point people toward a Leuchtturm 1917 hardcover journal and some Uniball pens to go with it. This is a great gift for someone who likes to journal – if you have a quiet person, this might be perfect.

Buy some handmade soaps with interesting scents. Many stores sell handmade soaps; pick out a couple of bars that might have some unusual appeal and wrap them up together. As always, if you find that you don’t need the gift, you can always open it yourself and put it to use in your own bathroom.

Buy a gift card for a service you’d use. This would be a “gift of last resort,” of course, but it’s good to have a couple on hand if you think there’s any chance of needing an unplanned gift. Our strategy is to always have a couple of $25 Amazon gift cards around because of their utility. We can always use them ourselves if we need to.

Last-Minute Stress Relief That Won’t Break the Bank

The holidays are stressful and it can be kind of tempting to go splurge on some sort of de-stressing item like a massage or a bottle of booze or something like that. Don’t. Not only will it not help over the long run, it’s also expensive. Obviously, the best way to de-stress is to just get the challenge over with, but if you need something to de-stress beforehand, here are seven quick ideas for doing that.

Rely on a helper for a bit and take a time out. If you have someone who’s helping you get ready, simply take a breather and let that person take care of things for a bit while you get out of the room for a while. Just go somewhere quiet and … well, do some of the things on this list. It will help clear your head and give you a moment’s peace, recharging you to tackle other things.

Meditate or pray. I tend to think of these two things as extremely similar activities, so I’m including them together. Just sit in a comfortable place, clear your mind, and just focus on your breath or on a particular phrase (think of a mantra or of rosary beads). Focus on that singular thing and, if you feel your mind drifting to other things, nudge it back. Do this for fifteen minutes and you’ll find yourself a lot less stressed out.

Drink a big glass of water. This helps more than you might think! Quite often, we’re running on the edge of dehydration whether we notice it or not and it can subtly affect our mood and energy level. If you’re feeling stressed out, just stop for a moment and drink a big glass of water.

Snack on healthy things, not unhealthy things. My favorite little holiday strategy is to put a bunch of tangerines in the kitchen. Then, whenever I have an urge for a snack, rather than eating something that’s going to sit in my stomach and bring my energy level down, I eat a tangerine. You can get large bags of tangerines inexpensively and they’re a great little healthy pick-me-up, plus they’re loaded with vitamin C.

If you do eat or drink something really unhealthy, just take a small portion. There’s no need to eat ten cookies or drink a six pack of beer or clean out the minibar. It’ll end up being expensive, won’t really help with your feelings of stress, and won’t help you feel good, either. Instead, take a small portion of such holiday treats and supplement it with something healthier, like a tangerine.

Get some exercise, even just a long walk. Take some time to work up a sweat and get out of breath for a while. If that’s not quite your thing, put on some appropriate clothes and go on a walk. There’s nothing that can’t wait for an hour or half an hour. That time outside in the fresh air getting a bit of sunshine will do nothing but help with your ability to handle stress. The same is true for the endorphins released in intense exercise.

Go hug someone you love. Grab someone you really love – a parent, a spouse, a child – and give that person a big long hug. You’d be surprised how effectively such a simple gesture can melt the stress you’re feeling in the moment. A big hug can make both people instantly feel better about the world.

Final Thoughts

The holiday season can be a real challenge, but these little strategies can really help make a difference in terms of the financial cost and the stress of the holidays.

Good luck!

More by Trent Hamm:

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.