How to Save the Holidays: More Joy, Less Cash

If your gift list exceeds your budget, try these tips for discounts, rewards, cash back, creativity and delight.

Bev O'SheaDecember 9, 2020

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The holiday season is getting closer — and wallets lighter. Still, there are unpurchased gifts left on your list. Here’s how to come up with presents that will delight recipients without blowing up your budget.

Resist the temptation to throw caution to the wind because you’re just so tired of waiting for 2020 to be over and debt seems overwhelming anyway. “Whatever you are planning to pay for with an overspent credit card will be forgotten come Jan. 15,” says Mary Hunt, author and Everyday Cheapskate blogger. “I promise you that. But you will have created a debt that may last a lifetime.”

Try noncash shopping

If the issue is cash flow now, consider a small gift that you pay for later. A card entitling the bearer to coffee, dinner or ice cream to celebrate the end of social distancing can give you both something to look forward to, says Jillian Johnsrud, who coaches clients on achieving financial independence and lives that reflect their values.

Here are other ways to conserve cash:

  • Check your rewards credit cards. You may have enough points to buy a gift card, or you may be able to shop with points at Amazon or other retailers, or use points to pay through PayPal. Cards offering cash back could let you “erase” the cost of new purchases through a statement credit.

  • Do you have any unused gift cards? It can’t hurt to check your wallet, desk drawers, the pockets of winter jackets. Cards can pay for gifts or be passed along as a gift.

  • You can “shop” your closets, particularly if you're downsizing and ready to pass on some treasures. Do you have a long-admired piece of jewelry or a decoration that would be a welcome gift for a family member or friend?

  • Regifting can also work, if you're careful. Check for tags, notes, etc., and be certain the intended recipient hasn’t seen the gift before.

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Pay attention

Gifts don’t have to be expensive — or cost anything — to make a big impression. Hunt says her favorite cost-free gift was 135 pounds of lemons from her son Jeremy. She doesn’t recall whether he was low on money, but he definitely knew she envied the lemon trees in his backyard. She says the image of him walking in the door, weighted down by a huge crate of lemons, is unforgettable.

Johnsrud’s favorite gift every year is a certificate for her five children to have an overnight visit with grandparents — giving her and her husband a welcome break.

Resist reciprocating in kind

Just because someone gives you something doesn't mean you must reciprocate with something of similar value. All you really need to do is say thank you, Johnsrud says.

Don’t be afraid to tell friends you’ve exchanged gifts with in the past that you’ve had to cut back, but you want them to know how much they mean to you, says financial coach and author Lynnette Khalfani-Cox.

Use technology to stretch your budget

Let apps and extensions assist you. The Honey browser extension, for example, can help you find the lowest price, plus coupons you can use when purchasing. It can also track prices on specific items. Some retailers will meet competitor prices or even adjust your previous purchase price if you find a better deal later. “It never hurts to ask,” Khalfani-Cox says. Other apps offer cash back on purchases.

Rethink self-gifting

Holiday shopping may have tempted you to buy things on your own wish list. You can return gifts you bought for yourself if you decide you’d rather spend the money on something else, Khalfani-Cox says.

Focus on presentation

An inexpensive gift in creative packaging can have an outsize impact. For example, a thoughtfully curated playlist could be enclosed in an origami box made from pages of old sheet music (find origami instructions online). Or use old maps or magazines to decorate a token gift for the traveler who can hardly wait to take off for ... anywhere. The more humorous and clever you can be, the better, Hunt says. It can be the difference between a cheap gift and a thoughtful, memorable one.

Giving the gift recipient a puzzle to solve, scavenger hunt or trail of yarn to follow to a gift is more imaginative than plain old wrapping paper. And if you’re celebrating on a video call, it’s a lot more entertaining than watching people pull tissue paper out of bags.

Skip the comparisons, look for joy

Pandemic or no, children expect the holidays to be as full of magic, surprises and excitement as always, Hunt says. Adults have lots of past holidays to compare this one with, and they may feel understandably disappointed.

That doesn’t mean resigning yourself to the Worst Holiday Ever. Hunt’s advice: “Rather than seeing this as a miserable Christmas we hope to forget, let’s find sparks of joy in the little things we can control.” You can go on car rides to see light displays while sipping hot chocolate or organize a cozy holiday movie night at home.

Comparing prices is great and can save you a bundle — but comparing holiday seasons can rob this one of its magic. “Focus on the things that never change as we get through those things that have,” Hunt says.

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