The holidays are a notoriously pricey time of the year. Between hosting holiday parties and buying gifts for everyone from coworkers to your loved ones, the spending can quickly add up. But that doesn’t have to be the case. To help you (and your budget) survive the season ahead, Cheapism reached out to personal finance professionals, savvy shopping experts, and other famously thrifty professionals. Here are their top tips for getting financially prepared for the holidays and not busting your budget as you close out 2018.
create a thorough holiday budget
As the holiday season approaches, one of your first steps should be to create a detailed holiday budget, advises Kevin Gallegos, vice president of client enrollment for Freedom Debt Relief, a debt-resolution company. “It’s the best way to save, yet many people talk about sticking to a budget while not actually having one written down,” says Gallegos. “List everything you might spend on the holiday season. People tend to think only of gift items for family members. But don’t forget recipients such as teachers, doctors and neighbors; cards and postage; decorations; entertaining including food, drink, special garments, and child care.”
allocate a realistic portion of your income for holiday spending
Most people should allocate no more than 1.5 percent of their income for holiday expenses, says Carla Dearing, CEO of Sum180, an online financial-wellness service. “So, if you make $50,000 a year, this means your holiday budget is $750,” says Dearing. “Keep in mind that this figure covers everything, not just gifts. Big-ticket items such as travel expenses should fit within this budget, and smaller expenses like holiday decorating or special dinners out should be factored in as well.”
start penny pinching in advance of the holidays
To help set aside some extra cash for the holiday season, Jill Caponera, a consumer savings expert for the coupon site Promocodes.com, suggests implementing two weeks of no-spending per month. This may sound impossible, but Caponera is not suggesting you eliminate necessities. “Besides gas in your car and groceries in your fridge, try going on a spending fast for at least two weeks each month where you don’t spend money on any extras, such as that daily coffee you love, or that new shirt you don’t need,” she explains. “You’d be surprised how much extra money you’ll save for holiday gifts when you’re not constantly spending it.”
establish a holiday savings fund early
Get ahead by setting up a holiday savings plan early in the year, advises Andrea Woroch, a nationally recognized consumer and money-saving expert. Starting early gives you more time to save, and you can stash away smaller amounts that won’t impact your budget, says Woroch. “For instance, set up an auto transfer of just $40 a week, which is basically a take-out dinner,” she suggests.
boost your holiday fund
Stashing away cash for the holidays may feel impossible with an already tight budget, but instead of merely focusing on saving money, try earning more, suggests Woroch. “For instance, take a look around your home and closets for items you no longer use, such as clothing, electronics, toys and home goods. You can sell these at a garage sale or on Craigslist,” Woroch suggests.
Begin scoping out end-of-season deals to knock a couple gifts off your holiday shopping list early, suggests Woroch. “This will alleviate some of the budget strain you feel come December when you try to buy everything with one paycheck,” she says. Back-to-school and back-to-college sales are a great time to score a savings on such items as bedding and decor. As fall and winter settle in, it’s also possible to snag deep discounts on warm-weather items such as outdoor entertaining essentials, summer clothing, and gardening items.
make a list and check it twice
Who doesn’t love giving gifts to people? But those expenses add up, says personal finance expert Rachel Cruze, a New York Times best-selling author and host of “The Rachel Cruze Show.” “Make a list of everyone you need to buy for and only buy for those on the list,” Cruze explains. There are lots of free holiday activities, so spend some quality time with that person instead. They’ll appreciate that just as much, if not more, says Cruze.
research the items you plan to buy
If you know ahead of time what you want to buy for some of the people on your gift-giving list, get online and compare prices at various retailers. A little legwork can translate into a great deal of saved money on your holiday shopping.
don’t spend money you don’t have
While it might seem like common sense, it’s a concept many people just don’t get, says Cruze. “You can’t afford an item if your only option is to put it on a credit card,” Cruze emphasizes. “What might seem like a good idea in December becomes an awful idea in January when all the bills start rolling in. Don’t buy stuff you can’t afford.”
One of the main reasons that spending can get out of control during the holiday season is that everything moves so quickly and people often forget how much they’ve already spent, says Ryne Higgins, senior manager of ecommerce for Peacock Alley, a high-end linen company. “Track your spending — gifts, donations, meals — in order to reign in those extra dollars,” says Higgins.
don’t shop for yourself
Who hasn’t fallen into this trap? You’re out shopping for gifts and you see a nice sweater for yourself, or a new pair of shoes you’d love to have, or perhaps the perfect lamp for your guest room. Those impulse buys can be a slippery slope. “This should really go without saying, but it’s amazing how many people go out to do some Christmas shopping and end up buying something for themselves,” says Cruze. “Really? Is that what Christmas is all about — buying a scarf for yourself?"
buy second-hand items
As the holidays shift into full swing and you’re shopping for gifts, be sure to visit local thrift stores, tag sales, or even use online shopping apps such as Poshmark, Tradesy, or eBay. These apps are great resources for snagging pre-owned clothing, shoes, tech products, or accessories that still have plenty of life in them, often for around half the sticker price. “When browsing online aps, try using the search term ‘NWT’ meaning “new with tags” for brand new, unused items at a deep discount,” suggests Caponera of Promocodes.com.
shop when prices are low
Savvy shoppers wait for major shopping holidays such as Black Friday or Cyber Monday to shop for holiday gifts, says Caponera of Promocodes.com. “TVs, electronics, clothing, shoes, home decor and much more will be heavily discounted over the Thanksgiving weekend, making it the perfect time to stock up on gifts,” she says.
shop store brands
Big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target carry their own store brand for household items, apparel, home decor, and many other categories. And often, the store brand is far cheaper (and sometimes more popular) than the mainstream name brand items, Caponera says.
use cash when shopping, not credit cards
Some studies report that people spend up to 15 to 20 percent less when paying with cash or a debit card, instead of a credit card, says Gallegos of Freedom Debt Relief. “Before heading out to shop, determine for whom you are shopping and how much your budget allocates for gifts, and take only that amount of cash with you,” he advises.
visit your local dollar store
Discount variety stores that sells items for $1 or less have popped up all over the country. And while these stores may not always have the most high-quality items, they can certainly be a good place to shop for basic goods you may need for the holidays, saving quite a bit of money in the process. “The dollar store is a great place to shop for candles, glassware, cookware and more at extremely low prices,” says Caponera of Promocodes.com. “You could purchase small yet thoughtful gifts for five people for under $20.”
sign up for deal alerts
While daily and weekly emails from your favorite retailers can start to clutter up your inbox, it’s worth dealing with over the holiday season, says Sarah Hollenbeck, a shopping and retail expert for BlackFriday.com. “As stores start rolling out their holiday promotions, they regularly send out emails with coupon codes and special deals for subscribers,” Hollenbeck explains.
take advantage of technology
Using technology while shopping is no longer an option, it's a necessity, says Hollenbeck of BlackFriday.com. “To save money, consumers need to be smarter, and that means taking advantage of every possible deal they can,” explains Hollenbeck. “Checking retailers' websites, emails, and social media can offer greater discounts than you would find just walking into a store, meaning shoppers can easily save hundreds this holiday season if they use technology to their advantage.”
activate money-saving browser extensions
A browser extension from Offers.com is one example of yet another money-saving tech tool that can be helpful for those who shop online, says Hollenbeck. The free extension searches the web for the best coupons available and automatically applies them to your cart at checkout when you shop on various sites.
give your time
Save money on gifts by opting to give your friends, loved ones, and others in your life the gift of your time. It means much more than a present bought at a store for both the giver and the recipient, says Gallegos of Freedom Debt Relief. “Offer to shovel snow for an elderly neighbor or family member through the winter or make plans to care of the yard come spring and summer,” suggests Gallegos. “Offer babysitting during the holiday season. Or get a group together to surprise neighbors with an old-fashioned caroling party. They’ll enjoy it and remember it.”
do a family project for others in lieu of gifts
Create memories as a family while keeping your holiday budget under control. “Assemble food baskets, provide modest gifts to a needy family, knit hats for the troops or sew blankets for babies,” says Gallegos.
go ‘green’ with holiday cards
Skip buying paper cards, (which often cost a few dollars each,) and save on postage at the same time by sending electronic cards. Low-cost and free versions of electronic cards are available to email on a variety of sites, Gallegos says. Options include Punchbowl.com; BlueMountain.com, and 123Greetings.com.
make homemade gifts for service providers
Rather than giving cash tips for everyone from your doorman to your dog walker, consider making a simple but thoughtful gift instead. “The idea is to let them know you appreciate their service. That doesn’t have to be with a big check,” says Gallegos of Freedom Debt Relief, adding that options include “baked goods, a small gift bag of personal care items, or a small gift certificate to a local restaurant where the recipient can take a lunch break.” Remember that some people, such as teachers, mail carriers, delivery personnel, doctors and coaches, are not allowed to receive cash gifts, Gallegos says.
regift unused gift cards
If you’ve had a gift card sitting in your draw all year long collecting dust, consider regifting it to save yourself money. Yet another alternative is to use the gift card to purchase holiday presents.
look for bonus rewards on credit cards
Many retailers participate with credit cards to increase cash back during holiday promotions. Check your credit card resources for those special increases, advises Ashley Dull, credit strategist at CardRates.com.
purchase discounted gift cards
Various online marketplaces such as Raise.com sell discounted gift cards. The site has more than 4,000 brands available (including such top names as Express, J.Crew, Nike, Reebok, Target and even Airbnb). There are even Southwest Airlines gift cards available through Raise.com. Consumers can save an average of 10 percent on gift cards purchased via Raise. Want to earn extra cash for the holidays with your unused gift cards? You can also sell gift cards on Raise.
find a free venue to host your holiday party
If your home or apartment doesn’t have enough space to host a party and you live somewhere warm, consider hosting a gathering at a local park, a public lake or beach, suggests Caponera of Promocodes.com. “Pack up your holiday meal in a large insulated bag, which works well to keep food either hot or cold, grab a few blankets in case it gets chilly, connect your phone to your Bluetooth speaker and you’ll be all set,” says Caponera.
organize a potluck party
While on the topic of holiday parties, don’t feel as though you have to provide all the food when hosting a gathering. Instead, offer to have friends over at your house or apartment, but suggest a potluck gathering where everyone brings a different dish to be shared. “To simplify the planning process, email a list to your guests for everyone to assign themselves to a category to bring, such as appetizers, veggies, or dessert,” Caponera says.
make your party byob
One last bit of advice for parties — providing all the holiday beverages can be yet another budget buster. One way around this is to make your party BYOB. “You provide the party location, finger foods, music and decor, and ask your guest to each bring one beverage item to contribute to your bar,” Caponera suggests. “This will help to keep your costs down without skimping on drinks for the whole party.”
dine out at a discount
It’s no secret that eating out at restaurants during the holidays can be a pricey affair. Rather than pay full price for your meals, do some advance legwork by visiting sites such as GiftCardGranny, which offers discounted restaurant gift cards at a variety of popular dining spots, Caponera says. “It’s perfect for keeping your holiday date nights within budget.”
give family photographs as gifts
Family pictures can be a thoughtful and budget friendly gift. Do you have photos of your family’s cherished memories tucked in a drawer or closet around your home? Invest in a frame for the picture and give it to a family member who will enjoy it.
repurpose household items to create decorations
No need to run to the store and spend a small fortune on items to decorate each holiday season. Instead, try making decorations from common items around your house, or items you might otherwise discard. String together popcorn and dried cherries to decorate your Christmas tree instead of buying garland or have your children make decorations with construction paper, glue and crayons, they can even decorate old mason jar lids. Need more inspiration? Check out Pinterest.
shop like a pro for holiday decorations
By ordering decorating and wrapping supplies from wholesale sites used by event planners and other professionals, you can significantly reduce your out-of-pocket costs. Sites such as papermart.com and nashvillewraps.com offer bulk items for about one-third less than they sell for at craft stores.
time your flying to save money on holiday travel
By carefully selecting when you fly during the holidays, you can save quite a bit of money. For instance, if you don’t mind showing up right before dinner, Thanksgiving Day can be a more affordable day to travel, saving you as much as 21 percent over peak booking prices. As for flying home, whatever you do, avoid the Sunday after Thanksgiving, one of the most expensive travel days of the year. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are also days when it’s possible to score a discount on flying.
Saving money on travel during the busy holiday season also requires being flexible with your travel days. Sometimes flying one day earlier or later can make a huge difference, as can flying to or from alternative airports in large cities that have multiple options.
consider alternative methods of travel
Planes may be the fastest method of travel, but they’re certainly not the only option. Consider taking a train if time allows during the holidays, which can make for a particularly memorable experience for young children. A handful of long distance ridesharing services have also popped up in recent years, including Ridesharing.com and Haydash.com.
handle money wisely to protect your well-being
Remember that nothing is more important than protecting your well-being — physical, mental, emotional, and financial, says Gallegos of Freedom Debt Relief. “Finances contribute significantly to holiday stress, perhaps this year more than ever,” Gallegos emphasizes. “From a financial perspective, if you safeguard your budget, you'll make it through the holidays with less stress and a clearer conscience — which will bring plenty of joy, now and in the New Year.”