Even whizzes at finding discounts can fail when faced with the winter holiday calls for gifts and seasonal items, the cost of travel to family and friends, holiday clothes, hosting and attending parties, and so on.
But consider the savings from tapping into your curmudgeonly self and ignoring the holidays entirely. Gallup says the average American often spends around $100 in a day on December purchases (including gasoline for the car) and restaurant meals, compared with $90 during the other 11 months. Assuming we're on track to shell out these same amounts, each adult in a household could save hundreds during the 34-day period from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve. And that doesn't include air and rail travel or normal household expenses.
Scandalous it may seem, but there are people who don't bother with the holidays -- some to avoid forced family togetherness, but some because of budget constraints and a distaste for crass commercialism. The question is, can you get away with it?
We fanned out to a host of informants seeking their view of going holiday-free: No Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no Hanukkah, no Kwanzaa. What we heard was that unless you're parenting infants who won't know the difference or teenagers put off by consumer excess, don't even think about it. With near certainty you will have regrets -- friends and extended family will make sure of it.
Thanksgiving proved to be the favorite holiday among the people we spoke with. "It's secular, there are no presents, and it's all about getting together," one said. Immigrants and first-generation Americans say they consider it particularly important because it's so American. All our informants celebrate Thanksgiving in some fashion, although a few mark it by donating time to neighborhood soup kitchens and local charities, and others say the "getting together" part often means friends instead of family.
Compared with the gift-giving holidays, the cost of Thanksgiving is downright cheap. The American Farm Bureau, which has long tracked costs associated with the holiday, reports that a typical Thanksgiving dinner for 10 runs about $49. (Organizing a potluck keeps expenses to a minimum.)
Our informal survey found people are torn about the whole presents thing. Many have cut back to providing for immediate family only and the few mandatory gifts, such as the office Secret Santa. Still, the National Retail Federation says average spending this holiday season is likely to be about $967.
Many parents overspend when it comes to the kids. Average holiday spending per child hit $422 last year, and more than a third spend more than $500, Money magazine reported. "That's insane!" shrieked the holiday-spurners and people without children -- but interviewees with children deemed the figure about right. The handful of respondents who celebrate Kwanzaa regard it as an adjunct to Christmas, not a separate torrent of gift-giving; Jewish parents in our sample said they dole out small presents on each of the eight Hanukkah nights.
We also stumbled across people who have ditched the traditional Christmas for a tactic adopted by people of all faiths: going to the movies and eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Figure this outing will cost $15 to $25 a person. Depending on location, buying tickets in advance might be smart. The crush can be so overwhelming that one New York City resident said the family has ditched this un-holiday activity as well. Another opined that attending many holiday parties means you've earned the right to a festivity-free Christmas Day. A few people said that a short, relaxing trip to the Caribbean is the perfect way to spend the holidays.
Can you save money by not celebrating the holidays? Absolutely. Can you actually spend nothing even by pretending the holidays don't exist? Probably not. Small presents and tips -- for the babysitter, the guy who mows the lawn, the people who care for aging parents, and so on -- are markers of civility and thanks, not to mention a form of insurance for the future. "You have to give something," one woman said, "and if you cut back by maybe 20 percent, you'll still get the same service next year. More than that, forget it."