The holidays are often a time when financial goals are in opposition with showing people love in the grandest of ways.
Reining in holiday spending could be the absolute last thing people want to do, but during pandemic-related financial struggles, scaling back is a necessity.
At this point of the pandemic, America’s job market is recovering, meaning there are still some people on the mend and maybe sitting out this holiday season. But there are ways to celebrate Christmas without breaking the bank.
“People really have to keep it in perspective,” said Tawra Kellam, one of the bloggers behind the blog Living On a Dime to Grow Rich. “It’s about celebrating with family. It’s about taking time off work and having fun together. And even doing little things for Christmas can make it special.”
With the following tips on how to enjoy Christmas decorations, gifts, meals and activities for little to no cost, this Christmas can be undoubtedly unique but rich with meaning and joy. The main concepts are seeing what you have with new eyes, thinking outside the box and learning how to find the best deals. The safest way to shop this year is still online. But if you do need to go out, planning where you need to go, going in one trip and wearing masks is best.
Decking the halls
Having a festive home is a seasonal mood booster but especially this year, and repurposing items around your house as decorations is one way to start.
“If you can only do something small to make it special, that’s enough,” said Melissa Riker, the creator of The Happier Homemaker blog. “It’s the little things that are fairly easy and inexpensive to do that can add that special touch.”
If you don’t have old decorations, try deciding on a color theme then perusing your house for anything in those colors. “You might not think about them as they’re scattered through the house,” Riker said, “but if you bring them all together – put them on your mantel or add them to the centerpiece of your coffee table – you can really make a beautiful layout.”
That’s using creativity instead of money, said Jodie Kammerer and Julie Lancia, the creators of The Design Twins blog. If you’re not the creative type, video chat your stylish friends so they can scan your rooms and intuit what you could use. You might also find inspiration from what social media users share under the hashtags #budgetdecor and #DIYChristmas.
You can shop from nature in your backyard, neighborhood or park, or while hiking. “Clip some pine needles or pine branches,” Riker said. “Even just plain branches without leaves can look really pretty if you put glitter on them and they look like ice branches.” Out of garden herbs, pine cones, mistletoe and holly, flowers and bush or tree clippings, you could make a table arrangement, wreath or garland.
At stores selling Christmas trees, “ask for the clippings that they throw away,” Lancia said. With a bow or burlap tied around it, “it’s immediately a Christmas decoration.”
Take advantage of sales and coupons at craft stores, vintage stores, thrift stores and dollar sections, which likely have inexpensive decorations in bulk, DIY projects and boxes of 12 candy canes for $1. “I have decorated entire trees just with things from different dollar stores,” Riker said. “They have actually a lot of decorations that, when you combine them all together, can look really high-end.”
Instead of buying Christmas ribbons, you could purchase fabric and cut it into strips, using that to form your ribbons instead. And “if you’re putting ribbon on a Christmas tree, you don’t need to have a whole spool to wrap around it,” Riker said. “You can take shorter strands and tuck it in so it looks like it’s weaving in and out of the tree.”
A strand of twinkle lights may be all you need to make a space look festive, Kammerer said. If you have children, make the preparation more fun by getting “your little elves to work,” Lancia said. They can craft paper chains and snowflakes, garlands out of cranberries and popcorn, and Christmas cookie ornaments.
For a Christmas tree, look for discounts at craft stores, grocery stores, tree farms or hardware stores. Pre-lit trees may be less expensive than buying trees and lights separately. And don’t think that you have to use ornaments.
“One of my favorite things is a natural element tree,” Lancia said. “You’ve gathered your pine cones at the park. Now you’re going to spray paint them a glittery silver” and put them on the tree, in a bowl or on your table or mantel.
If you have a printer, look online for free printable decorations. “That is a really, really easy way to change up your decor without spending any money at all,” Riker said.
Gift giving can be monetarily stressful if that’s how you want to cheer people after a tough year, but frugal alternatives could show that appreciation, too.
“Everybody doesn’t need a gift; everybody doesn’t want a gift,” said Judy Woodward Bates, “The Bargainomics Lady” behind her eponymous blog and author of “A Bargain to Die For.” “Don’t get all upset because you can’t afford to buy gifts for everybody, because the purpose of Christmas is just to let each other know how much you care about each other.”
Those who want to keep up tradition can try the following for gift giving or alternatives:
- Send e-cards instead of print cards.
- Visit thrift and discount stores for low prices on clothes, DVDs, electronics, kitchen appliances, cookware, unique mugs, furniture, bedding, toys and books.
- Dollar stores have many of the same items, plus candles and makeup. From there you could create small, hobby-related gift baskets.
- Give gifts of service, such as an offer to rake leaves, run their errands or shop online for them.
- Try your hand at one of the hundreds of homemade gift ideas available online, including homemade candles, dry soup or hot cocoa mixes in jars or sugar scrubs.
- Host a Secret Santa gift exchange. This way, each person has to focus on only one person instead of everyone.
- Go retro by crafting a book of homemade coupons redeemable for favors or experiences the receivers care about.
- If you have children, try the customizable four gift rule. Tell them they can have just four presents: something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read.
To find the best bargains, options include:
- Looking for plug-ins, apps and websites that will help you save money on products via discount codes or coupons, or showing you where you can buy something cheaper – such as RetailMeNot, Honey, Groupon or Student Beans.
- Buying from the clearance section in stores and online by typing “clearance” in the store’s search bar.
- Signing up for loyalty (non-credit) programs that award discounts.
- Only shopping from stores offering free shipping.
- Purchasing used clothing from peer-to-peer online stores like Depop and thredUP.
- Walking to the darkest corners of stores to find their greatest sales, which “some stores refer to as the cave,” Woodward Bates said.
If you’re embarrassed about giving less this year, “Fess up,” she said. “You will see the relief on other people’s faces, because it just takes one to be willing to say, ‘I’m strapped this year.’ Because most of these other people, when you just say that, will admit, ‘Hey, I’m in the same boat you are. Thank goodness you had the courage to speak up because I wanted to say it, but I was just afraid of how people would react.’”
Wrapping the gifts of Christmas
Gift giving can get more complicated when you realize you’ll need wrapping materials, too – but by having realistic expectations and thinking outside the box, you can wrap gifts in creative and attractive ways, Kellam said.
- Use newspapers, magazine clippings and sheets from around your house.
- Buy tissue paper, brown paper, plastic tablecloths, wrapping paper, bows and gift bags from thrift stores, dollar stores, superstores or craft stores.
- Cut out parts of Christmas cards to use as gift tags.
- Accept complimentary gift wrapping from stores at which you’re buying gifts.
A budget-friendly holiday dinner
With a few tips and tricks, you can still have a fancy feast this season. Cooking from scratch instead of buying prepared foods is one way to reduce costs.
Some grocery stores have seasonal donation programs wherein customers buy a prepared bag of nonperishable, traditional holiday foods, which is donated to a food bank where people in need can pick them up. Check around for such programs if you’d like a holiday meal or visit a food bank for food in general.
Some neighborhoods have discount grocery stores, and dollar stores have snacks, boxed dessert mixes, frozen and canned foods, and Christmas candy.
You could also stretch your food budget by reducing the number of appetizers and sides, or finding pared-down versions of traditional recipes. Brooklyn Farm Girl, a cooking and gardening blog, has an online collection of 30 Christmas dinner recipes that you can make with less than $10.
Great holiday fun for less
Social distancing and limited funds may have changed your holiday traditions, but you can still throw an entertaining, memorable holiday. You could:
- Enjoy virtual celebrations with extended family.
- Put together a cookbook of generational family recipes.
- Make hot chocolate and s’mores baskets.
- Make a family film with the myriad editing tools available on smartphones and laptops.
- Make a board game out of a family experience.
- Read a story on Christmas Eve.
- Watch Christmas movies with popcorn and candy.
- Create a family calendar for 2022 with pictures of everyone on the future dates of their birthdays, graduations and other milestones.
- Make a popcorn Christmas tree.
- Bake Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve or Day.
- Live stream a Christmas morning church service.
- Play in snow if you’re lucky enough to have it.
- Listen and dance to Christmas music.
- Talk about meaningful Christmas memories.
Being more intentional about how you celebrate Christmas this year may make it all the more special. And learning how to bargain and celebrate with less can have long-term impact on your life and approach to holidays even after the pandemic.
“It’s a fun game to use our creativity and make everything,” Lancia said. “And then also feel good about not needing to shop and not needing to spend money to make a fresh and festive home.”
CNN’s Sandee LaMotte and Katia Hetter contributed to this story.