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How can you keep holiday costs in check?

As the holidays approach the pressure to spend ramps up. This is not a new phenomenon. Steve over at Think Save Retire talked about the same phenomenon with his customers when he worked in retail sales.  Yet every year around this time the average person spends their way into debt. Studies over the last few years have shown the average person is still paying for this debt 3-6 months after the holiday season ends.  So, how can you keep holiday costs in check and avoid massive Christmas debt?

How do I keep holiday costs in check?

  1. Set a budget.  The best first step is to define the max amount your willing to spend on the holiday and stay within those bounds. It can be tough but if you only pay for the Christmas gifts with the cash you have then you have no debt to pay off in the first place.
  2. Work with your gift exchange to limit the cost of gifts.  If you’re worried about someone from your list spending more than you resulting in a lopsided gift giving, then have a discussion with them up front about a dollar limit for your gift exchange. With our family we usually define a limit of less then 70 dollars per person.
  3. Only give to those closest to you.  We all know that great festive soul that gives everyone and their mother a gift. It’s great that they enjoy the benefits of giving, but when they do so on such a scale all they really do is make others feel obligated to reciprocate while simultaneously increasing their expenditures. Give to those who are really important to you and wish everyone else good cheer.
  4. Set the expectation for those which you will not be exchanging that you will not exchange gifts.  By having this conversation up front you can hopefully stave off the awkward situation where you have no return gift. That being said if your significant other says they don’t want a gift, you still should probably do something special for them just to be safe.
  5. Buy Off Season.  Most of the items that you buy at Christmas are increased in price around the season. Even on Black Friday these days are often only deals compared to the surrounding days of the months of November and December. This is especially true if your gift is something seasonal like a Santa’s hat. As such we do our best to buy the more typical Christmas gifts in spring or summer months.
  6. Try to delay or move up travel.  Travel during the week of Christmas is usually more expensive than any other month of the year. It’s also one of the busiest travel times of the year. If at all possible, see if you can visit the same folks in the beginning of December or early January. You will likely get the best travel deals of the year at that time as everyone else is saving vacation for Christmas.
  7. Shop for Deals on Holiday Food.  For the last 3 years we’ve ended up with a free turkey from the grocery store. It’s a very common promotion in our area where if you spend 100 dollars in groceries you get a turkey. That doesn’t mean we spend 100 dollars a week in groceries. It does mean we stock up one week in November for the entire month, which gives us our turkey for free. I realize not every grocery store has this promotion, but discounts on turkeys do seem very common.
  8. Buy a decent fake tree.  As a kid, year after year my family would purchase and lug into the house a real tree. Of course that tree made a mess with needles and sap, was a pain to dispose of after the holiday, and often cost us $50-100 dollars. Meanwhile you can spend $150 dollars or so one year and have a artificial tree that will probably last until the kids are out of the house. You can always buy a can of fake tree scent spray or pick up a clipping and make a wreath out of it if you miss the smell. We always do the wreath thing as a good compromise. The clippings are can be free, so you’ll get a wreath for free.
  9. Buy Christmas clothes from thrift shops off season.  Especially for young kids, consider buying Christmas clothes at thrift shops. Typically, they will grow out of anything by next year so you’re buying clothes to be worn for a few days or maybe just hours. If you look around you might even find items that still have the tag. We do the same with halloween costumes.
  10. Give of your Time Rather then your Money.  Consider giving of your time rather than your money. Spend some time with that individual doing some special activity. It will likely be more memorable and you can manage the cost much easier. We often attempt this approach with parents. This is especially helpful as they are impossible to shop for.
  11. Work extra side hustles around the season and tie your spending to their earnings.  Consider doing extra side hustles like renting your house out on Air BNB, driving an Uber Car, technical writing on upwork, credit card churning, or some other activity to provide for your additional Christmas spending.
  12. Consider Recycling.  My wife brought two traditions with her for the holidays.  Using comics as wrapping paper and reusing cards from year to year.  Repackaged with an inserted sheet of paper and interesting pages from the comic section and they can be just as good or better then wrapping paper and cards at less cost.
  13. Your Idea Here.  Well I wanted this to make it to 12 to reach a 12 day of Christmas theme, so we’ll let you the reader give additional ideas on how to keep holiday costs in check.

How do you control Christmas spending?


  1. Mr Crazy Kicks
    Mr Crazy Kicks December 7, 2016

    Great list! Years ago when me and my siblings got real jobs the Christmas spending started getting out of control. Then one year we all agreed to stick with only handmade gifts. It saved a lot of aggravation from shopping, and the handmade gifts were usually better than getting a sweater you don’t like and have to return.

    You’re spot on about the travel. Trying to go on a vacation during the holiday season usually costs double what a trip would cost over Thanksgiving week.

    • December 7, 2016

      I’ve been bitten by the Christmas travel in my less frugal days. Now if I go anywhere at Christmas I drive.

  2. Andrew
    Andrew December 8, 2016

    Great list!

    “Only give to those closest to you”-I definitely agree with this. I only really give 10 – 12 people presents. For people who I’m not a close to I’ll might give them something small (like a candy bar).

    I always see how Christmas travel is so expensive haha. This year my plane ticket is about 30% more expensive than last year!

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