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How to do Christmas on a Budget

Aug 8, 2023 | 8 min. read

Twelve tips to cut back on spending during the most wonderful (and financially strenuous) time of the year.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…a large credit card bill and a load of holiday debt? Though overall inflation cooled to 4.9 percent in the first half of 2023, Americans’ budgets are still strained in the wake of last year’s eight percent surge in prices, and the cost of borrowing is higher than it’s been in years as a result of the Federal Reserve’s ongoing efforts to combat inflation by raising interest rates.

Consequently, it’s more important than ever to budget appropriately for the holiday season. However, you don’t have to sacrifice a great holiday experience just because you’re trying to keep your spending in check. Here are 12 tips for how to do Christmas on a budget and cut back on holiday spending in 2023.

Set a budget.

The best way to keep your spending in check is by setting limits. Create a plan for the holiday season by grouping your budget into categories such as gifts, decorations, food and charity. Then, figure out what percentage of your total budget you want to allocate to each category. For example, you could choose to spend 50 percent of your budget on gifts, 30 percent on charitable giving, 20 percent on decorations and 10 percent on food. Earmarking a specific percentage for each category will give you a better sense of how you are spending your money and make it easier to adhere to your overall budget.

Buy gifts early.

Planning ahead can reduce the strain on your pocketbook during this time of year. If you’re a habitual last-minute holiday shopper, try starting earlier so that you can stretch out your spending over time and avoid the stomach-churning crunch of a big credit card bill in January. There are big sales throughout summer and Black Friday sales are now all month long in November. By taking advantage of sales throughout the year and setting aside gifts for loved ones, you’ll save money, and you might even get to sit back and enjoy December knowing your shopping is complete.

Think outside the (gift) box.

Gifts don’t have to come packaged and wrapped in paper with a bow. Some of the best gifts are experiences, favors and personal gestures that can be tailored to fit your budget. If your spouse enjoys spending time outdoors, treat them to a round of golf or plan for a trip to the nearest state park. If you have a family member who is a history buff, buy tickets to a historical museum or local tour.  Movie tickets, zoo tickets and restaurant gift cards are fun, affordable alternatives to traditional gifts. Contributing to a charity in the name of a loved one who is passionate about a cause is another option to consider and can be exceptionally personal and meaningful. Worthy causes range from humanitarian and environmental causes to the arts and educational organizations. Nonprofits like First Command Educational Foundation, which champions financial literacy and scholarships for military members and their families, require ongoing funding – particularly during the holidays – to sustain their programs and support deserving recipients.

Scout out sales in advance.

Black Friday sales are just a kickoff to month-long savings opportunities offered by stores hoping to attract holiday shoppers. Make a list of the gifts you need to buy so it’s easier to focus on the stores that sell those items and determine which sales will help you rack up the most savings.

Choose alternative décor.

When decorating this year, use what you have. Although it can be tempting to buy new Christmas décor, this category of holiday spending can eat up your budget quickly. See if any friends or family members are looking to get rid of old decorations, or try scouting out resale shops for secondhand items. You’re likely to not only find more unique items but save money as well. Vintage Christmas décor is a popular decorating trend, or you can update previously owned items by restyling them in creative ways.

Get crafty.

Homemade gifts are usually less expensive than store-bought presents and are often more cherished. Taking the time to create something can show your love and appreciation for another, and personalizing the gift can make it even more meaningful, especially when gifting to grandparents or getting young children involved in the DIYing. Christmas ornaments, picture frames and baked goods are all easy to make and personalize. You can also craft your own holiday décor. A few trimmings from the back of the Christmas tree paired with some dried orange slices and a few pinecones from the yard can make a beautiful table decoration. Browse Pinterest for more ideas and get started!

Plan a gift exchange.

One easy way to save money, especially between friends and co-workers, is to do a Secret Santa gift exchange. Set a spending limit and draw names. It’s cheaper than buying for the whole group, and it’s fun.

Offer your skills and talents.

Instead of a traditional present, consider using your skills as a gift. This might include baking, graphic design or photography. If you’re a photographer, offer a free photo session. If you’re an electrician, offer to install some new light fixtures or help with a remodeling project. Your time and acts of service show an appreciation that other gifts sometimes can’t convey.

Make the most of recipes.

The holidays generally mean more time in the kitchen. Unfortunately, groceries are one of the commodities that have increased most in price due to inflation. According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food purchases from the grocery store in June of 2023 were 4.7 percent higher than in June of 2022. Restaurant purchases were 7.7 percent higher over the same period. While the cost of supermarket and restaurant food is projected to grow at a slower pace going forward, it will likely remain higher than average. To save on groceries this year, shop store brand items instead of name brand. Check the price per ounce of ingredients to prevent “shrinkflation” – paying more for less food in the same size or smaller package – from slyly increasing your grocery bill. You could also try cutting back on meat, which tends to be more expensive than plant-based items. If you choose to provide less meat at your holiday meals and gatherings this year, make up for it by offering more side options or serving vegetarian casseroles. Another idea is to host a potluck-style dinner that gives everyone a chance to share their favorite dishes and keeps the burden of paying for everything from falling solely on you.

Donate time instead of money.

If you usually contribute to charity during this time of the year, consider donating your time instead. Whether it’s ringing a bell, ladling soup or distributing toys, charities are always in need of extra hands. If you have young kids, this can be a great way to instill the value of giving back. You might even decide to make volunteering a new tradition!

Buy used.

If you still have some last-minute shopping to do, consider browsing resale shops for gifts. Books, clothing and other items can all be purchased secondhand. A name-brand handbag in good condition might be loved more by your mom or sister than a generic, new purse. This strategy is environmentally friendly, affordable and allows for more unique options. When buying used, be sure to give these items to family members or close friends who will appreciate the thought behind the gift.

Spend time with family.

What is the cheapest and best option for doing Christmas right this year? Spend quality time with your loved ones. Be sure to take the time to relax with family and friends. Focus on building holiday traditions or look for free, local activities to enjoy together, such as a Christmas tree lighting in the town square, a Hanukkah celebration at the temple, or even just a night at home watching Christmas movies and baking cookies. These activities cost little to nothing and bring the focus back to where it needs to be — spending another year celebrating the holidays with loved ones.

For more tips on holiday and year-round budgeting or to get help building a plan to pursue your long-term financial goals, speak to one of our knowledgeable and helpful Financial Advisors.

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