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An illustration of a dollar-sign face wearing a Santa hat.
An illustration of a dollar-sign face wearing a Santa hat.
An illustration of a dollar-sign face wearing a Santa hat.

Published on November 13, 2018. Updated November 17, 2021.

How to do Christmas on the cheap.

Many count year-end holidays as their favorite time of year. The owners of Visa. The owners of Mastercard.* Payday lenders. They’re all celebrating the season of spending, er… giving.

“Advertising tells us to 'act now!' But you'll have a better holiday experience if you slow down,” says Gary Foreman, founder of TheDollarStretcher.com, an advice site for frugal living, with more than 150,000 followers.

“You don't have to buy that one more gift, and it's OK to turn down a party invitation,” says Foreman, who got his start as a certified financial planner. “It's not about how much you get done or spend for the holidays; it’s how much you care.”

Thinking of buying a $25 Starbucks gift card for a friend? Take time to learn what she likes, Foreman says, and buy her a pound of her favorite Starbucks coffee blend instead. That’s a lot more coffee, but for only $10 or $15.

Where’s your holiday plan?

Credit cards are easy to blame for overspending, but most money experts say the biggest mistake consumers make each year is a failure to plan for the holidays.

“The biggest thing is to set a budget, and to have a plan,” says Henager-Greene.

In hindsight, the 2021 plan might have included: (1) buy gifts in April, and (2) ship them in August to dodge an unprecedented supply-chain shortage. Despite such disruptions, experts say your plan should always include how you’ll spend your time during the holidays, what events to attend, ideas for decorating, and family gatherings.

“The biggest thing is to set a budget, and to have a plan,” says Robin Henager-Greene, associate professor of economics at Whitworth University’s School of Business and an STCU member. Some simple practices, she says, could help you stay out of holiday debt:

  • Contribute year-round to your bank or credit union’s Christmas fund (or simply name a savings account as “Holiday Savings”) and make automatic deposits each month, so you don’t have to rely on credit.
  • Talk about expectations with everyone in the family to avoid hurt feelings and overspending.
  • Overdose on the fun, not the presents. Stuff stockings with creative, personal items. Organize a Secret Santa to limit gifts and amounts spent.
  • Make your giving personal. “When my daughter went to college,” Henager-Greene said, “she discovered the Goodwill store. She bought gifts for everybody on a student’s budget and gently scolded me later: ‘Mom! Why didn’t you tell me that Goodwill has gifts?’”
  • Only use a credit card to buy that which you can pay off before the end of the month.

Don't be surprised if you spend $1,000.

A survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics says that the average consumer in 2021 plans to spend $998 on gifts and holiday and non-holiday items, slightly below pre-pandemic levels. But 90 percent of all adults plan to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, up from 87 percent a year ago.

Running up that much debt is one reason that Kumiko Love, better known online as The Budget Mom, takes a tough stance on credit cards. The Spokane-based writer, speaker, and STCU member recommends leaving your cards at home when shopping, carrying only cash you’ve already budgeted to spend on gifts. Other creative ideas Love suggests for a debtless holiday include:

  • “Buying time” instead of presents by organizing shared experiences with your children and loved ones. Instead of overspending on gifts, Love likes to set aside a day to gather with friends for a wine and paint night or other activities.
  • Create new family traditions, she says. Play board games, cook, and forge new traditions your family will look forward to each year.
  • Put your talents and hobbies to good use by making nice homemade gifts (candles, soap, cookies, laser-cut clocks, and so on) for loved ones.

But why stop with homemade gifts, say our friends at BALANCE, which helps STCU members who are experiencing financial stress? BALANCE writers suggest making your own gift wrap and cards with printed comics, computer paper, or shopping bags. Or use one of the many free online services to create personalized greeting cards. “If you send just 20 cards during the holidays, you could easily save $80 by not buying cards at the store.”

In addition, you could trim your holiday budget by organizing a potluck dinner for friends or family, or even postpone your travels to celebrate during the off season when airfares are lower and airports a lot quieter, BALANCE says.

$5 Christmas trees.

Katie Patterson Larson, director of Art Salvage, a Spokane nonprofit, says creative recycling, reusing, and regifting can done during the holidays without compromising quality.

Don’t be reluctant to replace tattered decorations with new ones, she says, but consider brightening holiday displays on a budget by spray-painting a collection of used ornaments, figurines, or frames in one color. That makes a chic display, she says.

You can also save by getting a permit to cut your own Christmas tree in a nearby national forest and select private lands. The price is just $5 in national forests, and as little as $2.50 from the Inland Empire Paper Co. — a fraction of the cost of a tree off the lot. Plus, Larson says, “It’s a great family adventure!”

“The best ideas are often very personal and cost little,” adds Foreman at TheDollarStretcher.com. “They value the people around you.”


*Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, STCU does offers credit cards, subject to loan approval. Compare our cards. This article is provided for educational purposes and not intended to replace the advice of a loan representative or your financial advisor. Examples provided above may not apply to your situation, and we recommend speaking to an STCU loan officer or your financial advisor to assess  your specific needs. Happy holidays!



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