17 Ways to Keep Your Holidays Debt-Free

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Happy holidays. Already? Yep. And things get more expensive every year. Can we really afford to celebrate the holidays? Good question. If it took you months to pay off last year’s Silly Season, then it’s time to re-envision your celebration. These tactics will help you create a holiday that’s merry, bright and debt-free.

Get real about your finances

A couple works on finances in their kitchen
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First there was the layoff. Next, a major car repair. And then your spouse got sick and the medical co-pays mounted.

Even so, don’t fall into this trap: “After everything we’ve gone through, we deserve a great Christmas.”

This year, be honest about what you can afford to spend. Create a budget that includes all costs and, if it looks unmanageable, start cutting. Feel free to skip expensive traditions, making cost-effective substitutions like these:

  • Opt for e-cards (especially funny ones from sites like JibJab.com).
  • Instead of eating out, invite friends for an open house with inexpensive punch and homemade cookies.
  • Rather than giving many medium-sized gifts, find a gift for the entire family, such as an annual pass to the zoo or children’s museum.

When you get push-back, say, “Yes, this is different. But it’s been a tough year, and we can’t afford to go into debt to celebrate.” Ask your household for suggestions for a fun, meaningful celebration.

Use those rewards!

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Have a rewards credit card? The holiday season is a great time to cash in your points. Or apply them as a statement credit after the holidays.

Rewards points accrued through loyalty programs at drugstores like Walgreens and CVS are another way to stretch your gift budget. Look for “free after rebate” items, especially during the holiday season.

If your credit card is not reaping cash-back or points rewards for your shopping, find a low-fee one that does. But not all rewards cards are alike. Use Money Talks News’ free credit card search tool to find the best cards for you. The tool’s menu (at the left) lets you choose and compare the best for cash back or travel rewards.

Become a deal sleuth

Pedestrians walk past sale signs on store.
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Savvy holiday shoppers keep an eye out for flash sales, clearance tables and pre-holiday specials. Be sure you’re getting a good deal by checking “sale” prices at a comparison website, like PriceGrabber.com.

Deal sites extend your money with rebates, cash back, gift cards and coupons. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Swagbucks boosts your holiday budget with gift cards and cash for shopping, watching videos, taking surveys, playing games and searching the internet.
  • Shop with mobile app Ibotta for bargains and cash back on purchases — give an Amazon student membership at half off, for instance.
  • Restaurant.com has deeply discounted restaurant gift certificates.
  • Coupons.com has free printable and digital manufacturer’s coupons.
  • Ebates is the place for rebates on products you buy.
  • Cardpool, Raise and Gift Card Granny are marketplaces for buying discounted gift cards; give them as presents or use them to purchase gifts.

Find the money

Shovel up money
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Christmas is just weeks away, and yet even with the tightest of budgets it’s often possible to find “extra” money with tactics like:

  • The pantry challenge. Vow not to shop for groceries, other than basics like milk and fresh produce, until you’ve cleaned out the cupboards and fridge. Bonus: You’ll use up stuff that might otherwise have gone to waste.
  • Temporary cutback. Do without your midmorning coffee or midafternoon candy bar. Trim or eliminate a vice, such as smoking, vaping or lottery tickets.
  • Pick up a side gig. Adding another income stream can be tough to do, but this is just for six weeks or so. (Don’t spend every extra dollar you earn; use some to build an emergency fund or pay down debt.)
  • Put at least $2 in a jar daily. In three weeks, you’ll have at least $42. Keep this up all year, and you’ll be way ahead for next year’s holidays.
  • Go with cash. The more cash you spend on holiday gifts, gas and groceries, the fewer unpleasant surprises you’ll get when the credit card bills arrive.

Set giving ground rules

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Setting limits on gift-giving can be done in a way that heightens the fun and manages expenses:

  • Feeling pressured to buy holiday gifts for many co-workers? Suggest “secret Santas.” Here’s how it works: Everyone’s name goes into a hat; names are drawn and price limits are set for gifts; each participant gives one gift and gets one; givers keep their names a secret. The excitement is high, and gift costs can be low.
  • Stick to the four-gift rule: Give something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. It’s a good system for kids, as it’s easy to overbuy for the little rascals.
  • Try new rules for extended-family gathering, like, “gifts only for those under 18 or over 80,” or “no gift purchase over $10.” Or start a family secret Santa exchange.

Make a list — and stick to it

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Sounds obvious, right? But it can be hard to stick to your guns. These ideas can help:

  • Be aware of retailers’ strategies — even at outlet stores — to lure you into spending more than you intend.
  • Add to your list the names of everyone for whom you’re buying and useful information such as clothing sizes, ethics (no wool for your vegan niece) and preferences (a grandchild now prefers Minecraft over Fortnite).
  • Include reminders on your list to help you stay strong. For example, “He doesn’t need all the Legos – just this one set.”
  • Keep your electronic or paper list with you at all times. Cross names off as you buy.

Keep receipts

Shocked looking couple studying receipt.
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Retailers are skilled at parting consumers from their dollars. That’s their job. Your job is to stick with your plan.

But, what if you get home and find you now have five gifts for each kid? Return some things right away to avoid lapsing on Dec. 24; that’s when you might tell yourself, “What the heck, Christmas comes but once a year!” and give them everything.

Know your triggers

Woman shopping
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The thrill of the hunt. The holiday music in the stores. The sight of an item you know will make someone very happy. You can better resist impulse shopping with these tips:

  • Identify whatever makes you go wild and head it off. Listen to Lady Gaga on your headphones while shopping, for instance, to shut out stores’ holiday tunes.
  • Tell yourself, “Every dollar I spend is a dollar that I can’t make work for me somewhere else.”
  • Shop with a buddy who will talk you down from overspending.

Want more ideas for sane shopping? Read: “18 Ways to Slam the Brakes on Costly Impulse Purchases.”

Make some gifts

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You don’t have to be a superb crafter. Keep handmade gifts simple. Check Pinterest or do a search for “easy holiday sweets” or “family friendly crafts.” My partner and I make peanut brittle and sea-salt caramels that take less than half an hour from start to finish.

Also, homemade “coupons” for your time or services can be great presents. Who wouldn’t love to get offers like these:

  • “This coupon is good for one evening of free babysitting.”
  • “I will wash, dry and fold up to three loads of laundry.”
  • For dog-owning friends: “Trade this card for one poop-scooping of your backyard.”
  • “You provide cleaning supplies, and I will clean your oven and refrigerator.”

Get smarter about wrapping

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Save your money for gifts, not for gift wrap. Here’s how:

  • Save and reuse wrapping paper, cutting down torn pieces to use with smaller presents.
  • Reuse gift bags. Buy them inexpensively at a dollar store.
  • One reader’s mom makes a giant drawstring bag for each child and gives it bulging with gifts. No one seems to care that each gift isn’t wrapped.

For more budget-saving wrapping ideas, see “27 Ways to Spend Little to Nothing on Gift Wrap.”

Rethink holiday travel

Security line at Nashville International Airport
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Consider shaking up tradition if you’ve always gone “home” for the holidays or taken turns visiting your family of origin and your spouse’s folks. Holiday travel is expensive and stressful. Create new traditions — in your home. These can include inviting people to visit you (if you have space to put them up).

If it’s too late for this year, consider making a change next year. Will feelings be hurt? Maybe. But life is all about change.

Food, glorious food

Woman with turkey
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Which holiday activities bring you joy and which have become exhausting chores? Food, especially, can be a source of stress and high expense. But, really, there are no rules about holiday food.

  • If hosting a huge holiday dinner feels like too much this year, make it a potluck. Or offer to provide a main dish and ask others to bring sides (consider assigning the side dishes, so you don’t end up with six green-bean casseroles).
  • Bake one or two kinds of cookies, not half a dozen varieties. Or organize a cookie swap with friends.
  • Alcohol is not required; instead, choose sparkling cider or easy, fancy homemade sodas.
  • Start watching for sales on ingredients now. Buy an extra turkey before Thanksgiving, when gobblers are loss leaders at many supermarkets, and freeze it for Christmas. Pick up canned goods, flour, butter and sugar when you spot low prices.

Don’t limit yourself to retail

Garage sale items and signs
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Thrift stores and yard sales may could turn up items in great condition. For me, both have yielded journals, puzzles, picture frames, candles and other gift-able items, some still in the shrink-wrap.

Maybe your town has a Facebook garage sale page. Or visit sites like LetGo.com and OfferUp.com.

How does “free” sound? See if there’s a chapter of Freecycle.org in your area, or a Buy Nothing Facebook group. I’ve given and received some nice gift items that way.

Check your gift stash

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Maybe you shopped last year’s clearance sales (smart!) or went to yard sales last summer (also smart). Now, you’ve got a stash of gifts set aside. Check it to see what you have accumulated.

Recently, I was startled to see how many gifts I have on hand. I’d nearly forgotten what I’d found from clearance racks, thrift stores, free-after-rebate items and a professional conference I attend (Expo Hall swag = great stocking stuffers).

Now, all that’s left for me to do is to cash in gifts cards from rewards credit cards and programs and write a check to my dad’s church (he doesn’t want tangible gifts).

In other words, holiday giving is going to cost a lot less than I thought. #winning


Women exchanging gifts
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My evergreen gift stash also includes a few things given to me that I decided not to keep. Done correctly, regifting means that an item that wasn’t right for you gets another chance to make someone happy.

For tips on this frugal practice, see “The 9 Rules of Savvy Regifting.”

Don’t overdo the decor

Dog with Christmas tree
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You don’t need outdoor lights so bright they can be seen from space. Or a miniature holiday village stretching across three 8-foot tables. Or anything else that causes as much stress as it does enjoyment.

Instead, try making your own holiday decor. Challenge yourself to use only materials you have on hand.

Hit the after-holiday sales

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Don’t stop thinking ahead when the holidays end.

  • Shop after-holiday discounts for next year’s gifts: hat-and-gloves sets, toys, jewelry, watches and slippers, for a few examples.
  • Save, too, on wrapping paper, decorations, candles, sweets and holiday-themed items.
  • Pick up toys or games for kids’ birthday gifts. Clothing will be on sale, too. Buy a size up for kids, because they’re growing.

The longer you wait, the deeper the discounts; I’ve bought things at up to 90 percent off.

For more tips, see “20-Plus Tips to Make the Most of Post-Holiday Clearance Sales.”

What frugal practices do you follow during the holiday season? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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