It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes. And, as celebrations get underway, it’s worth considering that the holiday season is a popular time for Americans to go all out with their spending. Currently, the average person is ready to fork over almost $1,000 on gifts alone. That’s not factoring in entertainment, food, or travel costs, nor the current soaring inflation rate which means your dollars don’t go as far as they used to.
But of course you want to have a festive season, filled with good cheer, fun times, and memory making. To help you do just that without blowing your budget and starting the New Year in debt, try these ideas to help you celebrate the holidays affordably.
Holiday Savings Ideas
As you start making your lists for holiday gifts and activities, consider these clever ways not to overspend during the season.
1. Build a Bonfire
An inexpensive way to spread some seasonal cheer is to bundle up with friends and family around a bonfire in your backyard fire pit. With some inexpensive marshmallows to toast and hot cocoa to sip (candy-cane stirrers are optional), you’ll get in the holiday spirit without breaking the bank.
2. Create a Holiday Budget
Speaking of money, before you start buying gifts or a holiday roast, make a budget for gifts, decorations, and experiences this holiday season. You’ll be able to prioritize your spending in advance and identify where you can make cuts.
3. Try the Envelope System
By making purchases with cash instead of plastic during the holidays, you could end up spending more thoughtfully. Try the cash envelope system to help you stick to your budget. All you do is create a few different envelopes for spending categories like holiday meals, decorations, and experiences, and then put the cash for each into the envelopes. When you run out of cash, it means you can’t spend any more money in that category (or you have to dip into the budget for another category).
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4. Create a Caroling Tradition
Singing is completely free. Whether you want to host a night of carols at home or get a group together to stroll through the neighborhood and bring good cheer is up to you. From “Jingle Bells” to “O Christmas Tree,” there are plenty of tunes to belt out.
5. Host a Potluck
Yes, you may prefer to cook everything yourself for holiday meals, but it can get very pricey, especially with inflation. Hosting a potluck and asking your friends and family members to bring food to a holiday meal is a good way to cut costs on your grocery bill. It could also be fun to sample everyone’s cooking. Just make sure that you ask people ahead of time what they plan to bring so that you have enough food and options for everyone. You don’t want to wind up with six potato dishes and no green beans.
6. Choose Cheaper Recipes
If you are hosting a meal, skip the filet mignon and choose some foods that are on the cheaper side to save money. For instance, if you celebrate Hanukkah, you could make latkes, which only require potatoes and onions, plus some sides like applesauce and sour cream. If you celebrate Kwanzaa, try cooking some buttermilk biscuits and plantains. For Christmas, pigs in a blanket and a yule log cake from the supermarket are fun, crowd-pleasing, and affordable.
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7. Visit a Museum When It’s Free
Check out your local museum when there’s no admission fee (many cultural institutions offer a monthly or weekly date) as a fun thing to do for free. There’s a good chance that holiday decorations will be up and that there may be an exhibition of holiday ornaments or trees. It can get your seasonal spirit soaring at no cost.
8. Tour Your Neighborhood Christmas Lights
There may be an area near you that’s known for looking spectacular at Christmas time. Or perhaps you just drive around till you find some fun Grinch inflatables. Whatever the case, hop in the car with a friend and tour the local Christmas decor for a festive, free night out.
9. Hold a Cookie Swap
Instead of doing a Secret Santa gift exchange with presents, get together some friends, colleagues, or neighbors and do a cookie swap instead. Everyone bakes a different kind of treat and then shares, so each guest goes home with an assortment of sweets. One note: Before committing to making any cookies, be sure to ask everyone in the cookie exchange if they have any food allergies and make sure each person is making a different kind of cookie.
10. Reread Your Favorite Holiday Books
This is a great free holiday activity to do with the kids. Go to the library, take out some holiday books you loved when you were a kid, and then reread them to your children during the holiday season. You’ll get to reminisce about the past while sharing your childhood with your family. “A Christmas Carol,” “The Night Before Christmas,” and “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree” are all good to get you started.
11. Go Ice-Skating
Local rinks typically offer an affordable way to get some exercise while indulging in a classic holiday-season vibe. It can be a great after-work outing with friends or colleagues or a fun family activity.
12. Have a Holiday-Song Dance Party
Search YouTube for the best holiday tunes (there are dozens, if not hundreds, of playlists) for showing off your moves with friends and family. Of course, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” may have to be played more than once.
13. Head to the Dollar Store
Here’s a secret to not paying full price: Go where the discounts are. The dollar store is full of cheap holiday decorations as well as goodies you can put into gift bags or stuff into stockings. You can find low-cost ornaments, lights, balloons, and more to make your home more festive for the season.
14. Stream Holiday Movies
If you already subscribe to a streaming service, you’ll find plenty of holiday movies featured come December. Look for family fun with “A Christmas Story,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Scrooged,” and “Home Alone.” Or try some black and white oldies like “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Christmas in Connecticut.” Just add popcorn, and you’ll have a fun, cozy night in with all your favorite flicks.
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15. Make Holiday “Mixtape” Playlists
A custom playlist is a thoughtful gift for friends and family. Now that most music is available online, it’s easier than ever. Just create a playlist on Spotify or another platform, name it, and then share the link. They’ll be sure to appreciate the tunes!
16. Check Out Your Town’s Calendar
Your town likely hosts lots of free and/or cheap events you can partake in during the holidays. Search for Christmas tree lightings, concerts, parades, and outdoor movie nights, which are usually free or low cost.
17. Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen
What better way to celebrate the holidays than to give back? Look for local opportunities to volunteer at a soup kitchen or work with the homeless and hungry in some other way this year. Your community will benefit from your kindness, and you’ll feel great for volunteering.
18. Donate Toys to Families in Need
Another way you can give back — and get the entire family involved — is to donate toys your kids no longer use to children and families in need. Search for local toy drives happening in your community to find the best place to donate them to.
19. Host a New Year’s Party
If you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a New Year’s celebration, then crowdsource a New Year’s party at home. You can invite over a few friends and have a potluck or order in some pizzas and have everyone split the costs. Turn on the TV and watch the ball drop, or bust out the holiday playlist and have a dance party.
20. Get Friends Together to Regift
Here’s an alternative to a Secret Santa get-together: Host a regifting party with pals. Everyone brings a gift they received but didn’t like or use and swaps. After all, one person’s trash is another’s treasure.
21. Hold a Zoom Party
If you can’t be with your friends and family members in person on the holidays, then host a Zoom party. Everyone can pour themselves a glass of something and catch up, without spending anything on travel.
22. Host a Game Night
Have some board games in your closet? Or maybe you have access to online games on your television? Invite over your loved ones, and host a game night. Buy some cheap snacks like popcorn, chips, and pretzels, and pair them with soda and bring-your-own beer to stay on budget.
23. Check Out Groupon
Groupon is home to some amazing deals, and during the holiday season, the site may offer discount codes on experiences as well. Look for local holiday events in your local area, or get creative and gift a discounted experience to a friend.
24. Use Your Credit Card Points
Do you have credit card points racked up? Then the holiday season is the time to use them. You may be able to use your points to purchase gifts as well as book hotels and flights at a discount.
25. Revel in a Snow Day
If you get some significant snow, don’t sit inside. Instead, pull on your base layers and challenge friends and family to a snowball fight or go sledding. It’s the stuff wonderful holiday memories are made of.
26. Enjoy a Staycation
Instead of spending thousands traveling on a plane to some exotic location, stay home and explore your town, or take a road trip to a local destination. If you bring friends along, you’ll have more fun — and you can split the cost of gas and food.
27. Send E-Cards
E-cards are free or cheap, which makes them much more affordable than traditional holiday cards. Show your family and friends that you’re thinking about them by sending them a personalized e-card leading up to the holidays.
28. Host a Cookie Decorating Party
Ask your loved ones to bring over their own prepared cookie dough, and then give out the supplies to decorate the cookies, such as sprinkles and icing. The finished cookies can even be used as small holiday gifts.
29. Go Foraging
If you have a natural area nearby where pinecones are abundant and yours for the taking, consider a winter walk to gather some. You’ll get some fresh air and exercise, plus these and any pine boughs on the ground can make a festive seasonal display at home.
30. Make Your Own Decorations
If you log onto Pinterest, you’ll find a number of DIY holiday decorations you can make yourself for a fraction of the price of store-bought. For instance, you could create a wreath out of old wine corks or string up popcorn on your Christmas tree. Make sure to ask your family and friends to join in on the fun.
31. Get Creative with Gift Wrap
Rather than buying expensive wrapping paper and ribbons, find some low- or no-cost ways to make gifts look great. You might snag some newspaper pages (color comics work well) or kraft paper that you decorate with a few flourishes using markers. Yarn can work well in place of ribbon and save you a bundle.
32. Shop Thrift Stores for Holiday Decor and Cards
Thrift stores sell holiday decorations and cards at much lower prices than a typical retail store. Go to your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other local thrift shops to find great deals. It’s also a more sustainable way to shop.
33. Go to Local Religious Celebrations
Many times, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship will host holiday celebrations for free or a donation you can afford. Whether you’re attending formal services or a special holiday event, you’ll be sure to meet people from your community and make new friends.
34. Host a Dreidel Contest
Look up the rules for playing dreidel and then host a dreidel competition at your house. Remember to whip up some latkes and donuts for the Hanukkah celebration and to create prizes for the winners. (Don’t worry: Simple items from the dollar store should suffice.)
35. Get an Advent Calendar
You can find a cheap advent calendar at the store — or make your own — and then use it to count down every day to Christmas with the kids. You can’t go wrong with a traditional candy advent calendar, but those with large collections of holiday-themed books can also try a book-a-day countdown.
36. Make Your Gifts
You can construct some great gifts at home without having to spend much on materials. For example, you could make a family cookbook containing recipes and fun stories about the person they came from. If you sew, you could whip up embroidered items like handkerchiefs or tote bags, or if you’re a whiz in the kitchen, you could make jams and jellies, and more!
37. Decorate With Old Holiday Cards
You may have saved up holiday cards over the years. Now is the time to break them out and decorate your home. When you look around, you’ll have fond memories of past holidays.
38. Keep Warm with an Ugly Sweater
Ugly holiday sweaters are officially a thing, and donning one might help you keep your thermostat lower come heating season! Find a goofy sweater online or at a discount store to wear proudly throughout the holiday season. Better yet, break out the one that your grandma made when you were a kid (if it still fits, of course).
39. Opt for a Fake Christmas Tree
An artificial Christmas tree will likely cost more upfront than a real tree, but it’ll last you for years to come. Even if you shell out $300 on a fake tree, if it lasts for 10 years, that’s $30 a year. When compared to the average cost of a live Christmas tree — which can easily be between $100 and $150 — the savings are clear.
40. Shop on Black Friday and Cyber Monday
Black Friday and Cyber Monday are great times to save on certain items. The key is knowing in advance what price actually constitutes a deal. Many stores advertise their upcoming sales around this time of year, so you should have plenty of time to comparison-shop.
41. Avoid Last-Minute Purchases
If you put off shopping until the last minute, you’re much more likely to blow your budget. Schedule time to shop before the holiday season is in full swing to help you avoid the overspending trap.
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The holidays can be expensive, but they don’t have to be. Focus on spending time with friends and family, investing in your community, and exploring your DIY side to get the most out of the season while spending the least.
Before the holiday season hits, sign up for an online bank account with SoFi. Our Checking and Savings account can help you save even more. You’ll earn a super competitive APY and pay no account fees, which can help your money grow faster.
Photo credit: iStock/Tijana Simic
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