30 Ways to Have Yourself a Thrifty Little Christmas

There are a lot of reasons that sensible people want to step off  of the materialistic rocket ride that is the standard North American Christmas and have a frugal Christmas that focuses on traditions instead. Here’s an excerpt from a book I’ve written with my 16-year-old daughter. (If you like what you’re reading, go here to buy it.)

  • They may be tired of spending the entire following year working overtime because they are deep in debt for having produced a spectacular Christmas morning that was the stuff of storybooks.
  • Maybe they don’t want to create children who are never satisfied and always want more, who always yearn for that next edition of the iGadget of the year.
  • Perhaps they have suffered their own personal economic collapse and just can’t afford it this year.  They might just want a sense of peace and contentment that you can never buy from a store.
  • They might just want a sense of peace and contentment that you can never buy from a store.

When I was a little girl, I remember reading Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Laura’s description of the family’s Christmas celebration seemed to me the most magical day I could ever imagine. I could almost taste that exotic orange and the peppermint melting on my tongue. In our consumerized world, most kids just don’t get to experience that same magic. I try to create magic for my kids by living more simply, focusing on experiences, and giving from the heart instead of the wallet.

Whatever your reason, this year, set your sights on having a “Thrifty Little Christmas”. Many of these ideas don’t cost a penny, and others are so low-cost that they will let you face the new year without being mired in debt.

The Holiday Budget

First of all, you have to create a budget.  It’s easy if you have been putting aside money and saving up for the big event.  Otherwise, see what amount you can spare, and then stick to it.  Never, never, never put Christmas gifts on a credit card!  I can think of no more horrible way to start a new year than opening astronomical bills that are incurring 18% interest.  Here are a few tips to help you stick to the budget:

1.) Figure out what you can truly afford. Many of us don’t have the means for a financial free-for-all with the justification that “Christmas only comes once a year!”  Christmas might just come once but those credit card bills will keep on coming, every single month until they’re paid off, accumulating interest long after the gift has lost its charm.  Make sure you pay your bills first, put aside a little money for an unexpected emergency, and have a stocked pantry of food before you go and spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to fuel a 15 minute paper-tearing frenzy on Christmas morning.
2.) Use the envelope method.  To do this, write the names of your gift recipients on envelopes. You can also include envelopes for groceries, decorations, and charitable giving.  Into each envelope, place the designated amount of cash you intend to spend on each person or item.  When you purchase something, place the receipt and the change into the envelope from whence the money came.  The most important thing: When the money is gone, it’s gone!  You don’t get to top it up or buy one more thing.  This is your limit.
3.) Let the kids know what to expect.  Ever since my kids were old enough to understand it, I’ve told them what the Christmas gift budget was for that particular year.  If it is $50 each or $200 each, they have known in advance and have made their lists accordingly.  I’ve been told that this is “mean” and it “takes the magic out of Christmas”.  Honestly, I think it is kinder to let them know what to expect, particularly if it’s a tight year, than to allow them to expect a room full of expensive presents that just magically appeared.  The girls nearly always get what they want for Christmas because they keep their wishes within a budget – they don’t ask for iPads and XBoxes because those are purchases that exceed the amount we are spending.  Because they know what to expect, they’ve never been disappointed on Christmas morning, and I’ve never been stressed and worried that they’ll be unhappy.

Frugal Decorations

Are you sitting down?  In 2011, Americans spent $6 billion on Christmas decorations.  SIX BILLION DOLLARS.  $6,000,000,000.

Decorating doesn’t have to be something from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.  Here are some ways to pare down your decorating costs and still be festive.

4.) Use items from year to year.  Artificial trees, lights, ornaments and wreaths can all be reused for decades if they are stored away carefully each year at the end of the season.  In fact, the tradition of pulling out the same ornaments and telling the same stories each year can become a cherished one that is passed down for generations to come.
5.) Find inspiration in nature.  Found objects can look lovely with a coating of white glue and granulated sugar.  Sparkly spray paint can make nearly anything beautiful. Decorate using pinecones, branches, stones, and sprigs from evergreen trees.  Add some glittery ribbons and a few inexpensive Christmas ornaments and you have uniquely beautiful decorations at a fraction of the cost of store-bought.
6.) Spend time together making decorations.  With some simple craft supplies, you can combine the holiday decorating with quality time.  Make and paint salt dough ornaments, string popcorn, and stud oranges with cloves.  Use tissue paper, pipe cleaners and recycled household items to get creative with your kids.
7.) Make-over thrift store items.  You can often pick up a huge stash of ornaments from a thrift store or yard sale for little more than a song.  Don’t worry if they aren’t the right colors, either. The kids will have a great time dip-painting them, splattering them, or applying fake snow to them.

Making Gifts

There is nothing I love more than gifts that someone has made for me.  I get almost teary-eyed thinking about the time and effort that went into a present that is homemade.  Every year a percentage of our gifts to one another are made by us, and we also like to give these kinds of gifts to neighbors, friends, and loved ones.  Here are a few ideas for making presents:

8.)  Cookies and baked goods.  Whether it’s cliche or not, who doesn’t love to get a basket of homemade cookies, a tin of brownies, or a little box of candy straight from the kitchen.  Aside from sweets, you can also give jams, salsas, and home-canned treats. You can also mail these little tastes of home to friends and family who are far away. It’s like opening a box full of hugs.
9.) Bath and body products.  These are really easy to make and can often be done completely with items from the pantry.  Scented salts, body butters, and exfoliating scrubs are quick, easy, and very appreciated.
10.) Needlework.  If you like to knit, sew, or crochet, make use of the time you spend watching Christmas movies to whip up some scarves or mittens.  If you have cotton thread you can make lovely dishcloths and washcloths too.  Other household items include holders for those plastic grocery bags, rag rugs, quilts, and embroidered pillowcases.
11.) Other crafts.  Depending on your skillset and available supplies, the variety here is limitless.  Consider woodwork, decoratively painted items, handcrafted jewelry, a piece of art, a framed photograph of a beloved place, little wee handprints in plaster…the list could go on infinitely.
12.) Coupon books.  This is a family favorite.  Write up coupons for different services that you can offer the recipient.  Some ideas might be a night of babysitting, a homemade dinner, or painting the fence.  Children can give ‘be quiet’ coupons, chore coupons, and hug coupons.
13.) Home-canned goodies. Every year I make extra jam preserved in small beautiful jars for gift-giving.
14. ) Liquor. This year I also made fruit-infused liquors that will soon get the addition of a simple syrup, then will be decanted into fancy thrift store bottles and topped with  flouncy bow. Some people brew wine and beer.

Helping Others

In our family, we make a point of spending an equal amount of money helping others.This is as important to us as the exchange of gifts between us. One particularly memorable year, when money was extremely tight, my daughters insisted that part of their very small gift budgets go to buy a gift for a child that might not get any other presents.  The ranks of the less fortunate are increasing on a daily basis as the economy crumbles. There are many ways that you can give to others.

15.) Donate to a food bank.
16.) Serve at a soup kitchen.
17.) Become Secret Santas for a family that you know is struggling.
18.) Fill Christmas stockings for people at the local homeless shelter.
19.) Buy gifts for children who are at a domestic violence shelter.
20.) Find out how your church is helping the community this year and pitch in.
21.) Invite a lonely neighbor to celebrate the holiday with you.

Create Christmas Memories

Don’t let the mainstream media and the advertisers tell you what the perfect Christmas is.  Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into spending money you don’t have because the big corporations are telling you what you need or what material objects your children require to be happy. Make the holidays your own by creating memories, not debt.

Think about the traditions that are the most important in your family.  When your kids are grown and have children of their own, I guarantee you that they won’t look back to Christmas 2014 and be able to list off all of the gifts that they did or did not receive. But they’ll remember :

22.) The bundled-up outing to choose the perfect Christmas tree
23.) Decorating that fresh, fragrant tree while the needles still feel cold, while listening to the Christmas carol CD for the first time this year
24.) The annual hot-chocolate fueled drive to look at Christmas lights
25.) Caroling at the nursing home or veteran’s hospital 
26.) Curling up together to watch a Christmas movie marathon, complete with popcorn, eggnog, and cookies
27.) Those cinnamon rolls that you make every Christmas morning
28.) The Christmas Eve church service in their fanciest clothing and the hymns sung in the crowded church
29.) The traditional dish that you make every year without fail. (Here are some tips for keeping yourself within budget for Christmas dinner.)
30.) The two-day cookie baking marathon that makes the house smell better than any scented candle or spray ever could

The real memories are not things that can be wrapped in paper.  The one thing that people always remember is how they feel.  Don’t make that feeling all about, “Hey, look what I got!” Embrace those who are dear to you and make that feeling love, peace, and joy, and you will have a better Christmas than any wealthy person sitting in a mansion surrounded by gifts he didn’t need, given by people he doesn’t love.

No matter how tight your money is this year (or if it isn’t tight at all and you’ve just opted for simplicity) with an attitude of joy, the simplest of things can become magical.

by Daisy Luther

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