It’s the most wonderful time of the year — and perhaps the most expensive time of the year. With Halloween over and done with, it’s time to focus on the season of giving and all the expenses that entails.
As much as we love the holidays, we at Advantage Pro Services know that expenses can pile up quicker than presents under the tree, and it’s not always presents that drive up expenses. Traveling for the holidays, whether that means booking a flight or driving a long distance, add up quickly when you include parking at the airport and gas fill-ups.
If you’re entertaining at home, that too can add up quickly. Cooking a full holiday meal takes time and multiple trips to the grocery store.
So how do you save money during the holiday season while still keeping everything holly and jolly? Here are our best tips for saving money this holiday season.
Map out your budget early
Your first step when you’re trying to save money during the holidays is to map out:
- How much income you expect to bring in between now and the beginning of the year. You can include on January paycheck, but don’t include any more or you might over spend.
- Your presents budget
- Who you must buy presents for and who you think you should buy a present for
The goal of your budget should be to set a reasonable amount that you can spend on holiday expenses without straining other financial obligations. Your mortgage won’t magically disappear during the holidays, and you should still be putting money away in your savings account. Energy bills may also be higher to heat your home and run your electricity, so make sure you factor a little extra into these bills.
To set a budget, add up your expected income between November and the first paycheck of January. Then subtract your bills and your savings. You can also subtract your grocery bills, not including what you might spend on a holiday meal.
Once you’ve done the math, your final total will show you the absolute max of what you can spend during the holidays this year. Remember, that number has to pay for gifts, travel expenses, holiday-related activities, charitable donations and additional grocery store trips.
Now estimate about how much you’ll spend on travel. This can include flights, car rentals, fuel and hotel fees. You can price everything out online, but when you do, make sure you overestimate. You never know when an expense may be more than originally budgeted, so overestimate when you can to plan for any emergencies, such as a blown tire or an extra night at a hotel.
If you know what you’ll be cooking or how much this holiday season, you can also factor these expenses into your budget. Again, overestimate a bit here to cover forgotten ingredients or unexpected stops to pick up a meat and cheese tray on the way to a party.
Don’t forget about charitable donations. Your charitable donations don’t have to be all in cash, but you absolutely should plan to write a check at some point — donating clothes from five years ago is nice, but you could be doing a lot more. Plan for a mix of cash donations and product donations such as food and toys.
Finally, the money you’re left with can go to presents. You don’t have to spend the absolute max on every person. You can set caps for some people, but recognize who you might spend more on, such as children, partners and parents. It’s okay to spend a little extra on those you’re closest to, just acknowledge that this will probably happen and plan for it.
A final word on budgeting: Don’t try to make your budget too tight. Overestimate your expenses so you have a little padding built in. People often feel too restricted when their budgets are too tight, and they end up overspending. Set reasonable expectations for yourself.
Outsource your cooking
More than presents, cooking a holiday meal can be one of the most stressful and thankless tasks, and you spend far more than just money on the meal. You give your time to go grocery shopping and prepare the meal usually days before the holiday, and you exert a lot of energy to see that you have enough for everyone and your menu is balanced to accommodate vegetarians and those with food allergies.
But you don’t have to take on the burden of cooking a whole meal for the holidays. You can enlist your family members to chip in and help you complete the meal without breaking the budget.
If you’re planning to host Thanksgiving, for example, assign dishes to members of your family. You might ask your mother to make the mashed potatoes and your brother to bring an appetizer. Give out your assignments in advance so everyone know what they need to bring and can plan accordingly.
Now not all family members like to pitch in and many would rather have someone else do all the work, but you can gently push back and set boundaries. It shouldn’t be solely on you to make sure everyone is fed, and it’s not unreasonable for you tell family members that you have too much going on to prepare the full meal and will need help. If a family member continues to push back, tell them to coordinate with another family member to work something out.
Strategically plan your shopping
Now that you have your budget in hand, it’s time to start planning out your gift lists and shopping trips. Round up everyone that you plan to buy gifts for and ask for a few suggestions. This will help you plan what you’re going to buy and how much you’re going to need to spend.
The great thing about the holiday season is that there are usually good sales going on, especially on electronics. For kids and adults asking for new TVs, electronics and video games, you can usually find a good Black Friday sale. Check with the stores you plan to buy from in advance. Some stores, like Walmart, offer in-store deals as well as online-only deals. Depending on what you’re looking for, it may save you some money to go to the store and make a purchase rather than ordering online.
You can also use this time before the holidays really ramp up for some research to find the best prices. Depending on what you’re buying or where you’re buying it from, you may be able to get 10% off a first purchase if you’re ordering from a company you’ve not ordered from before. Some companies tease Black Friday sales the week before Thanksgiving, so if you have a few companies in mind, get on their mailing lists. They may send coupons or previews for big sales coming up.
Don’t forget about your credit card points! Some cards allow you to use points on sites like Amazon, so if you’ve saved up some points, you can use them to save some money. Other cards allow you to convert your rewards points and use them for credit on your bill. As you’re shopping, use one credit card, and at the end of the month, you should be able to get some money off your statement.
Some third-party sites will also offer a certain percentage of cashback at certain stores. Rakuten, formally known as Ebates, gives back between 1 and 10 percent cashback on purchases depending on the store. That could mean big savings. Just remember that these sites usually only cash out once every quarter, so don’t expect the money until around March next year.
Cut back on day-to-day expenses
During the rest of the year, you probably think nothing of buying an extra latte during the week or ordering takeout for lunch. You probably never think of those expenses because you know you have the funds to cover them, but during the holidays, those funds aren’t so readily available.
In the months of November and December, cut back on your extraneous spending and reign in impulse purchases. Just because you saw a scarf at the store doesn’t mean you have to buy it immediately — in fact, you should jot it down and provide it as a gift idea when your spouse or sibling asks you what you want.
Think of it this way: if you spend $20 per week in November and December on takeout lunches, that’s $160 that you’re spending.
As you go through your week, remember to:
- Pack your own lunches to avoid ordering takeout.
- Limit your shopping trips, unless it’s for someone else.
- Avoid drive-thrus for coffee.
You may find you have extra money for gas to your in-laws or make a second charitable donation.
Suggest alternative gift options
When you were younger, it was probably much easier to buy gifts for all your brothers and sisters. But now they have spouses and children, and what was once buying just one gift for a sibling has now become five gifts. Those expenses can add up fast, especially if the kids are young or have expensive habits.
Rather than buying gifts for every single family member, suggest doing Secret Santa for your family this year. If you’re not familiar, Secret Santa is gift-giving game in which everyone in the group draws one name and then buys a gift for just that one person. Everyone still gets a gift, but you don’t have to spend as much. In fact, you can probably spend slightly more on your secret Santa since you don’t have to buy for so many people. As a group, your family can also set a budget cap so no one feels obligated to buy an extravagant gift.
You can also do a white elephant gift exchange and turn gift giving into a party game. White elephant works simple enough. Each person brings a wrapped gift and places it in a pile. Then each person goes one at a time and either unwraps a gift from the pile or steals a present from another person that’s already been opened. Again, you can set a budget cap so you don’t break your budget with gifts.
These gift options not only save you money, but they also cut down on your time spent shopping.
Try homemade gifts when possible
There are those who say a homemade gift from the heart is better than a store-bought one, and sometimes, that’s absolutely true.
Homemade gifts can be meaningful and thoughtful. They feel more personal because they’re made with the person in mind, and no one else will have something that looks exactly the same. When your loved one uses their gift, he or she will think of you and appreciate the gift all the more.
Homemade gifts can also be great for work colleagues, neighbors and acquaintances that you care for, but don’t know very well. You’d like to give them something for the holidays, but you don’t know them well enough to be able to buy them a thoughtful gift. A small homemade gift can let them know you’re thinking about them, and you won’t break the bank.
Be warned though: Not all homemade gifts are actually less expensive than store-bought ones. For example, you may want to knit scarves for friends, but all that yarn — not to mention the time spent doing all that knitting — can quickly add up. You may not end up saving much money, and you might have to invest more time than you actually have.
Need some suggestions? Here are a few homemade gifts for everyone on your list.
- Homemade bread: A warm loaf of holiday bread brings a smile to anyone’s face. Choose a banana or cinnamon bread to spread some holiday cheer.
- Flowers from your garden: Impatients, a hearty winter flower, grow strong in Houston, and if you have them in your backyard, you can repot them and give them to neighbors and friends. This keeps your garden from being overrun by one flower, and it spreads a little beauty throughout the world.
- Scarves or blankets: If you have the time and energy, a homemade scarf or blanket is always a winner.
We know you’ve got ‘em: What are your best tips for saving money during the holidays? Share with us in the comments!