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I’ll bet you’ve never seen a TV commercial encouraging you to have a frugal Christmas. But you probably have seen a new car commercial each Christmas season, right? Let’s see, last year it was the “Happy Honda Sales Event.”
I’ve seen it so many times, that whenever I hear Lindsey Buckingham’s Holiday Road, I’ll always picture a smiling family in stocking caps, gathering around their new Honda.
This year, Peloton is airing what looks like a 30 second Hallmark movie about their exercise bikes. The best part is the wife’s expression, as she hops on it Christmas morning. Of course, to see the same joy on your spouse’s face will set you back $2200 for their cheapest bike.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the holidays. I like giving gifts. And it’s even nice receiving a few too.
But just because the calendar says it’s December, doesn’t mean our finances suddenly improve. And if you spend time watching TV, or hanging at the mall, it’s easy to be convinced that joy = spending lots of cash.
Exchanging pricey gifts is nice if you can, but what if it’s just not the right time? If your car is on borrowed time, or you’re paying off debt, the last thing you want to do is add to it.
But even if your finances are shaky, with a little strategizing, it’s possible to enjoy a guilt-free, joyful Christmas season.
How to Have a Frugal – but Fun Christmas
Have a Plan
The biggest thing is to have a plan. The worst feeling, is to lose track of what you’re spending, and end up paying Christmas bills until June. It’s tough to plan goals for the new year when we’re still paying off last year.
Create a list in whatever format works – a notebook, spreadsheet or your phone, with the people you need to buy for, what you already have, and how much you’ve spent. In fact, your list may come in handy if you happen to get a random idea for someone in the middle of summer.
Try a No Spend Weekend (or Week)
Part of having a plan can be getting ahead of the game in the month before a big expense. Whether it’s Christmas, or some other un-budgeted expense, a no-spend period is just a designated time when you put a halt to all unnecessary spending.
It’s like putting a temporary tourniquet on your spending to help you to get through a tough month.
- No restaurants.
- No shopping.
- No take-out food.
- No online purchases. Nothing.
You eat whatever’s in your fridge, your freezer or pantry, and spend your free time however you want, as long as you don’t spend anything.
When I finally got serious about budgeting and saving, I noticed that weekends were one of our biggest money drains. We had a habit of going out every weekend whether we had plans or not, just to get out.
We spent several hundred unplanned dollars every month on things we didn’t need, and I wondered why I couldn’t afford an emergency fund.
Forcing yourself to find fun, free things to do together, is a great way to discover places and activities you might not have, otherwise. And squeezing a few hundred extra dollars from your budget ain’t bad either.
Maybe you had certain family traditions growing up that you can continue, or create new ones. A few years ago, I finally tossed our worn out, fake Christmas tree, and we started a tradition of going out to cut our own.
I can’t remember any of the gifts we gave each other 3 years ago, but I’ll always remember us dragging home a monster, 15 foot Norway Spruce in the snow.
Maybe you enjoy baking certain foods, or checking out decorations, or working a toy drive. Or maybe you get together with certain family or friends. Chances are, those same family and friends are watching their budget too.
Have a Spending Agreement
It’s nice to surprise someone with an expensive gift you know they’ll love. An honestly, it’s nice to receive one too! But it’s easy to get carried away, thinking you need to top last year.
If you’re in a relationship where you have common goals, and you discuss money regularly, then you both know what you can and can’t afford.
Having a talk and agreeing to a spending limit is a great way to honor your common goals. And the thought that your partner values your future together is a nice gift anyway.
Have a Frugal Christmas Grab Bag
When you only have a few gifts to buy, it’s possible to navigate the holidays without busting your budget. But there’s a time when many families suddenly expand over the course of a few years.
Kids get older, and suddenly there’s a house full of boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, children and others.
It can be a lot less expensive, and less stressful to have a grab bag. We did a grab bag for a few years, and picked names on Thanksgiving. If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, or aren’t together, here’s an easy way to do an electronic grab bag.
A grab bag might not be your choice every year. But when there’s a lot of people on a tight budget, it’s a nice way to reduce stress and save money.
Two Quick Ways to Find an Extra Few Hundred $$ per Month
We’d all like to pay cash during the holidays, and avoid spending the rest of winter juggling bills. But sometimes the stars just don’t align.
Maybe you just paid an expensive car repair, a dental bill, or for some reason, just don’t have the cash.
If there’s no overtime available at work, or any other source of extra income, then maybe the answer is to squeeze more money out of your budget.
Here are two areas I’ve been able to reduce our budget by several hundred dollars pretty quickly:
Check your bank statement for last month. Add the amount of take-out orders, sit down restaurants, convenience stores, and extra trips to the grocery store (more than once a week).
Food is usually one of the most expensive budget items for most families. But it’s also the most flexible.
What if you could just food shop once a week, and have everything you need?
- You’d have the ingredients for dinner each night of the week.
- You’d have food for lunches.
- You could eliminate the nights you’re caught short and need to order take-out.
- You could eliminate the last-minute extra trips to the store for “just 2 things“, where you spend $35.
I’m not saying to cut every joy from your life and never go out to eat again. But when we eliminated the times when we ordered take-out, dined out, or made extra trips to the store out of necessity, we immediately saved about four hundred dollars each month. Here are the steps we took to get there.
Stop Overpaying to Watch TV
Cable TV has been around since the 1980’s, but it’s time has come and gone. In fact, Variety magazine says that during 2017, over 22 million people cancelled their cable subscription, and the number is growing each year.
Paying for cable is like going to the grocery store to buy 3 avocados, and they tell you, “Sorry, but you’ll also have to buy bananas, tomatoes and potatoes. So it’ll be $16.99.”
Wait, what? Who wants to be forced to buy a lot of things you don’t want, to get the few things you do want?
Cable had a monopoly on service for a long time, while they also raked in millions by charging us rental fees each month. But now you can watch the exact same content (without buying what you don’t want) for a lot less. And without paying to rent their equipment for the next decade.
Here’s how we finally cut the cord this year and are saving $115 a month.
An Automated Way to Fund Your Frugal Christmas
This may sound strange, but I’m one of those people who’s both a list maker, and a procrastinator. I’m constantly writing to-do lists, but sometimes I only get a fraction of the things done.
An emergency fund (or a holiday savings fund) is important to have, but honestly, I never got around to doing either one until a few years ago.
So, what finally enabled me to protect my budget from emergencies, and have cash for the holidays?
It was finding a simple app that takes virtually no time to manage, but saves money for me each week in a way that I barely notice it. It updates me each morning, and honestly, it’s almost like having a virtual assistant.
Digit was made for people like me. It’s a simple mobile app that automates saving into a separate account. Most people use it to accumulate emergency money, which saves you from spending budgeted money. But you can use it to accumulate money for anything.
I’ve used Digit for about 9 months now, and so far it’s paid for 4 different car repairs. And last summer, I even dipped into it to buy plane tickets for a weekend trip.
Here’s how Digit works.
Digit monitors your checking account and ‘learns’ your pattern of deposits and withdrawals. And when it’s safe, usually every few days, Digit will move a few dollars from your checking to your Digit account.
Digit sends me a text every morning around 9am, showing my checking balance. If the balance is different from yesterday, it tells me what transactions caused it to change.
I can reply with ‘Recent’ to receive more detailed info about my recent transactions. Or sometimes I’ll reply with ‘Savings’ and Digit will respond with my current Digit balance. If I need to transfer money back to checking, I can do that with a simple text too.
I was pretty surprised at how fast I accumulated over $500.
And I can’t tell you what a relief it is, to have an emergency and know right away, that I have the cash for it.
One of the biggest reason budgets fail, is because you don’t have the cash for unplanned emergencies.
So, whether you use Digit for an emergency fund or a Christmas fund, it’s a nice way to take something off your to-do list. Digit is free for the first 100 days, then they’ll charge $2.99 per month. But when I think of the benefits it gives me…
- Dedicated cash to pay for emergencies.
- One less thing to take care of each month.
- The ability to save where I barely notice it.
To me, any time I can set something up once, then have it help me every day, with almost no intervention, is a win. And to be able to do it for literally the price of one coffee each month, is a no-brainer.
Give Frugal Christmas Gifts That Last all Year
Some of the best gifts I’ve received cost either nothing, or almost nothing. We all talk about doing things together, but actually planning them and making them happen can be a nice gift.
If cash is scarce this year, here’s a few ideas:
- Commit to doing a weekly car cleaning.
- Plan for a babysitter once a week so you and your spouse can have a cheap date night.
- Or do some babysitting and give your spouse a few hours a week to do whatever he/she wants.
- Arrange a few hikes at locations you’ve never been to.
- Commit to a monthly surprise outing. It can be cheap, but the anticipation can last all year long.
- Write a poem, frame a picture, or make a natural souvenir of a place you’ve been.
- Design a homemade coupon book.
Or maybe give yourselves a joint gift, like commit to a home project, a health & exercise program together, or plan a trip later in the year. Or even plan a side hustle together.
When you’re 75, you won’t remember that pair of gloves from 30 years ago, but you’ll sure as hell remember that challenging hike, or some of those surprise outings.
When You Do Shop, Use Every Advantage
I don’t load every app that comes along. To me, it’s just overload. But sometimes even a skeptic like me can be convinced to use an app when it clearly saves money, and takes almost no time.
Ebates is one of the apps that I had heard about, but never tried until last year. You can use it on your phone or your laptop, and it pays you a rebate whenever you buy something at over 2500 stores.
There’s no catch. No membership fee. You just sign up, and select where you want your rebates to be sent. I selected my PayPal account. Then you just shop.
For instance, see where I just typed “Target” in the search bar above? That’s all you do. Then you’d be brought to the Target website, you browse, and buy whatever you need, and you receive a rebate.
It’s really that simple. Retailers pay eBates a fee to bring customers to their store, and eBates shares the rebate with you. In fact, I just received an email from eBates two days ago. Here are some of the current rebates:
- 5% from Amazon
- 4% from Lands End
- 8% from Petco
- 10% from Pier One
- 4% from Lululemon
- 6% from Under Armour
Ebates is an easy way to save money every time, without the hassle of searching for coupon codes. Although if you do have a coupon code for a particular store, you can still use it.
One more bonus is, when you sign up here and spend your first $25, you’ll receive a $10 welcome bonus.
Shopping on Amazon? Try this Search Hack to Find it Cheaper
I’ve always thought my searches on Amazon would list results in the order of best to worst in price. Not so. The list you see, is in the order of whatever products Amazon will profit most from.
The first page of results will be filled with sponsored ads – products that businesses have paid to be listed first.
So if you’re looking for the best price, you’ll scroll through pages and pages of unrelated items. Here’s a hack to sort your search results, listing items on sale first.
Here, I did a search for “Mens Flannel Shirts”. The first results are all priced at $49, and you can see on the right, they’re all sponsored ads. So Amazon is getting a nice fee for listing these first.
Now, I’ll leave “Mens Flannel Shirts” in the search box, but I’ll add this to the end of my search string:
This will show mens flannel shirts that are discounted between 10-15%.
So my search string now is, “Mens Flannel Shirts&pct-off=10-15” (without the quotes).
Wow, what a difference in price! None of these ads are sponsored, and they average $20-$30 less. So just add that string to the end of your search results with whatever discount range you’d like, and see how it works.
Here’s a dozen other ways to save on Amazon:
How to Eliminate Impulse Buying
How many times have you gone to a mall looking to buy pants, and come home with 2 or 3 shirts instead? Malls have perfected the art of enticing you to buy things you didn’t come for.
But in the last few years, online shopping has surpassed traveling to stores. Last year, was the first holiday season ever, that I didn’t set foot in a mall.
If you have kids, it can be tough to get out alone. But I can’t tell you how relaxing it is, to have packages delivered while they’re in school, and save that time to do other things.
I use the free 2-day shipping with Amazon Prime, and it’s been a lifesaver. Prime does have other benefits, like free streaming movies, but if you still can’t justify the $119 per year, you can always do their Free 30-Day Trial, and cancel after the holiday.
I have to say, there’s nothing like shopping from the couch!
Earn Some Quick Cash at Home in Your Spare Time
If you’ve tried to cut your budget and you’re still coming up short, there are a few ways to generate cash pretty quickly. Online surveys work well, because:
- There’s no cost to sign up.
- There’s no approval process.
- You can do them anytime and anywhere. Whenever you have the time.
- You don’t need to wait weeks to get paid.
These are surveys that businesses conduct, to get opinions on their products. They use the results from these surveys to adjust their products or the way they sell them.
You won’t get rich from surveys, but they’re a good way to make extra money. The surveys are short – usually 10 minutes or less, and are usually just a series of multiple choice questions.
I recently took one on flooring. It just asked me questions like, what types of flooring I might buy, and what kind of store I’d visit buy flooring. Not the most interesting topic, but it was easy.
To do surveys, you’d just sign up, fill in your demographic information, and they’ll send you surveys to take whenever and wherever you are. On the couch, on your lunch break, when the kids are napping. Anytime.
Here’s a few that I’ve done and had good luck with:
Pinecone Research is owned by the large survey company, Nielsen. Pinecone’s main purpose is to do product testing, so they usually want consumer opinions on things that haven’t been released yet. So it’s common for them to send you a product to test, and then ask your opinion.
There’s no confusion about what you’ll earn – it’s a flat fee of $3 per survey.
Here’s how you’ll earn money:
Pinecone will issue points as you complete questionnaires about the merchandise they send to you. Once you accumulate points, then you’ll redeem them for cash.
Like many survey companies, Pinecone usually targets a particular demographic depending on the product they’re working with. So if your profile information doesn’t happen to match a particular survey, they’ll let you know.
Really simple to sign up for and use, Survey Junkie has over 5 million users. It works on a simple points system, where you just convert your points to cash, then they’ll deposit the cash in your Paypal account.
Here’s how it works:
The payout threshold is 1,000 points, which equates to $10. They’re short surveys, and most bring in somewhere between 100 and 200 points. So it doesn’t take long to reach the threshold and get paid. I’ve used Survey Junkie to earn money while sitting in the car waiting for my daughter at soccer practice.
They say Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year“. But in my mind, spring, summer and fall are pretty cool too. So budgeting all year, only to blow it in the last three weeks can really cramp your plans for the next season.
That’s one of the worst things about debt – it eliminates choice in your life.
But with a little planning and a shift from TV and malls, to family and experiences, your frugal Christmas can be remembered decades from now.
How about you and your family? Is there anything you do, to enjoy the holidays without breaking your budget?
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