Christmas shopping on a budget: As imaginary as Santa himself, or a realistic option worth exploring?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if St. Nick actually showed up this Christmas with a bag full of presents for you and yours to enjoy? As great as it would be for your wallet and sanity — it’s not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean Christmas shopping on a tight budget is impossible. Whether online or in-store, you can find plenty of ways to score the best deals, get the steepest discounts and stay well within your budget this gift-giving season.
This collection of 12 tips can help you keep more money in your wallet this December.
How to Shop Smart This Holiday Season
1. Create a Christmas budget
The first step to staying within your budget is actually setting one. Jamie from Simple Living Mommy suggests being as specific as possible with your holiday budget. Rather than coming up with an overall number to spend, she offers this insight: “Pick an amount of money you’re comfortable spending for each person on your list. This is key because this is now your price to beat list.” When you set a dollar amount and aim to stay below it, finding the best Christmas shopping deals becomes an adventurous challenge instead of an account-draining chore. Here are some holiday budgeting templates to kick-start your Christmas budgeting and avoid overspending:
Christmas Gift Budget Template from Vertex42: This template is best for people who want to plan their gift shopping early. This template can also be used for more general holiday spending.
Holiday Shopping Tracker from Chatbooks: This Google Sheet template is ideal for people who prefer Google Sheets to Excel, and it has columns to note your gift ideas and where to buy them.
Holiday Spending Worksheet from Latoya Scott on the Life and a Budget blog: This worksheet is great for people who prefer to track their spending with pen and paper. It includes general holiday items such as decor, holiday clothing, etc., to help you keep tabs on more than just gift purchases.
2. Make a list, check it twice
When it comes to your recipient list, try to limit it to your closest friends and family. We’re not suggesting you turn into Scrooge this holiday season — just stay committed to your budget and go easy on yourself. “People who fall into the ‘casual acquaintance’ category probably aren’t expecting a gift and won’t even notice if you stop mailing them the annual fruitcake,” says personal finance writer Maryalene LaPonsie, in an article for Money Talks News. “Have a couple of relatively inexpensive, but nicely presented, gifts at the ready in case you get a present from someone who has disappeared from your list.”
3. Shop ahead — way ahead
Skip the mad dash, crazy crowds and high markups this year by shopping in advance of the Christmas season. One trick is to sprinkle your gift shopping throughout the year, so you can spread out your budget rather than blowing a ton of money in one frantic week. This approach will also allow you to buy gifts that are more personal and meaningful. Say you see a piece of jewelry while on summer vacation that would be the perfect gift for your sister. If you purchase it now, you’ll have one less gift to worry about later. “The best tip I can offer you for when to do your Christmas shopping is to do it as early as possible. Early Christmas shopping will pay dividends for your stress levels because you’ll be prepared well in advance, and you’ll have time to make other arrangements if things are out of stock,” says Chrissy Halton, founder of the website Organise My House. “The more you can plan the easier it will be to get things done — and you won’t run out of time!”
4. Treat yourself (later)
Resist the urge to buy yourself “just a little something” this holiday season. Last year self-gifting increased by 35%, as people looked to treat themselves more for all they had endured during the pandemic. Finance blogger Scott Alan Turner suggests instituting a “No shopping on Amazon for yourself rule” in December. Instead, his advice is to stick to your Christmas shopping budget by adding your must-have item to your wishlist instead of in your shopping cart. He explains, “If nobody buys it for you, pick it up on sale after Christmas for yourself."
5. Make your Christmas gifts
Speaking of going DIY, one tried-and-true approach to gift giving is to create handmade gifts for your loved ones. Not only will you save money by giving gifts with a personal touch, but homemade gifts also send the message that you care enough about the recipient to put your time and energy into making something special. Check out these 65 DIY gift ideas from the Pioneer Woman, including many gifts that can be made for less than ten bucks.
6. Know how to shop online
Even before the pandemic, a growing number of people were tackling holiday shopping online. A 2020 report from Deloitte confirms this, noting that Cyber Monday surpassed Black Friday in importance for shoppers across all age groups. Looking to maximize your online retail dollars? Test out these savvy strategies:
Leave items in your shopping cart. Be sure to sign up for an account with your email address on a website before loading up your cart, and never check out in the same visit. Retailers want nothing more than to get you over the finish line and will likely send coupon codes enticing you to complete the checkout process.
Use private browsing. Dynamic pricing is a tactic used by e-commerce companies to increase the price of a product that a consumer seems interested in buying. By using the private browsing option on your phone or computer, tracking tools and cookies can’t collect the information needed to justify a price gouge.
Always search for coupon codes. Most online retailers have coupon codes available. All you have to do is know where to find them. A quick Google search that includes the name of the store and “coupon codes” often does the trick. There are also third-party tools like Honey that will find the best Christmas shopping deals and automatically add them at checkout.
7. Buy discounted gift cards
There are plenty of retailers (think Sam’s Club and Costco) and websites that offer discounted gift cards for sale. Even if you aren’t a fan of giving gift cards for presents, you can use the funds to purchase other items on your list. We can’t think of a better example of how to shop smart this holiday season than buying $50 worth of gifts for just $35 — can you?
8. Research purchase incentives
Get more bang for your buck by purchasing gifts at stores that offer shopping incentives. Kohls, for example, gives shoppers $15 in store credit for every $50 spent around Thanksgiving (normally $10). You can use that extra money to buy gifts for others on your list.
9. Compare prices before you buy
Buying a gift at one store and finding it cheaper somewhere else is a quick way to kill your holiday shopping buzz. Avoid the headache of returns and exchanges by comparing prices before you purchase. If you don’t have the time or energy to do this on your own, there are plenty of apps or online comparison tools that will do it for you free of charge.
Yes, really! It’s not a cop-out if you’re mindful about it. Ryan Guina, founder of the website Cash Money Life, offers a well-thought-out set of rules for regifting that are easy to follow, such as only regifting items in new condition and good working order, never regifting items that were made specifically for you and taking the time to find the right recipient for the item you’re regifting.
11. Set expectations — or start a new Christmas tradition
Your family’s gift-giving traditions may be what everyone has come to expect, but that doesn’t mean they have to be set in stone. If you’re having a lean year, it’s a great time to sit down with your kids, talk about the family budget and let them know why everyone’s getting just one Christmas present this time around. What better way to teach kids about budgeting? Plus — and perhaps more importantly — you’ll be helping them learn that the holidays are about so much more than money. As for your friends and adult family members, remember that the holidays are supposed to be about togetherness, not pricey presents. In the long run, it’s probably more rewarding for everyone when you choose to spend time with — not money on — the people you care about most.
12. Host a gift exchange
If you've got a large circle of family and friends, you can save money by hosting a gift exchange. Instead of buying gifts for everyone, you can draw names to play secret Santa for one person. You can focus on finding a gift that will be meaningful to them and watching them open it will make you feel good. Alternatively, you can host a large group white elephant exchange. Each person brings a wrapped gift to contribute to a pool. One-by-one guests can choose to open a gift from the pool or "steal" a gift that's been opened by someone else. This format is especially fun with large crowds and loud people. Plus, everyone leaves with a gift and fun memories.
This time of year can be filled with joy, gratitude and hope for the new year. Giving gifts is one of many ways that you can make those you care about feel special. Capturing the magic of the season and enjoying time together is what’s most important, and if these tips help you keep more money in your bank account — all the better.