The best thing about the holidays: We get a free pass to down one too many hot toddies, say yes to an extra slice of cheesecake—and shop like your last name is Kardashian.
The worst thing about the holidays: We have to deal with the aftermath of those celebratory drinks, sinful desserts and shopping sprees. And it ain’t pretty.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
While we can’t do much to help you avoid a pounding headache or lose extra holiday pounds, we’ve definitely got your back when it comes to sidestepping a budget bender.
And we can all use a little help in this department.
According to an Accenture survey, 40% of us plan to spend more on holiday shopping this year than we did in 2014. (That is, if we even keep track of our spending—a separate Deloitte survey found that more than half of us don't even have a holiday budget to speak of.)
As a result, we can find ourselves suffering from major sticker shock when that first credit card or bank statement of the New Year arrives.
To buffer you from a nasty spending hangover, we asked experts in the three areas—gifts, food and travel—that tend to have the biggest impact on our wallets during the season for their holiday spending and budgeting tips.
Here’s hoping their hacks can help you keep the ho, ho, ho in your holiday fun.
Get Rid of Your Gifting Hangover
It’s easy—and very common—to get caught up in the buy-buy-buy holiday mentality. According to a Gallup poll, people expect to spend an average of $830 on gifts this season—a $110 increase over last year.
“People often find themselves in a time crunch around the holidays, and just want to get shopping over with. As a result, they end up grabbing whatever they can at the last minute, don’t comparison-shop, and spend more than they should,” says national gift-giving expert Robyn Spizman, author of "When Words Matter Most."
In addition, there’s a lot of emotional drama that goes along with holiday gift giving. “People think that if they buy an expensive gift from a big brand, the recipient will like it better,” explains Spizman.
But there are ways to avoid getting caught up in the gifting frenzy—and still make sure those stockings are stuffed. Take Spizman's favorite gifting tips.
1. Emphasize the thought, not the cost. When you think back to the best presents you’ve received over the years, chances are it wasn’t an item that broke the bank, but rather had a sentimental twist to it.
“There are a lot of powerful gifts that cede financial value,” Spizman says. Case in point: She knows a young girl who baked a big batch of her deceased grandmother’s famous cookies for Christmas, packaged them in pretty tins for family and attached a laminated recipe card—along with a memory about her grandma written on the back.
Stores will often mark down older merchandise to free up space right before new inventory arrives—and you can score first dibs on the discounted goods.
With that in mind, one of Spizman’s go-to gifts is a biography about someone who reminds you of the recipient. For instance, she once gave a coworker a book about Albert Einstein, with a card saying, “It takes one to know one!” (Genius, right?)
Or scour your attic or closet for presents with sentimental value, like a childhood baseball card collection, a beautiful tie that belonged to a beloved uncle who passed away or a set of heirloom mint julep cups for a newlyweds’ first holiday together.
2. Personalize it. Another way to slash costs without skimping on specialness is to have an inexpensive gift tailored to the recipient. Spizman likes these three e-tailers for their levels of customization:
For the sweets lover on your list, ChocolateOohLaLas.com creates handmade confections (starting at just $3.95) wrapped in gorgeous packaging, with festive confetti and a custom message.
A stylish friend will appreciate a chic monogrammed item—like platters, coasters or stationery—from MiloGiftShop.com.
And to satisfy kids of all ages, FreckleBox.com offers one-stop shopping for affordable, personalized versions of everything from coloring books to growth charts.
3. Shop when your favorite store stocks up. If you do decide to shop the traditional way, it pays to be strategic about the timing of your purchases.
“Ask a salesperson when new shipments will arrive,” Spizman says. That’s because whether you’re purchasing clothes or electronics, stores will often mark down older merchandise to free up space right before new inventory arrives—and you can score first dibs on the discounted goods.
If you’ve got your eye on a particular gift, you might even ask your new salesperson turned BFF when that specific item will be going on sale—Spizman once saved 40% by waiting just one extra day to purchase an outfit.
Forgo the Financial Food Coma
Feeding a party of 25 for the holidays can take a serious bite out of your budget.
“We all want to make the holidays memorable, so we’re often willing to go to a little extra expense to be sure everyone has their favorite treats—and inviting additional people to your table can also increase costs,” says Mary Ostyn, mom of 10 and author of "Family Feasts for $75 a Week."
In fact, holiday home-entertaining costs are expected to surge by 10% this year compared with last, according to the Deloitte study. So how do you eat, drink and stay monetarily merry when the grandparents, cousins and neighbors happen to invite themselves over?
Start by shopping savvier. Ostyn offers her favorite ways to make a mean meal on a lean budget.
4. Keep your eyes peeled for grocery deals. It’s not just gifts that go on sale during the season. There are plenty of holiday grocery bargains to be had too, says Ostyn.
“Stores know that if they can lure you in with sales on entertaining needs like turkey, butter and flour, chances are excellent that you’ll also buy what’s not on sale while there,” she explains. “Main dish items tend to be at some of their lowest prices of the year now—often 40% off items such as turkey—and baking staples can be 25% cheaper than usual.”
For the holiday dinner, turn to low-cost basics for the bulk of the meal, and then add a few posh touches to give the festivities a luxe vibe.
Your smartphone can also save you bucks. Ostyn says her friends swear by Walmart’s Savings Catcher. Scan your Walmart receipt, and the app will compare the prices of everything you bought with local competitors. If the app finds a better deal, you’ll be issued a Walmart gift card for the difference. Not bad!
Another app to download if you’re feeding a crowd is Boxed. Essentially a high-tech version of Costco, you can purchase deeply discounted bulk merchandise that's delivered to your door within one day—no membership required.
A third must-have app for frugal shoppers, Favado, alerts you as soon as your favorite grocery items go on sale at shops in your area.
5. Get frugal—and fancy—with your feast. For the holiday dinner itself, try this dollar-stretching tactic: Turn to low-cost basics for the bulk of the meal, and then add a few posh touches to give the festivities a luxe vibe.
For example, top deviled eggs with a sprinkling of caviar, or drizzle a bowl of popcorn with truffle oil. When it’s time to imbibe, serve a sparkling wine cocktail by mixing two cups of pomegranate juice and a little lemon juice with a bottle of prosecco or cava—two less pricey alternatives to champagne.
6. DIY your big family meals. Have guests staying at your house and need to feed an army for a week? “Don’t feel like every meal has to be spendy and meat-heavy,” Ostyn says, adding that food “bars” (taco bar, salad bar, pizza bar, etc.) are a cost-effective and easy way to satisfy a group.
One fun idea: Bake a bunch of potatoes and put out bowls filled with shredded cheese, sour cream, crumbled bacon, green onions, peppers and olives so guests can customize their own spuds—and have some family fun at the same time.
Travel Without the Guilt Trip
Vacation costs add up no matter where or when you take off. But throw the holiday price surge into the mix and expenses can soar sky-high.
Luckily, whether you’re spending December catching rays in Mexico or visiting Aunt Gertrude in Knoxville for her famous Christmas stuffing, there are brilliant ways to be fiscally responsible while having a blast.
We asked Marybeth Bond, author of multiple National Geographic travel books and founder of GutsyTraveler.com, for her favorite cost-saving hacks.
7. Find ways to save on fuel. What you can’t save on airfare during the holidays (unless, of course, you booked months in advance), you can make up for it when you hit the ground.
“If you’re driving, fill your tank before you leave home,” Bond says. “You know where to get the cheapest rates in your town, and highway gas stations tend to be pricier.” And try to keep your trip leisurely—according to Bond, aggressive driving lowers fuel efficiency by 33% on the highway and 5% in the city.
Bond suggests hitting up local happy hour specials—you can even download the Happy Hours app to find nearby food and drink deals—so you can enjoy the holiday spirits without shelling out more for them in a five-star setting.
If you’re renting a car, you can also reduce costs by using an agency that’s not located at an airport. “I saved 30% by taking a quick shuttle from the airport to a rental location a few minutes off-site,” Bond says.
To further cut back on gas costs, you can also request a hybrid model, which could deliver up to 35% improved gas mileage over conventional cars, particularly if you’re planning to spend a lot of time on the road.
8. Look to tourist sites for lodging. When searching for a hotel, your first stop should be the official visitors’ websites for the areas where you want to stay.
“Many people don’t think to check them out, but they’re a terrific resource, with links to hotel discounts, family deals and bargain attractions—like free museum days and concerts,” Bond says. “And they often offer cheaper rates on small inns and bed and breakfast options that many bigger discount sites don’t include.”
These sites can also clue you into alternative neighborhoods that might have appealing and affordable accommodation options.
“I went on a trip with my family to D.C., and we stayed at an inn in the nearby suburbs,” Bond says. “We paid much less than we would have in the city proper, and simply took the metro into town after breakfast—a fun adventure in its own right.”
9. Find ways to dine on a dime. Heading out of town for the holidays can also mean that you'll probably be eating out more often—especially if you don’t want to spend every meal between Christmas and New Year’s eating Grandma’s leftovers.
If you’re staying in a hotel, Bond says, try to find one that offers a free hot breakfast buffet, like Marriott or Holiday Inn. “You can eat a big breakfast and then just have a light snack or picnic for lunch,” she suggests. “Or look for accommodations with a fridge so you can prepare some of your own meals.”
For the fancy restaurants, avoiding the usual dinnertime rush can also save you some big bucks. “If you want to have a fine dining experience, make a lunch reservation instead of dinner,” Bond says. “You’ll still get to sample the wonderful food, but since there’s often a prix fixe menu, you can expect to spend about 50% less than you would during dinner.”
Bond also suggests hitting up local happy hour specials—you can even download the Happy Hours app to find details about nearby food and drink deals—so you can still enjoy the holiday spirits without shelling out more for them in a five-star setting.
Just make sure to pace yourself—these hangover hacks won’t cure tomorrow’s four-martini fatigue.