Image: Jar of change with holiday ribbon © Yoko Inoue, Getty Images

The average U.S. consumer will spend $515.94 on gifts for the 2011 holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.

What amateurs. Erin Huffstetler spends $100 or less on gifts for a husband, two kids and a couple of dozen other people.

The Tennessee resident hits yard sales and thrift shops, cashes in reward-program points, watches for coupons and other special deals, and scours the Internet for freebies.

Understand: She's not giving out tattered T-shirts and dime-store bath salts for Christmas. Here are a few of her frugal finds:

  • A new men's watch (still in the box), $3 at a yard sale
  • Godiva chocolate, free with Hallmark store coupons.
  • A complete set of Nancy Drew books (in hardcover), $2 at a book sale.

"It's all about patience with Christmas gifts: looking all year and being creative about finding them," says Huffstetler, who writes the Frugal Living Guide for

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

Even if you can't afford to spend much (or at all) this year, it's still possible to give. Like Huffstetler, you just have to get creative about how you do it.

The following frugal hacks are not one size fits all. For example, you might not have time to treasure-hunt in thrift stores. Do what works for you.

And yes, it's a little late in the season for some of these ideas. But you can start now for next year.

Why pay retail?

Stop thinking that "thrift store" equals "you cheap so-and-so." I've seen some beautiful items still in the shrink-wrap and garments bearing original department-store tags. Ask your local stores which days the new stock is set out, and watch for sales and special promotions.

Secondhand stores are a greener way to shop. But they're also a way to find unique items, according to Kelly Hancock, the author of "Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half and Raise Your Standard of Living . . . and Giving!"

"Look for nostalgia from your mom and dad's era, or retro decorative pieces for friends," says Hancock, who blogs at Faithful Provisions.

Yard sales may also feature plenty of retro items. Think "empty-nesters cleaning out the attic before downsizing." That season is long past in many parts of the country, but there's always the yard sale's indoor cousin, the rummage sale.

The more organized sales weed out the antiques and other valuable items, so truly super deals are less common. But a steal is in the eye of the beholder, and you never know what you're going to find. One of my favorite gifts to myself came from a rummage sale: the same kind of aluminum cookie press that my mother used. Seeing that familiar green box brought me to tears. The press still works beautifully and brings back many fond memories. Not bad for $3.

Why pay at all?

Kids outgrow toys and clothes fairly quickly. Instead of shopping, try swapping.

Is your kid is just discovering "The Cat in the Hat" while the child next door is so over Dr. Seuss? Maybe you've got items that his mom covets. Propose a trade.

Some parents' groups organize swap sessions regularly. If none exist in your area, create your own, informally with a few friends or by putting up a note at your child's school or your place of worship.

Or go online. Established swap sites such as Swapmamas and thredUP let you trade with people all over the country. You can also look for specific items, as opposed to roaming from thrift store to rummage sale to consignment shop.

Each swap site has its own way of doing things, so allow yourself time to learn the ropes. You may strike gold. An American Girl doll and a PlayStation game system were both traded last year at thredUP, according to spokeswoman Karen Fein.

Since grown-ups need thrifty threads, too, why not set up a BFF trading session? Think of it as "consignment store comes to my living room." This is also a great way to find deserving homes for scented candles, stationery, vases and other well-intentioned gifts that never got used.

Note: Since someone attending the swap may have given you one of those items in the first place, suggest a "no offense" policy. No offense, but I've developed an allergy to fragrances. No offense, but I no longer collect unicorns.

More ways to not pay cash

Free or reduced-price gift cards are a great way to stretch your shopping budget. SonyaAnn, a reader in Illinois who blogs at A Mom, Money, and More, snared several freebies this year:

  • A $10 Target card from Bank of America, for being a long-term customer.
  • A $15 AutoZone card, for buying more than $100 worth of replacement parts.
  • A $50 Visa gift card, for switching natural-gas suppliers.

Most of her shopping scrip comes from taking online surveys and through rewards programs such as Swagbucks and MyPoints.

She's not the only one. Swagbucks sees "a spike in redemptions across all categories" at this time of year, according to spokesman Scott Dudelson. Members cash in for gift cards but also for small gifts and stocking stuffers.

"Members (contact) us all the time letting us know that we paid for their holidays," Dudelson says.

Consumers may forget about other sources of gift cards, such as hotel loyalty programs or credit cards. Christine Frietchen of suggests frequent-flier miles as another gift source. If the miles will expire because you're not flying enough, why not cash them in?

"People may not realize that you can get other things with (miles)," says Frietchen, who's considering trading in 13,000 miles for a $100 Pottery Barn gift card.

That card could be used to shop or could serve as a stand-alone present. It could also be sold on the secondary market. (Read "Instant savings on holiday shopping.") Note that some of the money earned from such a sale would make a swell gift, too. A college student or an unemployed in-law would likely be happier with $25 cash than with another scented candle.

Stretch your buying power

Discounted gift cards pop up regularly on daily deal and social commerce sites. Up-and-coming sites are likely "to run (great) national offers to build their customer base," says Karen Hoxmeier of deal site That's why we've seen a rash of cards to places like CVS and Subway.

Overwhelmed by all the choices? Use a deal aggregator such as Yipit, Monster Offers or DealGator to get only the kinds of offers you'd consider (yes to pedicures, no to monster-truck tickets). You can sort by price as well as category.

You're generally not going to find über-cheap deals on a social-commerce site. Remember, we're talking about spending $100 total. But exceptions do exist. In recent months, SonyaAnn, of A Mom, Money, and More, has gotten several $10 CVS gift cards for $5 apiece from daily deal sites. She'll use them to shop for presents, stretching that buying power even further by using coupons, loss leaders and the CVS ExtraBucks loyalty program.

"Giving is important to me. It would just break my heart to leave somebody out," says the blogger, who buys for up to 75 people each year.

There's no CVS where I live, but I'll watch for deals at other drugstores. In the past, I've gotten loss leaders and free-after-rebate toys, makeup, fancy teas and a 64-count box of Crayolas. (Don't you just love that new-crayon smell?)

Is Black Friday worth it?

I'll be in the minority, though. According to a new survey from deal site Ebates, only 34% of Americans will shop at brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday. That's understandable, since the crowds are often overwhelming and may even be deadly.

Check the ads, and weigh the aggravation/risk. A few years ago a relative told me she wanted a shredder. My Christmas gift to her was free after a rebate at Staples.

Don't be a Black Friday bumbler: Organize your deals with price-comparison and coupon websites (read "Nab a $19 discount in 80 seconds"), and with free apps that do everything but stir your coffee.

For example,'s "Black Friday Deal Finder" sorts deals by price, notes the availability of free shipping and rebates, and will tell you whether an item can be had online versus waiting in line. You can even set the price to "zero," and the app will show all listed deals that are outright free or free after rebate.

Keep in mind that some great holiday deals won't happen right on Black Friday. According to trend mapping at, there's an 80% increase in online deal volume during Thanksgiving week.

And if you're still planning some online Black Friday shopping? Take a long nap after that turkey dinner. Most deals will start at midnight on Thanksgiving, CEO Loren Bendele says.

A word about re-gifting

Some people hate re-gifting, and others think it's a frugal/green alternative. Follow your conscience, and try not to get caught.

A few more tips:

  • "Shop" on social media. Freebies abound on Facebook and Twitter. (Read "Free samples: Candy to condoms.")
  • Use price matching. Go online to find the lowest prices, then print out your findings and take them to a store that will meet advertised prices, such as Target or Wal-Mart. "Get all your shopping done in one place," "Saving Savvy" author Hancock says. That will save you time, gas and money.
  • Watch for coupons. J.C. Penney often mails good ones, such as "$10 off any purchase of $10 or more." Hallmark puts coupons in magazines. Keep your eyes peeled.
  • Forget stamps. Send free e-cards instead of paper ones. I'm still snickering over the "Elf Yourself" animated greetings.
  • Forget wrapping paper. Use the Sunday funnies, and recycle them after Christmas morning. Don't get the paper? Harvest comics from coffee shops on Mondays.
  • Save those codes. I've used the My Coke Rewards program to get free gifts like movie tickets, a NASCAR cap, magazine subscriptions, a T-shirt and a set of barbecue tools.
  • The curse of the mom. That's the practice of using gift cards we got for our birthdays to pay for Christmas gifts for other people. If you're on a tight budget, do what you need to do.

The holidays are emotionally fraught, making it hard to step off the consumerist merry-go-round. Oh, you can talk a good game: Commercialism is ruining Christmas. There's no need for elaborate Hanukkah gifts. Kwanzaa should be about family.

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Yet you're subtly or overtly pressured to come across with the goods.

Maybe the noise comes from your kids. After all, they're bombarded with media e and peer pressure. It's up to you to set the standard over what we do and don't "need." (One way to do that is to turn off the TV.)

Maybe you're invited to big family gatherings that mean gifts for 30 people. Or maybe you're pressuring yourself, because, darn it, you like to give presents.

You can still do that. Just do it responsibly.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").