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8 hidden holiday costs -- and how to avoid them

It's too easy to rack up the bills this time of year. Here are some ways to enjoy the holiday season without busting your budget.

By Money Staff Dec 12, 2013 1:26PM

This post comes from Lou Carlozo at partner site DealNews.


DealNews on MSN Money When it comes to holiday spending, we're all about making the most of our budget -- and that means more than just getting great deals on wish list items. It's all too easy to go overboard with the holiday spirit, financially speaking, and while you might be acutely aware of how much you're spending per person, you might be unthinkingly dropping cash left and right on hidden holiday costs like wrapping paper and party gifts.


Santa Claus (© John Lund/Jupiterimages)No one wants to play Scrooge, but giving yourself the gift of debt is like getting coal in your own stocking. To avoid the burden of overspending this holiday, we recommend taking a look at these eight expenditures that offer wiggle room for extra savings.


Skip the wrapping paper

The EPA estimates that Americans throw away 25 percent more trash than usual during the holiday season, and much of that is wrapping paper. Spending money on high-end wrapping paper not only means you're tossing money into the trash, but you're also growing your local landfill. It's hard to find reliable estimates on how much Americans spend per household on wrapping paper, but with gift wrapping options typically priced between $3 and $13 per roll, it's easy to see how the costs add up. Add gift bags and tissue paper to the mix, and you might be looking at $100 or more just to wrap presents for a family of four.


To preserve the fun of unwrapping gifts from Santa, Julia "Bargain Babe" Scott suggests a dozen alternatives to wrapping paper on her blog, MintLife. These ideas run the gamut from using old cookbooks and children's books, to simple brown paper bags with one phrase written over and over. "Tis the Season to Be Green" sounds about right.


Don't get carried away with gift cards

As close as your local pharmacy, gift cards have become a very popular way to spread joy in December. Acording to the National Retail Federation, 81 percent of shoppers purchased at least one gift card last year holiday season and spent a total of about $157 on gift cards -- the highest amount in the 10-year history of the NRF's holiday consumer spending survey. From co-workers to kids' teachers and coaches, to the paperboy and sanitation workers, gift cards are easy and convenient ways of giving a little something to everyone.


Before getting carried away with the gift cards, though, do what master concierge Michael Fazio recommends with all forms of holiday gifting and tipping: Start with a defined budget and work backwards from there. If you know you have $100 to buy $10 gift cards, then list the 10 people you want to give to, and call it a day. If you play your (gift) cards right, you might even be able to stretch your budget to include free gift cards that come bundled with other purchases. If the Ghost of Christmas Guilt rears its ugly head, fire up the oven and bake some cookies for the folks you left off the list.


Greeting cards and postage can add up

Saving money in this category is tough because nothing beats the personalized touch of a hand-written holiday card. That said, you may live in a city such as Chicago, which has remarkably poor mail delivery. And how much are you paying for those fancy greeting cards anyway? If it's $3 to $5 a pop, plus stamps, think of how the cost of sending holiday cards can add up when the list grows into the hundreds.


If it's tradition to send out cards, you'd be well advised to find a Vistaprint coupon or discounts from sites like Cardstore. But remember, it's also possible to segregate your list and send some salutations electronically though services such as eGreetings. If you want to send a bunch of cards by mail, put the kids to work and make some custom cards. A handmade card costs less, but means a whole lot more. Or in the age of email and texting, consider an honest-to-goodness phone call. No greeting card can convey warm holiday wishes like the sound of your voice.


Transportation for shopping can guzzle gas

It's no surprise that lots of folks in lots of cars are driving to and from strip malls and shopping centers to finish up their holiday shopping. But what may shock you is how all that driving will empty your wallet, especially if you're not planning ahead. With the average cost of a gallon of regular gas hovering at $3.26, it costs about $50 to fill a 15-gallon tank.


The good news is that you've got plenty of cost-saving alternatives. The biggest gasoline saver? Shop online! You'll enjoy the casual, uncrowded atmosphere and still score great deals. Just be aware of shipping deadlines and steer clear of online stores with notoriously slow shipping times. However, if you've passed the point of no return, make it a point to arrange all of your holiday shopping in one driving expedition, neatly planned so that your stops follow a connect-the-dots route.


Keep tabs on gifts for party hosts

It's not unusual to receive a multitude of party invitations between Thanksgiving and New Year's, especially if you live in a major metropolitan area. Bringing wine for the hosts is a fine idea, but you could end up shelling out quite a bit of coin if you're bringing $15 or $20 bottles to each and every shindig. To cut back on costs, why not invest in your spirits upfront? By enrolling for free in the Zagat Wine Club you can take advantage of this Zagat Wine Club 15-Bottle Introductory Case offer that includes a selection of whites and reds. For just $69.99 (with $19.99 shipping and handling), that's $6 per bottle, $140 off, and the best price we've ever seen on this quantity of wine. But for other, non-alcoholic host and hostess gift ideas, here's a list of 15 hostess gifts under $5, including candle holders, card games, and photo albums.


Throw your own party on the cheap

Now the stocking is on the other foot, and you're the holiday host with the most. But that doesn't mean you have to spend too much. Catered affairs for a group of 20, even from a local supermarket, can get expensive: Even $10 a head adds up to $200, which likely doesn't include alcohol. So ask friends and family to contribute by bringing an entrée, side dish, or beverage. Assuming you can do some artful delegation and diplomacy, that should leave very few holes to fill on the menu, and a much smaller bill to reckon with come party time.


Limit your electricity usage for holiday lights

In some neighborhoods, Christmas and holiday light displays can get downright competitive. But as far as we can tell, no one is competing to have the highest electric bill. If you're curious as to how much you might be spending to run that 25-foot inflatable Santa, check out this holiday lights electricity cost calculator.


Cost estimates for holiday lighting will vary, but some overly-enthusiastic consumers will spend more than $50,000 total powering their displays. A more modest setup, however, might cost you an extra $30 to $50 in electricity, as well as the cost of a new prop or two. One way to save money over the long run is to invest in solar-powered Christmas lights ($19.98 with $4.98 s&h, a low by $1). While they cost more per strand than conventional lights, they won't cost you a dime on your utility bill, and are definitely more environmentally friendly.


Opt for DIY holiday decorations

We all want a cheery domicile come the end of December. Skimping on the decorations is definitely not called for, but neither is making a wreath out of $20 bills. Some of the best ideas for non-$20-bill homemade wreaths come from TLC Parentables, and include a shutter display that utilizes greeting cards from friends to add some holiday flair to your abode.


While the upcoming holidays are a time for cheer, they can also be money pits. We encourage everyone to have fun, and shop up a storm -- or a snowstorm, if you prefer. But make sure you show ample awareness for your bottom line as well. By reviewing your holiday costs and entertaining some painless ways to cut back, you can experience yet another gift that keeps on giving: a stack of paid-off credit cards and lower post-holiday bills.


More from DealNews:

Dec 22, 2013 11:05AM
My holiday cost, except for my wife, is less than 100 dollars.  I am simply refusing to be taken in by the hoopla and the gingles and the bells and whistle, and the smiles and the winks and the "yes, baby's" and the "sales" and such.  This year, for the fist time in my lilfe, no Christmas cards, no wrapped gifts, non of that.  I am having the best Christams ever so far.  Hardly go to stores, avoiding the crowds, staying away from the flu and coughs and sneezs as much as possible.  Christmas for me will be to celebrate the birth of Christ and that does not take money to do.
Dec 22, 2013 10:39AM
Dec 15, 2013 2:41PM
Spending the time with family and friends is the best gift you can give. The holiday season is Peace, Joy, Hope, and most of all LOVE.  Don't go over broad giving gifts that will be on sale one day later.  Give gifts all though the year and when the holidays comes just ENJOY THE SEASON~HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!!
Dec 16, 2013 2:59PM
For me, E-greeting cards get put right into trash, too many viruses are sent that way.  To save on that particular "holiday cost" how about not send a card to every person you have ever met, because sometimes a recipient will get one and no one knows who it is. 
Dec 22, 2013 2:36PM
I could sleep from mid Nov to mid Feb an not miss a damn thing, I hate this time of year.
Dec 22, 2013 4:29PM
Buy cards at dollar store.  2 for a dollar.  Always give cash money.  One size fits all.. No mall crowds. No traffic. No receipts to keep track of. No getting shot for my car..   Kids and grandkids never complain.  Neither does the ex
Dec 22, 2013 4:33PM
And what ever you not be generous or have any's all about how much money you get to keep.
Dec 22, 2013 2:33PM
I have the TWO greatest gifts known to man and I didn't have to pay for either.  The first is salvation.  The second is explained in Proverbs 19:14.  If you care to know, look it up.  The second part of that verse explains why I'm not in the Christmas racket this year.  I have come to know the very best gifts are those money can't buy.  I thank God for my two FREE gifts and each are a true blessing to me.  So, rush out and be demeaned by searching for that last minute "perfect" gift for someone or do as I have done and let the rush pass you by.  I have the two best gifts and I don't have to fight the crowds for them. Go home and be happy with the one you love, thanking God for His gifts to you.  Thank you, God, for my free gifts not just today but EVERY day!!!
Dec 22, 2013 5:35PM
I saw an artilce that asked something like "what celebrities give to non profits?" or something similar to that.  Are "celectrities" the only important people in this country?  What about the poor people? What about the average man and woman? I get sick of hearing about "celebrities.'   Oh, and the so called "beauties" look like trash to me.  The hometown girls are the most beautiful in existence!  And, if contributing to a "non profit" is honorable, then I give ALL working Americans a big applause!  If you paid a dollar in taxes this year, you have contributed to a non profit...the US Government!!!!!!!  The US Government makes no money.  They only Take money. 
Dec 23, 2013 1:26AM
A box of 20 cards can be purchased from dollar stores.  Wait until after to buy LED lights, decorations and other holiday stuff massively discounted.  The idea that EVERYBODY you deal with (milkman, newspaper deliverer, teachers, hair dresser, etc) 'needs' a gift is ridiculous.  If you must--try thrift stores:  photo albums, frames, ugly sweaters and knick-knacks of all sorts can be found, and it probably won't be the first time some of that stuff has been under the tree.  The worst 'gift' is to have a donation made in your name to a charity you're not comfortable supporting--thanks Dad.

Dec 22, 2013 5:28PM
I am sitting here listening to "American Honey" and letting the world pass me by!  Like McDonald's, "I'm lovin it!"  I imagine town  is shoulder to shoulder with those rushing to get that special gift  for junior and missy, for mom and pop, for granny and pooper poppa and for the loves of thier lives.  The stores are gladly listening to the ding, ding, ding of the cash registers as the credit card bills rise.  I'm here in my undies enjoying the afternoon knowing town won't be happy with me.  No cards, no wrapping paper, no gifts (other than a very few cash gifts totaling less thatn 100 dollars) saving on gas and time.  I imagne some spend more than 100 bucks on gas picking uut gifts for months!  Nope, not me.  I'm not contributing more to taxes.  Kerry is giving YOUR money, not more of mine.
Dec 22, 2013 8:04PM
UPS has really screwing up. I'm 0 for 2 as far as packages getting delivered when they said. And it's worse when they pass 'em over to the stupid postal service. Why should it take two additional days, when the post office is five minutes away from me, to get my package delivered?
Dec 22, 2013 8:46PM

AVOID OBAMACARE!!! That is a HUGE cost to have to pay just when those credit card bills from holiday shopping begin to roll in. Stupid socialists!!!

Dec 22, 2013 2:23PM
Wednesday morning, If God is willing, I plan to wake up with my wife, thank God for her, maybe sleep in a little longer, get up and have breakfast, maybe look outside and see what the weather is doing, possilby later in the day just get out and drive around seeing all the new bicycles on the street, seeing the smiles on the faces of children, seeing the new basketballs bouncing all over the road, going slowly trying to watch for all the unguarded small children playing in the road (do I need to say un-parented) seeing all the waste of electricity for lit up yards and crazy looking sleds made of weathered plywood, and when I'm ready, return back home with the one I love and thanking God for her again, remembering the verse in Proverbs that basically says a good wife is from the Lord. And, I'll be happy knowing I spent less than 100 dollars.
Dec 22, 2013 7:58PM
The ultimate gift other than the coming of Christ for his people this Christmas would be for Obama to resign for the good of America and the world on Christmas day. Period.
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