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A debt-free holiday?

The silly season is looming, but there's still time to achieve a cash-only Christmas.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 10, 2010 11:30AM
Here's a scary thought: Only 106 more shopping days until Christmas.

Some people are already finished, having stocked up at post-holiday sales last December. Others are happily turning out picture frames, socks or jewelry for a handmade holiday.

But what if you're neither organized nor particularly crafty, and broke to boot?

Don't panic -- plan.
  • Start saving now (better late than never), so you can pay for most or all gifts in cash.
  • Make a specific list rather than buying willy-nilly.
  • Question why you buy -- and bring others along for the ride.

You might be thinking, "Save money? I just about cover my bills as it is!" Visit a cost-savings site like BillShrink or LowerMyBills to see if you're paying too much for homeowners insurance, cell phone service, Internet access and other items.

Or even for gasoline: The folks at BillShrink note that fuel prices can vary as much as 50 cents per gallon in the same neighborhood. Finding the cheapest gas on or close to your regular route could save you $60 or more over the next few months. That ain't hay.


The infamous "latte factor" has, at its elitist-sounding heart, some truth: If you're willing to shift priorities even a little, you can save a lot. Do without your few small luxuries and set that money aside. It's temporary -- and besides, cutting your budget to the bone for a short period is a good financial fire drill.

How much and for whom?

How much do you need to save? Jeff at Deliver Away Debt suggests this tactic: Count the number of pay periods between now and the holidays. Figure out how much you want/can afford to spend (more on that below). Divide that figure by the number of pay periods. The result is your weekly or biweekly savings target.

This is also where a spending plan comes in. In "Plan your gift-giving to save time and money," Get Rich Slowly staff writer April Dykman suggests making a list of everyone you want to give gifts to each year. She did it as a spreadsheet, but not all of us are that organized; pen and paper works, too.

Keep the list handy in case you come across a screamin' deal. Write down what you just bought and cross that person off the list.

A more difficult question is how much money to allow for each present. This is particularly stressful if you've always felt the need to keep up appearances. How do you disengage from, say, a family tradition of multiple gifts per person?

In a post at Money Help for Christians, Craig Ford suggests having "an open and honest family (extended also) discussion" about holiday costs -- especially if that family is adding more in-laws, nieces, nephews and grandkids every year.

Suggest an alternative such as drawing names for single-gift giving. Ford says that if some people are bummed because you're not giving as much as you used to, "that is their issue, not yours."

A change will do you good

I've heard about families who decided to revamp their celebrations. They'll decree "all-homemade gifts," or "gifts only for those under 18 or over 80," or "no gifts, just an open house and bring a can of food for the food bank."

When you suggest such changes, you may be voicing a sentiment others were too embarrassed to bring up. (Don't be surprised if a few relatives thank you privately.) But start this discussion now, suggests Thursday Bram in this post at MoneyNing.

"Being able to talk about (changes) well in advance can be useful for winning over the rest of the family," she says.

Logistics are an issue, too, especially if yours is a large clan. Who's going to organize the name draws? Will there be a price limit? Can people opt to receive funny gifts vs. serious ones?

"Plenty of early warning is probably going to be important," Bram says.

Get creative

To sum up: You can still give. Just give within your means. For starters, don't rule out crafts even if you can't tell a crochet hook from a glue gun.

"Search online for easy ideas like simple ornaments, frames and food gifts," Dykman suggests. Photo sites like Snapfish make it easy to create scrapbooks, calendars, collages, jewelry and other gift items, she says.

Or just shop all year long, like the folks I interviewed for a Living With Less column called "Stock a closet with $1 gifts." They (and I) purchase some really nice things for practically nothing by employing frugal hacks such as clearance sales, online discount codes, thrift stores and free gift cards.

Sonya Ann, an Illinois woman whose family's budget is so tight it squeaks, nonetheless makes a long list each year. She fulfills it with homemade goodies and super deals that start with post-holiday clearance sales.

"Gift-giving is important to me," says Sonya Ann, who blogs at A Mom, Money and More. "We don’t spend more than $3 or $4 per family. What's four dollars?"

Not much at all -- if you've budgeted for it.

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