Keeping a budget during the holiday season can be a mighty challenge, as the best Christmas gifts can be expensive. When one thinks of “Christmas,” typically what comes to mind is abundance in many forms — an abundance of gifts, food and family. We know that 2020 has challenged each of these elements in different ways — through social distancing mandates limiting travel and family gatherings and the economic realities so many people are facing. It’s a tough time to be celebrating a holiday, and even those who are fortunate enough to have a steady job may still be missing their family this year.
Christmas in America is traditionally an exercise in excess (and I don’t mean that in a negative way), so is it really possible to do Christmas on a budget?
Christmas on a budget is absolutely possible, and it’s a challenge that many people take on each year regardless of the global economic situation. When I first started writing this piece, I asked for submissions from those in the retail world, small business owners and just regular people. I wanted to find creative, inventive and effective ways to celebrate the holidays without compromising your finances. I’m grateful for every response I received, and the magnitude of replies definitely reinforced how many people are feeling the negative effects of 2020 heading into the holidays.
I heard from many parents about the tips they have for families of all sizes wanting to make Christmas merry and bright on a budget. I also heard stories about the hard decisions and changes to traditions people are making this year. We’re definitely going to dive into tips in a second, but I wanted to share a few stories about Christmas money-saving strategies from real families. Remember as you read these stories that you aren’t alone, and a lot of families are finding budget-friendly ways to celebrate.
In our guide to planning Christmas on a budget, we’re going to cover a few important topics:
- Real stories about how families are changing holiday traditions this year
- What to do if you can’t afford Christmas gifts this year
- Where to find affordable Christmas decorations
- The best affordable Christmas gifts of the year
How Families Are Changing Traditions for Christmas 2020
Michelle Meredith, the founder of Bright Color Mom, has two small children, and she has celebrations on both her and her husband’s side of the family.
“This year, most of our family is ‘broke’ — we’ve lost jobs, or are still waiting to go back to work, or are on disability and unable to spend much anyway,” said Meredith.
“We usually have four different “Christmases” with various groupings of family. This year, three of the four are all playing the White Elephant game (it’s called different things in different regions). Each adult brings a gift that costs around $20 (though nobody complains if it’s less), then we all draw numbers out of a hat. #1 gets to choose a gift out of the pile and open it first. #2 can either steal that gift (then #1 would open another gift), or they can choose a new gift of their own. Each player can do the same to any previous player. We still spend more on any kids at the Christmas gathering, but only spending $40 [on other adults] is a steep drop from the $300 we would usually end up spending at each Christmas.”
Lots of families are making similar changes to traditions this year. If you’re making hard decisions about your Christmas budget, don’t be too hard on yourself. Whether it’s with the decorations, the presents under the tree or your celebratory meals, there are ways to pinch pennies everywhere. Having a merry Christmas on a budget is within your reach.
Robert Johnson is a father to two boys and founder of Sawinery, a website for saws and woodworking tips. Usually, Johnson and his family celebrate Christmas with a picnic in the park. This year, however, they made a new plan.
“My two boys love playing out in a wide greenish area. But this year, to ensure my family’s safety, my wife and I decided to stay safe at home.”
“Instead of a picnic, I’m planning to set up a camping area in our garden. Just to maximize the whole day and night. Usually, our Christmas highlights always happen in the daytime at the park, but this year I want my kids to be mesmerized by the sky at nighttime. My wife loves that cozy feel of bonfire together with her loved ones as much as I do. This is truly budget-friendly because all we need are a sturdy tent, wood for a bonfire, my wife’s warm, home-cooked meals and the company of each other. This time of the year is not just for presents, but the presence of each other.”
These stories of families pivoting and creating new positive memories during COVID-19 are inspiring and give me hope that this holiday season can still be enjoyable despite the challenges we face.
What If I Can’t Afford To Give Christmas Presents This Year?
This is a really tough situation to be in, but because of COVID-19, the closing of businesses and widespread layoffs, it’s a reality that too many families are facing. In extreme cases, you may come to the hard realization that you simply can’t afford to give people Christmas gifts at all this year. Likewise, some families are deciding to put their entire gift-giving budget into their children. That’s a simple sacrifice that parents can make to ensure their kids have a merry Christmas. You can also request that friends and family buy your children an extra gift rather than buying something for mom and dad.
If you can’t afford Christmas presents this year, then you’re probably feeling stressed — and maybe even a little ashamed. Those feelings can be powerful, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong, or that you deserve to feel guilty. Remember: beating yourself up isn’t going to make anyone’s Christmas even one tiny bit better. It’s a useless exercise, and there are so many other great Christmas traditions you can still celebrate — baking Christmas treats, watching your favorite movies, going to midnight mass, and spending time with loved ones.
Ask yourself this: is there anyone on your holiday shopping list who would rather you buy them an expensive present instead of paying your rent or gas bill? If any of your friends or family are that selfish, then they don’t deserve your generosity anyway! This has been an extremely hard year for so many of us; give yourself permission to do less this Christmas.
Maybe you’re worried about what your friends and family will think. If that’s on your mind, then here’s a simple step you can take to recognize this important holiday and show your loved ones that you care about them — even if you can’t buy presents this Christmas.
Instead of sending gifts, give your friends and family a hand-written card or letter explaining your situation and telling them how much they mean to you. The letter can say something like this:
As you know, this has been a very difficult year for me after [losing my job / facing medical bills / relying on our savings]. Unfortunately, the reality is that I can’t afford Christmas gifts this year without putting myself in a really tough financial situation. I hope you will understand this decision wasn’t easy.
I wanted you to know that I will still be thinking of you during the holidays, and that I love you so much. Your [friendship / emotional support / kindness] has always meant so much to me, and I want you to know I’m here for you. I hope that better times are ahead of us, and I can’t wait until we can celebrate together in the future. I hope we can talk soon, and I’d love to hear more about [your kids / your job / your holiday plans].
With love, [your name].
How To Save Money on Christmas Decorations
Along with holiday shopping, decorating is a crucial part of the lead-up to the Christmas holiday. Hopefully, you have Christmas lights, Christmas tree ornaments and family stockings stored somewhere. If you need to find new ways to decorate on a budget, we have some affordable options below. Electric bills are another factor in holiday costs as the winter season typically causes the second-highest surge in electric demand of the year, according to the Energy Information Administration, or EIA. This is due to a combination of heating as well as the electrical needs of holiday decorations.
One of the easiest ways to cut down on your electrical usage and still enjoy that holiday glow inside and outside your home? Use LED lights. LEDs use 75% less electricity than their incandescent counterparts and last longer as well. Likewise, you can find pre-lit artificial Christmas trees that let you save money on a 2-for-1 decoration.
Below, you’ll find some affordable Christmas decorations to get in the holiday spirit.
1. Twinkle Star Multicolor LED Fairy String Lights
This string of 200 LEDs is 66ft long and made of high-quality, commercial-grade LED bulbs. They require a 29V low-voltage plug and have eight different lighting modes including slow glow, slow fade, twinkle, flash, and steady on.
2. Warm White LED Christmas Lights
They make LED Christmas lights in every color variation, including standard warm white that creates that infamous glow you want from the holidays. This string is 105ft long and has 300 lights as well as end-to-end connection so you can string lights of all kinds together and connect from one plug. These waterproof lights are perfect for using indoor and outdoor and their tough construction makes them sturdy against the elements and potential damage when putting them up and taking them down. Because this string is longer than most Christmas lights, you can cover an entire tree or multiple areas of your home or yard.
3. Costway 4.5-Foot Pre-Lit Artificial Christmas Tree
This mid-size artificial Christmas tree is decorated with 150 warm white lights. It’s just the right size to fit into any home or apartment. Available at Home Depot, this tree can be shipped to a store near you or shipped for free to your home.
4. DIY Christmas Decorations on a Budget
Another great way to save money during the holidays is with DIY decor. There’s a lot you can make with your own two hands that doesn’t cost as much as new decorations, and by sprucing up and reusing something you already have you’re doing the environment a favor as well.
We got some great DIY decor tips from Kelley Clinkenbeard from Forte Mare, a PR agency that creates holiday gift guides. She explained that “even if you’re not the most artsy or crafty person, you can absolutely find super easy DIY decor hacks online.”
“You don’t need to spend a ton of money on holiday decorations – simply head to your local craft store. There are a ton of ways to use white paint and spray glitter to spruce up old decorations that you may have thought of throwing out. For example, my family has these old faux fruit decorations sitting in the garage from way back when. I simply spray painted them + added a sheer coat of glitter and boom – they’re instantly revived and perfect for making my own wreath.”
Acrylic paint is an excellent way to make affordable Christmas decorations. This set has high metallic pigmentation so it sparkles and has eight different colors including gold, silver, bronze, red and green — all of which are on-brand colors for the holidays. These colors can be used on indoor and outdoor decorations, and are safe for kids to use as well.
This red and green spray paint is perfect for indoor/outdoor use and can be sprayed on virtually any surface including wood, plastic, metal, wicker, ceramic and more. Give an old tree some fresh green color or liven up other decor around your house with fresh color easily. These sprays provide long-lasting color and dry in about 20 minutes so you won’t have to drag your project out over multiple days.
7. Winter Snowflake Decorations
These inexpensive snowflake decorations are elegant and add a white wintery touch to any space. Each 3D snowflake is made of high-grade pearl paper that’s waterproof and difficult to crease. Each strand has various snowflake sizes on one and the shiny simplicity of the look makes this a great holiday decoration without a high cost. Also, due to the ambiguous nature of snowflakes you don’t have to worry about leaving them up past the holidays since they’ll stay applicable all winter long.
8. Silver Tinsel Garland
Tinsel is another fantastic, cheap tool you can use to decorate your house and add instant holiday shimmer to a space without spending a lot on LED lights. This tinsel strand is 33 feet long and costs less than $10, so you can definitely cover a lot of ground on a budget, and the sparkly metallic silver color looks just like snow shining on the tips of trees. This garland is thick and definitely long enough to deck out a Christmas tree from head to toe, or you can cut it up and garnish book shelves, picture frames or other surfaces throughout your home.
9. Snowflake Window Cling Stickers
These decal stickers are another super affordable way to decorate your home from the inside and outside at the same time by decking out your windows with snowflakes. This pack includes eight different sheets you can distribute throughout your home, with 300 snowflakes total on all of them. They don’t use glue to adhere to surfaces and can be used easily anywhere — from glass windows to mirrors and even refrigerators.
10. Merry Christmas Banner
This quaint, adorable Merry Christmas banner is festive and has a unique vintage look that’s perfect for a fireplace, doorway or along the banister of your stairs. The red letters have green decor surrounding them for an added effect and the paperboard is distressed for another design element. The letters are strung on a green satin ribbon and stretch across 54″ when hung side by side.
The Best Affordable Christmas Gifts for 2020
No matter what you believe about the true meaning of Christmas, the holidays and gifts go hand in hand. But despite what you may think, it’s definitely possible to budget yourself and give meaningful gifts to your friends and family. Already, we’ve found tons of affordable Christmas gifts.
We got many submissions with thoughts, tips and insights into how to budget when it comes to Christmas gifts, and we want to share a few with you before we dive into some options.
David Cusick is an executive editor at the House Method, a comprehensive home improvement website that focuses on helping homeowners take care of their investment. He says that the “best way to start with gift-giving this year is to ask, what would this person have wanted at the start of 2020? There’s no denying that this has been a seminal year in nearly everyone’s life, and many of the changes we’re making are improvements for the future.” (Emphasis added.)
Since everyone is spending a lot of time at home, Cusick notes that we should all “look for items that improve your loved one’s home lives, especially things they may have neglected this year. Warm house slippers, cozy winter clothing, and snug blankets are all good options, especially as most people haven’t spent much on fashion this year.”
“Traditional gifts will stand out more this year thanks to the warm memories they create. Homemade items are also a good option — more so than any other holiday season. Taking the pressure off gift-giving by reducing the budget of your items is a win-win for you and your loved one,” said Cusick. (Emphasis added.)
Clinkenbeard also noted how shoppers should look to “invest in more meaningful gifts this year.”
“Instead of piling up on a ton of smaller, cheaper items to fill the stocking stuffers, opt for fewer, yet more thoughtful gifts. Quality over quantity,” said Clinkenbeard.
She also emphasized the importance of seeking out deals, shopping online and paying special attention to Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals this year.
We promise there are a ton of budget Christmas gift ideas and cheap Christmas gifts available that’ll satisfy everyone on your list. To jumpstart your holiday shopping and give you a leg up we’ve pulled a bunch of options here, and you can also refer to our other gift guides including the best gifts for her, the best gifts for men and Gen Zers.
1. Bake Christmas Cookies!
Sometimes, the best affordable Christmas gifts don’t come from a store. If you’re really on a tight budget, then instead of buying expensive presents, bake Christmas cookies or other homemade treats this year. There are plenty of yummy desserts you can bake on even a very tight budget. Here are some great Christmas cookie recipes to get you started.
2. Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Oh, Ina, she’s always there for us when we need her. This cookbook just came out in early October and is sure to be the toast of this holiday season. It’s a collection of modern, unique twists on childhood favorites that’s sure to warm the soul and keep your kitchen busy during the holidays (which is never a bad thing.)
3. New England Patriots Holiday Face Cover
This holiday face cover is themed with the New England Patriots and only costs $13. Hate the Patriots? We don’t blame you, and this face mask comes in themes for every other NFL team making, it a great Christmas gift for the sports fan in your life. They’re available for pre-order now and will ship no later than October 20th, so you’re sure to get it before the big day.
4. Mattel Star Wars Baby Yoda Plush Toy
Everyone wants Baby Yoda gifts, and he’s a safe bet for anyone on your list. This 11-inch plush toy is great for Star Wars fans and any sentient being who loves cuteness. It’s inspired by the character on the Disney+ show The Mandalorian, and has a soft plush body and a bean-filled base that’s great for cuddling and putting up on display.
5. Succulent Plant 5-Pack
Green thumb in the family? These succulents come hand-picked and sturdily rooted in 2-inch pots. They’re easy to care for and don’t require fertilizer so any pot you’d like to stick them in works. They make excellent home decor and each pack comes with a variety of species so your gift-ee can keep them all or pick their favorite.
6. Whiskey Glasses, Set of 2
These elegant, high-quality whiskey glasses cost less than $14 for a 2-pack, a bargain if you ask me. They feature a firm brim and the glass is lead-free. They’re also a standard size of 11 oz. making them perfect for Old Fashioned’s and other whiskey or bourbon-based cocktails.
7. Exploding Kittens Family Card Game
If you’ve never played Exploding Kittens, you’re missing out. It’s a unique card game that takes no time to learn but is endless fun. It’s basically kitten-laced Russian Roulette meets Uno and is perfect for 2-5 players, 7+ in age. Gift this to anyone in your family or friend group who loves games based on stupid humor, and the gift will keep on giving through all the games you’ll get to play.
8. Audible Subscription
Audiobooks are the next great frontier when it comes to fitting reading into your everyday life. An audible subscription is an affordable, easy way to gift someone the priceless experience of a great read. You can gift a full year’s subscription or just one month, it’s up to you.
9. Cresimo 24-Ounce Cocktail Shaker Bar Set
Happy hour, anyone? This cocktail shaker set costs less than $20 and comes with the essential tools for making countless delicious drinks any time. It’s made of superior 18/8 grade stainless steel and has a 24 oz. capacity, a great value at that price. This shaker is perfect for beginners and advanced drink makers alike, so anyone in your life who can appreciate a good cocktail will love this thoughtful budget Christmas present.
10. 2021 Planner
A planner is always a great gift because it’s practical and useful pretty much right away. This 2021 planner spans from January through December and features monthly and weekly pages so they’ll have their choice depending on what they prefer. It also has monthly tabs for quick referencing when needed, and the decorative cover makes it easy to identify.
11. Anker PowerCore 1000 Portable Charger
A portable charger is a must-have gadget for pretty much anyone, but especially those who travel a lot. Having a power bank can save the day when an outlet is not available or you don’t have time to wait. This is one of the smallest and lightest 10,000mAh portable chargers out there and can provide 3.5 iPhone 8 charges on one battery. It also has PowerIQ and VoltageBoost technology that team up to deliver the fastest charge possible.
12. TRUFF Gourmet Hot Sauce
This hot sauce got its cred in the culinary world by being named one of Oprah’s favorite things in 2019, and we can see why. It’s hot sauce infused with black truffles and will transform how you view hot sauces forever. It isn’t just heat, it’s a whole flavor experience that’ll level up any dish you put it in.
13. Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope
It’s the perfect gift of 2020, isn’t it? This book explores why the world is seemingly better than it’s ever been when it comes to freedom, health and wealth and yet everything is completely messed up. From the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, comes a new fresh perspective on our world today. He deconstructs our society from top to bottom with a special emphasis on hope. Anyone adult in your life will benefit from this read.
14. Cozy Slippers for Men & Women
This is one of our favorite budget Christmas gifts for 2020, and you can find great options for men and women for just $25. Below, you’ll find a great pair of fluffy slippers from Jessica Simpson, a shoe brand that you’ll find in department stores around the country. For men, you’ll want these Izod house slippers.