Every time I see photos from one of those huge New Year’s Eve parties, it doesn’t look anyone is really having any fun. Between the crowds packed in everywhere, the desperation to have fun, and the overpriced drinks and cabs, it seems like more trouble than it’s worth.
Instead, I spend the holiday with friends. It’s not quiet, but it is fun, affordable, and safe. Here are my tips for saving money while having fun this New Year’s Eve.
Hang Out With Friends
As I said, I’ve hung out with friends almost every New Year’s for the last 18 years. Most years, we rotate hosting duties so one person isn’t stuck with the clean-up year after year. For several years, we also brought sleeping bags and slept wherever the party was. It was much safer than driving home at two AM.
Pool Your Resources
In addition to rotating hosting duties, we also celebrated pot luck style. Most people brought munchies and alcohol. Nearly everyone brought champagne. For big blow-outs like the Millennium, my husband and I hosted it and simply asked everyone attending to kick in $20. We went to Costco and spent all the money we collected on booze and food for the party. It worked out perfectly. We had a couple no-shows, but his roommates (we weren’t married yet) were more than happy to buy the leftover beer from us.
Have a Theme Party
A few times, we’ve held theme parties for New Year’s. One year was a tacky prom. We all bought thrift store clothes from different decades and danced to throwback tunes. We dressed up a little for the Millennium and held an End-of-the-World theme. The year we all turned 21 featured a huge assortment of all the alcohol we were now legal to buy.
Avoid Pricey Clubs
I see all sorts of NYE galas advertised at the end of the year. They just don’t seem worth it. Most cost at least $50, with many upwards of $100. Many also require you to buy a dress or rent a tux. Then you get to eat rubber food and enjoy overpriced champagne at midnight. A friend who once attended one of these parties said it wasn’t worth the cost. On top of that, she also reserved a room upstairs for the ball, which cost triple the normal rate and had a miserable view.
Avoid Las Vegas
Another friend went to Las Vegas for New Year’s. He said it was completely miserable. There were lines everywhere, he couldn’t get in anywhere, and the cabs were full. He spent all night just trying to get somewhere so he could have fun, and paid double the room rate for the privilege.
Avoid Times Square
My husband was once invited to a party overlooking Time Square, but the street was blocked off and they couldn’t get there. Instead, he and his friend spent the evening standing in the cold with all the other people waiting to watch the ball drop. He says it wasn’t worth it, especially after they tried to go into a bar to go to the bathroom and wound up paying a $30 cover charge.
Of course, all of the above probably makes me sound like a New Year’s Eve spoilsport, but I’m really not. When I spend the evening with friends, I have fun and save money. As a bonus, I’m not so hung-over that I can’t get up to watch the parade in the morning.
If you were counting on a holiday bonus or tax refund to pay off your holiday charges, you may not be able to. According to Hewitt Associates, 63% of companies surveyed don’t plan to give holiday bonuses this year. Due to the credit crunch, many businesses that previously offered bonuses have had to forgo them or scale them back. There’s a silver lining – many companies are switching to performance-based bonuses during the year – but that won’t help you now. To add to the burden, tax refunds may be delayed by up to seven weeks because of the late passage of the alternative minimum tax patch.
So, rather than that January or February payment you planned on making, it could have to wait until March. That means you’ll be racking up credit card interest on your holiday purchases for three months. Depending on your APR, that could total an additional $50 or more that you hadn’t budgeted for.
If you face this situation, use the first three tips to reduce the interest costs this year, and then use the second three tips to avoid interest next year.
Three Interest Rate Reduction Tips
Ask for an interest rate reduction. If you have a good record of on-time payments, call your credit card issuer and ask them to reduce your interest rate. If you have a balance transfer offer in hand, tell them that. They may be willing to match the offer.
Do a balance transfer. Search for a card with 0% interest and no balance transfer fees. Even if the offer is only good for six months, that should be long enough to get your refund and pay off the bills, or to cut expenses in other areas so you can pay the holiday bills. You may also receive offers from credit cards you already have. If so, then using one of those instead of adding a new card to your credit report might be a better option.
Take a loan from your emergency fund. Normally I don’t recommend raiding your emergency fund for expenses like this, but this year, you may want to borrow the money for now and then replenish the fund when your refund comes.
Three Tips for Avoiding Interest Next Year
Change your withholding. If you get a tax refund every year, then you’re having too much withheld from your paycheck. There’s no reason to give Uncle Sam an interest-free loan. Instead, use the withholding calculator at IRS.gov to determine how much you really need to withhold, and then file a new W-4 with your employer.
Create a Christmas account. A few decades ago, employers and banks let people create Christmas savings accounts. Most of those have been discontinued, but you can create one on your own. The easiest way is to set up an account at an online bank. Rather than spending the increased amount you received from reducing your withholding, deposit it in the savings account. You may also wish to deposit performance-based bonuses into the account. Then you can use that money to pay cash for Christmas and holiday expenses or to pay your credit card bills as soon as you receive them.
Set a budget and stick to it. Overspending is one of the reasons many people have to pay credit card interest on holiday expenses. Next year, set a budget for your holiday expenses, create a Christmas shopping list, and stick to it.
I think at one point I was receiving a
Choose Your Catalogs
That’s why I was so thrilled to discover Catalog Choice. Many major catalog retailers participate in their FREE program. Now my catalogs make a stop at my desk before hitting the recycling bin. I go to the Catalog Choice website, find the catalog in the list, enter the info from the address label, and then toss the catalog. Catalog Choice then contacts the mailer to stop the catalogs I no longer want. You can do this with all of the catalogs you receive, or you can choose to only stop a few.
If you stop junk mail from the DMA service I mentioned yesterday, that will include many of the catalogs, but it may be faster to use Catalog Choice.
Unfortunately, not all catalogs participate in Catalog Choice, so you might still have to make a few phone calls to stop all your catalogs, but this will save you at least some of the hassle, and help you resist the shopping temptation they create so well.
At this point, the bulk of the mail I receive is junk mail. I switched to online billing, which means all those letters I receive from my banks are annoying balance transfer or cash advance checks and loan offers. I also receive numerous offers for new magazines, credit cards, and clubs.
As I see it, junk mail is intended solely to part me from my money. Those bank checks come with hefty fees and interest rates. The loans are rarely good offers. I don’t need more magazines or another credit card. I’ve tried book and music clubs and they’re always more hassle than their worth.
So I said stop! Going into the new year, I’m writing to the services to stop my junk mail. I just don’t need it in my life. If I want a balance transfer, I know how to find one online. If I’m interested in a new magazine, I’ll buy a copy and send in one of the 600 reply cards inside. If I want to buy a book, I’ll get it from the library.
If you want to stop junk mail, here are the steps you should take:
- Contact the Direct Marketing Association . Complete the form and pay $1 to be removed from most catalog and junk mailing lists. This will stop 75% of your non-banking junk mail.
- Credit bureaus are also happy to sell your data. Stop those credit offers (which are a source of identity theft), by contacting Opt Out Prescreen or by calling 1-800-5OptOut. This service is free and operated by the three major credit bureaus.
- Don’t submit warranty cards. Most of the time, it’s unnecessary to have one on file to make a warranty claim. Most companies also use those cards to add you to mailing lists.
- When you move, update your address with the two above services because filing a permanent change of address form triggers junk mail. If possible, don’t fill out the form. Instead, email an address update to your friends and relatives and contact companies you do business with to change your address directly.
- It won’t stop junk mail, but also place yourself on the Do Not Call list or by calling 888.382.1222. It will stop most marketing calls, but remember that charities, political groups, and companies you’ve done business with in the last 18 months can still call you. If you’d like those calls to stop, ask to be removed from their list when they contact you.
- Some email advertisers have also agreed to use the Direct Marketing Association to avoid unwanted contact. Join the Email Preference Service to stop some junk email, but remember that most spammers don’t use it. Hitting those “remove me from your mailing list” buttons often result in you being placed on MORE lists, so you should only use them for stores you recognize.
- Return privacy notices. All your creditors are now required to send you an annual privacy notice. Many include a reply form in which you can indicate you preference. Be sure to send it back with the appropriate box marked.
- Don’t enter online sweepstakes. Most of those companies will harvest your information. If there’s a box instructing them not to send you offers, it may be safe, but don’t be surprised if new junk mail starts to arrive.
Now you may be wondering how stopping junk mail will save you money. It’s simple – you won’t be tempted by offers you receive in the mail. Most of the services who advertise by mail cost more than the services you could find yourself. If you are in need of a service, call and ask if they’re offering any specials. The answer will nearly always be “yes.”
You also won’t be tempted to use those convenience checks, and you won’t risk someone else using them to steal your identity.
I can’t wait to stop receiving junk mail. When I was a little girl, I always looked forward to getting the mail, but now that I’m an adult, it’s annoying to open a full box only to find a bunch of mail I have to recycle or shred. Just think of all the paper we would save, and the energy required to recycle it all, if we stopped junk mail altogether!
I love to bake. I used to make a lot of cookies and other holiday treats, but now I’ve discovered the joys of truffle making. Still, if you love baking, you’ll love these tips for saving money on holiday baked goods.
Buy In Bulk
This time of year, you can get bulk prices on flour, sugar, and other necessary ingredients at the regular supermarket. You’ll find five-pound bags of flour for 63 cents and sugar is the same. If you have a membership to a warehouse store, you can save even more there. The key is to scan the weekly ads in your local paper – when you see the big Thanksgiving or Christmas sale, swoop in to stock up on all your baking supplies at the regular store. If you don’t find good prices, visit the warehouse store. They’re especially good for large containers of spices like nutmeg and cinnamon that cost a fortune at the supermarket.
As an added bonus, warehouse stores also have large flats of eggs for far, far less than the grocery store. If you’re going to need a few dozen, either look for a two-for-one deal at the grocery store, or visit the warehouse store the morning of your big baking day.
Make Your Own Icing
Most stores make the basics cheap because their hope is that you’ll spend lots of money on sprinkles and other toppings, but you can make royal icing much cheaper with powdered sugar, egg whites, vanilla, and food coloring. Frosting is simple to make, too. Fresh frosting also tastes much better than canned frosting.
Baked goods like cookies and brownies freeze amazingly well. If the only convenient day to bake is a few weeks before the holiday, that’s fine. First, clear the freezer. Next, assemble sheets of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil or extra baking sheets. You’ll also need parchment paper. Once your cookies have cooled, line a baking sheet with clean parchment or get out the wrapped cardboard. Lay your cookies close together on top. If you need to stack them, lay another parchment sheet on top of each layer. Don’t stack iced cookies that haven’t hardened yet.
Set the trays in the freezer for an hour, and then transfer them to gallon-size zip-top freezer bags. Now you’ll have them in neatly organized groups when it’s time to pack them in tins or basket for a party or gift.
Baked goods like pies and cakes are more challenging to freeze, so you should probably make them the day you need them, but you’ll still save money if you can buy the supplies in bulk well before you need them. If you need to store the supplies, put them in large plastic containers to keep them fresh and dry. They’ll be good for at least six months, or more.
I’ll admit that I gave up on flying for holidays nearly a decade ago. My family lives six hours away, and I eventually found that it’s cheaper and easier to drive. I did fly for several years, however, and picked up a few tips for saving money on holiday travel. These tips may even save you a bit of time.
Use Airline Miles to Fly
If you need to book flights for your holiday travel, planning ahead is the best way to save money. This won’t help you this Christmas, but it will help you next Christmas. If you plan to use miles and want to use the smallest amount necessary, plan to book in January or February. Most airlines release frequent flyer seats 333 days ahead of the flight. If you want to be sure you get the flights you want, call the airline January 1 to find out when they’ll be releasing seats for next December.
If you’re willing to spend more miles, most airlines offer “anytime” miles. You can book as late as the day before the flight, but you may also have to pay a fee. If you plan to fly during the peak holiday season and don’t book soon enough, this may be your only option.
Shop for Flights Online
If you can pay for your holiday flights, use sites like Kayak and Sidestep to research prices. If you can wait until three months before your flight to book, use Farecast. It predicts whether prices for your flight will rise or fall during the next three months. If you’re traveling for Christmas, it’s a safe bet the price will rise, so you might as well book now. You can also try Priceline, but overbooked airlines may not need to release seats to discounters during the holidays so your options may be more limited.
Try Alternative Airports
Often, an alternative airport may not be that much further away that your primary destination, but the price will be much lower. For example, flying to Burbank or Ontario instead of LAX can save you a few dollars. For New York, check Newark and Islip. Ask relatives in your destination which airports might be good alternatives for you.
If possible, book a nonstop flight. Not only will you avoid long delays if your connection is in a storm region, but you won’t find yourself overpaying to eat unhealthy airport food while you wait for your flight.
Be Flexible in Your Holiday Travel Dates
For short flights, you can fly early on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You’ll avoid the airport rush and probably save money on the flight itself because fewer people fly those days.
Avoid Airport Parking
Don’t even bother taking your car to the airport. Airport slots fill up fast during the holidays and even the off-site private lots may be full before you arrive. Instead, book a shuttle several weeks in advance. Most offer discounts for multiple passengers from one location. Supershuttle offers a discount for AAA members and you can book online. Check the AAA site for your region to find your discount code.
Avoid Baggage Charges
Carefully check the baggage limits for your airline before you leave. If you have many gifts to bring, consider mailing them a week ahead of your arrival. Not only will you avoid having your gifts stolen by airport employees, you won’t get socked with a $50 or $75 excess weight charge at the airport.
Book Hotels Early
If you plan to stay in a hotel the night before your flight or in the middle of a long drive, book your hotel early. That will ensure you get a good room rate. If you wait until that day, they may quote you the rack rate because they know you’re desperate. If you’re driving, plan your stop in advance. Although most roadside motels are part of chain, prices vary. You may also find that there’s no room at the inn when you’re ready to stop if you don’t book ahead.
Holiday travel is challenging no matter what you do, but the money you save by planning ahead may be the one bright spot in that holiday flight.
My family lives several hours away, which means my husband and I have a long drive every major family holiday. Fortunately, we live in California, so the weather isn’t usually an issue, but it can be in certain sections. We’ve also taken road trips, though, and I learned how to plan drives to reduce time, stress, and expenses.
Check Your Route
Even if you’ve taken this particular drive many times, check the route online before you live. If you live in California, CalTrans has a road conditions website that reveals planned closures so you can either go around them or expect a long wait. You should also check the weather on the whole route so you can be aware of fog, snow, or rain warnings. It’s also a good idea to know some alternative routes for long drives. At this time of year, snowstorms or road damage can occur suddenly. Having a backup route ready can help you avoid a traffic snarl.
Pack Some Snacks
Road snacks are guaranteed to cost at least double what you could buy them for at home. Before you leave, visit the grocery store to buy a multi-pack of water bottles with squirt nozzles and your favorite snacks. Finger foods like cut vegetables, crackers, trail mix, and popcorn are best, but you can also try granola bars. If you’re the driver, ask someone to unwrap your food for you. If you live near Trader Joe’s, they have a great selection of pre-packaged snack foods at affordable prices, but your local grocery store works, too. If you have a lot of time, you could pop a big bag of popcorn that morning or make your own trail mix.
Charge Your Cell Phone
Make sure your cell phone is charged before you get on the road. Many counties have removed their highway call boxes and you don’t want to be stranded on the highway hoping a trucker or cop will stop to help you.
Pick Your Tunes
We have a large collection of CDs, so we fill a CD travel case with our favorites. During Christmas, we usually include a few holiday CDs along with good driving music. We usually listen to traffic radio when we’re leaving LA, but once we’re on the open road we pump up the tunes.
Pack Games or DVDs
If you’re traveling with kids, bring games or DVDs and a DVD viewer. When I was young, DVDs weren’t invented yet so we brought travel versions of Connect Four and magnetic games. We also brought a pack of trivia cards to ask each other questions. When we were smaller, we either colored or made shapes out of colored pipe cleaners. My cousins also have a long drive for Christmas, so they bring a selection of DVDs because their minivan has a screen in the backseat.
I don’t have carsickness, but if you do, make sure you pack your medicine!
I’ll admit, this is more challenging for Christmas, but it does apply to long drives at other times of the year. Most highways have lovely rest stops with picnic tables and shade. If the temperature is reasonable, you can stop there to eat your lunch instead of buying pricey and unhealthy fast food. You’ll also save time because most fast food places will be packed. At Thanksgiving, we pack turkey sandwiches and chips for the drive home and stop halfway. Even if it’s windy, we can usually find a sheltered spot to eat. You could also opt to eat in the car, but it can be messy.
Check Your Tires and Oil
A few weeks before your trip, visit the shop for an oil change and ask them to check the tires and anything else. If something is wrong with your car, it’s better to know now than when you’re on the road. I once had an alternator go out on Highway 5 on December 23. We had to walk up the ramp to get help and then spend the night in a Motel 6 while they fixed it. It was not a fun way to start the holidays.
If you’re driving through a snow region, pack your chains. Some cars aren’t designed for chains, so ask your dealer to recommend an alternative for your specific make, model, and year. Also remember that snow tires are illegal in some states, so you must remove them if you’re traveling to one of those states.
No matter where you need to go, it’s best to get an early start. The later you leave, the more cars there will be on the road with you. It’s also best to drive during daylight because it’s harder to see hazards in the dark and the roads may ice over once the temperatures drop.
Settle in for a Long Drive
My husband and I actually enjoy long drives, even if we have a break down or get stuck in a long backup. We enjoy having the time to talk, listen to music, and look at the changing scenery. It’s much more fun than when I used to make the drive alone.
With the cost of postage steadily rising, the cost of sending holiday cards has gone up, too. I love to send Christmas cards, but this year I decided to skip it. For one thing, I didn’t really have time. For another, I didn’t want to spend the money. However, I hope to resume the practice next year because I’ve found that the more cards you send, the more you receive. Oh, how I love to receive them and use them as decorations!
If you do a little planning, you can find Christmas cards very cheaply. I’ve found ways to save money on photo cards and traditional holiday cards. It didn’t even take that much effort. I haven’t found ways to save a lot money on custom-printed cards, but I’m not a fan of those anyway. I much prefer a simple scrawled signature to a pre-printed family name on a traditional card. It just feels too much like a business greeting that way.
Photo Holiday Cards
There are two ways to save on holiday photo cards: order a batch of cards with a personalized message from Costco, Wal-Mart, or another online photo store. Rather than folded cards with an image embedded, these are usually templates that you digitally insert your photo into and add a message to. They then print them as a single sheet on photo paper. The year I bought them, we got a set of 50 from Costco for $15.99, envelopes included. I got another 50 for $12. That’s much less than I would have spent on 100 boxed cards.
Some friends usually buy boxed cards and then just stick a photo reprint inside the card. That works, too, if you can find cheap traditional cards.
Cheap Boxed Holiday Cards
The best way to save a lot of money on boxed holiday cards is to buy them the year before. Visit a card store, grocery store, or craft store on December 26 to buy boxed cards at 50-90% off. All you have to do is remember where you put them the next year.
Christmas Card Smorgasbord
I always have a few cards left over at the end of the season. I save them up, and then every five years or so, I use those again instead of buying new cards.
If you like to send a family newsletter, don’t waste money on the fancy stationery. Instead use free clipart to gussy up the edges of the document and print it on plain white paper. No one really cares what the edges look alike. They only care whether they did better than you this year.
Now that I’ve written this, I wish I had sent holiday cards this year, but where will I ever find the time? Sigh, I’ll just be sure to send them next year.
Thanks to JD at Get Rich Slowly for including me in this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance. Check out the carnival on his blog for more tips on saving money for the holidays! When I was a kid, my family still exchanged gifts with everyone else in the family. That meant my sister and I had to find affordable gifts to give all our cousins, aunts, and uncles. Once the adults switched to drawing names, my sister and I still bought gifts for everyone who bought us gifts.
To stay within our very limited budgets, we usually went to a local holiday boutique or fair to buy cheap ornaments or dish towels or other Christmasy gifts. None of them were very personal, but we mostly gave them out of a sense of obligation.
Now that my family has switched to a gift swap (like a white elephant, but with presents people actually want), my adult cousins have come up with idea for Christmas gifts their kids can make instead of having them buy us little trinkets. They’ve come up with some really great ideas over the years.
They made photo calendars with bound white paper and photo reprints. Then on the long drive down from their home, they had the kids decorated the pages and marked the family birthdays. When the year was over, I unstuck the photos from the pages and put them in my album.
Another cousin bought plain white tiles. She and her daughter spent an afternoon decorating them with rubber stamps, and then glazed the tops. I lay the tile on my kitchen table every holiday season and it always reminds me of them.
Another year, my cousins assembled foam frames during the drive down and stuck their school photos inside. They’ve also made construction paper frames. They usually attach a magnet to the back and then I put the frame on my fridge for the year.
One cousin sat down with her daughter and had her choose songs for mixed holiday CDs. They printed labels for the CDs and then had my aunt distribute them. We had three or four different CDs, and because they couldn’t be with us, we played them during the night.
When my sister was in school, she made a lot of photo ornaments. Some were clay, others were construction paper. They all had her school photo inside and are still hung on the tree every year. Some of my cousins have also given us photo ornaments. One year, rather than they use photos, they painted plain ornaments and gave those out. I still have one. Cookie dough ornaments are also great – but remember, the dough isn’t the same as for regular cookies. Cookie ornaments are definitely not edible.
Making candles can be dangerous for kids, but you can buy two or three inch white pillar candles at the craft store. Buy a few flat sheets of wax and help your kids cut out shapes to decorate the candles with.
Cookies or Fudge
For a few years, I decided to buy cheap holiday tins at the craft store and then fill them with homemade cookies. My mom and I spent an afternoon baking them. I made chocolate kiss thumbprint cookies, oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, and other favorites. If anyone in your family is allergic to nuts, avoid making any with nuts so they don’t get cross-contaminated, but there are plenty of cookies you can make without them. My mom also has an excellent fudge recipe. Not only have we given it to relatives, but numerous teachers have received and loved the fudge over the years.
Shipping holiday gifts successfully requires advance planning, unless you’re willing to spend a fortune on it. If you are, then by all means, ship your gifts December 21st by two-day air. If you’re like me and don’t want spend more on the shipping than the gift, use these seven tips to save money. You might even save time.
Plan to ship everything by Monday, December 17. That way you can use Priority Mail. (If you’re shipping jewelry or other expensive items, use UPS or FedEx ground delivery. It will cost more, but it’s more secure.)
If you haven’t already purchased the gifts you need to ship, order them online and have them shipped directly. If you’re buying from an online store that offers free shipping, see if the total cost of the gifts for each destination is more than the minimum purchase for free shipping. If so, place separate orders so you get free shipping to each destination. If you’d have to pay for shipping to each destination, compare the cost having them all shipped to you free and then shipping them to the recipients yourself.
Next year, use the online USPS, UPS, and FedEx rate calculators and online product information to determine the shipping costs for gifts you’re ordering. One year I discovered my cousin’s gift was very heavy. The post office would have charged $12 to ship it. Rather than include it in the order being shipped to me, I had it shipped directly to her. I had to pay $4.95 for wrapping, but it was still cheaper than shipping it myself. You can also compare the cost of buying the gift online and having it shipped direct vs. buying it at a local store and shipping it yourself. Another year I could buy my cousin’s gift cheaper at a local store. Once wrapping was factored in, the cost of ordering it was more than the cost for me to mail it.
Consolidate your gifts. Rather than buy individual gifts for each family member, choose something the parents and children or both members of the couple will enjoy together. That way you only have to ship one gift instead of three or four and it’s a chance for the family to spend time together.
If shipping holiday gifts by USPS, print your postage online. Simply create an account at their website, enter the address and weight info, then select your preferred method, and pay. You can print a label on plain paper and tape it to the box with clear packing tape. Not only will you save time waiting in line, but you get free delivery confirmation on Priority and Express mail packages. You can either drop the package off without waiting in line or arrange a free pick-up by your regular carrier. If you’re not home during the day, I recommend having it picked up from your office.
Use free packaging. Save some of the shipping boxes you receive during the year and reuse them to ship gifts. Save some of the packing material to avoid buying it yourself. If the gift will fit, you can also use the post office’s free Priority or Express Mail boxes for your gifts. UPS and FedEx also offer free packaging supplies.
Set aside a Saturday to wrap and package gifts. Rather than ship gifts a few times during the holidays, spend a few hours one weekend wrapping all your gifts, then putting them in shipping boxes, printing postage, and dropping them off at the post office. By doing everything at once, you’ll save a lot of time and hassle.
Don’t ship food gifts. If you’ve baked something, give it to local people. Homemade baked goods often arrive broken or spoiled. If you must ship baked goods, mail them on a Monday or Tuesday by two-day delivery so they arrive quickly and don’t have to spend a weekend in a warehouse.