The last time I bought a Christmas tree was six years ago. The five-foot tree cost me nearly $70. That’s when I decided my days of fresh trees had come to an end. Now that I live in a different apartment, I don’t have room for a tree anyway. I do have ornaments to hang though, so I found new ways to display my decoration collection without spending a fortune on something that will die in a few weeks.

Artificial Christmas Tree

I don’t have room for an artificial tree, but my parents’ tree is gorgeous. They found it for $180 at Costco, and still have it four years later. That brings their cost down to $45 a year, which is far more affordable than the $100 minimum they’d have to spend every year on a real 7½ foot tree. Artificial trees usually come pre-lit, so you also don’t have to worry about burned out bulbs or untangling mangled strings. As a final benefit, they’re flame retardant. Not having your house burn down is a major cost savings!

Fresh or Artificial Pine Garlands

One year I ordered fresh pine garlands that I hung over the two main windows. I then attached some lights and my ornaments to the garlands. The affect was lovely, the smell was delightful, and it was more affordable than a Christmas tree. I just spritzed it with water every few days. You could also do this with artificial garland.

Ornament Tree

Christmas Ornament TreeI currently have a gold ornament tree that I stand on top of my entertainment center. In case you’re unfamiliar, an ornament tree is usually gold, but it can be silver. Mine stands about two feet tall and has four levels or four arms each. Each arm has one to three loops to hold ornaments. It’s perfect for displaying my favorite ornaments. Sometimes I add some brightly-colored Christmas balls in the back to add color and fill in holes. The best part of the ornament tree? The cats can’t reach it.

Live Mini Christmas Tree

Of course, I like to have a little something fresh, so I usually pick up a live 18-inch tree and attach a few simple ornaments to it. I can usually find them for $12-20 at Trader Joe’s. This one can be reached by the cats, so I only put cheap ornaments on it.

If you want to buy a real tree, just make sure you factor it into your total holiday budget. If you want to save, consider one of the above options. Spend the money you save on extra eggnog to drink while you decorate.

When you’re invited to a party during the holiday season, or at any time of year, tradition dictates that you bring a hostess gift. Buying a nice bottle of wine for every hostess can quickly add up. Rather than buy wine by the case, stock up on more affordable gifts that you can give throughout the year.

Craft stores are great places to find great hostess gifts, especially around the holidays. Check your Sunday paper for sales at your local Michael’s or Joann’s. Look for notices like “all candles 40% off” and “holiday décor 40% off,” then visit the store during your lunch hour one day that week.

I recently visited Michael’s for their candle sale. I found lovely cellophane-wrapped candles for anywhere from $3-5 dollars. I also noticed that their ornaments were on sale, for anywhere from $1-5. Baskets were on sale, too. In fact, just about everything in the store was on sale. If you hit on a sale like this, grab a cart and go to town. Find large ornaments that look expensive, but aren’t. Look for pre-wrapped candles or very large candles you can wrap nicely. I would avoid strongly scented candles or cheesy snowman candle holders – you never know which hostess will enjoy kitsch. When it comes to hostess gifts, classy is the way to go.

When you get home, spend an afternoon packaging the gifts. Perhaps pair a candle and a small ornament or add a pretty ribbon to a wrapped candle. Put a few small candles in a small basket and wrap it in cellophane. Put them all in a plastic box in the closet so you can grab a gift whenever you need one.

You can get several gifts for $6-7 each if you mix and match carefully, but your hostess will think you spent much more.

If you want to plan ahead for next year, visit that same craft store or a large department store the day after Christmas. You’ll find all those items marked down 60% or more. If you buy an assortment of candles, you can use the resulting hostess gifts year-round. Simply visit the craft store a few times a year to buy small, discounted sprigs of seasonal silk flowers or rolls of seasonal ribbon to attach to the cellophane-wrapped candle. Your hostess never has to know you bought the candle nine months earlier in a blow-out sale!

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I am not one of those people who carefully opens a gift so that I can fold and save the Christmas wrapping paper. One of my aunts used to do that, and it was really annoying to watch her open a gift. It took forever because she spent so much time on the paper. I think she would have been happier receiving a roll of gift wrap every Christmas.

There are a few reasons I don’t save gift wrap:

  • It probably won’t fit another gift,
  • It tears easily, so it’s hard to safely store
  • It’s cheap and easy to recycle.

However, I do have a few ways to save money on gift wrap and gift bags without going to the effort of saving paper from opened gifts. I do save gift bags, as does everyone I know. They can be reused for years without ever looking worn out.

Christmas Wrapping Paper Tips

  1. Buy a wrapping kit at Costco, Target, or another similar store either early in the Christmas season or at the very end of the season to save for the following year. Every few years, I buy a new kit at Costco. It comes with 4-6 large rolls of paper, ribbons, bows, and little doodads to add to the top of the gift. To save money on year-round wrapping paper, I look for a kit with one roll that isn’t overly Christmasy. For example, my kit came with a purple roll that I use for gifts the rest of the year.
  2. Buy gift bag kits. This year, I needed new gift bags because I gave more than I received back last year, and found a 23-bag package for $15.89. I’ve seen plain gift bag packs at other stores for a similar price, but the bags I chose are super-fancy. If I bought these bags separately, they would cost at least $5 each. I paid 69 cents per bag, plus tax.
  3. Buy ribbons and bows in bulk. You can use the shiny ribbon that comes on large rolls, or you can use fancy fabric ribbon. Either visit one of the large discount stores early in the season, or watch for a sale on fancy ribbon at a craft store. Buy several rolls that you can use for several years. You’ll usually find bulk boxes of bows at the same place you buy the paper and bags. Like gift bags, they can be used several times before becoming squashed into oblivion. I also reuse fancy fabric ribbons because they’re durable. Metallic and paper ribbon are too flimsy to use again. Any doodads that come on your gifts can also be saved for reuse later.
  4. Buy both paper and sticky tags. I punch a hole in the paper tags and tie them to the gift bags so I don’t ruin the bags. I use sticky tags on gift wrap because paper tags fall off too easily. I don’t think I’ve bought new tags for at least five years because the packages are so large.

Once all my gift wrap purchases are added up, I probably spend about $6 a year on gift wrap because I buy in bulk. If you want to save more on Christmas wrapping paper, buy plain white or brown butcher block paper and decorate it with rubber stamps, stickers, or pretty ribbon. Personally, I like the brightly colored paper.

I’ve been a party to several white elephant gift exchanges over the years. Of course, I’ve never once found the item I received remotely useful, but the fun was in the swapping, not in the receiving. If you have a white elephant exchange planned this season, here are a few tips for finding a contribution to the game.

  1. Read the rules of the exchange. Usually there will be a value limit or instructions to bring something used from home. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to spend the entire limit – you can find great gag gifts for much less.
  2. Scrounge around home to find something to give. Most people have a storage closet somewhere in their homes where they’ve put all the bad gifts they’ve received over the years. I have several stashed in my office closet. If you’re married, you no doubt have a few horrid wedding gifts tucked away somewhere. That set of Tupperware you received with mismatched lids? Perfect. That odd crystal duck you got as a bridal shower prize? Class it up with a newspaper wrapped box. The giant orange and purple vase your aunt Myrtle made in her beginning pottery class? This is your chance to share her artistry with someone else.
  3. Hit the thrift stores. If you can’t find something good in your own home, visiting a thrift store is the next best option for white elephant gifts. You can find some amazingly tacky, and cheap, gag gifts at your favorite thrift store.
  4. Visit the gas station mini-mart or the toy aisle of the grocery store. Last year at my office white elephant exchange, one of the most popular items was a light up hobby horse that appeared to be from the grocery store.
  5. Visit the bulk aisle of the grocery store. Two other popular items in our exchange were economy-sized boxes of laundry detergent and cereal. Even better, get generic versions.
  6. If you want something less gag-like, but still cheap, previously viewed DVDs are a great idea. You can also check the bargain aisle at the bookstore for a silly calendar or a bargain book somehow related to your business. If your topic is covered by the Dummies or Idiots guides, grab one of those as your contribution.
  7. If you’re totally strapped for time, get a coffee or office supply gift card. Unlike most other gifts, these are actually useful.
  8. If you forgot about the exchange until just before the party, some office supplies make good gifts. Salespeople can toss a few conference goodies into a bag and call it a day. Who doesn’t want a giant logo pen, a plastic water bottle, an oddly-shaped pin cushion, and a labeled memory stick?

At some point in your life, you’ll be invited to a white elephant party. So, while it’s tempting to toss those old wedding gifts you hate or that thing you bought that you’ve never used, keep one or two tucked away in the garage or closet. Then you’ll always have white elephant gifts ready to go. If you have to give and get a few of these a year, I strongly recommend regifting – let someone else enjoy the wealth of tacky items foisted upon you every year.

I hate shopping. I hate it any time of year, but I especially hate it at Christmas. The stores are crowded, everyone’s in a frenzy, parking’s a hassle, and it’s hard to find anything. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to shop.

To save time and my sanity, I came up with a few Christmas shopping strategies. I started with the Christmas shopping list I posted the other day. Then I branched out to deadlines and strategic shopping. I now have 12 Christmas shopping tips

Strategy 1: Finish shopping by mid-December. Each year, I set a hard deadline when all my shopping must be done. I try to make it the second Sunday of the month. Unfortunately, December 1st fell on a Saturday this year, and December 9 is a little too early. I’ll be mostly done, but I’ll probably have a couple gift cards left to pick up. My deadline for this year is December 16. Next year it will be December 14.

Strategy 2: Shop on weekdays. When you’re shopping early in the season, the stores are relatively uncrowded after work on a weekday or during lunch. You can hit a few stores in the mall without spending hours and hours.

Strategy 3: Shop with a list. Always rely on your Christmas shopping list to stay on track. Don’t be tempted to add little things or veer from your pre-determined gift decisions by all the pretty, sparkly things you’ll see.

Strategy 4: Shop online. There are a couple online stores where I regularly Christmas shop. If I can order three to four gifts from them in one shot, it seriously cuts down on my shopping time. The gifts are delivered to my office. All I have to do is take them home to wrap them. As an added bonus, I can reuse the shipping boxes to mail gifts to relatives.

Strategy 5: Use PriceProtectr.com: I just learned about this fantastic site, and already it’s saved me a dollar. Here’s what you do: shop at one of the 70 stores covered by site. Make your purchases as usual. Copy and paste the URL into the PriceProtectr.com box along with your email address. They email you if the price falls within the stated price protection period and tell you how to request your refund.

Strategy 6: Shop the online stores first. Before you head to the store, make the sure the store carries the item you want. With some stores, you can actually check their stock on the website. If you’re feeling brave, you can call ahead and ask to have it held, but I usually get aggravated by this because they either don’t answer the phone or leave me on hold forever.

Strategy 7: Choose one shopping center to visit. Once I’ve decided what to get people, I look for as many gifts as possible online. I then figure out which stores carry the remaining items. Finally I figure out which local shopping center has most of those stores and go there to get the rest of the gifts.

Strategy 8: Order gift cards online. Most sites will ship gift cards for free or for $1. If they charge more than that, I won’t buy the card from them or I make sure that store is at the shopping center I plan to visit. I much prefer to buy the gift cards online though. I hate waiting in a long line to get a gift card.

Strategy 9: Have gifts shipped directly to relatives. Although you have to pay for wrapping, free shipping will often make up for that. Gift baskets are great for clients and distant family members. Amazon often has free shipping on toys, so you can have those shipped directly, too.

Strategy 10: Ask kids what they want. If you have to buy gifts for nieces, nephews, or cousins, email their parents in mid-November to ask what the kids want. This way you know exactly what to get and can start planning where to buy it sooner.

Strategy 11: Shop during off-hours. If you have to go to a store like Home Depot or Toys R Us, go late in the evening, around 9 or 10 PM. The place will be deserted. Many malls are open late during this time a year, so that’s another great time to go.

Strategy 12: Make shopping a date. My husband hates to shop as much as I do, but he also wants to pick out some gifts himself, so we make a date out of it. We pick one Saturday to go to a nearby shopping center. We try to get there by six to get his shopping done. Then we put our names in at a restaurant (sometimes we do this first if the restaurant is really popular and we know there will be a long wait) and look at the lights or just meander while we wait. Finally, we cap it off with a movie. Even though it’s shopping, the evening is less stressful because we made a whole night of it.

All these strategies combined make for very merry Christmas shopping. You won’t be babbling incoherently come Christmas morning, and you can impress everyone with how early you finished.

Editor’s note: Many people are suffering this year, but I do not supply charity groups with lists of people who need help. I also don’t adopt families directly through this blog. If you need help, please contact a local church or your county social services department. I have disabled comments because too many people were posting personal information about their need for help. This is not a safe forum for posting personal details.

After my aunt passed away nearly a decade ago, another aunt started a tradition of adopting a needy family in her honor every Christmas. The deceased aunt was very big on charitable giving, so an annual Christmas charity donation was a perfect fit.

It’s very easy to find families to help, but it can be expensive for one small family to adopt another family. If you pool your resources among your extended family or a group of friends, you can give much more without hurting your budget. For example, each adult in my extended family donates $10. Either my aunt or my cousin contacts her local church’s or county’s charity drive to tell them how much we have to give. The services matches us with a needy family and sends a wish list. She collects the money, buys the gifts the family wants, and delivers them to the charity. There are currently 15 adults in my family, so that’s $150.

For several years, we adopted the same family with a child suffering from a severe disability. Later we found out we actually had a personal connection to that family, which made the annual gifts all the more meaningful.

This year, my immediate family is adding another adopted family to the mix. We normally spend Christmas Day with family friends. Rather than exchange gifts none of us need, my mom suggested we adopt a family as a group. We have 11-13 people donating $10 each. My mom and their mom will go shopping together to buy the requested items and deliver them to a charity group they work with.

So, for a total of $20, I’m helping give two families a much merrier Christmas. I certainly don’t need whatever I would have received for that token amount, and I feel better knowing it went to someone who really does need it.

If you and your friends or relatives want to adopt a family, simply contact your local church, family support groups, city, or county to ask about their “Adopt-a-Family” program. You can also just Google your city and “adopt a family” or your city and “Christmas charity.”

This year I’ll be doing nearly half of my Christmas shopping online. Last year that number was probably closer to 75%, but this year I found some of the gifts I needed at Costco. So far I’ve only needed to visit two online stores to get many of my gifts: Amazon and Red Envelope. Red Envelope specializes in high quality, unusual gifts in a wide range of prices (some of them are even affordable). Their gifts are great for moms, dads, best friends – and they always offer coupon codes.

With Amazon, it’s easy enough to get a good deal simply by buying enough to get free shipping. One caveat, make sure the item states that it’s eligible for free shipping. Affiliated stores usually charge shipping, even if you otherwise qualify. To save more, watch your cart for sales. That’s how I saved 60% on two gifts yesterday, and still got free shipping.

With Red Envelope, I also monitor the site to see if any of the gifts I’m buying are on sale. If something goes on sale before my purchase deadline, I grab the deal. If it doesn’t, I buy it on my deadline date to make sure it arrives in time. This year, I combined a sale item with a coupon code, which saved me an additional 10%.

If you want to use coupon codes, simply search online for “[name of the store] coupon codes.” For example, I searched for “red envelope coupon codes.” You’ll see a list of numerous sites. I’ve had good luck with Coupon Cabin for the stores I shop, but your results will vary.

Check each site, looking for notes on which coupons are working and when they expire. With Red Envelope, one site listed either 10% off the entire purchase or free shipping. I did the math and determined that 10% off was a slightly better deal, so I used that one. If that hadn’t worked, I would have kept trying different codes until I found one that did.

If you can’t find coupon codes, you can also search for promotional codes and discount codes. A few stores never offer coupon codes. If you really like a store, join their mailing list. They’ll regularly email you sale announcements and coupon codes. I’ve never paid full price for anything at Ann Taylor Loft because they send me a coupon code nearly every day.

And remember, using a coupon code doesn’t mean you have to spend more out of guilt! Four years ago I bought my husband a game I knew he’d love, but it rang up at one cent. I felt so bad about only spending a penny on him that I bought him a second game for $40 (my budgeted amount.) He loved the first game, and still hasn’t played the second game.

I’ve always relied on a Christmas shopping list and spending budget, but in past years I’ve been a little looser with my “spending limits.” Not this year. I’m determined to pay off lots of debt in 2008, which means getting a head start in 2007 by spending less while still enjoying the holiday spirit.

Here’s how I create my list and set my budget:

  1. In early November, make a list of all the people I have to give gifts.
  2. Determine my holiday budget for gifts.
  3. Break that down into specific amounts for each person and note that number next to the person’s name.
  4. Consider joint gifts and pooling resources with a friend or relative. In my family, my mother, sister, and I pool our resources to buy better gifts for my cousins. Even though we each only spend $10-12 on each child, the combined total of $30-36 means they get a gift they really want. This year, two cousins want the same video game, so we’re giving them a joint gift, plus a small gift card for each of them.
  5. Look through catalogs, notice items while in stores, and check online for potential gifts. Think about the person’s interests and personality. When I spend less, it’s important to get a meaningful gift. If I can’t think of anything that would be meaningful, I consider no longer exchanging gifts with that person. I no longer buy gifts for the majority of my friends because it had become an obligation rather than a pleasure. With many, it wasn’t something we discussed, we just simply stopped.
  6. Narrow down the gift choices, but leave a few options within my stated limit. Include sales tax or shipping costs in that budget.
  7. Start shopping early to be sure I get the gifts you want and avoid last minute panic-buying – which nearly always leads to overpaying.
  8. Start shopping online to determine appropriate prices and whether it may be cheaper to buy online, once shipping and tax are included. Note online prices on your list.
  9. For online shopping, I try to buy several gifts from the same site to get a discount or earn free shipping.
  10. Carry my list with me at all times so I can buy the right gift when I see it. This also helps me avoid overspending on an impulse gift.
  11. If I spend less than the stated amount, I count that as savings. I don’t necessarily have to spend more just because the gift I found was on sale or costs less than the amount I feel I should spend. A meaningful gift is meaningful regardless of the price tag. Last night, I discovered my cousin’s gift was marked down 60% for one day. I jumped on the deal, and don’t feel guilty about spending less than planned. She’s still getting exactly what she wants.

As an added bonus, my list and budget method usually means I’m done shopping by mid-December. I have the luxury of taking advantage of free shipping by shopping early and never have to battle the crowds at the mall.

According to news reports, 29% consumers plan to cut their holiday spending this year. It seems like every year, shoppers insist they won’t overspend this Christmas. They promise that they’re slashing their budgets. They promise they know how to control Christmas spending. Then the holiday spirit takes hold. Rather than questioning a purchase, shoppers just buy it, because it’s just $5, $10, $20.

Does this sound like you? Last year, it sounded like me. Fresh out of grad school and with money in our pockets, my husband and I were extra generous. We didn’t realize how much we’d spent until January. This year I’m returning to my usual shopping list and Christmas spending limits.

That’s why I was very interested to see a report on Good Morning America about how to determine your holiday budget. The advisor recommended spending three times your daily income. In their example, they used the simple annual salary of $52,000. That translates to $1,000 a week or $200 per day. Multiply that by three and you get $600. That’s your total holiday budget for Christmas gifts, decorations, travel, and all other holiday-related expenses.

According to this method, my husband and I can spend over $1,000 this year, which is what we spent last year. Given that we don’t have kids, that feels like too much. I’m planning to spend around $600. That includes all gifts, decorations, charitable donations, and holiday travel. Over the course of the week, I’ll be discussing how I plan to save money on my holiday shopping and maybe come in under budget.

How much do you plan to spend this Christmas season, and how do you avoid overspending?

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