There are good ideas for homemade Christmas gifts, and then there are bad ideas. Good ideas can be inexpensive, but they shouldn’t look cheap (unless they’re being given by kids.) Bad ideas can be expensive, and yet somehow look cheap or miss the mark by a wide margin. If you’re planning to make gifts, you have to start now to avoid running out of time to make them right. Here are 7 good ideas for homemade holiday gifts.

Homemade Cookies, Candy, or Bread
If you’re known for a specific type of bread, cookie, or candy, make several batches and give them to everyone in pretty tins or bags. You could also mix the dry ingredients and put them in a jar attached to the card. Many people decide to give the cookie ingredients jar, but this isn’t a great idea if you’re just tossing the ingredients for the Nestle Tollhouse recipe into a jar. Make sure that jar is full of a recipe you created.

The Dinner Pot
If you’re known for something like a sauce, then prepare jars of it and pair them with the necessary dry ingredients and recipe cards. If you only have to give one or two of these, you can also buy cheap pasta pots at a local discount store. Arrange everything in the pots, then wrap them up with a nice bow.

Reusable Produce Bags
If you’ve got an eco-lover in your life, get some tulle and string and make them reusable produce bags. Buy a few apples, oranges, and tangerines to drop in the bag to demonstrate their use, then place them all in a nice reusable tote to show that you respect their love for the environment. They’ll especially appreciate the kudos they get while shopping with the bags. I get at least one comment about mine at the farmer’s market every week. Farmers love them!

Share Your Experience
If you have a particular skill, you can share that. However, make sure that the recipient actually wants to learn it and has the time to do it. If you love knitting and your niece hates crafts, then this gift will seem more like a gift for you than for her.

Knitted or Crocheted Scarves
One year, my mom’s friend made me a scarf. She’d taken up knitting in the last year and really enjoyed it. Because this friend actually has good taste, the scarf was lovely and I still use mine. It was a color she’d seen me wear, so she knew it would match my outfits and style. If you’re not sure what colors someone likes, either go with black or don’t make them something they can wear.

Homemade Candles and Soaps
Candles and soaps are ever-popular gifts, especially if you know how to make them well. If you already have the tools, then glycerin and wax are cheap. Again, choose colors and styles that suit the recipient’s tastes rather than yours. If you like to make small molded soaps, put several in a small basket with a nice washcloth so the gift is ready to be set in the guest bathroom.

However, you can go wrong with homemade soaps. I once saw someone print holiday images on plain paper, stick them to bars of Ivory soap, and then dip the soap in clear wax. Not only was the gift useless, but it looked cheap. It said, “I didn’t want to spend much time or money on you this year.” Bad gift!

Homemade Gift Basket/Tote
Gift baskets are easy to throw together cheaply. Everything in it may not be homemade, but they do show thought, especially if you customize them to each recipient. Hit the craft store the day a big sale starts to buy cheap candles, baskets, ornaments, or craft goods related to each person’s hobby. For example a scrapbooker would love scissors, stickers, and paper in a homemade fabric tote.

True, some of these gifts appear on many homemade gift lists, but that’s because they’re tried and true. There is always a chance that these will be gifts-gone-wrong, but you can avoid that fate if you think carefully and choose gifts you can pull off with panache, not gifts you can pull off in fifteen minutes.

With the economy tanking, more and more people are announcing that they plan to spend less on gifts this year. Some people will keep their lists long and hunt for better deals, while others will opt to buy fewer gifts for fewer people. I’m choosing the former. Here’s how I trim my list without hurting anyone’s feelings.

7 Steps to Trim Your Christmas Gift List
If you follow these seven steps, the process of trimming your list should be as painless as possible.

1. Compile a list of everyone you currently give gifts, and everyone who gives you gifts. Include secretaries, co-workers, friends, relatives, children, neighbors, the postal carrier, the newspaper carrier, teachers, donations at church and school, office exchanges, and hostess gifts.

2. Now that you’ve amassed this list, think hard about how many of those people actually mean something to you and how many get obligatory gifts. If you and your neighbor exchange trinkets, consider dropping that tradition. If you usually give a little something to everyone at work, consider skipping it this year. Most people won’t mind.

3. Determine a budget for your gifts, including obligatory gifts. A few notes:
The newspaper carrier would probably appreciate a tip more than a gift, so if you must give, give a small monetary sum.
Postal carriers aren’t permitted to accept tips, but may leave a small food gift in the mailbox if you know your carrier well or the carrier has gone above and beyond.
Teachers receive a lot of mugs and other kitsch. Consider either something homemade like fudge or cookies that can be shared, or a gift card.
If you must give a secretary gift, then buy a gift card in a reasonable amount. You don’t want to tick off your secretary!

4. Briefly consider what you might buy for each person on your list within your budget. If you have a hard time thinking of a meaningful gift and find yourself defaulting to “gift card” for a neighbor or friend, strike them from the list. If you only give them a gift because they give you one, strike them.

5. Call or email the dropped people to suggest gift alternatives. Invite them over for a nice dinner or drinks in your home in lieu of a gift. If you have no desire to spend more time with them, they had no place on your list to begin with. If you have a large family, suggest a group exchange where each person or couples gives and receives one gift. You can draw names or exchange them white elephant style.

6. Send a card instead. That way they’ll know you remembered them, even if they didn’t receive a gift. If you don’t typically send out holiday cards, but you’ve removed several people from your list, consider sending them this year. You can find cheap photo cards online or at Costco, or find cheap boxed cards. Spending $20 on cards and stamps is a lot cheaper than $100 on gifts.

7. Consider baking or making if you need to trim, but can’t bring yourself to do it. Do you have a specialty that everyone loves? Spend a day baking it en masse, then place it in cute, cheap containers to give out. If you’re crafty, consider something you can make cheaply, like soap or a photo album, that will feel more personal. I’m known for my truffles, so I whip up a batch in a pinch. They seem extravagant, but they couldn’t be cheaper or easier.

At first, you’ll feel terrible trimming your list, but it does get easier. It might even be a relief to no longer have the pressure of hunting the mall for the perfect gift, only to settle on “this will do.” If you do find yourself thinking “this will do” for someone still on your list, consider dropping them, too. Christmas gifts are meant to be something the receiver will enjoy. A “this will do” gift that doesn’t mean anything to either of you will leave both of you unsatisfied.

Last year I trimmed a good friend I could no longer think of meaningful gifts for. I stopped exchanging gifts with several other friends years ago with no discussion. We all just tapered off. You may find that the people you trim from your list are relieved. There won’t be any “I didn’t get you anything” guilt, and their budget will be reduced. That could be the best gift of all.

Another week, another blog carnival round-up. This week, I limited myself to three.

First, the 34th Money Hacks Carnival hosted by Where Are You Now. In addition to my post about check-bouncing roommates, I also recommend how to save money as a student at Software, Technology, and More.

Next, the Festival of Frugality #146 hosted by Aridni. In addition to my post about 9 frugal fall entertainment options, you might also enjoy Cash Money Life’s comparison of Blockbuster and Netflix.

Finally, the Carnival of Personal Finance #174 hosted by Greener Pastures. In addition to my post analyzing our depression potential, you might also like Our Common Cents’ bright words for dark days.

Last month, I showed you specific steps toward the big money discussions.  Now it’s time to talk about the small, daily talks that should also be happening. My husband and I have always been pretty open about money, but we didn’t really talk about it regularly when we were both in grad school and poor. We mostly just dealt with making sure we had enough to pay our bills. Then we determined to get out of debt. Once that process started, our infrequent talks about money became almost daily occurrences. At this point, we probably briefly discuss some aspect of our financial picture at least every other day.

When it comes to couples and money, landmines lie ahead, unless you both approach it with the right attitude. Here are my five tips for a peaceful transition from financial separation to daily chats:

Don’t Be Defensive
If you’re used to spending your own money and managing your own money, it might feel weird to “get permission” for a purchase, but don’t be defensive. Once you realize that you’re both working toward a goal, it’s easier to be open with your reasoning. Explain why you want something, how much it costs, and when you want to get it. If your partner disagrees, listen openly to the reasoning. It could be that the purchase can wait, or it might be that you need to find room in the budget for it.

Start Small
Start by reviewing the last month’s spending and income. Again, no judgment. Don’t demand to know what your partner spent $20 on lunch or $50 on pants. Just review the categories and discuss anything that seems high.

Check the Budget Regularly
When we were first married, I would frequently check the budget because it felt weird to not know my daily balance all the time. At first, my husband would tease me about it and I got embarrassed, so I started sneaking peaks when he wasn’t home. Now he regularly asks for my input and I feel comfortable reviewing it anytime.

Offer Regular Updates on Your Progress/Expenses
Your updates don’t have to be long, drawn-out conversations. It can be a simple comment in passing. Something like, “We’re going to be able to pay an extra $100 toward our student loans this month.” Or, “We have to set aside $300 for my sister’s wedding next month.”

Make Money a Part of the Conversation
After you’ve gotten used to casual updates and checking the budget regularly, you’ll probably notice that money discussions become a part of your everyday discussions, without stress or anger. At that point, you’ll also be on the same page about your goals, aware of your income, and aware of your expenses. You won’t need to have long sit-down talks because they’ll arise organically out of discussions for other things. You’ll say, “I just sent the wedding RSVP. I’m going to buy a gift tomorrow. I’ll probably spend a $100. What do you think?” Your partner will agree or disagree, and then the matter will be settled as you move on to other things.

Start small by just talking about what you spent today if you’re not used to being open about money. Over time, those conversations will become just a part of your relationship, and your relationship will be the better for it.

A standard claim is that people who watch less TV spend less on stuff they don’t need. I made the claim myself. But I started to wonder if that’s really true. How influenced are we by advertising? Do we spend more because of advertising or do we buy things we otherwise wouldn’t buy? Are consumers becoming immune to advertising?

Advertising and Children
It’s clear that advertising works on children. When they see toys or junk food or any other product advertised on TV, it creates a desire for that item. That’s why advertising has been banned during children’s TV blocks. I’m not sure if the ban was effective, though, because marketers simply turned to branding products in popular characters names. I’m curious how effective the Dora the Explorer vegetables were. Did a character encourage children to suddenly like carrots?

Because we know children are impressionable, that alone may not be enough to influence spending, though. Parents who say no to requests and provide good money lessons may raise children who are less likely to fall for advertising as adults.

Advertising and Teens
I would argue that teens are less influenced by direct advertising. Teens today have seen so many ads that they’ve learned to tune them out. Instead they look to the coolest kids and celebrities to determine the products they should own in order to be popular. In this sense, advertising could have some impact when celebrity endorsers appeal to the teen demographic. Again, though, parents can assert some influence over the purchases of their teens by insisting that teens buy things with their own money in order to learn their true worth.

Advertising and Adults
Adults are probably the least likely to be influenced by advertising because of the sheer ad saturation during their lives, but advertisers try anyway. I wonder if advertising is more or less effective on certain kinds of people.

Impulse Purchasers
I can imagine that people prone to impulse purchases are heavily influenced by advertising. They are sort of people who will order a pizza for dinner after seeing it advertised, or buy the must-have shoes featured in the fashion magazines.

Trendsetters
Trendsetters may be less influenced by traditional advertising than by buzz marketing. They look to find the latest, hottest, newest items for purchase. For example, I had a friend who was one of the first to buy TIVO and a DVD player. He overpaid for both, but he liked to own the latest new toy.

Parents
The reason advertisers target children is because they know children are very good at convincing parents to buy. Anyone facing a toy store tantrum may be willing to buy the product to get the kid to stop screaming. They also want to make sure their children feel loved, and choose to express it through consumerism. However, as the economy slides, more parents are saying no. Will that trend continue after the economy improves?

People with Health Concerns
Drug advertisements were initially very effective in convincing people to ask their doctors for a name brand medication, even if it’s not the best one for them. There’s some evidence that their effectiveness is declining, though. I did this once, but switched after only three months because of side effects. After that experience, I’ve decided to trust my doctor about the best medication for me.

Careful Shoppers
I would guess that careful shoppers, frugal people, and late adopters are the least influenced by advertising. I count myself in this category. I will soon be in the market for a car, but my base price and desired features haven’t been strongly influenced by advertising. Neither has my choice in makes. Mercury can tell me to put them on my list all they want, but I’m not going to because 1. I have 30 years of negative perceptions about them, and 2. I hate the music and the clothes in the commercials. You could say that ad had a negative effect.

The Types of Advertising that Influence Me
This isn’t to say I’m not completely uninfluenced by advertising.

Food: If I see a food ad, it might prompt me to make something similar for dinner one night, but I’ll cook it from scratch rather than buy that product.

Websites: I’m also heavily influenced by ads for websites. After seeing a site advertised, I’ll usually go check out and see if it’s something that could be useful to me.

Sunday Inserts: When I’m looking for a product and have already chosen the one I want to buy, then the Sunday newspaper inserts are very effective in convincing me to visit a specific store. Usually it’s because they have a sale on the item, but I might also be tempted to pick up a few other sale items while I’m there.

Coupons: While I don’t usually buy a food brand just because of a coupon, I’m very willing to try a new shamphoo or toothpaste if I have a good coupon for it.

The New Era of Advertising
A recent study by Neilsen Buzzmetrics says that consumers are increasingly placing more trust in consumer recommendations, websites, and blogs, than they are in the traditional advertising mediums. That could indicate that TV advertisements are continuing to decline in effectiveness as consumers become more savvy. Marketers are increasingly moving online to influence people at the purchase point. We may also see a return to the days when a TV show was sponsored by a single advertiser, except the ads will be embedded or product-placed rather than overt.

Are you influenced by advertising? What have you bought that you wouldn’t have without seeing an ad? How do you see advertising evolving? Tell me in the comments?

Last spring, I presented a non-partisan look at both the Democratic and Republican candidates. We’re moving into the home stretch with the election just three weeks away. As I did yesterday with John McCain, I’m providing an updated look at their views about issues related to the economy, including the current financial crisis, health care, taxes, and retirement.

Most of these are copied from the Barack Obama website. I relied on CNN’s election center to expand on certain issues where his website was unclear. Some statements are rephrased for length or clarity (or to cut the campaign rhetoric). I haven’t injected any personal commentary. If one candidate appears to have more specific plans than another, it’s because he provided more information regarding the issue.

Taxes
Barack Obama believes that tax cuts for the middle class will improve the economy by increasing middle class purchasing power, expanding small businesses, and creating income parity. His tax proposals include:

  • Enact a windfall profits tax on excessive oil company profits to give American families an immediate $1,000 emergency energy rebate
  • Create a new tax credit of up to $500 per person, or $1,000 per working family
  • Eliminate all income taxation of seniors making less than $50,000 per year
  • Enact a $4,000 college tuition tax credit
  • Provide a tax credit to companies that maintain or increase the number of full-time workers in America relative to those outside the US; maintain their corporate headquarters in America if it has ever been in America; pay decent wages; prepare workers for retirement; provide health insurance; and support employees who serve in the military
  • Create a 10% universal mortgage credit for homeowners who do not itemize their tax returns
  • Make the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit refundable and allow low-income families to receive up to a 50 percent credit for their child care expenses
  • Eliminate capital gains taxes for small businesses
  • Freeze the estate tax exemption amount at $3.5 million
  • Restore the top two income tax rates to their pre-2001 levels of 36 percent and 39.6 percent.

Health Care
Barack Obama believes health care is a right and believes the government should help individuals buy coverage, either through their employers or through a government plan. His proposals include:

  • Require insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions
  • Create a new small business health tax credit
  • Lower costs for businesses by covering a portion of the catastrophic health costs they pay in return for lower premiums for employees
  • Require large employers that do not offer coverage or make a meaningful contribution to the cost of quality health coverage for their employees to pay an additional payroll tax that will fund a public plan
  • Establish a National Health Insurance Exchange with a range of private insurance options as well as a new public plan based on benefits available to members of Congress.

Retirement
Barack Obama believes that Americans need to increase their retirement savings, but also believes we need to shore up Social Security to protect the elderly.

  • Consider increasing social security contributions of those making over $250,000 by 2 to 4 percent (combined employer and employee)
  • Automatically enroll workers in a workplace pension plan
  • Employers who do not currently offer a retirement plan will be required to enroll their employees in a direct-deposit IRA account
  • Match 50 percent of the first $1,000 of savings for families that earn less than $75,000. The savings match will be automatically deposited into designated personal accounts.

Financial Crisis and Bailout
Barack Obama supported the bailout plan. He also has the following proposals to resolve the finanical crisis:

  • Create a fund to provide money to states and local communities for infrastructure projects
  • Allow every family to withdraw up to 15% from their IRA or 401(k) – up to a maximum of $10,000 – without any fine or penalty throughout 2009
  • Impose a three-month moratorium on foreclosures
  • Create $25 billion fund to prevent state and local cuts in health, education, housing, and heating assistance or increases in property taxes, tolls or fees
  • Suspend the required 401(k) and IRA withdrawals for retirees over the age of 70 1/2 years.
  • Extend unemployment insurance for an additional 13 weeks.

Budget and Deficit
Barack Obama believes the US must close the deficit and reduce national debt. He also believes that infrastructure investment and spending reforms will help the economy grow faster. His proposals include:

  • Reduce pork barrel spending
  • Stop the abuse of tax shelters and offshore tax havens and help close the $350 billion tax gap between taxes owed and taxes paid
  • Enforce pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) budgeting rules which require new spending commitments or tax changes to be paid for by cuts to other programs or new revenue.
  • Stop funding wasteful, obsolete federal government programs
  • Pressure the World Trade Organization to enforce trade agreements and stop unfair government subsidies to foreign exporters
  • Reduce deficits
  • Encourage personal savings.

The Barack Obama website includes many other programs and proposals not directly related to the economy and personal finance. If you haven’t yet decided who to vote for, visit his website to learn more about the issues he considers important and his proposed solutions.

Last spring, I presented a non-partisan look at both the Democratic and Republican candidates. Now with the field narrowed to two, I’m providing an updated look at their views about issues related to the economy, such as the current financial crisis, health care, taxes, and retirement. John McCain is first in the alphabet, so he’s up today. Check back tomorrow for Barack Obama’s positions.

Most of these are copied from the John McCain website. I relied on CNN’s election center to expand on certain issues where his website was unclear. Some statements are rephrased for length or clarity (or to cut the campaign rhetoric). I haven’t injected any personal commentary.

Taxes
John McCain subscribes to the economic theory that low taxes boost employment and business spending. His plan includes the following proposals:

  • Phase out the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)
  • Make the Bush income tax cuts permanent
  • Reduce the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%
  • Allow first-year tax expensing of technological and farm equipment
  • Establish an R&D tax credit
  • Double the child deduction.

Health Care
John McCain believes that increased competition will reduce health care costs and provide families with affordable, portable coverage. To achieve this, he will:

  • Tax employer-provided health coverage as income
  • Provide all individuals with a $2,500 refundable tax credit ($5,000 for families) to purchase health insurance on the open market
  • Allow families to purchase coverage from any insurer in any state
  • Promote preventative care.

Retirement
John McCain believes that our current entitlement programs are in serious danger. His corrective proposals are to:

  • Supplement the current Social Security system with personal accounts
  • Slow benefits growth rather than raise taxes.

Financial Crisis and Bailout
Both candidates supported the bailout plan. Given our current economic crisis, both candidates have also released new plans to solve today’s issues. John McCain plans to shore up housing, relieve the student loan credit crunch, and ease gas and food prices with the following proposals:

  • Increase US oil drilling and production and increase alternative energy production. His goal is to reduce dependence on foreign oil and keep energy spending in the US.
  • Repeal tax on imported sugar-based ethanol
  • Rollback corn ethanol mandates to reduce pressure on food prices
  • Refinance mortgages for qualifying homeowners currently at risk of foreclosure
  • Reduce the tax rate on the first $50,000 of retirement withdrawals for seniors over 59 1/2
  • Increase stock loss tax deduction to $15,000
  • Cut capital gains tax to 7.5% for two years
  • Eliminate taxes on unemployment for those earning less than $100,000 a year
  • Provide more state and federal lender-of-last-resort funds for college loans.

Budget and Deficit
John McCain believes that a balanced budget is the key to US economic success. He plans to:

  • Balance the budget by 2013
  • Eliminate pork-barrel spending
  • Reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid
  • Freeze discretionary non-defense, non-veteran spending for one year and use the savings for deficit reduction
  • Consolidate or eliminate wasteful programs.

The John McCain website includes many other programs and proposals not directly related to the economy and personal finance. If you haven’t yet decided who to vote for, visit his website to learn more about the issues he considers important and his proposed solutions.

Along with colder weather and a new school year, the fall brings the return of most TV shows. Once the shows premiere, it’s easy to waste hours you could otherwise be using. Here are my strategies for enjoying the shows I like without getting sucked into stuff I have no interest in watching.

Choose Your Fall TV Shows before They Air
I used to subscribe to TV Guide and would eagerly flip through the new fall premiere guide. I paid special attention to programs that had good buzz. That’s one way I found West Wing, which is one of my favorite shows of all time. Once I knew what I wanted to watch and noted the premiere dates in my calendar, I could tune in at exactly those times.

Don’t Turn On the TV before the Show Is On
There are four shows I currently enjoy. Three of them are on Sunday, so I tune in to them when they start, and then turn the TV off afterwards. The other show I like is on Monday. Again, I turn on the TV when it starts and then turn the TV off afterwards. I also enjoy the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. We watch the 8PM broadcast, usually only the first half of each show, and read email for the last half. We’re never tempted to watch the follow-up shows because we’ve already left the room.

Tune Out the Commercials
If you have a DVR, skipping commercials is easy. If you don’t, then you have two options: tape shows to watch the next day and fast-forward, or leave the room when commercials are on. We don’t have a DVR, so we just go to the bathroom, refill our glasses, or answer email while the commercials are on.

Wait Until a Show Has Buzz
It used to be that you had to watch a show from the beginning of the season or you wouldn’t understand it if you tuned in later. Now you can wait until a show develops buzz, and you know it will survive cancellation. If a show you were tentative about turns out to be a hit, you can easily find those episodes online so you can catch up.

Wait and Rent the Whole Season
A lot of people are opting not to watch broadcast TV at all, and instead wait until the whole season is available on DVD so they can watch it all at once. I did something similar with season 1 of Weeds, which I discovered on Demand, and the first part of season 1 of Heroes, which I watched online.

Don’t Turn on the TV Looking for Something to Watch
You can always find something to watch, but it might not be good. Instead, keep a book handy so you can read a chapter rather than turn on the TV. Once you sit down with the intent of just watching something, you’ll probably watch the next thing and the thing after that.

How is this related to personal finance? Well, if you don’t see commercials, you’ll be less tempted to buy stuff you don’t need. You’ll also be happier not seeing infuriating commercials or political ads. When you’re not watching TV, you can use that time you would otherwise waste doing things to improve your mind or even developing a money-producing hobby. This is not to say I don’t like TV. I love TV. I get excited when the shows I want to watch are on, and I do enjoy a little down time in front of the tube. What I don’t like is realizing I’ve just wasted several hours on stuff I don’t care about at all.

What are your strategies for avoiding TV you don’t want to watch while watching the shows you do?

This week we have four carnivals to share. Okay, maybe I went a little overboard, but I got on a submission binge.

First up, the Festival of Frugality #146 at Dollar Frugal.  In addition to my post about ridiculous food commercials, you might also enjoy Frugal Upstate’s Pizza Hut Clone Recipe.

Next up, the Carnival of Personal Finance #173 hosted by Girls Just Wanna Have Funds. In addition to my post explaining why you shouldn’t empty your 401K right now, I also recommend, Save and Conquer’s loose tooth analogy for the way most investors are acting.

Third, the Carnival of Money Stories #79 hosted by Living Almost Large. She included my post about my $37,000 debt success. If you need more inspiration, check out SoCal Savvy for a tip on saving $680 a year.

Finally, the Money Hacks Carnival #33 at Fix My Personal Finance. If my post about cheap Halloween costume ideas didn’t include the right costume for you, try the Bargain Queen’s ideas for Halloween costumes made from stuff you already have.

When times get tough, people seek more entertainment. We need to get away from the news of dwindling retirement funds and collapsing banks. However, most of us are trying to pinch our pennies these days. Here are 9 frugal fall entertainment options to keep your mind off the troubles without squeezing your wallet.

See a Matinee
Movies are fun, but who wants to pay $12 a ticket? If you don’t have an Entertainment Book that will get you great discounts on movie tickets, hit a matinee. Go right after lunch so you won’t be tempted to buy popcorn. If you must have a snack, sneak in water bottles and toasted nuts.

Go to a U-Pick Farm
Take the whole family to a U-Pick farm for an afternoon of apple picking. When you get home, bake your fruit into pies, cook applesauce, and make apple bread. If you have a cellar, the apples will store for quite a while, so that will save money on groceries, too.

Carve a Pumpkin
Buy pumpkins from the farmer’s market, pumpkin patch, or grocery store. Opt for sugar pumpkins if possible. Carve them the night before Halloween, and bake a pie from those same pumpkins the night after. To avoid eating wax, put a small piece of aluminum foil under the candle, or put it in a clean votive cup.

Have a Movie Marathon
If you have Netflix or Blockbuster, order three related moves and hold a movie marathon day. If you don’t subscribe to a movie service, visit the library to browse their selection of DVDs. Then make popcorn, bust out the big bag of M&Ms, nosh on nachos, or whatever else screams movie mania. It’ll be just like going to the theater, except with more comfortable seats and no need to pay for parking.

Go Leaf-Peeping in the Neighborhood
Usually leaf-peeping requires driving. If you don’t want to use the gas, go leaf-peeping in your neighborhood. Borrow a book about local trees from the library, then set out for a nice walk to admire the local trees and fall leaves.

Read Aloud
The whole family should choose one book everyone wants to read, and then spend an hour every night reading it aloud. Most people have probably finished the Harry Potter series, but The Book Thief and Madapple are getting a lot of good press these days. For those of you who don’t have kids, give one of the above a try or delve into a classic you’ve been interested in reading for a long time.

Cook a Group Meal
Not only is this a fun activity, but it’s a good lesson if you have kids. If you don’t have kids, gather your friends for a night of cooking, wine-tasting ($5 bottles), and general merriment. Choose an affordable menu from the grocery sale flyers, and then assign everyone a task or dish to cook in your home.

Game Night
Not a video game night. A family game night. Play the classics like Monopoly and Pictionary, or try one of the latest games like Cranium. Invite several friends over, then split up into groups. Ask everyone to supply suitable junk food and wine to keep the games going through the evening. If no one has games, then it’s time for Cutthroat Charades. When choosing difficult clues, consider not only the obscurity of the title, but also whether or not it’s easy to act out.

Attend a Museum on Free-Admission Day
Unfortunately, most free museum days are on weekdays, but both Bank of America and Target are sponsoring free weekends at museums around the country. WalletPop has more details on options through the end of the year. You may also find local children’s or science museums that are free every day, all year round. Check your local travel bureau for more information.

If you want more fall entertainment ideas, check out the local free weekly newspaper or calendar section. You should be able to find numerous free activities throughout the fall.

Got more ideas? Share them in the comments.

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