Americans plan to spend, on average, $830 on gifts alone this holiday season, according to a recent Gallup report.
That’s a whopping 15% and $110 more than they planned to spend last year!
And that’s not even including the added costs of holiday cards, decorations, hosting and travel. It’s no wonder another study, done by SunTrust Banks, Inc., found 46% of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they can afford on the holidays.
Fortunately, we penny hoarders aren’t average.
The better question to ask us isn’t how much we plan to spend this holiday season, but how little.
And with the recent trends toward simplicity, minimalism and “buy nothing” detoxes, we found ourselves wondering… Could anyone realistically get away with a zero-cost holiday?
We think you can.
Whether your finances are especially tight this year or you simply want out of the consumerism treadmill, having a “no-spend” holiday is possible.
We interviewed financial gurus and real-life savvy savers to gather these 17 tips that will help you rock a spendless holiday season while still making spirits bright.
1. Find Your “Why”
Ignoring the buy-buy-buy mania of the holidays isn’t easy. To stick to your guns, ground yourself in why you’re going “no-spend” this year.
Maybe you’re on a restricted budget after a job loss, or you’re trying to throw as much money as possible toward paying down debt so you can enjoy more financial freedom.
Whenever the holiday spending hoopla gets too noisy, remind yourself of this reason.
2. Just Say No
And for those times when you just can’t resist all the jingly, jangly commercialism of the season? Cognitive behavioral therapist and coach David Ezell recommends the tried-and-true tactic of “simple avoidance.”
“One of the ways I avoid impulse buying,” he says, “is not going to retail stores this time of year. Those stores are set up to lure people into spending more money than they are willing to spend.”
You may find you need to stay away from certain websites, unsubscribe from certain email newsletters or automatically throw any catalogs you receive into the recycling bin.
3. Make It Known
The best way to head off confusion and potential hard feelings from loved ones is to state your intentions, calmly and firmly, from the get-go.
“Talk to family and friends about gift expectations,” advises nationally recognized money-saving and consumer expert Andrea Woroch.
“It’s OK to tell family and friends you don’t want to receive gifts and that you don’t plan to give them either, focusing on how you feel the holiday season has turned into a consumer and spending event and has moved away from the importance of simply being together.”
Blogger Lauren Bowling of L Bee and the Money Tree agrees. “I think it’s perfectly acceptable to politely decline to travel if you can’t afford it or are saving up for a house or other financial goal. You can let family members in on it so they don’t feel you’re bailing for a personal reason and can champion the cause along with you.”
There’s nothing better than a gift made with love, and the holidays are the perfect opportunity to put a little thought and time into homemade gifts for the special people in your life.
Eliza Cross, the blogger behind Happy Simple Living, shared these crafty and creative ideas:
- Shoot digital photos that recipients can share online. Shutterfly and Walgreen’s often offer free photo printing promotions, too.
- Collect flower seeds from standing seed pods, put them in a pretty envelope and include planting directions.
- Make a family holiday video using a free app like Magisto Movie Maker.
- Write up some of your favorite, foolproof dinner recipes on recipe cards or in a dollar-store notebook.
- Make a digital family cookbook with family members’ recipes.
Are you a good cook or baker? Tiffany Welka, Vice President of VFG Associates, advises asking friends and family what they enjoy eating.
“This way, you could cook or bake whatever is on their list. Someone once said that the way to the heart is through the belly!” she says.
Don’t let that classic “label-maker” episode of “Seinfeld” guilt-trip you — Woroch says regifting is a perfectly acceptable practice, so long as you use some basic common sense.
“You may have gift cards left over from last holiday season or items you received for a recent birthday or other holiday celebration,” she says. “If you still haven’t used these items, regift them! Just make sure you don’t give it to the person who originally gave it to you.”
Julie Ritten, founder of Ritten Financial, suggests a creative spin by rebranding regifting as a White Elephant party.
“You and guests will have free rein on creativity, in addition to getting rid of stuff in your house,” she says. “Remember, one person’s junk is another’s treasure.”
Swapping is another great way to both clear your home of items you no longer use and find potentially great gifts for your loved ones.
“If you have children,” Woroch says, “you probably also have a room or chest full of toys they don’t play with anymore.
“Set up a swap with other families in your area and trade gently used toys and books. Then wrap the like-new ones, which are perfect presents for your children or other children in your family. Kids don’t care if toys are new — they just want something different to play with!”
Clothing and accessory swaps are also popular these days, and you can make a fun event of it with your friends by inviting everyone to bring a drink or plate to share along with their gently used items.
7. Cash In Your Points
If you belong to rewards programs like Swagbucks or Bing Rewards, you can earn points for doing simple activities like answering surveys and running your normal Internet searches. Then you can redeem these points for everything from gift cards to merchandise.
Join now, or ramp up your participation if you’re already a member: You might be able to earn enough points to give a seemingly “store-bought” gift or two that costs you nothing but a little of your time.
8. Be of Service
“Whether you’re a talented photographer or can help a friend spruce up their website with your design skills,” Woroch says, “your services are a great gift to give without spending any money.
“If you feel as though you lack any specific talent, keep in mind that many friends and family would certainly value your services for babysitting, dog walking or even help painting a bedroom!”
“The best alternative to gift-giving is offering your time to others,” agrees Nate, the blogger behind Hacking Your Budget.
“Whether that’s volunteering instead of donating money, offering to deep-clean your grandparents’ house or watching a friend or family member’s kids for a night out.”
9. Give the Gift of Memories
“A great way to not spend any money on gifts is find items you have that carry sentimental value and add your own personal touch to them,” says Robert Palmer, host of the radio show Saving Thousands.
“Transfer old home movies to DVD and digitally update them — a great gift for your parents and grandparents. Turn your parents’ old wedding photos into a digital slideshow with music. You can’t put a price tag on these types of gifts.”
10. Give the Gift of Time
“The best gifts aren’t the most expensive,” says relationship advice expert April Masini of Ask April. “In fact, they’re often the ones that don’t cost money, but instead involve time.”
There are tons of options. “Spend the holiday with a loved one, or a neighbor who is a shut-in and can’t get out. Simply being there, passing the time, and offering companionship and good cheer is going to stave off loneliness for someone who would much rather have your company than a fancy gift from Hermes or Tiffany.”
Dr. Susan Smith Kuczmarski, author Becoming A Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul, reminds us “a family’s togetherness has to be cultivated, just like one would nurture love and friendship.”
Having long, conversational meals together, “treasuring silly traditions” and especially “pulling the plug on the tech equipment” for a little while can go a long way toward making you closer as a family.
11. Give Back
Volunteering can also be a priceless gift that rewards both the recipient and the giver.
“You might agree as a family not to exchange gifts this year, so give back to your community instead,” says David Bakke, a writer for Money Crashers.
“Local soup kitchens and homeless shelters always need help. Or, contact a Meals on Wheels organization near you. Delivering hot food to the needy is always a gratifying experience.”
Masini agrees. Instead of buying gifts, she suggests you “spend Christmas volunteering at a cancer ward or a Veteran’s Administration facility where people have so much less and need so much more than you. This is a game changer for your life, and that of your children and loved ones when they join you.
“The spirit of the holiday gets lost in credit card transactions, and it doesn’t have to. Put your credit card away, and — instead of spending — give your time and yourself to those in need.”
12. Rethink Wrapping Paper
What if you don’t go 100% gift-free? “Use recycled newspaper or magazines to cover up your item,” says Nate.
If you want to really get creative, you can match the wrap to to the recipient, like using the comics section to wrap a gift for the friend who always makes you laugh.
13. Be a Courteous Recipient
No matter how well you broadcast your intentions, you may still find yourself on the receiving end of those who refuse to take “no gifts” for an answer. When this happens, practice gratitude for others’ thoughtfulness rather than reminding them of your rules.
“Some people are natural gift-givers,” says Trevor Ewen, who blogs at the personal finance site Pear of the Week.
“It’s how they show love; it’s how they express themselves… There are some people who will toil over the right gift and just want to see the joy in your face.”
Remember, just because you won’t be able to reciprocate in kind doesn’t mean you can’t return the generosity in other ways.
14. Be the Host With the Most for Less
Switch up your annual get-together by having a potluck. “It will take the pressure off you and allows your guest to showcase their favorite recipe,” says Ritten.
“You can do one better by having guests bring copies of their recipes, hole punch them and tie all pages together for a new holiday recipe book. This can make for a wonderful annual event for family and friends!”
You can also “use up the foods in your freezer and pantry to start 2016 fresh,” she adds. “There are many websites — Recipes.com, for example — that allow you to list ingredients you have and in turn give you an array of delicious, creative meals for your family to enjoy.”
When it comes to entertaining holiday guests (or just your own restless crew), Bakke says, “Instead of choosing expensive holiday activities like light shows, hayrides and winter wonderlands, go the free route and spend some time playing in the snow, building snowmen and making snow angels. You could even grab a large laundry basket, find a small hill and have an afternoon of sledding with the kids.”
Even something as simple as streaming classic holiday movies can make for a fun, no-spend evening.
15. Deck the Halls With… Stuff You Don’t Have to Buy
“Holiday decorations are so easy to make for free,” says Natalie Andrews, who learned money-saving home improvement tips working for Helpling home cleaners.
“If you have public woodland or trees near you, go out and collect large fallen branches (be sure not to cut any off the trees!) which you can then display in a big vase or even a bucket wrapped in festive paper.
“To decorate the branches, simply add a string of lights, or create some free fruit decorations. Slice various fruits very thinly (oranges, pears and apples work best) and place them in a very low temperature oven for a few hours until dried out. Pierce a hole and tie a loop of ribbon through the fruit, and hang on your branches. Voilà: free, festive, natural decorations!”
Cross points out you can also “find new ways to display decorations you already have, like hang pretty Christmas ornaments from your chandelier, or arrange colorful glass balls in a clear bowl.”
16. Think Outside the (Card) Box
“Sending holiday cards can get expensive when they’re marked up for the holidays,” says Nate, “so simply create your own using a Microsoft product or GIMP, which is essentially a free Photoshop-like program.
“You can still get creative and create a nice card to send to family and friends. Bonus tip: Consider emailing the card instead to save on postage.”
17. Travel on Other People’s Dimes
Jason Steele of CompareCards.com is a master of traveling for free or nearly free. He offers the below advice for getting over the hills and through the woods for less:
The key to traveling for free is to apply the same skills you use for earning and saving money to the world of points and miles.
The easiest way to earn points and miles is through the careful use of reward credit cards. There are many cards that offer 50,000 miles or more, just for signing up and completing a minimum spending requirement. Then, cardholders can earn additional miles by using these cards for their regular purchases.
So long as they avoid interest charges by paying off each month’s statement balance in full, there are few costs to this strategy, other than annual fees.
But when it comes to holiday travel, you have to be even more careful as this is a time of peak demand when it can be difficult and expensive to redeem miles in frequent flier programs like the ones from Delta, United and American, which severely restrict award availability during the holidays.
Instead, holiday travelers should focus on earning points and miles that are worth a fixed value toward flights, such as Southwest Rapid Rewards, Chase Venture Rewards and Discover it miles. Then, it’s important to book holiday flights as early as possible when the fares are still low.
Given the rampant consumerism most people associate with the holidays, opting out of the spending game won’t necessarily be easy.
But if you believe in it, and you’re willing to give it a go, you may be surprised to find how rich and generous the holidays can be with zero spending.
Your Turn: Have you ever done a “no-spend” (or low-spend) holiday — or are you trying to this year? Share your stories and tips with us in the comments!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. We would have shared them with you anyway, but a true “penny hoarder” would be a fool not to take the company’s money.
Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.