When Did Ugly Christmas Sweaters Get So Expensive? Try This Instead

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ugly sweater party
Kelsey Buxton, TPH's Facebook Ad Copywriter, models her ugly sweater creation at The Penny Hoarder studio. Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder

I can’t recall exactly when ugly holiday sweaters got out of hand.

Maybe around the time Pinterest became big. Maybe even a little earlier, like when the word “hipster” came into everyday language (2009, in case you blocked it out of your mind).

That’s when we started overdoing it.

Ugly holiday sweater parties have always been my favorite way to celebrate the season. Not only do you get to see all your friends, drink a bunch of spiked eggnog and not have to turn the heat on during the party…  

You also get to bring a little nostalgia into the mix in the form of a sweater that someone, at some point, thought was a really good idea.

Ugly Sweater Inflation is Real

ugly sweater party

Lisa Rowan, TPH Writer, tries on an ugly sweater at Goodwill, St. Petersburg, Fla. Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder

Why are the ugliest of sweaters so expensive? Ugly sweater inflation has taken over.

Etsy sellers, including myself, realized that vintage sweaters with loud prints and metallic thread could command a premium.

Look on Etsy today, and you might be able to grab a sweater in something close to your size for $12.95 (plus shipping).

But for every tacky sweater at that price, there are two more that cost at least $25. And there are pages of options that will run you up to $100 or more for an item you’re going to wear once a year, if that.

Things started getting really out of control when regular stores selling new items got in on the fun. This year, Target is trying to capitalize on my cat-lady tendencies by calling this sweater both “ugly” and “Fairisle” in the same title.

There’s even a business dedicated to ugly sweaters — Ugly Christmas Sweater, of course — that sells new tacky sweaters for about $60 a pop. 3D sweaters (yes, that’s a thing) go for $70 or more.

Ugly Christmas Sweater earned $3.5 million in revenue in 2014 alone.

It’s time for a reality check. You could pay your phone bill with $70. There is no reason to spend $70 on an “ugly” sweater.

Instead of blowing major bills to be the life of the party, try these methods for scoring an ugly sweater on a budget.

1. Check at Home

ugly sweater party

Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder

No, not your home. Your parents’ house. Your grandparents’ house.

Remember, the best ugly sweaters are the ones someone once believed were a good idea to spend actual currency on.

My mom has an ivory and pink sweater with shimmery gold snowflakes all over it. I’m fairly certain she’s had it since before I was born.

I’ll spare her a photo on the internet, but she wears it every year during the holidays, with little shame.

But I know if I asked to borrow it, she’d hand it over and ask me to take good care of it.

2. Visit a Thrift Store

ugly sweater party

Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder

Thrift stores are treasure troves of former good ideas.

Some stores have even gotten hip to the ugly sweater trend and group their stock together as the holidays approach. But be warned that those hip thrift stores may stick higher price tags on their sweaters.

A few tips for finding a pre-owned sweater in the wild:

  • Look in both the men’s and women’s sections. If you’re on the smaller side, take a spin through the large-sized kids gear too.
  • If it smells weird, put it back. It’s hard to remove “attic-and-basement” musty smells from older clothing items, especially knit clothing like sweaters. Give that top a good sniff before taking it to the register.
  • Always err on the side of sizing caution. Older sweaters can be particularly itchy, so you won’t want one that fits you like a tight T-shirt. Try on your favorites to make sure you have a little breathing room before making a final decision.
  • The best time to find an ugly Christmas sweater at a thrift store? January. That’s when everyone who bought their sweater for a December party gets around to donating it back, according to one Goodwill store manager.

3. Make Your Own

ugly sweater party

Checking out at the Goodwill register with materials for the DIY ugly sweater contest at the TPH studio. Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder

I didn’t realize this was a thing until I admitted I’d never heard of it in a staff meeting at The Penny Hoarder HQ and found everyone staring like I had six arms.

Maybe I’m just not crafty enough.

But if you’re the creative type, DIY may be the most entertaining route for you.

It’s still helpful if you can start with a sweater from a thrift store before adding garlands, felt and who knows what else.

Tip: Don’t go wild on the add-ons.

No matter how many coupons you have from Michaels or Jo-Ann Fabrics, it’ll still be cheaper to find much of the decor you need at the thrift store. Look for garlands, tinsel, ornaments and even fabric remnants that can help bring your vision to life.

It’s even more fun and frugal if you set a budget and make all your crafty friends stick to it. $20? Awesome. $10? Even better.

Fire up the glue gun, kids.

Your Turn: What’s your strategy when you get invited to an ugly sweater party?

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. Thrift stores forever.