Doing More With Less at Christmas

by Kim Tilley
Here are some guidelines for coming up with inexpensive solutions to holiday mayhem, though it really applies year round. Some of this info may seem old and outdated, but it is rooted in classic frugality!

I have gleaned these things from many years of frugal holidays, as well as reading lots of great books on frugality, my favorites being the The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyzyn and some of the books about the Great Depression. It is amazing how resourceful you can be when you have to be or choose to be, without having to give up your quality of living.

1. Have a good attitude about being frugal. Do not look at having a frugal Christmas, birthday or other holiday as being “poor” or suffering. This is the most self-defeating and depressing thing to do to yourself and it is contagious. If your kids see you bummed out about having less to spend on Christmas, they will pick up on it. Remember, they are forming opinions based on how you react to problems and challenges. Even if you are not feeling very excited about having to cut corners, put a smile on your face- that’s contagious too, and does a whole lot more good for everyone.

2. Use what you have- If you are going to spend less, one way to cut corners is by using what you already have on hand or is available to you very cheaply. This does not mean the gifts, decorations and other items will turn out looking cheap just because you got them cheaply. Again, it all goes back to attitude. Inventory what you have, including your skills, and then brainstorm about how you can apply them to your needs.

Some ideas:
Look outside- trimmings from your evergreen shrubs can be used for garlands, pinecones, twigs, vines and berries can be used too.
How about the grocery store? Perhaps you can use food items to decorate- gilded fruits and nuts, paper bags for wrapping paper and gift tags.
Check your closets- old clothes (in decent condition) can be turned into stockings, toys, gift bags, ornaments, etc. Check the sewing room for used fabrics, buttons, paints, etc.
Check the refrigerator- you can make egg shell ornaments, applesauce ornaments, pomander oranges, cookies as ornaments or gifts. Check the garage too! There is no limit to what you may find and use, just keep it safe!

3. Be creative –Think up new ways to apply what you have on hand to the holiday. Sometimes it helps to pick a theme that relates to where you live or what you have available to you. If you live in the mountains with lots of evergreens, you might want to pick a nature theme and decorate with fresh cut greens from your property and pinecones you find on walks. But if you live in the middle of a city, you may want to try something different. Even if you live in an apartment in a big city, you have resources! Just let your imagination go and write everything that comes to mind. You can edit it down and be practical later, but let your imagination run wild first.

4. Be a copycat – Stuck for more ideas? Look at sales flyers, catalogs and magazines (Country Sampler is a favorite of mine) and save the pictures you like in an “idea file”. Make notes by the pictures when they spark your interest. Many times, if you have a picture, you can copy the item. Even if you are not sure how, but like it, save the picture. You may find the item cheaper somewhere else, find a friend who knows how to make one, or you may find that you are saving the same kinds of pictures and learn more about your own personal taste. So learn what you like, and copy it!

5. Stick to your budget – Which of course, means have a budget to begin with! Set a certain amount per person and try to not put anything on credit cards. If you are using credit cards, enter the amount in your checkbook as a withdrawal because you have to pay that money back (I know I still have problems thinking of plastic as “real” money). Keeping any kind of records of what you are spending this holiday (and year round) is better than not knowing at all. I highly recommend the computer program Quicken. You can see what you are spending- SCARY!

6. Establish a “bag of tricks”- Your bag of tricks may include making big batches of cookie dough and freezing ahead of time, buying Christmas presents year round, stocking up after Christmas, using a hot glue gun, using gift bags instead of wrapping paper, computerizing your Christmas list and printing labels and cards out, anything that saves you time or money. Make sure your tricks are things you are already comfortable doing. Perhaps you can make a New Year’s resolution to learn a new skill each year to put in your “bag of tricks”.

7. Focus on the true meaning of Christmas- This is an old idea but a good one. Do you remember what Christmas and other holidays are really about? Is it really about who gets the most presents or who has the biggest dinner? Does it have anything to do with whether you have 5 million Christmas lights up or none at all? Get back to the basics of the holidays- read the Bible. I don’t think the three wise men were worried about whether the Christmas cards would get to their relatives on time; Mary did not make a ten course Christmas dinner and decorate the stable with Department 56 ornaments; and Joseph was not tackling other parents in Toy R Us so he could bring home this year’s “hot” new toy. Whether you are religious or not, most holidays have very humble beginnings. It is the commercialism of the past few decades that has brainwashed us into thinking holidays are some complicated and excruciating extravaganza. Keep it simple!

8. Establish traditions that do not cost a lot- Instead of spending more money on your family, spend some time with them. Have you ever roasted chestnuts on an open fire or strung popcorn together? Have a cookie party. Make ornaments for the tree, tell stories to your kids about your favorite Christmases as a child and ask them what their favorite Christmases have been so far. Don’t tell your family that “we are doing this instead of going to a movie or spending money” just do things with your family. Most of the time, they will not even notice that what you are doing is cheap because they are too busy having fun.

9. Reduce the number of gifts you are giving- and invite your relatives to do the same. Perhaps you can start a name draw or challenge each other to come up with lost cost or homemade gifts. Not everyone will want to cut back on the store-bought, gift-giving bonanza, but it is worth a try. Stick to your guns and emphasize the real meaning of Christmas. It may take a few years to bring other family members around to your point of view. The important thing to remember is not to try to “convert” anyone and to reinforce your relationships with your loved ones while de-emphasizing the commercialism. Let them know that you love them, that is why many of us put ourselves through the holiday craziness in the first place!

10. Plan ahead – Shop through the year for gifts, wrapping paper and decorations. There are some great finds at summer garage sales, but it is sometimes hard to think about Christmas in 100 degree heat. Craft stores often have fantastic “Christmas in July” sales, and don’t forget end of winter clearances on clothing and winter accessories (usually in January and February), canning jellies and jams in summer (they make great gifts), and thrift store finds.

11. Make a long range plan when doing your décor- Who says you have to buy it all at once? You can pick a theme you will like for several years and slowly build it up every year. You can build a collection of ornaments, buying one or two every year. You can also do this with high quality fake greenery, buying a few every year and hitting the after Christmas clearances as well. Outdoor lighting is another area where you can take this approach, adding something new every year with out spending a fortune. By having long range plans, you will be surprised at how much more you find year round (at yard sales, thrift shops, store sales, etc) because you have a specific style or type of item in mind. Hopefully, you will be able to find what you want at bargain prices too!

12. Keep a Christmas/Holiday file- For ideas you find throughout the year. You can do this for any holiday, season, or birthday, even room décor themes. If you see projects that you know would be “just perfect” save them in this file and turn to your files when you need inspiration. I have files for each season and holiday, as well as some room décor themes and my children. I find pictures in magazines, craft instructions, newspaper articles and flyers, all kinds of stuff, sometimes I even save solicitations for books in the mail. People ask me where I come up with ideas- they are everywhere! Just file them away and turn to them when you need them!

13. Use the library- It’s a great resource and it’s free! (well, we are paying for it anyhow in taxes, so you might as well use it!) There are tons of great holiday books to check out.

14. Check out our Holiday Ideabase– our readers have sent in time-tested, fun, inexpensive ideas for any holiday or special occasion, including Christmas. While you’re there, feel free to add your favorite ideas, recipes, traditions, etc.

And most important of all- HAVE FUN!!! It’s not worth all of the hassle if you are miserable, so have a good time!

© Copyright 1999, Kim Tilley

About the Author

Kim Tilley is the mother of three boys, ages 9,6 and 2. She is the online editor for a local tv station and the editor of Frugal Moms. She is also a tightwad at heart. Her interests include cooking, crafts, gardening, computers, and saving money! When not typing away at the computer, she entertains herself by chasing kids and finding ways to create something out of nothing! Visit Kim’s website at




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