52 ways to trim your holiday budget

If you find yourself crying over a bloated credit card bill every January, try these tips and tricks for cutting back on spending without losing out on any of the good stuff that makes the holidays special.

Illustration: Katy Dockrill

1. The number one thing is, you’ve gotta make a budget—a detailed budget based on what you’ve spent in previous years and where you’d like to make changes. Break it down into categories for gifts, groceries, entertaining, travel and incidentals (like babysitters). There are some great budgeting apps that can help, says Anne Arbour, a financial educator with Credit Counselling Society. “The ones I hear the best feedback about include Mint, Spendee, Goodbudget Budget Planner: Money & Expense Tracker, Mvelopes Budget App and Monefy—Money Manager. They’re each customizable so you can include a Holiday Spending category.”

2. Prep some freezer meals now. December is a whirlwind, and when you just can’t bear the thought of cooking after a long day of running around, takeout is really appealing. But man, does it blow the budget. Consider freezer meals a smart investment.

3. Cut down on unnecessary spending for the weeks leading up to the holiday shopping spree. Do you really need that grande PSL?

4. Buy big-ticket gifts on bonus-point days, and then use all those points to purchase less expensive items like stocking stuffers and teacher and hostess gifts.

5. With almost zero effort, you can earn back part of what you spend through rebate apps like Ebates, Reebee, CartSmart, Zweet, Snap by Groupon and Checkout 51. “Retailers are tracking you anyway; you might as well get paid for it,” says Arbour.

6. Have your kids make gifts for the grandparents rather than buying something impersonal.

7. When you’re planning for the holidays, remember the cardinal rule of staying on budget: “If you don’t have the money, don’t spend it,” says Kerry K. Taylor, a consumer expert and finance writer. “It’s so basic, but we don’t do it, and I don’t know why.”

8. Spend time together instead of spending money during the holiday. Take a walk around the neighbourhood to see the pretty lights, go tobogganing, make popcorn and watch a classic movie, bake gingerbread or volunteer at the local food bank.

9. If someone asks if they can bring anything to your dinner, always say yes! A bottle of wine, dessert, flowers for the table, whatever—all those small things add up. People like contributing. Let them.

10. The best time to buy holiday decor, lights and gift wrap is when they’re on sale at the end of the season, says Janice Meredith, a professional stylist and mom of four in Toronto. Consider working with what you’ve got for this year, and then stock up for next year during Boxing Week.

11. Use flyer apps like Flipp and Reebee to find the best deals and coupons for groceries in your area.

12. Brown kraft paper is a thriftier choice than fancy giftwrap and looks so classically cool tied up with ribbon and finished with a rustic touch like a sprig of fresh evergreen or rosemary.

13. Buy generic instead of name brands. You can save 25 to 30 percent buying the no-name version—but check to make sure ingredients and nutrition are comparable. “A lot of the time, they’re the exact same thing,” says Taylor.

14. Check the unit price on the price tag. Sometimes the “sale” item is actually more expensive per unit than a smaller or larger package of the same thing or another brand.

15. Go full DIY for your door decor. Kids love collecting, so go for a nature walk and pick up small fallen branches, pine cones, berries and twigs. Use them to make a wreath, or tie them up with some ribbon for a door swag that costs next to nothing.

16. Set up a swap with friends or neighbours for everything from holiday decor to toys to party outfits.

17. Plan your holiday menu way ahead of time if you’re hosting the big feast so you know exactly what you’ll need. That way, you can estimate how much it’s all going to cost, watch for sales on non-perishables and avoid impulse purchases.

18. Fresh Christmas trees can cost a lot or a little. If you don’t mind risking a Charlie Brown situation, you can usually get one at the grocery store for about $20 to $25. Splurge on something that won’t be turfed to the curb by New Year’s.

19. Use boughs trimmed from the bottom of your Christmas tree to add fragrant greenery to a vase, mark place settings for dinner or fill out your front door wreath. Have an artificial tree? Hit up the local tree lot for clippings.

20. Host a brunch, cocktail party or holiday open house rather than a big dinner. A few nibblies and hot apple cider will cost a lot less than a big turkey with all the fixings.

21. Meredith is a big fan of getting the kids involved in holiday decorating—they usually love it. Pick up clear plastic ornaments from Ikea or the dollar store and have the kids paint them.

22. Just like Santa, make a list of everyone you have to buy a gift for, setting a spending limit for each person, says Arbour. Note down how much you’ve spent right after you purchase something. (If you leave it for later, chances are you’ll forget.)

23. Gifts for extended family can really add up fast. Instead of swapping gift cards, skip gifts for the grown-ups, or set up a Secret Santa or gift-exchange game (with a spending limit). And if all the shopping for your passel of nieces, nephews and little second cousins is getting a bit nutty, Secret Santa might just be a good idea for the kids, too.

24. Double (or even triple) down on your savings. You’d be amazed at how much money you can keep in your pocket when you buy something on sale and use a coupon, claim a rebate (or two) and collect loyalty points on it.

25. Never pay full price for anything. If you can’t get something at a discount, hold off until you can.

26. But don’t buy something just because it’s on sale. “You can go broke really fast stocking up on good deals,” says Taylor. Plus, ifs your kid is going to toss it aside in a week, it’s a waste of money, not a deal.

27. Cash in your points. Reward programs are great for getting free stuff or reducing your bill. “I collect PC Plus points all year and basically don’t pay for groceries in December,” says Meredith.

28. Shop consignment stores, Kijiji, Facebook buy-and-sell groups and second-hand stores for deals on holiday outfits, toys, sports equipment and video games. “Kids won’t care if it’s used,” says Taylor. “They’ll just be happy to have more Lego.”

29. Gather up that Canadian Tire money floating around the junk drawer and use it to cut down on the cost of small gifts (hello, stocking stuffers), decorations, toys, sports gear or any household items you suddenly need.

30. Give your time. Make coupons or vouchers for family and friends, offering up free babysitting (brilliant, right?), delivered homemade dinners (want!) or something more, ahem, interesting for your spouse.

31. Set kids’ expectations so you’re not tempted to buy everything you see. Taylor’s four-year-old daughter, Chloe, knows that she’ll be getting “something she wants, something she needs, something she wears and something she reads.” Four gifts and done.

32. Don’t be a turkey about your turkey. You can find deeply discounted birds, but you’ll taste the difference. Instead, make friends with your local butcher and ask if any organic, free-range birds went unclaimed after Thanksgiving. There’s a chance there’s one or two in the freezer, and you might get a tidy discount. (Tip: Next year, buy a premium fresh turkey on sale after Thanksgiving and stash it in the freezer.)

33. Sign up for emails from retailers. Yes, it’ll clutter your inbox, but it’s a low-effort way to get in on one-day sales, special offers, coupons and discount codes. (You can unsubscribe on December 26.)

34. Shopping for sports equipment? Ask the retailer if they have any of last year’s models they may be willing to sell at a discount, suggests Arbour.

35. Stock up on batteries at Costco or the dollar store—you don’t want to be making a Christmas Day run to the drugstore.

36. Take advantage of price matching to cut down on the number of stores you have to visit. Walmart, Hudson’s Bay, Sears, Best Buy, Sport Chek, The Source and some Canadian Tire locations are just a few of the stores that will match (or in some cases, beat) another retailer’s advertised price. Most grocery chains will also price match, sometimes with an added discount to keep you from walking out the door. It’s money in your pocket.

37. Let aggregator sites like Shopbot, RedFlagDeals and Nextag do the comparison shopping for you.

38. Shop the discount shelves. Day-old bread is perfect for stuffing, and “don’t be afraid of bruised fruit and veg,” says Arbour. “If you’re cooking them anyway, they don’t have to be beauty queens.”

39. If you’ve got fresh greenery decorating your home, jazz it up with inexpensive-to-run LED lights and fabric ribbon.

40. Buy festive tins from the dollar store and have a stack filled with homemade cookies ready to give out to teachers, mail carriers, the crossing guard and neighbours, or as hostess gifts when you’re visiting friends.

41. In lieu of giving a small gift to every acquaintance, Arbour recommends making a donation to a charity in the name of friends and family. Have cards on hand to give out that explain that the donation was made in their honour.

42. One word: potluck. Two more words: kiss up. Ask Mom to whip up a batch of her famous mashed potatoes and sweet talk your brother into making his so-good-even-the-kids-love-them Brussels sprouts and bring ’em on over.

43. Don’t use credit if you can’t pay off the balance in full at the end of the month, even if your card has rewards. There’s no point in spending to get points or cash back if you’re paying out more in interest than you’re making back.

44. Buy quality items when they’re on sale—they’ll last longer and save you money in the long run. “Hudson’s Bay has a sale right before Christmas, which is a great time to purchase high-quality items,” says Meredith.

45. Hit the dollar store to pick up holiday staples like gift bags, ornament hangers, craft supplies for the kids to decorate with and faux berry sprigs for a tabletop display. And stock up on cleaning supplies while you’re there—you’re going to need them!

46. Become a locavore. In-season, locally grown produce almost always costs less than imports.

47. Is your kid ready for her first smartphone? See if you’re due for an upgrade and pass along your perfectly good gadget, or watch for holiday promotions—you might be able to add a new phone to a family plan without paying anything for the device.

48. Shop at discount grocery stores over big-name stores. Specialty items might be harder to find, but the staples will be 25 to 40 percent cheaper, says Taylor.

49. Stock up on pantry staples when they’re on sale. Baking goods (chocolate, pie mix, flour…) are often discounted around the holidays.

50. Buy festive table accessories that’ll work throughout the year, like gold-rimmed plates or pretty napkins in a neutral colour instead of ones emblazoned with snowflakes.

51. Make some old-school garland out of popcorn and cranberries. Bonus: It’s compostable.

52. Set up a holiday savings account now. Yes, this is more of a “going forward” tip, but think of it as next year’s gift to yourself. Set up an auto-transfer to move a set amount from every paycheque into the savings account the same day you get paid. “You don’t miss what you don’t have,” says Arbour. “Be your own government and have it taken off the top like a tax.”

Did you know?
It pays to keep an eye on the scanner at the checkout. Many retailers participate in the voluntary Scanner Price Accuracy Code program: if the scanned price on a product comes up as more than the advertised shelf price and you spot it, you can get the item for free if it costs less than $10, or $10 off the advertised price of an item that costs more. Here are some of the participating retailers, but call up your favourite places to shop and ask if they follow this code (more than 1,300 independent stores do).

• Toys R Us

• Walmart

• Giant Tiger

• Best Buy

• Costco

• Loblaw stores

• Sobeys

• Metro

• Canada Safeway

• Thrifty Foods

• Co-op Atlantic

• Longos

• Shoppers Drug Mart

• Lawton Drug Stores

• London Drugs

• Lovell Drugs

• Jean Coutu (NB and ON)

• Pharmasave BC

• Home Depot

• Canadian Tire

• Rona

• Home Hardware (select locations)

Read more:
Money: How to recover after the holidays
15 ways to save money on just about everything
13 ways to save money every day

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