How to make the holidays special when you can’t afford big gifts

It doesn’t take money to make the holidays special. It helps, but there are just some years when gifts aren’t in the budget. Other times, you just may be exhausted by the rush and pressure to buy things and decide to opt out. (I can relate totally.) While I love a deal, this website isn’t just about getting things. It’s about living well while living within your means. And sometimes that means having a no-money (or very little money) holiday.

This post was inspired by an email I received earlier today from a reader who doesn’t have the budget to do gifts. I have a long history of Christmases spent on the cheap, but nearly every year we’ve had fun despite the lack of big-ticket gifts. Here are some ideas for having fun this year, whether or not you have millions in the bank. Some of these suggestions are from readers, and I welcome YOUR comments on this post. Let’s help each other enjoy what we do have, whether that’s a lot or a little.

(Note: Attitude is everything, at least for me. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. You can be the one with the love, if necessary.)

So here are the no-money/little-money ideas for enjoying the holidays:

Decorate on the cheap:

  • Jim suggests: Use your imagination when it comes to Christmas decorations.
  • Make salt dough ornaments.
  • Make your own easy holiday wreath. (Instructions are at the link. I haven’t tried this yet, but I love the idea.)
  • Use inexpensive ribbon as garland. Wrap it around the tree, a railing, or tie a bow in it and hang it on the wall.
  • Make a popcorn garland. We love this idea, but our puppy-dog will eat it. We know this from experience.
  • Take pictures off the wall and wrap them to look like gifts, then re-hang them. I had a friend who did this one year and it looked so great! If you’re not buying wrapping paper, wrap them in newspaper, plain white paper, or brown paper bags and use red ribbon to decorate.


Food and snacks:

  • Can’t afford a whole ham, even with a coupon? Make a ham and scalloped potato casserole. When I was growing up, we thought this was for special occasions only. We didn’t know it was cheap!
  • Baked sweet potatoes are an easy, inexpensive, festive side. Lightly salt and pepper when they’re done, and set out butter and brown sugar for topping. (To cook, clean them well, pierce each one several times with a fork, and microwave on high, rotating once or twice, until the potatoes are tender. Microwaves vary so much, it’s hard to say how long it takes. Mine takes 7 to 10 minutes to cook several potatoes.)
  • Sumptuous does not have to be expensive. This dinner from AARP and Eating Well looks gorgeous and delicious, but they claim it’s less than $5 per serving.
  • Rice Krispy treats
  • Jello
  • Pie is not really expensive, especially if you make your own crust. This is my favorite crust recipe.


  • Give each member of the family a genuine compliment, both verbally and in writing.
  • Give something you already have that you know the recipient would like.
  • Give a plant you started yourself.
  • Do your brother’s chores.
  • Do your sister’s chores.
  • Give someone a free $10 gift certificate, if they have email or Facebook.
  • Pool your limited resources and give someone else a gift. No matter how poor you are, someone’s poorer than you in some way. And I still think that giving money to someone you know or an organization you trust is a good thing to do, even if it’s just $5. If you choose your recipient well, you will never, ever regret it.
  • Homemade gourmet granola, caramel corn, or peanut brittle

What about you? Do you have some suggestions for enjoying the holidays affordably?

Never miss a deal:  


  1. Melissa says

    I suggested the movie night, and I thought of some more ideas:
    Free carriage rides through Bradley Fair.
    Give gift certificates for something unique and personal. For example, I’m a knitter, so I’ll give a certificate for a custom knitted item of the recipient’s choice.
    Make paper snowflakes to hang in the window. So fun and easy and very nearly free.

    • Carolyn says

      Melissa, those are great ideas. The paper snowflake thing is funny for us, because none of us can ever remember how to get them to come out right. :) And can I put my order in for some nice cozy gloves? LOL! Thanks for more suggestions!

      • Melissa says

        That’s what Pinterest is for! 😉
        One other thing that came to mind; the library has so many great Christmas books. The kids have fun picking out several to read during the season. :)

  2. nancy says

    Last few yrs have been hard, so a few yrs back we didn’t have any money for the big ticket items, but knew we would, come tax return time. So my hubby and I decided to do an imaginative “IOU” present for the kids, (ages 10 – 14 at the time) . We made up riddles and wrote them on fancy stationary, wrapped each one up and led them thru a scavenger hunt thru the house to find the next clue. At the end we had a big box with a note inside explaining the reason for the hunt and that the big items would come after tax return (they were old enough to understand then) with a wrapped box for each of them, containing inside a small present that would give them a clue to what their big gift was , i.e., confetti music notes for the one that wanted a stereo system for her room, etc and a “coupon” for a $100 bill for each of them. Altho this was free, this was the BEST present that year. The look on their faces , the fun they had working together to solve the clues, the running thru the house to find the next box, and the jumping and smiles and hugs at the end made that one of the best family Christmas memories!!!

    • Carolyn says

      It sounds like it was a wonderful time, and really goes to show that the kids don’t want “stuff” as much as they want sweet, quality time with their parents. :)

    • Carolyn says

      Thanks, BD. We’ve lived most of these ideas! :) I can vouch for them as being really fun ways to enjoy the holidays together.