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 so exhausted by the rush and pressure to buy things that you 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 a few years ago from a reader who didn’t have the budget to do gifts. I have a long history of Christmases spent on the cheap, so I felt like I could help.
Nearly every year that we had a tight budgets, we’ve had fun despite the lack of big-ticket gifts. 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 below you’ll find a list of ideas for enjoying Christmas on the cheap – simple, easy holiday decor, food you can make with your family, games that don’t cost a dime, low-cost or no-cost gifts, and activities that will make you feel like you aren’t missing anything.
And since I get sentimental around this time of year – or more sentimental, I should say – I wanted to share a little more personal story first.
If you’re not interested in the story, scroll past the picture of the measuring cup – my favorite-ever Christmas present – to go straight to the tips.
One year, our family’s budget for gifts was really, really small. I mean, it was so minuscule you had to have a magnifying glass to even see it. Not that we could’ve afforded a magnifying glass. That also happened to be our first holiday together as a family – my husband, my stepsons, and me. So we set out with a $5 per person budget, determined to make it happen. (That was a challenge even back in the nineties.) But that was the year that one of my new sons, Mike, who was 11, gave me one of the best gifts I ever received: a glass measuring cup. The thing is, as a newlywed, I really had visions of being an awesome cook and all we had was this ancient plastic measuring cup that was so old you could barely read the numbers. If you cook, you know the numbers on a measuring cup are kind of important! Mike also knew that. This gleaming new glass measuring cup was, to me, a promise of many wonderful meals together in the future. If he had a million dollars to spend, he couldn’t have given me a more perfect gift. Many Decembers have come and gone since that one (and many wonderful meals), and I still have that measuring cup, and I still use it.
And I still tell that story every year. Mike is over 30 now and has his own sweet and wonderful family.
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.
So here are the no-money/little-money ideas for enjoying the holidays:
Decorate on the cheap:
- Make salt dough ornaments or cinnamon dough ornaments. (Note: these can be very bad for dogs, who might mistake them for treats and eat them. If you have pets, see below for paper ornaments or cinnamon dough ornaments you can make instead.)
- 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. If you are pet-free, simply thread a needle with a very long length of thread, and pierce kernels of popcorn until the thread is full. Repeat until you have enough to decorate your tree.
- Make a paper garland. Do you still have some glue sticks left over from the school supply sales? Cut paper (junk mail, catalogs, newspaper, flyers, etc.) into same-size strips. Glue a strip into a loop, then add strips until you have a nice length of garland. This can be really cute, and is really, really cheap.
- Make paper wreaths. Cut your junk mail into rectangles. Fold as illustrated to form a star. I think these are so neat. Here is one I made:
- 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.
- Jim suggests: Drive around and look at Christmas lights in Wichita. (Find the cheapest gas in Wichita.)
- Sing. It’s free.
- Go caroling. That’s also free, and you might score some hot chocolate from your neighbors. (You can also make your own hot cocoa very inexpensively.)
- Make hot cocoa.
- Make those ornaments I mentioned above. 🙂
- Listen to free holiday music. Pandora, Amazon, Q92.
- Play games. I love the Five Ws game mentioned in this post at LivingontheCheap.com
- Find an inexpensive holiday event from our list.
- Tell jokes.
- Tell stories. Kids love to hear stories about themselves, how you met your spouse, how grandma got run over by a reindeer, or whatever else you can come up with.
- Play cards.
- Build a house of cards.
- Do a puzzle. This one has different size pieces so the whole family can do it together:
- Melissa suggests: Gather to watch a holiday movie in your pajamas with hot cocoa and popcorn.
- Another suggestion from Melissa: The library has so many great Christmas books. The kids can pick out the ones they want to read. (The library also has lots of movies.) A library card is FREE.
- Play the thankful game: each child and adult tries to “win” the game by listing the most things they are thankful for. Believe me, in this game there are no losers!
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!
- Turkey is actually one of the least expensive meats you can buy this time of year. During sales, it can get as low as 60 cents/lb. Although you might pay $12 to $24 for the whole turkey, the leftovers will make quite a few delicious meals after Christmas.
- 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.)
- Green bean casserole is also a bargain. If you don’t want to buy a whole container of fried onions for this one dish, do it the old-fashioned southern way and use crunched up potato chips as a topping. It’s amaaaaazing. And if there are any chips left over, you know someone will eat them. Serve them as a snack while you’re playing family games or doing a puzzle.
- 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 with Kool Wip is pretty festive, loved by almost everyone, and super cheap as far as desserts go. 🙂
- Pie is not really expensive, especially if you make your own crust. This is my favorite crust recipe.
First, you’ll probably want to have a talk with the kids about how Santa is being more resourceful with his money these days. Ask them for their help coming up with inexpensive gift ideas for each other.
You might also want to check out Emily’s big list of non-toy gift ideas. These kinds of gifts tend to have long-lasting value.
- Wrap useful gifts, like toothbrushes, scrunchies, socks and other things that you have to buy anyway.
- 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 each member of the family a genuine compliment, both verbally and in writing.
- 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.
- Food gifts like homemade gourmet granola (< that’s the recipe I use), caramel corn (you don’t need caramel candies for this – just a few baking aisle ingredients), or peanut brittle are almost universally enjoyed.
- Set a budget and shop at a local store for thoughtful, meaningful gifts.
What about you? Do you have some suggestions for enjoying the holidays affordably?