How to save money during the holidays

BY: ALISON

No matter what you’re celebrating – be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza – or any other holiday – during the winter season traditions, celebrations and get togethers can be expensive, especially when gifts are involved. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to set a realistic budget and stick to it, so here are some tips to help you spend within your financial means during the holidays.

#1. Reduce the number of gifts you buy

Make an exhaustive list of all of the people you typically purchase gifts for. Review the list and see if you can shorten it. Ask yourself, is there anyone you don’t see as often, or anyone that you keep on your list simply because they have you on theirs? It might be time to cut them out.

person holding a gift in front of a christmas tree

It can be helpful to think about who are the people that you buy personalized gifts for, and who you buy generic gifts for. Consider not purchasing gifts for the people who fall in the latter category. This doesn’t have to be an awkward moment, a simple conversation or email to say you’re trying to save some money, de-clutter or that you have everything you need already, is usually all it takes for people to get the message. Ask what they think of no longer exchanging gifts, and odds are they will happily agree.

Suggest only getting gifts for the children in your lives. Adults can arrange a Secret Santa or Gift Swap, where each person brings one gift for one adult. Set a price range everyone can agree on, and remember a smaller amount can be even more fun, because then people have to be creative and thoughtful. I’ve also done this with gift themes, like practical gifts, handmade gifts, cooking tools, or re-gifted items only.

Here’s another option: my favourite type of party to host is an exchange party, because one person’s trash is truly another person’s treasure. People bring gently used clothing, shoes, accessories, or household items that they don’t want or need anymore. It all gets placed in the centre of a room and then people can look through and take home any items they like. Anything remaining at the end of the night gets donated to a charity that accepts such items.

christmas cookies

Once you’ve finalized the list of people that you will be giving gifts to, it’s important to set a realistic budget per person and stick to it. It will be very tempting to add little things or to get more expensive presents, but if you’re not strict about not going over budget, your finances could suffer for quite some time after the holiday season. It’s not worth it, and your friends and family don’t want that for you.

#2. Choose less expensive gifts

Some of the best gifts I’ve ever received barely cost anything, check out some of these ideas below.

Write it Out

Write a letter expressing how much someone means to you. Relive favourite memories, share what you admire about them and let them know the difference they’ve made in your life. The recipient will feel very touched and appreciated, and just the surprise of receiving something in the mail is a wonderful gift in and of itself.

Edible Options

The most thoughtful gifts are homemade. If you want to give people edible gifts, cookies, cake, or chocolate truffles made from scratch (or close to it) are great. If you want to give a bit more, wrap the food in in an additional gift, such as a tea towel, baking pan, or a pretty dish, bowl, or gift box. Alternatively, you can assemble meals in glass jars, such as this delicious split pea soup. You can also check out some of BIST’s favourite Chef Janet Craig’s easy recipes, such as these amazing coconut cranberry slices.

For the Crafty Folk

If you’re a knitter, handmade comfy socks, scarves or ornaments make a great gift.  Another idea: my cousin starts growing unique plants up to a year in advance and separates the baby plants into new pots. Then she gives the individual plants away as gifts for the holidays. All you need, other than time, sunlight, and water, is small, inexpensive pots and potting soil.

A bowl of chocolate Santas with oranges

Make an Advent Calendar 

I love receiving and making advent calendars. You can use kraft or wrapping paper to make gift bags, you can reuse small boxes, or sew your own mini stockings (DIY instructions HERE.

I’ve seen people wrap toilet paper rolls in pretty paper. Number the gifts from 1 to 24 and you’ll be able to surprise someone for almost the entire month of December. I like to collect little $1 items for advent calendars throughout the year, such as small toys, craft supplies, stickers or $1 lottery scratch tickets. You can also write down inspirational quotes or suggest a daily activity, such as building a snow man.

#3. Life Hacks on Saving Money while Shopping

If you decide to spend money on gifts, here are some tips for how you can still save money on your purchases:

Make a donation to a cause that your friends and family are passionate about. Make the donation in their name and send a card to let them know.

Buy discounted gift cards, look for deals where you pay less but get a higher valued gift card. Costco offers these on a regular basis, while Cineplex often offers deals closer to the holiday season. Just be sure to read the fine print, because sometimes an expiration date may apply.

Start early – really early 

The following tips work best if you know exactly what you want to give to each of the people on your list:

  • Start researching prices and shopping early in the year so you can track sales and figure out what the best prices are. It also allows you to spread the cost of the holidays across several months. Just don’t purchase edible items too early in advance!
  • Go to chat forums such as www.redflagdeals.com where people share and discuss all sorts of deals and sales.
  • Be sure to compare the prices of the items you’re looking for across different stores. Don’t forget to price compare online, if you’re able to.
  • Create an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the best prices and sales that you find throughout the year. Sales are often announced in flyers and on store websites. I love using the flipp app to pull up and compare all of the flyers in one easy place.
  • The best deals are when you can stack promotions. For example, if you have a general coupon that you can use on anything in a store, wait to see if your item gets heavily discounted, and then use your coupon to get a further discount. Check the conditions and keep an eye on the expiration date.
  • Find out which stores near you will price match and learn their conditions. Some companies will even offer you an additional discount when you price match in their store.
  • The most important things to consider when shopping online are exchange rates, shipping costs and times, refund/exchange policy, and applicable duty costs.
  • If you’re shopping for experiences, try deals websites such as groupon.com and wagjag.com but read the fine print as they tend to have short expiration dates and multiple conditions.
  • If you shop online often, consider signing up for an account with ebates.ca which will give you cash back if you shop on certain websites through the ebates link.
  • Some of the best discounts are not advertised. For big ticket items such as TVs, appliances and furniture, stores will sell discontinued models at a very good price. You can ask sales associates if they have any discontinued models or when they are expecting the manufacturers to release new lists.

A pile of boxed gifts

Here’s wishing you a happy, stress-free and cost-efficient holiday!


‘Mind Yourself with Alison’ is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). Check out Alison’s other BIST Blog articles Women and Brain Injury: What you need to know and How to be a Good Friend to a Survivor.

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