Christmas is less than a month away…and you need to make your money stretch as far as possible. How can you do it? We’ve discussed this issue before, but here are a double dozen tips, plus a few, geared toward the holiday season and beyond.
1. Think LED for lights. Electricity costs add up! Look for LED lights, which last longer and are more efficient.Home Depot even has a trade-in program that gives you store credit on LED lights. The ‘Eco Options’ program is done now for 2013, but has been offered annually for years — look for it next year.
2. Go solar, and save even more. Fairy lights, like this batch from Innoo Tech, come in LED versions with a solar hookup that stores power by day, and lights at night.
3. Stick with the basics — so you can use them all year round. Clear or iridescent lights, like the fairy lights above, are perfect for other celebrations, like graduation, birthday or garden parties.
4. Think natural. Pine cones, greens, seedpods and such make beautiful wreaths and mantel decorations. Combine them with ribbon bows and swags (discount, of course) for a graceful look.
5. Limit your color palette. This year, decorate in gold and silver. Next year, make your decorating purchases in a third color, like red — or purple, this year’s ‘in’ shade. Mix and match, and store each year’s additions for use the next year.
6. Let candles light your way. Pillars last longer, but tea lights are cheap and give a dainty (if temporary) effect. Watch your sales and use coupons at places like Michael’s– pillar candles are often less than $3 each, for 20-30 hours of use. (Just make sure they’re displayed away from anything flammable.)
7. Consider an Advent wreath. These use one candle to commemorate each week of the Christmas season, with four total, often with a central ‘Christ child’ candle, as well. Combine them with fresh greens (#4), and light one each Sunday.
8. Wait — or let someone else do it. Is your time limited…or the weather’s blustery? Ask a favorite teenager if they’d like to earn some extra money, by putting up lights. If you can’t come up with a likely candidate, try a church or social youth group.
Or wait. The weather should improve. Do some limited decorating — but don’t put your tree up yet. (Some cultures even hold off on this until Christmas Eve.) If you’re one of those who still prefer fresh trees (we do), prices drop — a lot — the week before Christmas.
9-11. Christmas stocking stuffers: First stop is the dollar store, for lotion, holiday candy, small toys, candles and such. Next, the grocery for candy bars, nuts, fruit and the recipient’s favorite goodies. (One daughter loves canned tuna, the other tins of shrimp and oysters. Both are fond of black olives, one decorating each finger and slowly munched while reading the book they got that year.) Finally, places like Walmart for $5 videos, socks and such. If money’s tight, keep your gifts as practical as possible.
12. Only get the very best. A jar of peach conserves or a tiny pot of caviar, accompanied by a box of biscuits. A few bars of imported soap. Silk socks or a tie. Small amounts make luxury affordable, even for the frugal gifter.
13. What’s their favorite hobby? Quilters would love an assortment of thread, fabric and a new rotary cutter. Swarovski crystals and czech glass beads would make a jewelry enthusiast happy. (Crazy quilters too, incidentally.) Fishermen will enjoy hand-tied flies, lighted bobber, or a jar of power bait. Just taking the trouble to find out your recipient’s preferences says a great deal.
14. Restaurant gift cards? Sure, if they come with a bonus. These generally give out $5 bonus cards for $25 of purchases, $10 with $50 worth, or $20 for $100 worth of cards. An increasing number of restaurants are making this offer, including Red Lobster, Outback, Olive Garden and our own favorite, Red Robin. (See a fairly comprehensive list here.) Buy enough cards to cover your future dining, and you’ll earn yourself the equivalent of a ‘free’ dinner or two. (Caveat: the bonus bucks usually must be redeemed in January or February of the new year.)
15. Give yourself. Instead of a present, take a friend out to lunch (#14). If cash is short, make them a meal at your place, instead, then head out for a free concert or discount movie afterwards.
16. Give yourself, version 2. Did you grow a large garden this year, or raised herbs or flowers your friend admired? Give them an assortment of jams or pickles from that garden, a packet of flower seeds, or a wreath made from sage and oregano you raised yourself. Our chickens’ large brown free-range eggs have gained a lot of admirers. A dozen of those eggs, tied with a large red bow, have been much appreciated by those same people.
17. Homemade is good — if it’s good. Or you have time. Do you bake a mean loaf of bread? Do people drool at the mention of your giant oatmeal cookies? A basket of those will be more appreciated if you’re a good cook. (Otherwise, practice — or gift the ingredients, along with a recipe card.)
18. Don’t forget your local thrift shop. Not only can you find baskets and tins for homemade presents, but it’s a great repository for other people’s unused items. I am amazed at the number of unopened, unused items, including decorations, small appliances, even designer coats and sweaters, I find each year.
19. Or don’t give a gift at all. Most of us have far more than what we need. Make a donation in your recipient’s honor — or write them a letter, letting them know how much you love and appreciate them. Whatever you decide, don’t do it out of guilt or obligation.
20. Get an extra turkey now. This is one of the best protein bargains around, and it won’t stay on sale much longer. If it won’t fit in your freezer, cut in pieces — or cook the bird and freeze the meat and broth — about two cups for every two servings.
21. Always check the clearance sections. It’s amazing what turns up there. I’ve found everything from San Francisco-style sourdough to fancy chocolates, marked down substantially…and still delicious. Good for stockings (#10), too.
22. Mix your dishes — fancy with basic. Simpler appetizers and entrees give an elaborate dessert more room to shine. (They’re also easier to make.)
23. Soup first. A thick soup fills your company up — and lets you serve less meat. It can be made with budget ingredients, too.
24. Make your own specialty desserts. Sachertorte, an elaborate Austrian cake, is surprisingly easy to make. (Recipe’s here.) Look for dishes you can do ahead, or make them one step at a time — for example, bake the cake first, then fill and ice it the next day. (Hint: make two, and give one as a present.) Cookie dough can be treated the same way: make it one day and refrigerate, bake the next.
25. Finish with an extra or two. For a lavish effect at little cost, pass a box of chocolates, mixed nuts and/or small cookies while you’re serving coffee and tea. It gives guests a chance to linger and talk.
26. Start a tradition now — then plan ahead for it next year. Seven fish dishes, or Festa dei sette pesci, are an Italian tradition to celebrate the seven sacraments — and a popular supper for Christmas Eve. Our family has done this for decades. No, we’re not Italian, but we look forward to dishes like clam chowder, shrimp scampi and angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon, and roasted) every year. The menu varies, depending on what’s on sale. I buy items gradually in the fall and stash them in the freezer to ease the cost.
And have a very merry holiday season.