Holiday cheer fades fast if it ends up draining your bank account. Here are some strategies to buy something special for the people you love, regardless of the size of your budget.

By Joni Sweet
Updated December 04, 2018
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They say the holidays are the season for giving. But while you’re busy picking up presents for everyone on your “nice” list, you might end up inadvertently giving yourself a spending hangover—or worse yet, debt that you need to pay off long after the cheer has faded. (And you thought coal was bad!)

The good news is that with a little creativity, you can stretch your holiday shopping fund to afford something special for all your friends, family, and colleagues this year. Here are some expert-approved budgeting hacks that will help you spread the cheer (without going broke).

1
Make Your List and Check it Twice

Going into the shopping season with a strategy will help you maximize the value of your holiday fund. Before you buy a single present, plan out who’s on your gift-giving list (your mom, your boss, even your dog!).

“The best way to not overspend and end up in debt this holiday season is simply to make a list and stick to it," says personal finance expert Debbi King, author of 50 Shades of Money ($17 amazon.com). "Write down every person you want to buy for, place a price beside it, and stick to that budget.” 

Having that list not only keeps you from forgetting someone important, but it also eliminates the need to stock up on those just-in-case gifts because you already know you’ll have everyone covered.

2
Cut Back on Little Luxuries

If you live in an area where public transportation is readily available, perhaps you give up Ubers for a month, suggests Stephanie Bousley, a Los Angeles-based financial consultant. Or maybe you switch to a cheaper grocery store, and dine out less often.

That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the holiday get-togethers, though. Rather than agreeing to yet another happy hour, why not host a BYOB or pot-luck celebration at home? Spending time together without racking up a hefty tab might be a refreshing change of pace this time of year.

At the end of the month, tally up what you've saved and add it to your holiday shopping fund.

3
Pick Up a Seasonal Side Gig

Hacking your budget might sound complicated, but it’s actually a simple game of math. You’ve either got to cut your expenses or boost your income. Fortunately, the holidays are a great season to focus on the latter strategy.

"Retailers always need extra staff this time of year, and you can pick up shifts around your regular 9-to-5 job," says certified financial planner Alexa von Tobel, founder of LearnVest and author of Financially Fearless ($20, amazon.com). "Or, for something less traditional, try driving for a ride-share app or offering tutoring services to local students,”

Spending a few extra hours a week selling handmade items on Etsy, picking up odd jobs through TaskRabbit, or pet sitting might give you the extra cash you need to lift your budget from Scrooge to Santa status.

4
Split Up Gift Sets

Are you the type of person that breezes right past those ubiquitous holiday gift sets at the department store? While they might seem impersonal, these value packs can actually be re-purposed into a variety of thoughtful (and budget-friendly) gifts.

“Every year, I buy a group of five Lenox ornaments for around $25," says King. "This means someone is going to get a beautiful, well-made ornament for just $5 each.”

The same strategy could be used for gift sets of lotions for your girlfriends, toy cars for your nieces and nephews, or scented candles for your coworkers. Wrap each one in a beautiful gift box, and the recipient will never know it was once part of a larger set.

5
Use Your Points

Loyalty points you’ve racked up at your favorite businesses can come in handy when you’ve got extra expenses, such as holiday shopping. See if you can spend these points on gifts for your loved ones.

“Oftentimes, your favorite airlines or hotel chains will offer a brochure of items that you can purchase with those rewards points,” says finance expert Bill Reese, professor of practice at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, in New Orleans. “Those items won’t cost you anything except your points, so you won’t go into debt to buy them.”

Have you been hoarding credit card points, as well? Consider budgeting a portion of them for a statement credit after the holidays, or converting them into gift cards that you can pop into greeting cards for people on your list.

6
Find the Best Prices

So you’ve found the perfect tie for your dad that’s just about the price you budgeted to spend on him. Don’t head to the check-out counter just yet—instead, do some quick research to see if you can find it for less somewhere else.

“Take a photo of the product and the Amazon app can retrieve both the new and used Amazon prices [for the same item],” suggested debt expert Kevin Gallegos, senior vice president of client enrollment for Freedom Debt Relief. “Other apps [like ShopSavvy] allow you to scan a barcode or search by product image to compare prices at thousands of stores, including online retailers.”

No time left to shop around? Ask the manager of the store where you’ve found the gift if she’ll match the price you’ve found online.

7
Buy in Bulk

Want to simplify your gift shopping and save some money at the same time? Consider buying a bunch of the same item at once, says certified financial planner Jason Speciner, founder of Financial Planning Fort Collins.

“If you're buying the same or very similar gifts for multiple people (think: stocking stuffers), consider purchasing the items in bulk at reduced per-piece costs,” he said. “When you go below budget on as many gifts as possible, you have wiggle room when another gift ends up running more expensive than your estimate.”

You can buy a pack of high-quality journals for all your colleagues, a variety of face masks for everyone in your book club, and picture frames (with family photos, of course!) for your relatives, all in bulk from online stores.

Rather than overspending yet another year in a row, go into this holiday season with budgeting strategies that will keep you on track. And if you find you have some extra cash once you’re done shopping, use it to treat yourself to something on your wish list—you’ve earned it.

8
Use a Budgeting App

When you’re busy trying to find the perfect presents for everyone on your list and braving the holiday shopping crowds, it can be a challenge to keep track of exactly how much money you have left. Don’t make the mistake of doing it all in your head. Instead, try out a budgeting app so you can avoid being more generous than you can afford this year (here are our 5 favorite budgeting apps).

And who knows? The effort you spend keeping your holiday shopping fund organized might even leave you with some extra cash to treat yourself to something on your wish list.