Stretching Your Holiday Dollar

Stretching your holiday dollar top graphic

Stretching your holiday dollar side graphic

  By Joanne Bankston, Ph.D

State Extension Specialist for Family Economics and Management Coordinator, Family and Consumer Sciences

Kentucky State University, College of Agriculture, Food Science, and Sustainable Systems

Are you tired of starting the new year with a pile of debt that remains from holiday shopping? Perhaps you are looking for ways to reduce the stress associated with shopping during the holiday season and paying for gifts, greeting cards, postage, gift wrap, decorations, food, drink, travel, long distance phone calls, and other items. Here are a few suggestions for stretching your holiday dollar and managing your money and resources throughout the season and into the new year. Some tips will help you use resources along with money to create gifts and decorations for a festive occasion. Other tips will encourage you to purchase items and services made by Americans or locally produced. Finally, “go green” for the holidays by reducing, reusing, and recycling.  Consider numerous ways of celebrating a happy, eventful holiday season without overspending and by practicing principles that will save money and the environment.

Decide how much you can spend. Set a holiday budget and work within it. This should include all items such as gifts, decorations, travel expenses, cards, and other things that are often forgotten.  Discuss the budget with family members. If you are experiencing hard financial times as a result of a layoff, job loss, illness, divorce, and/or other difficulties, have a family meeting, and discuss the situation. Family members, including children, will often reduce their lists and expectations when they know that the family is working together to get through difficult times. Look for community resources such as the Angel Tree and food pantries that may be available for assistance.

  • Make a list to begin building your holiday budget. Monthly bills should be paid before you spend for the holidays. List the names of everyone who you plan to buy a gift. List the amount you can spend for each person. If you don’t have enough money to cover everyone, cut the names and/ or the amounts. You might also substitute a homemade gift or provide a service if you have to cut your list. Don’t forget other items such as food, decorations, travel, etc. that must come from the total budget. List the items and amounts. Keep all items within your total budgeted amount.
  • Consider cash and credit. Think about establishing a holiday savings account to cover expenses during the holiday season. If you have piled up lots of debt in previous years, consider a cash-only holiday. Take money from a credit union or bank or use a debit card. Budget the money, and when the money is spent, stop buying. When using a debit card keep accurate records to avoid fees for overdrawing your account. Record all debit card purchases in your check register and deduct the amount from the balance. If you use online banking, check your account frequently. When using credit, charge only the amount that you can safely repay in a few months. If you have multiple credit cards, limit your charges to one card with the lowest interest rate and fees. This will provide a clear picture of your spending and make it easier to pay bills. If you have a card that offers rewards, use the rewards to get gifts, to share frequent flyer points, or use other special features. Remember to keep receipts for all purchases and transactions.
  • Shopping American. When possible, make an extra e?ort to find items made by Americans or locally Here are a few ideas. Give a gift certificate from a local hair salon or barber. Support owner-run restaurants, local crafts people, bakeries, and hardware stores in your hometown. Support a play or ballet in your local community. These ideas and others will encourage small businesses and help to keep them afloat while providing jobs for persons in the local community.
  • Shopping Tips. Shop early. Compare price, quality, and warranties. Get information by reading labels and hand-tags. Watch for sales. Check newspaper ads and flyers, and use coupons. When you find a gift that is a great buy (such as bath and shower products, photo albums, or any useful item), and extra money is available, purchase more than one as an extra gift or to use later. Shop at stores that are in close proximity to one another to save time and gas. Get gift receipts, and understand the rules for returning items. Shopping online can save time and leg work, however, understand shipping charges and the rules for returning. Allow ample time to receive the items prior to the holidays. Don’t forget to check out coupon code websites.
  • Food shopping.  Take advantage of grocery store sales, and plan holiday meals around items that are on sale. If extra money and storage space are available, stock up on non-perishable sale items.
  • Greeting cards. Holiday greeting cards and postage can become quite costly if you are watching your budget.  Consider these ideas. Prune your list. Only send cards to out-of-town family and friends you are not likely to see during the holidays. Make your own greeting cards using blank cards and special stencils and stamps. Buy holiday greeting cards at discount stores. Send e-Cards and E-mail messages, and skip card mailing altogether.
  • Decorations.  The best time to buy holiday decorations is after the holiday when they have been reduced 50-75%. Or better yet, look for ways to make decorations or use the items you already have. Properly stored decorations can be used from year-to-year. To change the atmosphere, use decorations in a different room than the room where they were displayed the last holiday season. To make new decorations, look around your house for items (pine cones, artificial fruit and nuts, ornaments, candles, silver bowls and other containers, hurricanes, etc.) that can be used to create a wreath, centerpiece, or decorate a tree. Use your imagination and talent to create a wonderful holiday atmosphere without spending a lot of money.
  • Entertainment.  Social gatherings are sometimes the highlight of the holiday season. Consider co-hosting an event with another family member or co-worker to consolidate time, effort and expense. Evaluate the necessity of a meal. Consider appetizers or snacks instead. Also, consider having a potluck dinner (where everyone brings a dish) as opposed to a lavish buffet. This way, everyone participates in the preparation and celebration of the holiday meal. Look for free entertainment. Many communities over family movie nights, musical performances and activities at local parks, museums, or community centers.
  • Travel.  Visiting family and friends can be an expensive part of holiday plans. Shop early for the best airfares. When estimating travel expense, include gasoline and car maintenance when driving and airfare when flying, as well as lodging, meals, and unexpected expenses. If travel becomes too expensive, consider celebrating at home.
  • Gifts and Gift-giving. The best gifts don’t always have the biggest price they are fun, useful, and chosen with the recipient in mind. Using your talent and skill to create gifts from your sewing room, craft corner, kitchen, or garden adds a special touch of love. A gift of time is the most precious gift. Why not start a gift shelf in your home? As you shop throughout the year and find great items on sale or create hand crafted items, place them on a shelf. Use these items when you need a special gift, or to give for a holiday occasion. Consider the following ideas to save money on gifts.
    • Holiday food gifts from the kitchen.  Holiday food gifts are very special gifts that can be created in the kitchen, packaged in inexpensive cardboard boxes or elaborate containers, such as a crystal dish, and shared with friends and family. Homemade cookies, cakes, candies, pickles, party mixes, jellies and jams are some of the popular foods that can be included. Use other clever ideas to prepare food gifts.
    • Specially created gifts.  A CD of several artists, framed photographs, quilts, afghans, tree ornaments, and holiday decorations are examples of specially created, hand-crafted gifts that o?er great meaning to friends and family members.
    • Gift cards and gift memberships. Gift cards allow a person to purchase something that they want. Get a gift receipt, and understand the rules of the card regarding expiration dates, replacement cards, and fees. The credit card law enacted in 2010 allows money on a gift card to be good for at least 5 years from the date of purchase. Card fees must be clearly disclosed. (Note: These rules do not apply to reloadable prepaid cards not intended for gift- giving, such as MasterCard and Visa). Consider gift memberships. An AAA membership card for emergency road service, or health club certificate can provide a useful service to someone who is not a member.
    • Gift Exchange. Reduce the number of gifts you have to purchase by drawing names and playing games to exchange gifts. Barter. Trade something you own for something you want with a friend or family member.
    • Gifts that Matter. Consider thoughtful gifts that can make life easier for the elderly and persons with special health issues that limit mobility. Prepare a special meal and provide conversation. Help with chores such as picking up prescriptions, grocery shopping, and changing light bulbs. Stockpile basic items such as paper products, cleaning supplies, and other bulk items. Organize closets and shelves in the home. Decorate a person’s home for the holidays. Write notes of gratitude praising a sick person for things they have done or share special memories that can boost the morale of someone that is home bound or less mobile.

  • Saving Money by Consuming Less and “Going Green”

    Observe the principles of “green” living during the holiday season by Reducing, Reusing, Recycling, Composting, and Buying Recycled. By following these guidelines we can reduce waste, and reduce the carbon footprint by lowering greenhouse gas emissions. These tips are particularly important as we fight climate change, and they also help to save money.

    • When shopping, bring your own reusable tote
    • Give eco-friendly gifts like reusable tote bags, rechargeable batteries, a bike, energy and water- saving devices
    • When you get new appliances, clothes, and other household items give the old things to charity to be reused.
    • Recycle cardboard boxes, peanuts or other Styrofoam packing that comes with gifts.
    • Reuse, and recycle holiday greeting cards, old wrapping paper, gift bags and gift boxes. Buy recycled greeting cards.
    • Reuse holiday decorations. Use natural ornaments such as pine cones, shells, dried flowers, and berries.
    • Use cloth napkins, stainless steel silverware, and glass or ceramic cups and plates for holiday dinner parties rather than disposable paper, Styrofoam, or plastic.
    • Compost kitchen food scraps from holiday dinners. For yard waste composting, compost fruit and vegetable waste not meat or grease
    • Recycle Christmas trees for compost and landscaping materials.
      Source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

    Other “Green” Tips and Tips for Consuming Less

    • Explore and use locally-grown foods to avoid the environmental impact of trucking foods from long distances. This also supports the local economy and efforts to buy American.
    • Serve and use locally crafted wines and beers, and choose larger containers to minimize waste.
    • Avoid wasting food.  Cook what will be consumed. Use leftovers and send some home with guests. Freeze other leftovers to enjoy later.
    • Combine cooking. Avoid heating a large oven several times a day for small amounts. Plan cooking to use the oven all at once. Cook small amounts in a toaster oven.
    • Use energy-efficient light bulbs to save money.  Today energy-efficient light bulbs are available that could save you about $50.00 per year in energy costs when you replace 15 traditional incandescent bulbs in your home. Energy-effecient light bulbs include: halogen incandescents, compact florescent lamps (CFLs), and light emitting diodes (LEDs). Energy efficient light bulbs save you money by typically using about 25%-80% less energy than traditional incandescents, and can last 3-25 times longer. The initial price of energy efficient bulbs is typically higher than traditional incandescents, but cost less to operate over the life of the bulb and last significantly longer.
      (Source U.S. Department of Energy)
    • Give back and give the gift of a better world. Remember the less fortunate. Donate or volunteer with an organization that prepares holiday meals for others. Make a donation in honor of a loved one. Choose a cause that addresses an issue that you and your loved ones care about.

    A realistic and affordable plan for spending your money and your time should always be at the center of your holiday plans. Make a plan and carry it out. Follow principles of “green” living by reducing, reusing and recycling. Search for and purchase some items that are made in America. Make your holidays a time for living, laughing, loving, sharing, caring, and learning. These are the things that money can’t buy, but they make life more precious, full, and abundant.


    Bankston, J. (2003). Managing your money and your resources for the holiday season. (Holiday Survival Guide). University of Kentucky, Cooperative Extension Service.

    Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (2010, April 30). What you need to know: New rules for gift cards. Retrieved June 14, 2011 from

    Miller, K., & Bailey, C. (2008, November – December).
    Gifts that matter. StrokeSmart.

    New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. (2007, December). Green up your holidays by reducing, reusing, recycling, composting, and buying recycled. Retrieved October 16, 2009 from

    Pawlik-Kienlen, L. (2008, Nov. 19). Saving money over the holidays. Retrieved Oct. 16, 2009, from holidays

    US Department of Energy. (2014, July 28). How Energy E?cient Light Bulbs Compare with Traditional Incandescents. Retrieved September 8, 2014 from

    Graphics: Liquid Library
    Graphic Design by Diane Murphy, Graphic Designer, External Relations and Development, Kentucky State University

    Small KSU Logo

    Agriculture, Food Science, and Sustainable Systems

    Copyright © 2011 for materials developed by Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension Program. ?is publication may be reproduced in portions or its entirety for educational or nonprofit purposes only. Permitted users shall give credit to the author and include this copyright notice.

    Educational programs of Kentucky Cooperative Extension serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin. 2009,