16 fun, cheap ways to celebrate the holidays (that don’t feel chintzy or grinchy)

Looking for cheap ways to celebrate the holidays? Trying to budget for Christmas? Tap through for money-saving tips that will make your holidays affordable AND fun! #holidaytips #budgetholiday #minimalism #Christmasideas

Are you looking for ways to celebrate the holidays that are more affordable and more meaningful? <- That’s pretty much a trick question because I’ve never met anyone who says “Ya know what I’d like to do? Rack up MORE credit card debt on Secret Santa gifts for a co-worker don’t know very well!”

I’m sharing these fun, affordable ways to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Thanksgiving because I want you to have time to plan a holiday season that isn’t filled with overdraft fees and regrettable purchases.

Americans spend $465 billion on Christmas. Meanwhile, the average American has $6,385 in credit card debt and 40% of middle class Americans couldn’t weather a $400 financial emergency. And even if you’re totally debt free, most of us would prefer to spend less money rather than more, right?

Luckily, dialing back holiday spending doesn’t have to feel Grinchy. In fact, it can feel intentional and creative. Truly!

16 fun, cheap ways to celebrate the holidays (that don’t feel chintzy)

1. Make a plan for your Thanksgiving leftovers

I think we can all acknowledge that the leftovers are pretty much the best part of Thanksgiving, right? In case you needed a nudge to actively plan to use your leftovers, know that the average American throws out 30 pounds of food each month. !!!??!!

So let’s get proactive and start thinking about uses for all those mashed potatoes and stuffing. This book taught me everything I need to know about loving my leftovers!

2. Drop off a warm meal to someone experiencing homelessness

Related! If you find yourself overrun with leftovers this holiday season, put them in a tupperware container you won’t miss. Add a plastic fork, a paper towel, and give them to someone experiencing homelessness.

You might be able to drop food at a homeless shelter, but if you live in a big city, I imagine you know the exact corners where people panhandle. Simply drive up, hand it through your window, and wish them a happy holiday season.

3. Get drinks or dessert at a bar that has a fireplace

If you’re doing a Spending Diet in anticipation of those holiday bills, you might be reining in the meals out. But, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck at home eating leftovers.

Going out for cocktails or dessert still feels fun and celebratory, but costs way less than two full meals. Here’s a list of 20 bars in Minneapolis that have fireplaces!

4. Swap old holiday photos into your gallery wall

Like every woman who uses Instagram in 2018, I have a gallery wall of carefully chosen photographs and prints whose color palette matches my decor.

Once a year I throw caution to the wind (I’m a Virgo), and swap in old family holiday photos. Instead of that abstract art print, you’ll see a photo of me at age 7, opening presents in my Barbie pajamas.

It’s fun, nostalgic, and a great use for those giant childhood photo albums we all have.

5. Choose a theme and/or price limit for gift exchanges

I know many adults who’d like to abandon gift-giving all together. If that’s too much to ask of your gift-loving Aunt Celia, take some baby steps in that direction by having a conversation about gifts now, before people start buying them.

A good first step is to set a budget or – if people resist that or you know they’ll set a budget of, like, $80 per person – choose a theme. Handmade gifts! Consumable gifts! Books! Second-hand gifts! A favorite album!

When you choose a theme, you can sneakily limit the price point with people who normally balk at budgets. Aren’t you clever!?

Related: 11 Minimalist Gift Ideas That Add Happiness, Not Clutter

6. Go to a church service and sing Christmas carols

Even if you’re not particularly religious and you don’t attend church regularly, there’s something lovely about joining hundreds of other people in a beautiful space and singing songs you all know and love.

If you’re feeling really festive, find a candlelight service. Minneapolis’s First Universalist Church welcomes people of all faiths and has a candlelight service on Christmas Eve at 9:30 pm.

7. Drive around and look at Christmas lights

Well, obviously, right? Bonus points for thinking ahead and bringing thermoses of hot chocolate and bags of snacks.

8. Try your hand at latkes

My husband and in-laws are 100% Jewish, so I’m lucky enough to eat latkes made by experts. But they’re easy to make and who doesn’t love fried potatoes paired with sour cream?! Nobody, that’s who.

So find a good latke recipe, listen to that Adam Sandler song, and spend two minutes reading about the history of Hanukkah.  

9. Get a free gym pass and use the hot tub + sauna

The holiday season is exhausting and it coincides with flu and cold season. Fun!

If you already have a gym membership, add the sauna and hot tub to your repertoire. If you don’t have one, pretty much every gym offers free day passes. Get one and dip your exhausted body in that Jacuzzi!

10. Unearth one of your grandma’s favorite holiday recipes and make it yourself

My grandmas celebrated Christmas with lefse, lutefisk, rosettes, krumkake, spritz cookies, and twice-baked potatoes. I’ve made these things approximately never.

Making a forgotten family recipe is a lovely way to reconnect with traditions. Also, it’s cheap and your grandma will be so happy to share all her lefse-making insights.

P.S. If you don’t have any “grandma recipes,” I loved this cookbook!

11. Go ice skating or sledding

Exercise that’s actually fun! Nearly free! Memory-making!

Again, bonus points for bringing a thermos full of hot drinks and cookies.

12. Wrap your gifts in something other than holiday wrapping paper

Did you know that a lot of wrapping paper isn’t recyclable? Instead of dropping dollars on holiday-specific paper we can only use once a year, what if we use brown kraft paper with pretty ribbons? Or newsprint? Or some silk scarves? These all look lovely, they’re better for the environment and they’ll save us a little dough!

13. Make pomander balls

Pomander balls are easy to make, smell great, make for a lovely centerpiece, and are compostable once the holidays are over. Sold!

Also: it’s a great activity to do while watching holiday movies on Netflix!

14. Host a cookie or soup swap

I’m lucky enough to be on the invite list for an annual cookie swap and it’s a highlight of my winter. Every year I come home with some amazing sweets that inspire me to up my baking game. I had these for the first time last year and they are AMAZING. If you’re not part of a cookie swap, host your own!

Alternately, host a soup swap. It’ll give everyone a break from holiday cooking and rich party foods. It’ll also save money; during the holidays we’re often too exhausted to cook and just order in. But if we have six different types of soup in the fridge, we might reconsider!

15. Watch old families movies

Swoon over how handsome Grandpa was and laugh about Mom’s 1970s outits. Marvel that you were ever four years old or that you thought bangs were a good idea.

If you don’t have any family movies to watch, start making your own! The 1 Second Every Day app is a lovely – and free! – place to start.

16. Pack a hot drink and go window shopping

Half the fun of shopping is looking at the amazing displays and fancy window dressing. I’m not going to buy a $700 winter coat from Macy’s but that doesn’t mean I don’t like look at it!

Fill your travel mugs with something warm and delicious and get yourself to a downtown area. Sip and wander and shop with your eyes.

Then head home, secure in the knowledge that you’re making decisions about your holiday that are right for you emotionally, psychologically, and financially.

But I want to hear from you! How do the holidays affect your finances? How do you keep things in check while also celebrating? Tell us below so we can try your methods!

P.S. If you’re curious about the Spending Diet I mentioned up there, click here to read more about it. In 6 weeks, Kelly used it to pay off $4,000 of credit card debt!

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

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  1. Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    I love these ideas! I do some of these already – like cheesy family movies and window shopping – but I’d love to try some the ideas which I’ve never tried before! Namely – a cookie swap! Sounds super fun and yummy 😉

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

  2. Maria

    We are two of those adults trying to make “no physical presents” a thing, and it is so hard with some family members! We also don’t enjoy making the 20+ hour drives to see everyone in places with unpredictable weather and road conditions for a 2 day visit with emotions running high (financially, it’s a lot of gas money, hotel stays, poor road eating decisions, and lugging a truck full of stuff around). Instead, we’ve asked people to join us for a holiday adventure elsewhere. I’m not sure it’s saving money to take a trip (the trip turns out to be the present, so it solves the present problem for us) although I will venture that for some of our family members, the cost of the trip is less than what they would spend on presents for their children, so maybe? It is definitely not dramatically more than the normal holiday spending, and it is certainly a more enjoyable way to spend the time for us. My husband and I are in academia so we have some time off around the holidays in between semesters, so we pick a place, get a big airbnb (split several ways, this becomes much cheaper than gas and hotels for all those days of running around the country), and whenever people can join us, they come (we stay there longer so it’s a vacation too). It lets people enjoy a new place, not really get any “stuff”, and enjoy time together without the typical hassles and tensions of hosting at someone’s house. You can take turns cooking or going out to eat, but it’s not all on just one person or family to host. So far it is working out well and we hope it will catch on with those in our group who need lots of time to plan (we decide on places early in the year so we can try to have as many join us as possible). Also that makes it a little more special since planning the trip together has been shown to be a lot of the enjoyment of it. We don’t really plan on doing any other spending for the holidays (no kids yet, but we think a really cool vacation will work as a great present, and we’ll save the normal gifts for birthdays), so we hope this will work well for our family. I know it might not be practical for others to do a “Trip”, but you might think about taking some of the stress of hosting (or traveling to people’s houses where there might not be enough room or a big enough kitchen or bad weather with nothing to do) and see if you and yours can meet somewhere else for a few days to celebrate the time instead of buying presents. (And let me know what you do/where you go/how you handle it.) It was a little bit of a challenge to convince some members to go with us (and obviously, not everyone can go, mostly due to mobility issues, but those people don’t do the normal holiday travel anyway…and we Skype), but we are grateful they are trying something new with us and liking it! We don’t wind up with stuff, we get a nice experience, and it’s way less stressful and easier to enjoy our family.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I love this! What a great idea!

    • Mary W

      Thanks for sharing this. It’s a great idea.

    • Jeannette

      Yes! I love this so much. This tradition hasn’t fully taken hold in my family, but the first Christmas after my father passed away about 11 years ago, I was living in Korea. My mom and sister came there to visit and it turned out to be great that we were able to celebrate together, but with less of that feeling like everything was the same as always except for the one really big thing that would make us sad. For several years afterward, we would spend our holidays elsewhere, and for me it’s wonderful because I find it very difficult to spend them at home since then. Presents don’t mean a lot, but we love to be together. Over the years we’ve kind of gone back to some of our former traditions at home, but it’s never as good as when we just get out to a new location and don’t worry about presents or any of that. Might be too late to push for a traveling holiday this year, but reading this inspires me to reboot that and make it a solid yearly tradition!

      • Sarah Von Bargen

        This is so great! I’ve read similar things – that for families that have experienced a loss or in situations where the hosting location is sort of emotionally weighted, meeting up in a ‘neutral’ location is a great solution. And I’m sure you’ve created so many great memories traveling together!

  3. steph

    When my son was a toddler, we didn’t want to spend a bunch of time and money going to one of those drive through light displays when he may not even remember it. Instead, we went to a local college that had fabulous decorations and then to a convenience store with a dining area for hot chocolate. We all had a great time! Another memorable experience was when my nieces and nephews were small and my parents and I lived away from the rest of our family. When we went to visit for the holidays, my folks went to the early family service and then my mom went again with me at midnight. We’d drive around looking at decorations and then go home and help my sister put the gifts out…and eat the goodies left for Santa 😉

  4. Kamina

    I wrap my gifts in brown paper and draw the bows and gift tags on them with bright coloured markers. No ribbons!

  5. Jules

    Brilliant ideas Sarah! Each year I decide on an “advent calendar” of things to do that little or no money, for example:
    1 Dec. Start using my Christmas mug my brother bought me years ago
    2 Dec Eat the first mince pie of the season
    3 Dec. Shop locally for a couple of pressies
    4 Dec Watch a Christmas film ( Elf is the best)
    5 Dec Lug the decorations down from the loft ….. Etc
    I love putting together the list each year and it makes the season memorable (and debt-free).
    I so enjoy your work Sarah, thank you – it’s a pleasure to read!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I love this!

  6. Snow

    A happy childhood memory was driving around town after dinner looking at outdoor Christmas decorations. Magically, Christmas cookies and a thermos of hot cocoa for each of us would appear from the front seat.
    I made it a tradition for myself as a single adult, holiday tunes playing, fancy frothy hot cocoa from a coffeehouse and occasionally asking a friend along.
    I loved when I visited one friend in her new city during the holidays and she took me on a holiday lights tour-even bringing out cookies she had made! I kept up the drives throughout committed relationships and although the relationships ran their course, the boyfriends and stepkids chose to keep the tradition and share it with their loved ones.
    What started as young parents on an incredibly lean budget looking for a way to bring some excitement into the holidays has become a sweet memory for many more than their children.

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