Are you rolling your eyes and thinking “There is no such thing as a cheap way to celebrate the holidays. Also: It’s still decorative gourd season. DON’T TELL ME HOW TO CELEBRATE!”
Yes. I hear you! I personally refuse to decorate for Christmas or Hanukkah till we’ve finished all the Thanksgiving leftovers. Thou shalt not trim the tree till the stuffing is gone!
But 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. The Food Network has a great roundup of their favorite recipes for Thanksgiving leftovers here.
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
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.
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!