Christmas on a Budget (A Last-Minute Guide)

Christmas is just around the corner, but chances are that you still have quite a bit of planning to do. The problem is that when shopping, cooking, travel, and entertainment purchases are put off until the last minute, they become much more expensive. This is especially true during the holiday season. And a “cold hard truth” is that we aren’t all super-organized; we aren’t all the great “planners” who buy gifts months in advance and hide them in the attic. But even if you are a procrastinator, you can still have Christmas on a budget. We are going to show you how to get all the last minute necessities without breaking the bank.

Gifts and Shopping

This is the biggie. Everyone knows about holiday gift-giving and the shopping craze; we have been dealing with the commercials since before Thanksgiving. But now that Christmas is just two weeks away, shoppers should avoid becoming too desperate. If you haven’t gotten something for particular loved ones, it can become really easy to spend $20, $50, or even way more than you had ever planned on spending—just because you are in a desperate, last-minute situation. Even though it’s getting to be last-minute you need to plan and have a budget. Use our holiday planner, and consider checking out this informal gift budget too (We thought it was cleverly simple).

This step is extremely important because it will keep your spending at bay and prevent you from making purchases you can’t afford. Watch the short video here to see what happens when consumers don’t track the cost of gifts:

Once you have a budget in place, you’re ready to start shopping. Here are some tips you can use to still find some great deals along with some “outside the box” ways to give creative gifts. Christmas on a budget, here we come.

Know what to Buy

Shopping in December is a challenge, because you need to understand what’s a good deal and what’s overpriced. Believe it or not, certain products remain on deep discount right up until the last few days before Christmas. Some items, on the other hand, will cost a premium until after the New Year. Here are our recommendations for December purchases:

Good Deals

Toys: That’s right. Toys are a good deal in the month of December, except for the last few days before the holiday. This means you still have a decent amount of time for your toy purchases.

Gift Cards: These are still a good deal and can be obtained in creative ways. Look for retailers who offer gift cards when you purchase a certain amount of merchandise or those who give you a gift card when you purchase one for someone else. These are smart strategies to increase the value of your purchases, and even though the “free” gift cards are usually low in value, they can make a nice small gift to a friend or family member.

Also, you might be able to purchase gift cards at a discounted rate with your credit card rewards points.

Hardware: The month of December is still a great time to buy hardware for the handyman or handywoman in your life, as many stores are offering up some great bargains. Consider taking advantage of these deals if you know someone who wants tools as a gift.

Not-so-good Deals

Jewelry: Jewelry is usually overpriced in December, and with Valentine’s Day really just around the corner, it might be best to wait until later in 2014 for your jewelry purchases.

Electronics: If you missed the Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals on electronics, you might want to consider holding off. Sure, there will be the occasional deal still out there, but you won’t find widespread deep discounts. To keep your options open, it might be best to wait until 2014 when the new models are released. Then, the prices on “old” 2013 models will be slashed.

Holiday Decorations and Calendars: These are items to avoid until right after the holiday. Then, retailers will practically be giving them away! So hold off on these and look for great deals when you do your post-Christmas shopping.

Shopping Apps

Today there is an app for just about everything. Try these shopping apps to save money and stay organized.

SnipSnap: allows you to take a picture of a coupon, which can then be scanned at the store

SaleSorter: shows you the best deals at nearby stores

Shopkick: This app rewards you for walking into stores, and the points you earn can be redeemed for gift certificates, discounts, or even free merchandise.

RedLaser: This is a price comparison app. You can simply scan an item’s barcode and RedLaser will compare local and online prices. Some shopping experts suggest that this app can come in handy at retailers who price-match. Try showing the retailer that there is a better offer at another store, and see if they will match it.

Sift: This is great for those who are “drawing a blank” when thinking of what to buy friends or family because it recommends popular gift items and notifies users of great deals.

Save on Amazon

Now is a great time to take advantage of the deals and programs Amazon has to offer. On the surface, Amazon is just a place to shop online, but for those who dig deeper, there are many incredible deals and “hacks” to save you money. This article covers some great tips, and we’ve highlighted a few of our favorites here:

Time for Prime?

Amazon Prime is a service that gives customers access to free 2-day shipping on most items, streaming TV and movies, and e-books. There is a subscription fee, but currently Amazon offers a free one-month trial for first-time customers. This could be a great time to take advantage of the deal, if you use Amazon in your holiday shopping. Just be sure to cancel the subscription before it is set to automatically renew, or you will be charged.

Deal Tracking Sites

There are several websites referenced in the article that will send you alerts when the prices on items you want go down. This is a great and convenient, automated way to keep an eye on multiple gift ideas and their prices.

Special Deals (Goldbox page)

Amazon’s Special Deals page is great. Some offers are only up for a few hours, others a whole day, and some can last for several weeks. Deals can range from items like kids toys and games to expensive electronics. Here’s a screenshot of a recent sale:

Amazon Christmas Deals

51 percent discount? Not too shabby. Check out more of these deals here.

Amazon Warehouse Deals

Amazon sells “open box specials” and refurbished items in their warehouse deals sections. Again, this can be a great way to save and lower the price on what should still be a high-quality item.
Check out the warehouse deals here.

DIY (Yes, Pinterest is still cool)

There is an enormous amount of resources online to help you put together heartfelt and affordable homemade holiday gifts. From bookends, to cute coffee mugs, to extremely creative ideas like a terrarium in a jar, there is certainly something you can make, catered to the likings of your loved one. Check out Pinterest or your favorite crafts blog, and be sure to read 39 DIY Christmas Gifts you’d Actually Want to Receive.

Stuff the stocking (on the cheap)

Don’t forget the stocking! Perhaps the worst last-minute shopping trips are for the stocking—a late night run to your local pharmacy on Christmas Eve could cost $30 to $50. Instead, do a little planning to come up with an affordable stocking for your loved one(s). Check out dollar stores and discount bins at the bigger stores. Also, consider filling the stocking with items the person will need to buy anyway, like toothpaste and other toiletries. Use store coupons and deals to make this portion of your Christmas a breeze.

Know what’s Worth a Premium

The goal here is to experience Christmas on a budget. That doesn’t mean it has to be a completely boring or watered-down Christmas. It means that you are celebrating within your means and are keeping track of the cost. In that spirit, be sure to think about what expenses are really “worth it” throughout the season. By putting more resources toward these expenses, and less to those that don’t really matter, you will use your money more efficiently.

For example, do you really need the prettiest wrapping paper, cards that play a song when opened, or an expensive tree from a cut-it-yourself farm? These are all nice things to have, but if you need to save a little extra this year, these are all costs that you can cut out. For instance, you can wrap some gifts in newspaper (or wrapping paper from the dollar store, whichever you prefer) and can buy your tree from a store like Lowe’s or Home Depot this year. By cutting these costs, you won’t have to cut as much of your budget for gifts, food, and travel.


Christmas Budget Travel
Holiday travel is one area where it can be really difficult to get a good deal, and if you haven’t made your arrangements by now you should probably expect to see higher prices than even just a week or two ago. But don’t give up—there are some tricks you can use to make your holiday travel a little more affordable:

Drive (if possible)

If you are travelling a distance that is a “grey area” between flying and driving, crunch the numbers. If your car is in good order, it might be worth the drive. Calculate gas prices and mileage and compare this to your estimated air fare. Of course, you have to account for the time and stress of the trip too. But, if you can make the drive in one day (no lodging costs) and need to save the money, driving could be the way to go.

Use your frequent flier miles or other rewards

If you have rewards points of some kind, it could be smart to put them toward your travel. It would certainly save you from spending the extra cash. Just keep in mind that if you have to spend extra points on a last-minute flight, you may regret that decision later.

Keep Searching

If you are having a hard time finding a reasonable price, be sure to keep looking. Use multiple websites and listings and look at multiple airlines (even the ones you may not prefer). You could also try calling the airline directly or seeing if a travel agent could present you with a better deal. Be sure to sign up online for price alerts for your route. If all else fails, try to have a flexible schedule (see below).

Travel on Christmas Day

If you alter your schedule, you can likely find big savings. The only problem is that you might have to sacrifice some convenience and could miss out on some family time. Why? Because the cheapest time to fly is Christmas Day. Most people don’t want to be up in the air at this time, but if you’re willing it could help you save big. Last year, it’s estimated that travelling on Christmas Day saved consumers over 20 percent on airfare. Travelling on the weekends around Christmas, however, costs about 25 percent more.


Another holiday expense (albeit one that doesn’t get very much attention) is the cost of entertainment. When friends and family get together for an extended period of time, they usually want to go out and have fun, and at Christmas this can get expensive fast. Aside from shopping, find free or low-cost activities that the family can enjoy. Museums and points of historical interest are usually affordable, and you can also look for coupons and discounts for family activities like ice skating, bowling, etc.

Movies are often a popular post-Christmas activity. In fact, eight major Hollywood films are set to debut on Christmas Day: 47 Ronin, The Wolf of Wall Street, Grudge Match, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, August: Osage County, Labor Day, Justin Bieber’s Believe, and Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.

While this can be a fun activity, keep in mind that the average cost of a movie ticket is $8.05 in 2013 and is probably higher for evening showings in large cities. For a group of five, this is already over $40. Consider renting a movie (maybe you could make this a new family tradition), or think about other ways you could spend that money to do something that’s a little more cost-effective.

When you realize how much money you can save, you’ll be as excited as Leonardo DiCaprio in this scene from The Wolf of Wall Street.

leonardo dicaprio wolf of wall street
*Source: Paramount Pictures and Business Insider


The last great Christmas expense – food – can be a touchy subject. For some families, food is at the heart of any holiday celebration, and sacrificing any tradition in the name of savings will be frowned upon. For others, altering the menu might be a welcomed decision. Either way, planning ahead certainly helps (ingredients can be found on sale and purchased in advance) but it’s not entirely necessary. Instead, consider having everyone chip-in either with money toward the meal or by bringing finished dishes. Also, look for ways to save on the meal by using some of these frugal recipes or opting for different cuts of meat that might be a little cheaper.

And don’t forget the value of leftovers. Plan on making extra (it’s usually cost-effective if you know they will be eaten). Then, find ways to reuse some of the left-overs in other recipes or just eat them as-is over the remainder of the week. This can save money compared to eating out on the days following the holiday while shopping, etc.

We hope you can put these ideas to work for your Christmas on a budget this year. Have any other savings ideas? Let us know in the comments below!

Thomas Bright is a longstanding Clearpoint blogger and student loan repayment aficionado who hopes that his writing can simplify complex subjects. When he’s not writing, you’ll find him hiking, running or reading philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter.

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One response to “Christmas on a Budget (A Last-Minute Guide)”

  • Gifts are certainly the most important part of Christmas.Really loved the Gif from movie “Wolf of Wall Street” that you have shown.