9 Hacks to Save Big on Holiday Expenses (+ A Free Budget Worksheet)

How to Budget Money for Holiday Travel, Gifts, and Other Surprise Expenses
by Career Contessa
November 21, 2016
The looming holidays also mean unexpected expenses. Why not start budgeting now?
Remember last year (and the year before, and the year before that...) when you dashed around last-minute to find gifts, mail cards, prepare potluck dishes, pick up wine, and buy tickets home? We don’t mean to sound like your parents, but the holidays can be a total drag to your finances. Fill it out to determine exactly how much you should save between now and Thanksgiving and read on.

Does it look like you won't have enough time to set the money you need aside? Try these budgeting hacks we’ve pulled together so you can cut back this season (without anyone noticing!).

Make Your Holiday Party a Potluck and B.Y.O.B.

You make the main dish or the eggnog, and invite your guests to bring sides or wine.

Speaking of those potlucks...go for the vegetables

When volunteering to make a dish for a potluck or a party, volunteer to make something that eschews the meat. If you stick to fairly simple vegetable-centric recipes, you can save tons on groceries. A savory broccoli bake could require as little as four ingredients that you can get at any average supermarket. Pasta with marinara or even a canned pumpkin sauce? You could feed a group for $10. Cookies and cakes? Flour and sugar are two of the more simple, inexpensive ingredients on the shelves. Think creatively and minimally—your wallet will thank you.

Wear the same dress, and don’t overdo the dry cleaning

Rather than buying separate dresses for every party, switch up accessories or shoes. Spilled wine? Start by spot treating with diluted OxyClean or baby shampoo (this works well for delicates) before opting to pay for dry cleaning. And consider black: it’s versatile, stain-friendly, and chic.

Instead of buying all your friends gifts, suggest a Secret Santa party

It’s more fun and better for all of your bank accounts. Trust us, they’ll be thankful. If you want to take it a step further, but a price cap on the gifts. ($5? $10? $50? It’s up to you and your budget.)

Slyly stretch your gift budget by thinking creatively

Everyone knows what cheap wine looks like. They do not, however, know there’s a bottle of it in your delicious homemade mulled wine or holiday sangria. Everyone knows cookies are available throughout the year. But they don’t know you’ve surreptitiously determined their favorite dessert and made a delicious, just-add-milk mix of it packaged adorably in a used blueberry jam mason jar. Nor do they know that the flowers you brought are only half of the bouquet you purchased, repurposed as two separate hostess gifts thanks to some creative rearranging. Aesthetics go a long way.

In terms of holiday party decor, focus on lighting, lighting, lighting!

If you’re hosting a holiday party, don’t spend an inordinate amount of money on decorations. The key to ambiance is lighting, and the key to creating a good holiday spirit is warmth. Some low-lit, golden lights, candles, and a very limited number of nice ornaments (optional!) will be cheap and have your digs looking classy with very little prep.

Consider skipping gifts with your S.O.

We know it’s sweet to share gifts on Christmas Eve, but your S.O. is there to witness and, hopefully, alleviate your suffering. Why not agree to save together for a getaway in the New Year, write letters to one another, or promise to make your gifts? Seeing your partner’s befuddled craftwork over a cup of warm eggnog on Christmas Eve? Now that’s romantic.

Buy flights in private browsing mode and on a Tuesday

Yes, these airfare hacks are true. If a company knows you’ve already been looking for a flight from Los Angeles to Omaha, they’ll up the cost. By turning on private browsing temporarily, the site doesn’t know who you are or what you want.

If you can, try only using your debit card

Obviously, this one depends on the limit of your finances. But if you think you’ve got enough to cover your very reasonable holiday spending, try limiting it to debit card only. Seeing exactly what you do and do not have in your account can be incredibly helpful in sticking to a budget.
What are your holiday hacks to save money and still get it all done?