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A Holiday Shopping Guide for Frugal Families

Here’s how to give the perfect presents—without breaking the bank.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Written by Shira Boss

The holiday season is filled with so many potential money-sucking minefields, especially when it comes to gift giving. Here are some tactics for saving money this year—without feeling like a Scrooge.

Make a list, check it twice. Avoid last-minute mall crowds fighting over the latest trendy gift of the moment, that creeping “time is running out!” anxiety and the wallet-busting pressure of shopping by starting early. It’s never too soon to make a list of this year’s gift recipients, plan your budget, jot down gift ideas for each loved one and most importantly—scout Thanksgiving-time sales. 

Cash it out. Experts recommend the “envelope system” to keep spending in check: Allocate a certain amount of cash for each gift recipient, put the money in an envelope, and spend no more than the amount in the envelop when you shop for that person’s gift. 

Improve your apps-titude. Use price-comparison smartphone apps like RedLaserShopAdvisorPriceGrabber or Hukkster to help you find the best deals. 

Shop virtually. If you’re someone who runs into a store for two items and comes out with two bags full of stuff, consider cyber shopping. You might have to pay shipping fees, but you save gas and time, and it’s easier to stay on task: locate the item you need, click it, and you’re done. Check RetailMeNot for coupon codes before you buy. And if you use your debit card, you’ll never worry about overspending.

DIY instead of buy. If you’re strapped for cash, use your head and hands to create a truly thoughtful gift. If you’re handy, help your sister install those dimmer switches she’s been talking about or a similar chore. If you’re a star baker, offer your neighbor fresh bread.  Organized? Help Mom purge her closet. Crafty? Make a photo album for Grandpa. Financially savvy? Help your brother set up 529 college savings plans for his kids. A good salesperson? Help your best friend move items on craigslist. You get the idea.

Enlist elves. If you’re having trouble coming up with just the right gift idea—whether store-bought, homemade, or a particular service—ask the recipient or someone close to them for ideas. Think along the lines of solving problems for someone rather than just randomly adding to their stash of stuff. They’ll appreciate the thought—and heart—that went into your perfect present. 

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