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Money Culture

How to Get (Financially) Ahead of the Holidays

Giving gifts, getting home, dressing up — the holidays come with quite a few expenses. Here’s how to plan for them ahead of time!

Jamie Cattanach • September 28, 2021

As Virgo-rising as it may feel to start planning for the holiday season before summer’s even faded in the rearview, doing so can help you get ahead of the upcoming splurges and celebrations. That’s particularly true this year, while our wallets (and the economy) continue to recover from… well, you know. COVID wreaked havoc on both individual livelihoods and big-picture metrics like the inflation rate. Chances are things are a little tighter now than they’ve been in the past.

On the other hand, a year of quarantine has most of us ready for a spending spree this season! So without further ado, here are our best tips for getting ahead of the holidays.

Making a list and checking it twice 📝

One of the most joyful parts of the holiday season is also one of the spendiest: giving gifts to the people you love. Watching someone’s face light up while they unwrap that perfectly-thought-out something is a pretty special experience… but sometimes, the perfectly-thought-out-something is, you know… an iPad! 🤑

Obviously, there are lots of ways to save money on gifts, including going the DIY route. After all, handmade gifts do carry a certain kind of charm that can’t be emulated, even by the glitziest gizmos. 

But whether you’re crafting candles or buying your sister a new laptop, one of the best ways to get ahead of holiday gift-giving expenses is to budget for them now. 


Holiday Hacks:

  • If you’re willing to get super nerdy, sit down and make a full list of all the people you plan to give gifts to — and an estimated price point for the gift you have in mind. Maybe you need to save up a sizable hunk of dough for your spouse’s special gift and also set aside $15 for the office White Elephant party — but either way, by tracking everything ahead of time, you’ll know how much you’re spending now instead of playing Q1 catch-up next year.
  • Want to fly by the seat of your snow pants? According to the National Retail Federation, consumers spent just about $1,000 over the winter holidays the last two years running — so that’s an okay figure to start with. 
  • Either way, once you have a specific figure in mind, sit down with your budget and see where you might be able to squeeze out that much cash over the next few months. With this much lead time, it might be as simple as stashing an extra 5% of each paycheck or skipping out on restaurant meals for a while. See? Planning ahead does pay off!

Over the river and through the woods 🛷

Okay, sure — chances are you probably aren’t actually traveling by sleigh this holiday season. But you may very well be traveling! And whether it’s airfare, gas, hotel rooms (#boundaries) or all of the above, getting across the country to grandmother’s house — or wherever — takes cold, hard cash.

That’s especially true in 2021, when the post-vax resurgence in demand is causing airfare to climb as quickly as the planes themselves. Fuel prices have been on an upswing, too, as you’ve probably noticed.


Holiday Hacks:

The good news? Travel is one of the most hackable expenses out there, no matter how you trot the globe. Looking for cheap flights? There are some great apps that can help you out:

  • Google Flights is always a great first stop, allowing you to easily compare prices on different departure and return dates, as well as to neighboring airports around the same city.
  • Skiplagged shows “hidden city” flights that can help you (legally) cheat the system and save a bunch of cash in the bargain.
  • Hopper analyzes, predicts, and tracks flight prices to help you score the best deal. (P.S., both of these apps can also help hook you up with discounted hotel rooms.)
  • For road-tripping: Download GasBuddy before you set out and find the cheapest gas all along your route. When it comes to fuel prices, location matters, and a $0.25 per gallon adds up in a flash, whether you’re spending it or saving it.
  • For lodging: Check Airbnb ahead of time to see what deals are available… or head to HotelTonight if you get cold feet about your aunt’s spare bedroom at the last minute.

Deck the halls with boughs of moolah 🎄

Maybe not literally — although it certainly would be a flex. 

But depending on the types of decorations you buy, you might as well be hanging up wreaths of Benjamins. An artificial tree alone can cost several hundred dollars, and it’s easy to rack up quite a tab perusing the cutesy ornaments at Pier 1 or Pottery Barn. Not to mention the electricity it takes to run that Clark Griswold-esque lighting configuration you’ve come up with!


Holiday Hacks:

  • Decor: Another area of holiday expenditure where the crafty have a leg up: Do-it-yourself (DIY) holiday decorations can help you save money while also giving you something fun to do during the upcoming snow days. 
  • DIY ideas: Luckily, the internet is awash with DIY holiday decor ideas, from adorable ombre bottle brush trees (that only take five minutes!) to mini berry wreaths that only require a string of berry garland (which is, like everything else that’s truly essential, available at Target) and some tape. Or, if you’re looking for a project to spend more time with, you can get creative with embroidery hoops or even construct your own stately Christmas tree stand from scratch.  
  • Shop sales: Now that you’re putting your inner Hermione to work getting ready for the holidays months ahead of time, take that energy along with you after the holidays are over… because that’s when decorations go on sale! As tinselled-out as you might be by January, consider making time to go out and get next year’s holiday accoutrements. 
  • Check local: Along with obvious spots (we’re looking at you again, Target), be sure to drop by your local pharmacies and grocery stores, which might have cute decorations, along with mainstays like wrapping paper, available at a deep discount come the new year.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire 😋

Chestnuts? Not that expensive. But with prices regularly ringing in at over a dollar a pound, that giant bird you’re planning to put at the center of your table for Thanksgiving (and Christmas, too, if your family is like mine), holiday meals can definitely weigh as heavily on wallets as they do on our bellies. 

Even if you trade November’s turkey for a ham or the feast of seven fishes in December, the meal isn’t gonna be cheap. And that’s before you add in all the sumptuous side dishes, dessert delicacies and — perhaps most importantly, if you’re spending the holiday with your extended family — the alcohol. 


Holiday Hacks:

  • Turkey: Although it can be more than a dollar a pound, it can also be a little more than a quarter a pound, particularly if you buy frozen. What’s more, many grocery stores run a holiday special that allows you to get a free turkey, provided you buy a certain amount of other stuff — and, of course, you could also play with vegetarian alternatives, which might be less expensive overall. 
  • Booze: Consider stocking up on vino during your next trip to your favorite discount warehouse club. Costco, for instance, is famous for its cheap-but-still-awesome varieties, so much so that there’s a whole blog devoted to reviewing them.
  • Another tip: from a writer who once had ambitions of being a sommelier and holds level-3 WSET certification: even if you buy the cheapest wine on the shelf, decant it — which both softens the tannins and looks cool — and chill it a bit. Flavors are less available to us when wine is cold, which is why so many complex reds are meant to be drunk at room temperature… but you can use the principle to your advantage if there are some notes you’d rather avoid.

All dressed up with someplace to go 💃

For some of us, the holidays are just one season-long excuse to get bedecked in our finest, especially now that we can finally gather together in real space and time. 

If you’ve got lots of soirees to attend — and a reputation that demands you show up to each of them dressed to the nines in a never-seen-before fit — you could easily throw your budget out of whack by shopping for all that fancy finery.


Holiday Hacks:

  • Thrift shop: It’s a tip as old as time, but it still works: hit the thrift stores to find clothes that are both totally you and totally affordable. Vintage is always in. 
  • Borrow from friends: Alternatively, if you’ve got friends with similar sizes and styles, consider trading outfits for various events. Chances are you’re not all going to be at all of the same parties, and this way, each snazzy ensemble gets a little more airtime than it otherwise would!
  • Rent an outfit: Another option, if you’ve just gotta have the latest looks? Try out a service like Rent the Runway, that allows you to wear the most cutting-edge designs without hemorrhaging the hundreds — or thousands — of dollars the piece costs to own. Besides, once you’ve worn it, the moment is over… and instead of having it sit at the back of your closet, you can put it back in rotation so someone else can wow their friends.

Biding the Time for (Affordable) Holiday Tidings

Make no mistake about it, winter festivities can be spendy… but planning ahead makes all the difference. And once you make a habit of it, you can repeat these savings every year. 

So happy holidays to you — even if we’ve still got a couple of weeks until they’re fully in swing!

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