The holiday season is here, but so is inflation.
For some, this is the most wonderful time of year. But if you’re like 89% of consumers polled by Numerator, you’re bracing for the impact inflation will have on your spending and gifting.
With soaring costs, worrying about how you’ll pay for presents or whether you’ll be able to afford a nice Christmas dinner can take the fun out of the holidays.
My husband and I have basically skipped Christmas for the last few years because we couldn’t afford it. Since we don’t have kids, it’s pretty easy for us to opt out of celebrating. We don’t exchange gifts, we don’t entertain, and we don’t travel to see family.
So what can you do if you’re like me and can’t afford Christmas?
If you’re struggling, there are a few things you can do to help ease the stress without ruining the holiday.
Having a small or non-existent budget probably means you can’t afford to travel, buy gifts for everyone, and say yes to every get-together this Christmas season. But that doesn’t mean you have to opt-out of the celebrations entirely.
Keep it simple. Who is most important to you? What traditions are you not willing to give up?
Once you determine that, spend your money accordingly.
“We are transitioning back into the meaning of Christmas, focusing on providing instead of receiving, and challenging the kids to brainstorm ways we can serve our community,” says Nicole Graber of Gracefully Abundant.
Overspending at Christmas is extremely easy and common. Whether you have a lot of money to spend or only a little, you need a budget. Figure out how much you can afford to spend on holiday shopping without getting into debt or financial trouble.
Consider all potential holiday-related expenses, such as gifts, cards, gift wrap, shipping, decorations, food and drinks, entertainment, travel, donations, family photos, etc.
Then taking your priorities into account, start assigning the amount you can spend on each category, person, or activity. Make sure your total doesn’t exceed what your budget allows. If it does, take another look at what’s important to you, and try again until you can make it work.
Stick to this budget!
Check where your budget stands before making any purchase, and update it afterward so that it stays up-to-date.
If you’re concerned about overspending during the holidays, take out what you can afford to spend in cash or use a pre-paid credit card for that set amount. Once it runs out, you’re done. No more spending!
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3. Start Early
It’s not uncommon these days to walk into a store and see Christmas items on the shelves next to Back to School and Halloween items. There’s even a term for this, called the “Christmas Creep.”
As soon as you see those aisles of green and red, you start thinking about Christmas, whether you want to or not.
Of course, companies start promoting the holidays early to get you to spend more. Especially on “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.”
And it works. 38% of consumers surveyed in the 2022 Deloitte holiday study say they will be shopping earlier this year.
It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. You have a better chance of finding the perfect gift at an affordable price if you have time to look.
Keep an eye on deals and promotions on the items on your Christmas list. Are there any great sales you can take advantage of?
Sign up for newsletters from your favorite stores to take advantage of the discounts they offer to new subscribers. (And then maybe unsubscribe in the new year to avoid any future impulse buys?)
You can also browse the store’s clearance sections and stock up if they have what you need.
Another bonus is that it’s easier to manage your spending by spreading it out over a few weeks or months.
Starting early also gives you more time to make extra money if that’s what you need to do.
Related: Asking Santa to Put a New Job Under the Tree? Here’s Help
4. Skip the Gifts
It’s okay to have a giftless Christmas and not feel guilty about it. After all, the holidays should be about togetherness, not material things.
Sending handwritten cards to friends, family, and other important people is an affordable way to show that you care and are thinking of them. If money is tight, you can do this for free online.
Do fun, free things with your loved ones, like going to winter carnivals and parades or meeting Santa Claus. Host a pot-luck dinner or a Christmas movie marathon. Drive around looking at the lights with your loved ones. Go sledding. Volunteer together at a soup kitchen or food bank.
“Many museums and cultural institutions have special holiday programming or, at the very least, have festive decor,” suggests Monica Fish of Planner at Heart. “The best part? You can check out admission passes just like books from your library for a no-cost.”
If gifts are essential to your celebration, hold a Secret Santa or gift exchange with a set dollar limit. It will reduce stress and keep your spending within your budget.
“Due to increased inflation, we have decided to modify our family gift-buying tradition,” says John Dealbreuin of Financial Freedom Countdown. “We will only be buying gifts for children instead of buying gifts for everyone.”
5. Get Creative
Gift-giving doesn’t have to include spending (a lot of) money. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.
If you’re crafty, handy, or artistic, why not put your skills to use and make handmade gifts? Bake cookies, upcycle those mason jars, knit a scarf, build a wooden bench, or put together a gift basket. Pinterest is a gold mine for do-it-yourself ideas!
Or if you’re more like me and lack those DIY skills (or you simply don’t have the time), why not offer to do something for your loved ones instead?
The good old coupon book of “one free massage” and “one breakfast in bed” is a tried and true gift idea for your significant other. But that same concept can work for other people in your life. Instead of buying gifts, you could always offer to babysit for a loved one on a Friday night or give your child a pass to stay up an hour later.
There are still some costs associated with any DIY gift, but they are often a more affordable option. And people will appreciate the personal touch.
6. Celebrate Late
If you’re struggling to afford Christmas, celebrating late will allow you to stretch your budget further.
Retailers want to sell their leftover inventory (especially Christmas items) and offer significant discounts in the days right after Christmas. Take advantage of these sales or stock up on anything non-perishable to use next year, like gift wrap and cards.
Boxing Day (December 26) has become a “shopping holiday” for those of us living in the UK, Canada, and Australia. Similar to Black Friday, retailers offer significant discounts on Boxing Day that are often extended into Boxing Week.
The holidays are also busy—90% of those surveyed by Deloitte plan to travel in November and December. Postponing your trip until January makes it easier to get together and avoid crowds. You can also take advantage of cheaper flights and accommodations.
According to Hopper’s 2022 Holiday Travel Outlook, airfares between Thanksgiving and Christmas will be the highest in the last five years. They suggest traveling on less popular dates (such as after the holidays) to save as much as $300 on domestic flights.
7. Be Honest
The best piece of advice I can give to someone who can’t afford Christmas is simply to be honest about it.
You don’t have to share the details of your finances, but don’t put yourself into debt because you’re being polite or too shy to speak up.
Your loved ones should be understanding and respectful of your situation.
Deloitte found that more than a third (37%) of respondents say their finances are worse than last year. Many people are not working right now. There’s a good chance that money is tight for your loved ones too. You’re doing them a favor by offering to celebrate differently.
No matter what you do, remember that Christmas is about more than just gifts and money. It’s about spending time with the people you love, creating memories, and feeling grateful for what you have.
In short, if you can’t afford Christmas, you absolutely can still enjoy the holidays without getting into debt. Have a plan. Set a budget. Be creative. And focus on the non-material side of Christmas.
YOUR TURN: Do you have any advice on how to save more or spend less during the holidays? Please leave a comment and let us know!
Amanda Kay, an Employment Specialist and founder of My Life, I Guess, strives to keep the "person" in personal finance by writing about money, mistakes, and making a living. She focuses on what it’s like being in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and surviving unemployment while also offering advice and support for others in similar situations - including a FREE library of career & job search resources.
15 thoughts on “Can’t Afford Christmas? 7 Tips to Manage So Even Scrooge Would Approve”
Unfortunately too many of us think that Christmas is all about gifts and partys only. You’re right, we have to be honest about our situation. And we have to remember that that is the best gift is the gift of love. As soon as Christmas is pass, I think about next year. I often buy Christmas gifts anytime of the year when they’re on sale and that I know it will please somebody in particular.
Whishing you a bright and loving Christmas
I’ve been there. I remember how sad and hurt I felt because I got gifts and couldn’t give them. I basically told my whole family I was broke and that was that. If I couldn’t gift all I would gift none. I find it ridiculous even for people who are not having financial problems to spend a ton on Christmas. It’s just not necessary in my opinion especially as you get older. My family does a name exchange and has for a while now. Good for you for thinking ahead and doing what you can. Don’t feel bad about it. Life happens sometimes. Sorry that things have only gotten worse for you.
Thank you for offering a realistic look at Christmas. It’s difficult to not give gifts but going into debt to give people things they don’t really need is not smart. We can love and enjoy being with friends and family without giving them things. I hope many people in your situation will take your advice and enjoy Christmas without feeling bad about not spending. (We’re cutting back again this year too).
I was invited to a Christmas party for a nice Christmas dinner and Christmas movies in which i had brought my projector to project it onto a wall. Later a few of my friends started giving out gifts and two of my friends gab me gifts and i had no gifts to bring.I assumed that since everyone including me were financially not doing all that well that we qould just have a nice Christmas dinner and movies with egg nigh ans to me that’s what Christmas shoukd be about and that’s friendship coning together and having fun bit i litwrally felt like crap when i didn’t have any gifts to bring.I felt awful but in reality i cam barely pay my monthly bills let alone qorry about hundreds of dollars worth of gifts to worry about.Who ever invented Christmas ahould be ashamed if themselves for enforcing gift exchanges.It’s Christmas time and gift exchanges which puts people in financial debt which many people rely on their credit cards to pay for gifts. It shouldn’t be the gifts that makes people happy on Christmas relying on materialistic desires to enhance happiness.Christmas should be about love and kindness and togetherness, Christmas Dinner, movies, sleigh riding and tobogganing, good deeds, helping the homeless, being happy and cheerful to everyone.The gift that should matter is the gift of friendship and live and kindness and doing things together like winter outdoor fun and excitement.singing christmas songs etc.You can do all those things without spending spending money.Its shouldn’t be the gifts that people remember receiving but the friendahip and togetherness and all that fun you had tibogganing and ice skating and making snowman.When kids start expecting hundred dollar gifts that’s when Christmas can take a toll on people.The Christmas movie Jingle all the wall with Arnold Schwarzenegger almost ended up qith his qife divorcing him and his child hating him over a lousy popular toy and Arnold’s character forgetting his sins Christmas Roy alnost cost him his relationship qith his wife and child and i know it’s just a movie but this is the mindset that people have during christmas.
In all honesty, I would prefer to skip the gift giving part of Christmas, because I’m trying to avoid accumulating more stuff. I enjoy the spending time with family/friends more. I think presents really are more for the kids. Besides, the things I want/need are more than the set limits for gift exchanges. I know it’s all about the spirit of giving and that it’s all in good fun, but really these days, $20 isn’t enough to get a decent quality gift (unless you get $20 worth of food/toiletries…that’s actually a better idea, because it’s something people would actually use).
I’m sorry to hear that things have gotten worse for you guys. I sincerely wish things will be better for you in the New Year.
So happy to hear you have a positive attitude about this. Christmas does not need to be about spending a lot of money. In fact, I find that most adults are more than fine not to receive a gift. I know I am happy not to. I would much rather spend time with people and enjoy some good food 🙂 Good food does not need to be overly expensive either. A pot luck where everyone brings an appetizer is always a lot of fun! I hope you have a great Christmas!
Being together with family at Christmas is what matters, but I wouldn’t skip the gift part, sorry guys. I love getting and giving gifts. That’s how we cherish the thought of each other.
Lol – did you except a post about not being able to afford things to be about something else?
I love seeing sensible posts around Christmas time, especially since the last Christmas post I saw was “The best way to borrow $1,000 for Christmas” *shudders*
When I moved out of home I bluntly told everyone that I wouldn’t be giving presents for any occasions, and I didn’t want to receive them. Small things have crept in over the years, but there’s more emphasis on getting together, rather than buying the best gift.
This year my mum and I are exchanging homemade Christmas treats 🙂
How does this blog stack up for you now, with all the job changes etc? I am from a huge family, lots of nieces and I don’t mind the gift giving – I am just bad at budgeting for it, and I want to treat myself too.
I also now do a wish list for a kid in need, this year I am taking on a family’s wish list 🙂 So I still love to give, but I definitely should budget better for it.
I actually find it easier to blog now that I’m in a steady job. Thank you for asking!
That is SO GREAT to hear that you’re giving back, too. 🙂
Amazing Post Amanda, This time I am going to do the steps you have mentioned. Also I have started making invitation cards with my own. Hope this time I’ll not waste too much money.
I’ve been there. I remember how sad and hurt I felt because I got gifts and couldn’t give them. I basically told my whole family I was broke and that was that. If I couldn’t gift all I would gift none. I find it ridiculous even for people who are not having financial problems to spend a ton on Christmas. It’s just not necessary in my opinion especially as you get older.
Amazing Post Amanda, from Next time i will definitely try this out.