6 Things To Do When You Can’t Afford Christmas

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Last updated: November 2018

The holiday season is quickly approaching. For some, this is a wonderful and exciting time of the year.

But for others who can’t afford Christmas, it can be stressful and depressing.

Last year, we basically skipped Christmas because money was tight. Since we don’t have kids, it was pretty easy for us to opt out of celebrating – we didn’t exchange gifts, we didn’t entertain, and we didn’t travel to see my side of the family. Instead, we both picked up extra shifts at work to take advantage of the bonus holiday pay, and hoped that things would be better next year.

Unfortunately, things are not better. Things are worse. I still haven’t found a full-time job, and there is still the chance my fiancé will be going on strike. Meaning our finances are even tighter than they were last year.

I’ve been thinking about what to do about Christmas for months already. I knew that without a new job, I wasn’t going to be able to afford the Christmas I wanted to have. And that I wasn’t going to be able to “make up” for the rather uneventful one we had (didn’t have?) last year.

So what can you do if you’re like me and you can’t afford Christmas?


1. Prioritize

Having a small or non-existent budget probably means that you can’t afford to travel, buy gifts for everyone, and say yes to every Christmas party. 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.

I know that if I could afford it, I’d rather spend my money on a flight to see my family than on buying them all sweaters.

If giving is important to you, prioritize who is on your gift-giving list. Sure it’d be nice to include everyone in your life, but not everyone is going make the cut.


2. Budget

Overspending at Christmas is extremely easy to do, which is why you need a budget regardless if you have a lot of money to spend, or only have a little.

If you haven’t already done so, figure out how much you can actually afford to spend on the holidays – without getting yourself into debt or financial trouble!

Consider all of the potential holiday related expenses: gifts, cards, gift wrap, shipping and postage, decorations, food and drinks, entertaining, 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 spending, and update it afterwards.

If you’re concerned about overspending, take out what you can spend in cash or use a pre-paid credit card for that amount. Once it runs out, you’re done. No more spending.


3. Start Early

As I mentioned, I’ve already been thinking about Christmas for months. I’ve been answering surveys (like Swagbucks, Opinion Outpost, and Legerweb) like crazy, trying with somewhat success to accumulate enough points to exchange for gift certificates, and entering contests online to try to win either money or prizes that I can then give away.

If you haven’t started your shopping yet, don’t fretyou still have a month, which is plenty of time.

Browse the clearance sections of every store you go into and stock up if they have what you need.

Sign up for newsletters from your favourite stores so you don’t miss a sale, or to take advantage of the 10% (or more) discounts they offer to new subscribers. (And then maybe unsubscribe in the new year to avoid any future temptations?)

Keep an eye open for deals and promotions that have already started popping up.

Spreading your spending out over the span of a few weeks will help make it more manageable.


4. 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 in any way, why not put your skills to use and make your own gifts? Bake cookies, up-cycle 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 that usually comes with instructions.

Or if you’re more like me and lack those DIY skills (or maybe 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 the other people in your life as well. Instead of buying gifts, you could always offer to babysit your best friends kids on Friday night, or give your child one pass to stay up an hour later.


5. Skip the Gifts

Not everyone in your life needs a gift.

Sending handwritten cards to friends, extended family members, and other important people in your life is an affordable way to show that you care, and that you are thinking of them. If money is really tight, this can be done for free online.

Instead of buying gifts for everyone on your list, hold a Secret Santa or gift exchange with a set dollar limit. It will help reduce the stress and help keep your spending within your budget, but everyone still gives and receives, and you have an excuse to all get together.

After all, the holidays should be about spending time together, and not about material things, right?

There are tons of free (or cheap) things you can do with your loved ones instead of exchanging gifts – especially around the holidays. Most communities host events like winter carnivals, parades, or Skate with Santa that are either free or by donation (usually a non-perishable item).

Or you could host a pot-luck dinner, or a Christmas movie marathon. You could drive around looking at the lights with your loved ones, or go sledding. Or better yet, you could all get together an volunteer at a soup kitchen.


6. Be Honest

The best piece of advice I can give to someone that can’t afford Christmas is simply to be honest about it. You don’t have to share the details of your personal finances with everyone, but don’t put yourself into debt because you’re being polite, or you’re too shy to speak up.

Your loved ones should be understanding and respectful of your situation. Who knows, maybe money is tight for them as well, and you’re actually doing them a favour.


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? 


Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

Money can make the holidays a stressful time. How can you save more and spend less? Here are 6 Things To Do When You Can\'t Afford Christmas - My Life, I Guess #money #saving #Christmas

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More about Amanda

Amanda is the owner and creator of My Life, I Guess... a personal finance and lifestyle blog that started back in 2013. She strives to keep the "person" in personal finance by writing about money, mistakes and making the most of it.

10 thoughts on “6 Things To Do When You Can’t Afford Christmas

  1. Avatar

    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


  2. Avatar

    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.


  3. Avatar
    Cheryl Grandy

    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).


  4. Avatar

    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.


  5. Avatar

    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!


  6. Avatar

    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.


  7. Avatar
    Luci Furr

    How to save money
    Get rid of your internet and computer
    That way we don’t have to read your oh poor me rubbish all the time


    1. Amanda

      Lol – did you except a post about not being able to afford things to be about something else?


  8. Avatar

    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 :)


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