7 Important Things To Do When You Can’t Afford Christmas

The holiday season is here. For some, this is a wonderful and exciting time of the year. But for those who can’t afford Christmas, it can be rather stressful and depressing.

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. (Not that many people will be this year, either.)

Instead, my husband typically picks up extra shifts at work to take advantage of the bonus holiday pay. When I was working an hourly job, I did the same. (Now I get the awesome work perk of extra paid time off during the holidays!)

Although our finances have slightly improved, they still aren’t in great shape.

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

Here Are 7 Things To Do When 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 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.

This year, opting out of traveling and moving your Christmas traditions online makes sense.

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 unfortunately, not everyone is going to 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 your holiday shopping – 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 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!

Related Article: 50+ Self Care Gift Ideas For Under $50 in 2021

3. Start Early

It’s not uncommon these days to walk into a store in October and see Christmas items on the shelves next to the Halloween items. There’s even a term for this, called the “Christmas Creep.”

Of course, companies start promoting Christmas early to try to get you to spend more. Especially on “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.”

I’m not a fan, but it works! As soon as you see those aisles of green and red, you start thinking about Christmas (whether you want to or not).

It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though.

The more time you give yourself, the better chance you have to find the perfect gift at an affordable price.

One year I started vigorously exploring different side hustle ideas in October. I hoped to accumulate enough extra money so that I could afford Christmas gifts without accumulating debt. (I was able to make about $200 extra!)

If you can’t afford Christmas, making extra money – online or offline – is one option.

You can also browse the store’s clearance sections and stock up if they have what you need.

Sign up for newsletters from your favorite 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 any deals and promotions on the items on your Christmas list. Maybe there is a great sale that you can take advantage of?

Another bonus to starting early is that by spreading your spending out over the span of a few weeks or months, it becomes easier to manage.

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 handmade 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!

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 the other people in your life as well. 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.

5. Skip the Gifts

Not everyone in your life needs a gift. It’s okay to have a giftless Christmas and not feel guilty about it.

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, you can do this 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 stress and help keep your spending within your budget. Everyone still gives and receives, and you have an excuse to get together.

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

There are also tons of fun budget-friendly or free 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 the chance to meet Santa Claus 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 and volunteer at a soup kitchen.

6. Celebrate Late

Going back to suggestion #3, some people start getting ready for Christmas as early as the day after Christmas.

And I can see why. Since retailers want to sell as much as they can, not only do they start the Christmas Creep early, they also capitalize on those after-Christmas sales, too.

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.

Retailers will particularly want to get rid of any Christmas items that didn’t sell. That makes the days right after Christmas a great time to stock up anything non-perishable to use next year, like decor, gift wrap, and cards.

If you’re struggling to afford Christmas this year, celebrating late will also allow you to take advantage of these sales and stretch your budget further.

In general, people are also less busy in the days between Christmas and New Years Day, which makes it easier to entertain and get together for a holiday party (virtually or in-person).

7. 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 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.

Many people are not working right now. There’s a good chance that money is tight for them as well, and you’re actually doing them a favor by offering to do things differently this year.

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.

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15 thoughts on “7 Important Things To Do When You Can’t Afford Christmas”

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  4. 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. 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. 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. 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 🙂

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.


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