The Champagne Life on a DIY Budget Since 2007

Shoestring Shopping Survival Guide: 10 Tips to Save This Holiday Season

holiday shopping on a shoestring top 10 tips

Let’s face it: if you didn’t get the memo from HR yet, you will. Times are tight for everyone this year. But that doesn’t mean we should all drown our sorrows in a case of eggnog or mulled wine and call it a day.

Instead, we should try to remember the opportunity for perspective that tight economic times afford us: the ability to focus on what’s truly important and necessary, and in terms of holiday spirit, that means good friends, family, laughs, conversation, and happy memories. Sure, everyone still wants to play Santa, to make sure our loved ones have something to open by the menorah or to dump out of a stocking by the fireplace. But you never have to go for broke doing it, even when times are flush.

To fill your feasts and festivities with the traditional delights of the season, just practice a little smart spending and planning and you’ll easily avoid feeling like the main character in a Charles Dickens novel.

Here’s how with our Top 10 Tips to Save This Holiday Season:

1. Shop (or Window Shop) Online
As our fearless frugalista found out while researching this week’s guide to the Best Online Coupon Sites, bargains and free shipping promotions abound on the Internet right now (and they promise to only get better as the holidays creep closer). Retailers know that smart shoppers are trying to save time, money, and gas by going online this year more than ever, and they are responding in resounding ways. As our friend and contributor Garen Daly, founder of The Frugal Yankee, reports, online shopping is expected to increase by 9% this year, or by about $45.5 billion nationwide (with average consumers each spending between $200 and $500.) So, even if you don’t feel comfortable purchasing your presents electronically, save time and money by doing your research and price comparisons online first before buying in stores and approach the mall better armed to shop smart (or negotiate a fair price). For a full guide to the Do’s and Don’ts of Shopping Online, watch this video with Frugal Yankee‘s Louise Sacco.

2. Support the Local Economy
“Think globally, act locally” is a mantra we’ve heard from environmental groups for almost a decade, but did you know that you could be saving money while saving the planet and supporting your local economy at the same time? Buying holiday gifts and foodstuffs from local artists and merchants means you may be able to save on shipping by picking it up in person, plus you may get to meet and hear the story of how it was made by the person who crafted it. This act of conscious consumerism will also open your eyes to intriguing new local products, brands, and talents that may have been right under your nose, leading to savings and sensational experiences all year long. Don’t have time for shopping in person? Browse Etsy‘s geographic-specific search engine to find designers, artists, and shop owners near you, or check out Shift Your Shopping for more info.

3. Carpool to the Mall
Set up a carshare or carpool with friends and family members to get all your holiday shopping done in one go and save money on gas at the same time. If you’re worried about spoiling the surprise for your loved ones, sign up with a service like GoLoco (or post an ad on Craigslist) to find like-minded people in your neighborhood with whom you can split some of the cost of your shopping trip. Who knows, you may even make some new friends in the process.

4. Wrap with Recyclables
Danny Seo, author and HGTV green expert, opened our eyes to the amazingly chic, cheap, and simple art of wrapping gifts with resources from around the house, even from the recycling bin, in his newest book, Simply Green Giving. Pick up a copy for tips on creating memorable gift wrapping that doesn’t cost a mint, leaving you with more money in your budget to play Santa. Some of our favorite modern art-looking options include: using old VHS tapes or perfume-advertisements, cut into strips, for ribbon; wrapping made from old potato chip bags, turned inside out, or office copy room remnants; and gift boxes made from old cigar boxes or nameplate gift tags made from soap. (The book also includes Danny’s ideas for creative and thoughtful, themed gift baskets and his top tips for scouring thrift stores for materials.)

5. One Person, One Gift
We also like to call this the “make a list and check it fourteen times” rule. Most people, if they’re not properly organized, will end up buying over and over again for the same person—usually the person on their list they feel the closest to or the person who’s the easiest to buy for. Use Tip #1 above, combined with great gift guides like those from:, for popular gifts by “Most Wished For”, from their members’ Wish List data; Uncommon Goods, for a serious selection of uniquely creative, funny, and eccentric choices; and TreeHugger from the Discovery Channel, for the greenies (or aspiring greenies) on your list. If that fails you in your hunt for “the perfect gift” for each of your favorite people, grab the right gift card (along with a 4% to 18% discount) by using Plastic Jungle’s Gift Guru (more on PJ in #7, below.) Need help staying organized? put together this free, downloadable (and cheeky) “Fab Gift Guide” worksheet to get you on track.

6. Alternative Gift-Giving Ideas
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to decide on a plan of attack for family holiday parties and the protocol for presents. Make a pact with the grown-ups to adopt a more wallet-friendly (not to mention fun) approach this year by adopting a Yankee Swap or Secret Santa model, where each person only buys one gift (either by pulling a name from a hat or buying a generic or gag gift anyone might enjoy) instead of buying a gift for each person. For free rules, check out and Wikipedia. According to our informal reader survey, many families are also opting to go with “kids only” gift-giving this year, with each member of the family only buying for the children. If you have a big Catholic families like we do, this may actually cost you more, but on the whole is a good option to consider. Watching kids (who still believe in the magic of the season) open presents is most of the fun of the holidays, anyway!

7. Something Old, Something New
New online services are available that allow you to turn your old “drawer junk” into cash? We had the pleasure of chatting with CEOs Israel Ganot, of, and Tina Henson, of, and were thrilled to learn we could use their services to recycle (or secretly regift) our unused items for fresh, brand-spanking-new Benjamins. Gazelle, which relaunched in July of this year, employs what it calls “recommerce” to collect, refurbish, resell, or recycle old (small) electronics and then reward donors with cash reimbursements for marketable goods (via PayPal or gift cards). Plastic Jungle, which launched in 2006 (but re-launched this week), allows you to buy, sell, or trade gift cards online at serious savings and low- to no-cost shipping fees. According to Ganot, the average home has 24 gadgets lying around—4 to 5 of are outdated cell phones, mp3 players, and the like, which go unused. On average, customers receive a $115 payout by “gazelling” just 1.5 to 2 of those unused gadgets. And, Henson said that the average consumer is walking around with about $200, or 4 gift cards, sitting unused in their wallet. Do the math—that could be your entire holiday budget.

8. Swap, Not Shop
In our launch issue, we offered a peek into the recent explosion of new online “swap sites” gaining popularity over the past few years. Check it out now for tips on swapping new or gently used items at serious savings (or for just the cost of shipping) and our reviews of the biggest players in the market, like Zwaggle,, and Freecycle. Using these services is good for the wallet and definitely good for the planet, keeping perfectly good plastic toys and perfectly readable books from the landfill or the recycling plant. What’s not to love?

9. Good Tidings for the Thrifty
The major newspapers, magazines, and wire services have all reported that secondhand and thrift shops are seeing a boom in business this year due to the simultaneous economic downturn and eco-consciousness going mainstream. Check out our recent story on Regifting & Giving Vintage Presents for etiquette tips when deciding whether or not to opt for this route. Go one step further by setting up an appointment at your local consignment shop to clear out your unworn, good condition brand name clothes. When they sell, you not only get a commission check but most boutiques will give you a 10% to 20% discount if you trade in your commission for purchases in the store.

10. Cash, Not Credit
If you haven’t checked the fine print on your credit card for you current annual fees and percentage rates recently, you should. Avoid hidden charges and high interest payments by paying with cash or debit cards for all of your purchases (unless one of the enviable few with interest rates under 5%). If you buy a few presents a week from now until mid-December, this is easily attainable. Two years ago, in their November 2006 issue, Real Simple magazine recommended using your holiday shopping list and a stack of envelopes to designate cash for each gift recipient, marking each envelope with a name and filling it with an amount, then carrying the stack with you to the mall. Once the cash is gone, that’s it! You can redistribute the money but you can’t replenish it, forcing you to stick to your overall budget without relying on risky credit.

What are your favorite ways to save on holiday shopping? Share them with Shoestring readers and join the conversation by posting a comment!


Copyright 2008 Shoestring, LLC. Photo: iStock

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