TIME Humor

Tips for Surviving the Holiday Season on a Shoestring Budget

Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms.

Some socially acceptable dos and don'ts for a season of giving

It’s the holiday season. The economy has rebounded! Gas is ridiculously cheap! Everyone in the nation is supposed to be doing better. Well, we’re not. Somehow, this new, hopeful economy has bypassed us. We can’t figure out why.

Actually we’re fine. We’re okay, kind of. Which means that we are on the perilous life raft of the American economy; we are okay if nothing at all goes wrong. And while I love the holiday season, it is, sometimes, an economic minefield. But while the Federal Reserve dallies with interest rates, my economic salve for the money stress of the holiday season is one thing: pumpkin bread. (See “Do #6″ below.) Here are some ways to get through the holidays on a shoestring:

DON’T:

  1. Don’t go into any store that features shopping bags that can stand on their own accord, in the middle of a table. This sort of shopping bag denotes prices that will start chipping into your children’s college education fund. Avoid it. Remind yourself to put money into your children’s education fund. And oh yes, your retirement–next year, when things are better. I hear the economy’s improving.
  2. Don’t bid on anything at the religious institution’s Silent Auction. Walk by coveted items, smile at them, nod thoughtfully, but walk on. Or do bid but only when people are watching, and make it so small you can be outbid in an instant.
  3. Don’t monitor your online savings account in real time. It is tempting, but don’t do it.
  4. Don’t buy holiday cards to send out to people (the costs of stamps, my god!) Instead, post nice photo of family with loving caption on Facebook and see “likes” build.
  5. Don’t assume that a restaurant is good if it uses the words “Seatings are at” in its description. The word “banquet” will also do unmentionable things to your bill. You don’t have to pretend to be Henry the VIII, and you actually may not want to be.
  6. Don’t feel that your (or dear relative’s or friend’s) cat or dog will be insulted if you don’t buy him or her the crazily priced cat toy or sweater. Trust me: the pet will not know. This tip also applies to babies.
  7. Don’t assume that you have to wear a new fancy dress or shirt or anything to a New Year’s Eve party. No one is going to notice. Wear last year’s. Everyone’s going to be focused on the champagne and the mini-quiches. Helpful note: properly wrapped, mini-quiches can fit neatly into a purse. They heat up nicely later. By the way, I hear the economy is improving.
  8. Don’t feel that when relative sends gift card for X amount, you are required to send X amount back. Gift cards should not be an economic hostage situation. Send what you can and/or send pumpkin bread. (See #6 below)
  9. Don’t forget to buy books as gifts, as they will nourish the soul, far beyond the cover price.
  10. Don’t forget to give something (money or time) to causes, because you should.

DO:

  1. Tell your children that their Secret Santa gifts for their friends in class will be a re-gifting extravaganza.
  2. Tell your mother that any clothes she wants to purchase you as a gift has to be suitable for a job interview.
  3. Tell the children that the word “upgrade” has been banned in the household and nearby vicinity for the time being.
  4. Buy present at thrift store and sneakily give it to friend in fancy shopping bag received from other friend who foolishly went into store that used such shopping bags.
  5. Make pumpkin bread as the default gift for everyone. It is cheap, it is beloved, it is carbs. And you can make a batch sufficient for many gift recipients in an hour. Don’t worry about fancy cellophane wrapping, though bows are fine. You can use gluten-free flour if needed, too.
  6. Do remember that the dollar store is only a dollar store if you buy only one thing.
  7. Do remember that if it’s to grandmother’s house we go, that’s a good thing and grandmother can pay.
  8. Try to laugh, because not everyone can. And, by the way, it is free. And above all, know that after January 1, everything goes on sale. And did you hear? The economy is improving.

Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and others. Her debut collection of short fiction, Refund: Stories, will be published by Counterpoint Press in January 2015.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY holiday shopping

11 Clever Stocking Stuffers They’ll Never Know Cost Almost Nothing

If you’ve ever struggled to get a good gift at the last minute and, like most Americans, ended up spending way too much as a consequence, do not fear. Here’s a list of $25-and-under presents that will impress with their (read: your) savvy—without putting a big dent in your wallet.

  • Citrus spritzer ($5)

    Citrus Spritzer
    Citrus Spritzer

    Whether the goal is keeping guacamole from browning, adding an even mist of lime juice to some (chili!) popcorn, or simply wowing guests, the Quirky Citrus Spritzer is pretty much the coolest gadget you can get someone for $5. Expert tip? Increase juice flow by rolling the fruit in question on a table for a minute before inserting the device—and spritzing to your heart’s content.

  • “Drinks are on me” coasters ($6)

    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters
    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters Karin Åkesson

    Get these charming furniture-protecting coasters from illustrator Karin Akesson for the pun enthusiasts in your life (or that friend who always picks the most literal responses in Cards Against Humanity). Or anyone, really: Who doesn’t love a good double entendre?

  • Clothespin clip-on reading light ($7)

    Clothespin Reading Light
    Clothespin Reading Light MoMA

    Like any unsung hero, this ordinary-looking clothespin doesn’t seem like much at first glance. But pin it to the corner of a book and it transforms into the (drumroll…) Clothespin Clip Light—casting extra light across text while holding pages in place. It’s a sweet stocking stuffer for bookworms and lovers of modern/contemporary art alike… and worst-case scenario, it can be used to hang laundry.

  • Tetris Jenga ($12)

    Jenga Tetris Game
    Jenga Tetris Game Hasbro

    If you thought Truth or Dare Jenga was bold, give Tetris Jenga a spin. This new take on the game has six different shapes that look like the ones you used to flip around on your Ti-84 instead of paying attention in math class. It’s a lot harder to pull a piece out, but destroying the tower is the whole point anyway, right?

  • Tablet “hands” prop ($16)

    TwoHands E-reader prop
    TwoHands E-reader prop Felix

    In the catalog of first-world problems, having to hold your iPad while you use it might be at the top of the list. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t an issue people want solved, and luckily for us, TwoHands E-reader prop is here to help. TwoHands not only props up your tablet so you can read or watch movies hands-free, but its cute little hands will make you smile.

  • Folding cutting board ($16)

    Folding Cutting Board
    MoMA

    Unless you’ve got knife skills like a ninja (or Jamie Oliver), it’s hard to keep all those darn veggie bits on the chopping board and off of the floor. MoMA’s Folding Cutting Board solves that problem with bendable sides that transform into a little chute to help keep chopped food in check and transfer pieces from one place to another neatly. It’s the perfect gift for friends or family members with culinary inclinations but a low tolerance for clean-up.

  • Personalized “magic” mug ($17)

    Walgreen's Magic Mug
    Walgreen's Magic Mug Walgreen's

    This Collage Magic Mug from Walgreens lets you add text and up to 15 custom photos to a mug—with a fun extra twist: Those images appear only when the cup is filled with a hot beverage. Whether you lean more sentimental or silly, a personalized gift like this is likely to mean more than the typical holiday present. One playful idea? Photoshop images of you and other friends so it appears you’re “trapped” in the mug.

  • Smartphone gloves ($20)

    Agloves smartphone gloves
    Joe Coca

    Unless you live in a naturally perfect climate, you might be familiar with the winter misery of trying to type on your smartphone with the useless icicles you once called fingers, as freezing sleet and wind whips around you. Enter Agloves smartphone gloves. Yes, there are even cheaper versions out there, but deep discounts come at the expense of quality and touch-screen responsiveness. These sleek puppies give you the equivalent of BMW performance at Hyundai prices.

  • Foodie Survival Kit ($20)

    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit
    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit Restoration Hardware

    For foodies and flavor junkies who can’t tolerate a bland meal, this emergency Mobile Foodie Survival kit is a game-changer, especially while on the road (or camping). With 13 organic spices, your gift recipient can heat up a too-tame Tikka Masala or add herbal fragrance to a mopey pasta Alfredo. Plus, buying the kit supports a good cause: It’s assembled by disabled adults through non-profit Brooklyn Community Services.

  • 10-in-1 bartender tool ($22)

    Restoration Hardware Bar10DER
    Restoration Hardware

    We’re not going to say they’re the best part of December, but holiday cocktails are a delight, and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Hopefully those on your gift list understand the truth, because you won’t find a better gift than this Bar10der tool from Restoration Hardware. Whether one needs to muddle some rosemary, zest an orange, or strain ice, the 10 devices that pop out of this tool have got the cocktail game covered.

  • Dining Table Tennis ($24)

    Dining Table Tennis
    Dining Table Tennis Restoration Hardware

    Here’s a scenario: It’s day two of your family’s holiday celebration. Cookies have been eaten, presents opened, and Netflix queues depleted. Everyone’s trapped together and there’s nothing left to distract from food comas (and bickering relatives). Enter Dining Table Tennis, a kit with all you need to turn your dining room table into a ping pong battlefield. It burns more calories than Scrabble and gives your loved ones something fun to do—even after all the wine is gone.

MONEY online shopping

How to Get Fast, Free Last-Minute Shipping on Holiday Purchases

An Amazon employee packages an order to be shipped from its Coffeyville, Kan., warehouse.
An Amazon employee packages an order to be shipped from its Coffeyville, Kan., warehouse. Brian Corn—The Wichita Eagle/AP

Hey, holiday shopping procrastinators, now's the time to get your act together and take advantage of offers guaranteeing free and speedy delivery of online purchases.

Here’s everything you need to know about last-minute online holiday shopping, including how to ensure your orders will arrive in time to tuck under the Christmas tree—and how to not pay top dollar (or any money whatsoever!) for it.

The sooner you order, the better. While many retailers are guaranteeing that orders placed very late in the game—perhaps even by December 23—will arrive by Christmas Eve, it’s unwise to bank on these guarantees holding up. After last year’s debacle, in which orders from Kohl’s, Amazon, and others failed to arrive in time for Christmas, retailers have tried to push shoppers to place orders earlier to help avoid the mad rush in the few days before December 25. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, however, that many consumers are procrastinating, and that retailers are yet again guaranteeing last-minute delivery to entice desperate shoppers into placing late orders.

But there are two simple reasons why you should make online holiday purchases asap: 1) Doing so will save money, because (with the exception of Free Shipping Day—see below) the likelihood of free shipping disappears the longer you wait, and you’ll pay through the nose for expedited delivery at the very last minute; and 2) even though retailers and shipping services have taken steps to avoid a repeat of last year’s troubles, Mother Nature or sales overload could still cause shipping delays. After shoppers were burned last year, why take the risk?

More retailers are offering delivery guarantees. Heading into the 2014 holiday season, retailers seemed a little hesitant to make the sort of last-minute shipping guarantees that were commonplace in 2013. According to a survey conducted in the fall, 21% of retailers said they would set their deadlines for guaranteed December 24 delivery at December 19 or later, compared with 26% a year ago. Yet more recently, there’s been an increase in such guarantees. The consulting firm Kurt Salmon told USA Today that 25% of retailers are guaranteeing free delivery by Christmas on orders placed one to three days beforehand.

Retailers typically have a series of deadlines and varying costs for shoppers who want delivery by December 24. Target says that customers who order by December 20 are guaranteed delivery by Christmas, but only “on select items.” Target is also offering free standard shipping on all orders placed by December 20, but the policy stipulates that standard shipping is “3-5 business days.” There are only four business days between December 20 and December 24 (including both of those days), so it wouldn’t be surprising if some December 20 orders aren’t delivered by December 24.

Many news outlets have reported Amazon’s first deadline as Tuesday, December 16—that’s the last day shoppers can get free delivery via Super Saver Shipping for non-Prime members who meet the minimum purchase threshold ($35). Yet Amazon itself is now listing Friday, December 19, as the final day for free (non-Prime) shipping. Prime members, meanwhile, get two-day shipping on all orders fulfilled by Amazon, so they can order as late as December 22 for delivery by Christmas Eve.

Free Shipping Day is Thursday, December 18. As of Monday, roughly 1,000 retailers said they’d be participating in Free Shipping Day, an annual event held about a week before Christmas, in which stores offer free shipping on all orders, with no minimum purchase. While that sounds terrific, it must be noted that the many retailers offer essentially this same exact deal before and sometimes after Free Shipping Day. Target has given customers free shipping on all orders for weeks, while retailers like REI are offering free shipping guaranteed to arrive by December 24, with no minimum purchase, for orders placed as late as 10 a.m. on December 23. In select areas, Banana Republic is even offering free same-day shipping thanks to a partnership with a speedy delivery specialist, Deliv.

There are other ways to get fast—and free!—shipping. As mentioned above, Amazon Prime members get free two-day shipping on their Amazon purchases, and if you’ve never had a subscription before ($99 annually), it especially makes sense to get a free trial membership during the holiday period. Students get six months free, while everyone else can enjoy Prime benefits for 30 days. Also, the December 2014 issue of MONEY offers all sorts of tricks for saving money on online purchases, including the tip that ShopRunner, another two-day shipping service, is free for American Express customers who register a card with the site. By subscribing to either of these services, every day is Free Shipping Day.

MONEY online shopping

Believe it or Not, Amazon Isn’t the King of Cheap Holiday Prices

mouse on top of present
Junos—Getty Images

Amazon is losing its edge as the lowest-cost retailer.

This is shaping up to be the year all the rules of shopping were broken. First came the bombshell revelation from NerdWallet showing that Black Friday goods may not be quite the deals retailers claim, as many were selling year-old items at the same prices as last year’s Black Friday. And if the newest report from ShopSavvy is correct, the decade-long maxim that Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.7288% has the lowest prices could be wrong as well.

For those unaware of the company, ShopSavvy’s purpose is to help would-be shoppers find the best deal on products by providing retailer information through its website and its barcode-scanning mobile app on Android and iOS. And if its recent ShopSavvy Showdown (say that three times fast) is correct, both Amazon and Best Buy BEST BUY BBY 1.3773% offer higher prices on overlapping items than the undisputed King of Retail: Wal-Mart WAL-MART STORES INC. WMT -0.9076% .

The survey says …

This survey is not the first showing that Amazon is losing its edge as the lowest-cost retailer. Earlier this year, a report from Wells Fargo and online price-tracking company 360pi found Amazon had higher prices overall when compared to Wal-Mart and Target in four critical areas: shoes, electronics, housewares, and health products. However, the report found that Amazon typically offered the lowest prices when it came to “like-to-like” items. Essentially, when a specific item was on both sites Amazon still had the lowest price.

However, this newest data finds the exact opposite. The survey, based only on the same products for sale at Walmart, Amazon, and Best Buy, finds that “Wal-Mart has the cheaper option on over 50% more products than Amazon and Best Buy across the categories analyzed.” In addition, the survey notes Wal-Mart’s online price match policy, in which the company specifically agrees to match prices from Amazon and Best Buy.

The survey results were rather shocking when compared with Amazon. In the heavily trafficked categories of electronics and TVs (the survey distinguishes between the two), Wal-Mart was cheaper on 66% and 85% of total products, respectively. The average percentage difference of price was 28% and 23%, again, respectively. Essentially, this survey finds that shopping at Wal-Mart, and not Amazon, for TVs and electronics will save you nearly a quarter of your money.

So I should go to Wal-Mart right now, right?

If these results are correct, you should go directly to Wal-Mart and not worry about shopping around online, right? Well, not so fast. As the survey clearly shows, Wal-Mart didn’t always have the lowest price, although it was a good bet they did. In addition, the survey didn’t go into a lot of detail about the product selection. Without that critical piece of information, it’s hard to know whether these goods are representative of a true head-to-head comparison or whether these items are merely a good selection for Wal-Mart.

In addition, the data presentation concerns me. Although there were three retailers chosen for the survey, the data was only presented as Wal-Mart versus Amazon and Wal-Mart versus Best Buy. Without the third head-to-head comparison, Amazon versus Best Buy, the survey can come across as less of an unbiased comparison and more of a pro-Wal-Mart piece.

Finally, competition between megaretailers is rather intense. In many cases, retailers consider prices of 3%-5% lower as being worthy of running commercials specifically outlining these differences. The closest ShopSavvy comparison between Wal-Mart and the other retailers was in the TV category, with Wal-Mart being “only” 15% cheaper than Best Buy on average. When matched up against Amazon in the Kids category, ShopSavvy reports that Wal-Mart is a massive 45% cheaper on average.

Overall, this doesn’t mean that ShopSavvy’s data is wrong, but this should be considered only one data point in your holiday deal-hunting comparison. One shopping rule that will never be broken is to continue to shop around for the best deal; you’ll be thankful you do.

MONEY Shopping

Why Gift Cards Are the Only Present That Makes Sense

Gift card on gold background
Khuong Hoang—Getty Images

The case for not wasting time in search of the perfect presents for your loved ones.

Let’s just say it: Gift cards are the best present for almost everyone on your list.

“Gift cards?!” you yell, monocle falling into your tea. “Who, other than your distant relations, would be so tacky? So gauche?

The answer? Most people. According to BankRate, 84% of Americans have received a gift card and 72% have given one. By the end of 2014, $124 billion dollars will have been loaded onto gift cards, and sales have been growing for years.

The case against gift cards is weak. (Though my colleague, Kara Brandeisky, begs to differ.) A recent Wall Street Journal article revealed that “only” 37% of consumers want a gift card this season, yet spun this news as a negative: “The novelty of gift cards has worn off,” Alison Paul, Deloitte’s vice chairman and retail sector leader, told the paper.

Really? Does more than a third of America wanting your product mean the “novelty has worn off?” If only we could all be that unsuccessful.

And the truth is, most of us will be unsuccessful when we shop for gifts this year. A 2014 survey from online retailer Rakuten showed almost three out of four Americans won’t like the gifts they receive this season. Let’s do some quick Moneyball here: Based on these two studies, most gifts have a 25% approval rating, while gift cards have a 37% approval rating. Gee, I wonder which one I should pick…

Faced with those statistics, the case against gift cards boils down to human insecurity. How will your friends know you really care about them if you don’t give them something special? It’s this fear that drives people to spend an average of 14 hours shopping for gifts. That’s more than half a day of your life spent stressing out, and for what?

“I got you a Star Wars ice cube tray because I know you like Star Wars (just like everyone else on the planet). I’m a real friend.”

Please. Does this type of vague, commercial knowledge of the people close to you—the type of knowledge that leads to thousands of tacky Han-Solo-in-Carbonite iPhone cases being given every year—actually demonstrate anything other than the commodification of companionship?

Gift cards, therefore, aren’t just the right gift for your friends, they’re the right gift for society. They cast aside our anxieties and pretensions to declare, “I’m so confident in our relationship that I have nothing to prove.” That’s therapeutic for everyone. In contrast, the stress of trying to accurately translate our feelings into an object—something that’s neither possible nor desirable—can actually be dangerous.

For proof, look no further than The Gift of the Maji, a classic O. Henry story in which two lovers set out to buy each other gifts. Despite their poverty, the wife scrapes together $20 to buy her husband a chain for his only possession: an old pocket watch. In order to pay for it, she sells her beautiful long hair. But the husband trades his watch to buy his wife ornamental hair combs, leaving them both with nothing of value.

There are a lot of lessons here, like don’t ever buy someone a hair comb, but let me get to the most important one: Wouldn’t they both have been happier with BestBuy gift cards?

Instead of getting caught up the need to be thoughtful, to the point where both parties sold their most treasured possessions for pretty mediocre presents, they could have spent their gift cards together and gotten a sweet flat screen. Maybe pop in Love Actually and talk about how their relationship is even more enduring than Hugh Grant’s aw-shucks routine. Now that’s what I call a Christmas.

What were we talking about? Oh right, gift cards. The point is that you’re statistically likely to buy an unwanted, meaningless present, so don’t get gray hairs over choosing the right one. Instead of stressing out, just put 25 bucks onto a piece of plastic and spend another 10 minutes writing a nice card. That’s almost guaranteed to go over better than anything else you could give.

Why not just give everyone cash, you may ask? Dude, that’s so tacky!

COUNTERPOINT: Why Gift Cards Are a Crime Against Christmas

MONEY holiday shopping

Why Gift Cards Are a Crime Against Christmas

rack of gift cards
Sarina Finkelstein

The act of gift-giving is an act of affection. Show a little effort.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanzaa, or all or none of the above, the holidays are always about one thing: showing your family and friends how much you care.

That’s why the average person spends 14 hours shopping for gifts for their loved ones. That’s why kids scrape together $400 to fly across the country to spend Christmas Eve with their cousins in Cincinnati. That’s why husbands watch Love Actually.

The holidays are a time to say to your family and friends, “Although you drive me crazy all year round, my life would be empty without you.” But that’s weird, so you buy your mom a stupid embroidered pillow that says it for you.

Gift cards, on the other hand, aren’t about any of that. Gift cards are about efficiency. Gift cards are about corporate profit. Gift cards degrade the entire exercise of gifting. (Unless you are my colleague Jake Davidson, whose impassioned defense of this deplorable practice you can read here.)

A gift card says, “I couldn’t be bothered to think of you this holiday season; help yourself to exactly $25 worth of crap from Target.”

Gift cards are a crime against Christmas.

Let’s start with the basic etiquette problem. The first rule of gift giving is, don’t say how much you paid for your gift. Simple. So why get a gift receipt for one person, then hand the next person a gift card emblazoned with the exact amount of money you spent? You’ve just put a definitive monetary value on your relationship. When did we decide this was an acceptable social practice?

I know, I know—it’s hard to find thoughtful gifts for everyone on your list. But don’t think your friend will do a better job. It’s even more difficult for people to give good gifts to themselves. Here’s why: Researchers have found that when people are given “play money” like gift cards, they’re more likely to spend it on stuff they don’t need. In fact, they’re more likely to overspend. CEB Towers found that 65% of gift card users spend 38% more than the value of the card.

Alternatively, your gift card may sit, unused, in your loved one’s wallet or junk drawer. Industry insiders call this “spillage,” and companies can count on American consumers to spill almost $1 billion in gift card balances this year. Believe it or not, that’s down 88% from what it used to be, before Congress passed the Card Act, which put limits on expiration dates and inactivity fees.

And what happens to the money on unwanted gift cards? Obviously the retailer profits, but the Wall Street Journal has also reported that states in dire financial straits have tried to seize the value of unused gift cards using statutes that allow states to collect “abandoned property.” (You can check your state’s laws here.) In other words, buy a Target gift card that your friend never uses, and you’ve essentially given a gift to Target and/or your governor.

The worst are the general-purpose cards that you can spend anywhere. First of all, why didn’t you just give cash? Second, these “gift cards” aren’t actually gift cards in a legal sense. They’re prepaid debit cards, and they’re not subject to the same consumer protections as either gift cards or real credit cards. That means general purpose cards can come loaded with activation fees, inactivity fees, and other fees that degrade the value of the card.

And finally, if you go through all the hassle of finding a personalized gift for your loved one and then he doesn’t like it—so what? The act of giving is an act of affection. It’s not meant to be an efficient way of allocating goods. The Three Wise Men gave baby Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. Did a new mother, her betrothed, and the infant Son of God really need aromatic resin as they were fleeing persecution? Probably not. But that’s why the Three Wise Men were wiser than you.

COUNTERPOINT: Why Gift Cards Are The Only Present That Makes Sense

MONEY Holidays

8 Smart Ways to Save When Buying Holiday Gifts for a Big Family

Buying christmas presents for a big family
Vstock LLC—Getty Images

You've made your list, checked it twice, and—my god, are there really that many names on it?! Keep your budget from being scrooged by your generosity with these strategies.

If you’ve got a lot of people to buy for, you’re probably used to watching your holiday budget spiral out of control.

The costs of purchasing presents for a long list adds up fast. The average American expects to spend $720 this year, according to a Gallup poll, and a quarter of people will spend more than $1,000. If you’ve got a huge extended family or a big coterie of gift-exchanging friends, you may have found that your own expenses surpass even that not-so-grand figure.

And many people embrace the giving spirit and are generous to a fault: Nearly four in 10 people admit to feeling pressured to spend more than they can afford during the holiday season.

To help spare you some pain when January’s credit card bill arrives, MONEY asked a few smart mom bloggers to share some of the cost-cutting strategies they use for their own gift giving. Cue the elves!

1. Cut Out the Adults

“Last year we agreed with my brother and sister-in-law to only exchange gifts for the kids. It was the start of something wonderful. We have agreed to do it again this year, and I also reached out to another family-in-law this year to do the same. We have reduced our present load by at least four, saving about $150 to $200—as well as the weeks-long process of my husband mulling over the perfect present while vetoing everything I suggest!” —Elissha Park, The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything

2. Rotate Recipients

“On one side of the family, we rotate between the four siblings and their families as to whom we give gifts. My three kids enjoy coming up with a theme and putting together a ‘family gift’ for their cousins.”—Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

3. Agree to Get Crafty

“On the other side of our family, we do homemade gifts—still sticking to a dollar amount because it’s easy to overspend even with craft supplies. These have been some of our family’s favorite gifts, like the CDs of favorite kid songs my son made for his uncles when they became new dads!” —Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

4. Think In Tiers

“It’s so easy to go overboard from year to year. That’s why I use a three-tiered gift-giving system: Tier 1 is family. We do gift exchanges with each individual person in our immediate family, and set a budget for each person. Tier 2 is friends. We typically do a single-family gift for our friends, like movie tickets with free babysitting or a fun new game for them to play together. Tier 3 is neighbors and co-workers. I create homemade chocolate goodies in handmade packages.

Once I establish my budgets for each tier and the people in them, I create a cash envelope for that tier. I only spend cash on what I buy for gifts, supplies and even wrapping paper. Once the cash in the envelope is gone, it’s gone!” —Kim Anderson, Thrifty Little Mom

5. Focus on Experiences

“Meaningful gifts don’t have to be extravagant and costly. Consider giving experience gifts—whether that means buying tickets for a ball game or making plans to take the kids to a matinee movie. Sometimes, the most remembered gifts are those that took thought, not money.” —Crystal Paine, Money Saving Mom

6. Pick One and Be Done

“We often employ the Secret Santa method for the adults in our extended family, because with all the siblings and parents things can add up pretty quickly! Rather than try to spend $50 on everyone in each family—which would total $500—we each pick one name to buy for, with a set price range of $100 to $150 per person. This cuts our costs pretty much in half. Plus, this method makes sure that the adults each get a nice bigger gift rather than a whole bunch of smaller gifts. (We don’t include kids in Secret Santa—under 18 means you get a gift!) It adds a fun element, too, seeing who got who and what they got them!” —Scarlet Paolicchi, Family Focus Blog

7. Set Aside Cash

“As a mom of five boys, planning ahead for the holidays is an absolute must. Four of my kids are teenagers, and while their wish lists may not be as long as they were when they were younger, the price of their toys has certainly gone up.

To combat the heavy hit the holiday season takes on our budget, my husband and I decide in January how much we want to spend on each child (as well as on ourselves) for the holidays and birthdays for the upcoming year.

We then take the total, divide it by 12, and put that amount into a special savings account every month. By putting away a small amount each month, we aren’t met with panic when the holiday season is upon us.”—Candace Anderson, Frugal Mom

8. Block Up the Chimney

“Decide with your family to forgo gifts all together. Volunteer Christmas morning so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, and instead of exchanging gifts, take some of the money you all would have spent and use it for an experience together.” —Anna Newell Jones, And Then We Saved

MONEY deals

The Hottest Holiday Deals Are for Stuff You’d Never Give as Gifts

Staples copy paper
Mark Lennihan—AP

Right now, arguably the best holiday shopping deals are for household staples: printer paper, tissues, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper.

Retailers engage in all sorts of crafty tactics to manipulate customers into buying things they otherwise wouldn’t, but there would have to be one seriously masterful sales job to make consumers think that toilet paper is the perfect item to wrap and place under the Christmas tree.

Instead, retailers are offering dramatic discounts right now on items that shoppers need for their own households. Think: printer paper for 1¢ and disinfectant wipes for 75% off.

While it might seem to make more sense during the holiday season to have great deals on things that people would actually give as holiday gifts, the strategy is perfectly logical in one fairly obvious way: It draws loads of shoppers out to stores (or pushes them into making purchases online), with the idea that once these customers are in the buying mood, they’re likely to be tempted into buying gifts and other items that aren’t discounted quite as dramatically.

What’s more, this strategy seems timed well for the period right after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s normally somewhat of a lull for consumers, who are likely exhausted after browsing the barrage of deals during the big shopping weekend, and who don’t yet feel the pressure to make last-minute holiday gift purchases. In this way, can’t-pass-up-deals on things that everyone needs serve as a sensible prod to woo shoppers into buying more stuff.

Hence this week’s roster of coupons from Staples, which can be printed out and presented in-store only for some amazing deals through Friday, including:

for a ream of multipurpose paper (normally $7.99)

$2.99 for three-pack of Kleenex facial tissues (compare to $7.99)

$8.99 for 12 rolls of Bounty Basic paper towels (normally $16.19)

$8.99 for 24 rolls of Charmin Basic bath tissue (normally $11.49)

20% off cups, plates, and cutlery

50% off select Philips lightbulbs

Staples’ big competitor in the office-supply space, Office Depot (and its sibling Office Max), is also discounting some necessities, including deals for buy one, get one 50% off its store brand paper and 75% off Lysol and Clorox disinfectant wipes.

Meanwhile, Walmart and Amazon appear to be engaged in a price war for a necessity that isn’t really much of a gift on its own, but that’s necessary for many gifts: batteries. The former has an online special right now for a 40-pack of Duracell batteries (30 AA and 10 AAA) for $16.99 (list price: $40), while the latter is listing a 40-pack of Duracell AAs for around $20 (list price: $60).

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