Money & Career

Easy ways to save money this holiday season

Easy ways to save money this holiday season

Author: Canadian Living

Money & Career

Easy ways to save money this holiday season

It's the time of year for festive parties, lovely presents, and decorations of silver and gold. But the season of giving doesn't have to be the season of overspending. "Thoughtfulness is key to having a financially stress-free holiday season," says Nancy Zimmerman, a money coach and the owner of Your Money by Design in Yellowknife. She knows firsthand what it's like to feel the burden of holiday spending.

About 15 years ago, after taking a Christmas vacation, she discovered she couldn't pay her credit card bill in January. After realizing that "I needed to start managing my money effectively and being proactive with it," Zimmerman developed a new perspective on holiday finances. Now she suggests sitting down well before Christmas and asking yourself: What are the things that are most important to making my holiday feel rich and meaningful? Then, make a budget that accounts for those things.

Whatever makes your list – gifts, parties, Christmas decorations or travel – we've got ideas to make your money go further this season and leave your bank account a little healthier come January.

Gift giving
"The most thoughtful gifts are the ones that get the most mileage," says Kerry Taylor, author of 397 Ways to Save Money (HarperCollins Canada, 2009) and the number one personal finance blogger in Canada (find her at They're also the gifts that help you get the most mileage out of your budget. According to Taylor, all holiday shopping should start first with a list and a budget. Here are a few ideas.

Homemade cards are a lovely gesture, but beware – the cost of supplies can easily exceed buying brand-name cards. Taylor's solution: Pick up stock paper with a Christmas design, write your message on the back and fold it into a festive origami shape (find instructions online). "That costs pennies per piece," she says. Afterward, the recipient can hang it on the Christmas tree.

• Coupons are back – and they've come a long way from the ones you used to find in your Sunday newspaper. Search online databases of coupons at sites such as and to find deals on gift items. While you're there, consult with the communities of bargain hunters in the forums. Check out blogs related to a recipient's interests to get advice on finding deals in that specific area (for example, read a musician's blog to seek out sources of inexpensive guitars).

• Use Facebook and Twitter to track companies that carry items on your shopping list. Many retailers offer insider deals and coupons to their "friends" and followers. Or, just go online and search for the store name along with the words "coupon," "promotional code" or "free shipping."

• Create a photo book through a site like, where albums start at about $10. Or, enlarge a special photograph for just a few dollars and frame it to make a personal piece of art.

Page 1 of 4 -- Cut costs from your holiday partying expenses with great tips on page 2
• Tap into your creative faculties to make a handmade gift. One of Zimmerman's favourite presents to receive is the candy her best friend makes with her kids.

• Even if you're not a cook, you can assemble a gift in a jar. Taylor layers ingredients for muffins, cookies or soups in a canning jar, then adds cooking instructions. "It's a nice little takeaway for when people come visit." And for kids? Taylor gives s'mores in a jar, complete with teddy bear graham crackers.

• A nostalgic gift is worth much more than its price tag. Zimmerman found a Christmas album her family had listened to when she was growing up on for just $15. "We all loved it and it was very inexpensive."

• Know a collector? Find an affordable one-of-a-kind item to add to his or her collection by searching Craigslist, Kijiji or eBay.

Holiday partying
Between the outfits, the wine and the food, holiday parties can be costly. Whether you're attending or hosting the soirée, here are ways to save while you celebrate.

• You don't have to buy a new holiday outfit: Focus on affordable accessories to add sparkle to your basics. Julia McEwen, Canadian Living's senior Fashion and Beauty editor, says it's the season to accessorize. "It's the only time of year that too much is never enough."

• Spending a little money on cosmetics to get glamorous for the festivities is an investment for the rest of the year. "Blockbuster makeup palettes available in November and December have so much added value that the prices just can't be beat," says McEwen.

• There's no need to buy anything new to set your table for the dinner party, says Soo Kim, Canadian Living Test Kitchen food specialist. Your spread will be eclectic and beautiful with mismatched cutlery or napkins. And for dishes? Don't overlook trays, mixing bowls or soufflé dishes, which can do double-duty as serving dishes.

• The host doesn't have to make everything, either. If you cook the turkey, ask your guests to each bring a side dish, says Kim. "It should be a family thing."

• When it comes to holiday food, "planning is really important," says Jill Wilcox, owner of Jill's Table in London, Ont. Once you know the parties you've got lined up for the season, make a plan for what you'll cook.

• When you're the host, Wilcox suggests opting for a cocktail party rather than a more expensive sit-down dinner. The menu will require less food and offer more variety. Think appetizers with inexpensive main ingredients: bean dips, mini stuffed potatoes, crostini or meatballs.

• Alcohol can be expensive. Spice up a modestly priced wine to make sangria, which will go further.

Page 2 of 4 -- Discover how to decorate your home on a dime and travel on the cheap with tips on page 3
Decorating ideas
When it comes to holiday decorating, sometimes less is more. "I don't think you need to deck the halls to give your home that holiday feel," says Taylor. "Simple is elegant and usually a lot less expensive than something over the top." Try these affordable esthetic touches.

• "Skip the kitsch by decorating with fewer things and highlighting certain focal points around your house," says Taylor. Hang one strand of lights in the doorway rather than lighting up the whole house.

• For outdoor pots, use existing plants, or buy evergreens, then embellish them with a strand of lights or ribbon. "That will keep it festive for less money," says Taylor. "And you can use the quality pieces year round."

• Find materials in your own backyard. Make gorgeous indoor or outdoor arrangements by assembling found pinecones, evergreen boughs and branches, then adding ribbon and ornaments for a touch of sparkle. And don't forget to look in the fridge: Pomegranates, apples and pears can fill a vase or glass dish for a beautiful, edible centrepiece.

• Tired of your old decorations? Do a swap with a few friends to find new treasures for your home and new homes for your old ornaments.

Travel smarts

Whether you're getting together with family or getting away, travel costs have a way of causing your holiday expenses to skyrocket. The best way to minimize travel costs is to start planning early – beginning as many as six months in advance could potentially save you hundreds of dollars, says Christine Turner, a travel agent in Vancouver and owner of Even if you're starting late, here are some innovative ways to find a deal.

• Head to Facebook and Twitter to check out hotel company and airline pages for exclusive deals. "It's a free medium, so many hotels and tour operators are using that to advertise to and engage with their clients," says Turner.

• Check out resources such as to be notified when fares drop, vand to compare prices for a variety of destinations or travel times.

• If your plans are flexible, travel on the day of the holiday. Turner says Christmas Day and New Year's Eve flights can be $200 cheaper than the days leading up to the holidays.

Page 3 of 4 -- Learn how you can save some extra holiday cash on page 4
• Ask about getting a group rate. It only takes 10 people to get a discount, and Turner says a resourceful travel agent will seek out other families who are travelling to the same place as you are to get all parties a price reduction.

• Consider switching houses with someone from a destination you'd like to visit. Zimmerman is giving house swapping a try this holiday season as she heads to Vancouver to stay at a friend's. But be cautious about whom you exchange with. "If you're going to do a house swap, visit Google Earth and do as much research as you can," says Turner. Check out sites such as and 

Save holiday money
The holidays are the perfect time of year to rethink your spending, says Nancy Zimmerman, a money coach in Yellowknife and the owner of Your Money by Design. "Use this time to be really thoughtful and intentional with your spending. Your spending should reflect your values," she says. Consider adopting these financial habits this holiday – and carrying them forward into the new year.

• Record your spending. "Most of us think we know, but we don't really until we actually track it," says Zimmerman. Keeping receipts from your holiday purchases gives you a tangible way to see where you waste money. It helps you identify where you can improve next year and gives you a reference point to compare with.

• Look for a credit card that offers generous points without a huge annual fee. It could help you get a head start on paying for next season's vacation.

• Reuse and recycle. Resources such as are great places to find hidden gems. If you like to refinish old furniture to give as special gifts, for example, you don't have to shell out big bucks for an antique item.   

This story was originally titled "Have Yourself a Merry (Budget-Friendly) Christmas" in the December 2010 issue.

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Money & Career

Easy ways to save money this holiday season