Can’t Afford Christmas? Creative Gift Ideas and More

"You better not cry. Better not pout. I'm telling you why..." The holidays are coming fast and you can find ways to afford them – even when you think you can't.

More than half of adults in the United States say they will buy holiday gifts, but don't plan to fork out more than $50 on their highest priced one.* About 12% claim that they don't expect to buy any presents this year for the holidays. And 27% say they will spend roughly $100.

Did you know that the National Retail Federation found that consumer spending should be up by 3% for this upcoming holiday? People are feeling more confident about spending slightly more on family gifts. Yet, they plan to spend a bit less on presents for work-pals and friends. Whether you spend more or less, how can you keep up?

Pick Your Priorities

It's vital to start with a basic budget, especially if you have limited funds. Figure out exactly how much you really can put toward gifts this holiday -- without digging yourself into a financial hole. Start with a list, such as this:

  • Gift ideas

  • Wrapping for gifts

  • Shipping/postage

  • Donations

  • Family pictures

  • Holiday food items

  • Drinks/wine

  • Holiday cards

  • Travel expenses

Then begin jotting down the expected cost next to each category. Make sure the total does not go over your budget. If it does, then redo it... after checking further in this article for more ideas – letting people know what you can afford to spend. Be honest to ensure that the total does not go over your budget. And keep trying until it works and stick to it! If you’re worried about spending too much, bring cash only or use a pre-paid card for that amount when you shop.

Ways to spend less on gifts

Use a shopping list. This protects you from in-store announcements of "special sales" that might draw you into making an unplanned purchase. (People spend about $33 more at such promotions).

Pick gifts that are less expensive.

  • For the "foodies" on your list: Invite people over to your place for a homemade meal.

  • Keep on the lookout for advertised sales (not unplanned purchases from in-store promotions) that help you keep within your budget.

  • Get on the list for newsletters from stores you visit often so you get coupons and be aware of sales. Make sure you keep an eye out for any discounts available for signing up for the mailing list!

Get a credit card with cash-back offer or signup reward. Select an option that fits your financial needs and personality. Mic News recently reported the latest rankings from Money, Points Guy, NerdWallet and ValuePenguin. Some top cash-back cards include:

  • Citi Double Cash Credit – lower-risk for “a casual consumer”

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred – rewards program that’s “customizable”

  • Bank of America Premium Rewards – good for those interested in travel credits.

  • Discover it Secured Card – for those with low credit scores/good if you’re trying to rebuild credit

Creative ideas for gift-giving

DIY gifts. Maybe you are not the crafty type or don't have much time. Here are a few ideas that are do-able and not as expensive:

  • Recycle mason jars and make your own jam / decorate the jar

  • Learn how to knit a potholder or small scarf

  • Put together a gift basket

  • Check Pinterest for more DIY ideas and instructions

Time together. Aren't the holidays really focused more on spending time together and not spending on gifts?

And there are many free (or inexpensive) things you can do with everyone -- from parents to pals.

  • Many communities have special events especially around holiday themes, like winter festivals, visits with Santa and tree-lighting.

  • Hold a pot-luck dinner or a holiday bring-your-favorite movie marathon.

  • Drive around your community looking at holiday lights, or go biking or sledding (depending on where you live).

  • Get a group together to volunteer at a food pantry or soup kitchen

Creative ideas for kids

Watching your kids open presents on Christmas is one on the best parts of celebrating the holiday. Even if finances are tight you can still make Christmas Day magical for your kids. Some ways to save money on kids gifts are to make some of it yourself. For example, parents often overpay for bath kits or make up kits for little girls. You can easily make these yourself -- and just as cute -- without spending a fortune by shopping at discount stores and making your own baskets Kids love arts and crafts. Put together craft baskets with construction paper, glue, crayons, buttons, beads, or whatever you can find.

Kids enjoy seeing lots of presents under the tree and opening them almost more than what is actually inside the gifts. Take advantage of this and create the illusion of gifts galore by wrapping up as many things as you can individually. Presentation helps make the day more magical for little ones, especially when you don't have a lot to spend. And, if you are truly struggling to afford Christmas, don't be ashamed to reach for help. Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army, or even a local church may be able to help provide gifts for your kids.

Family, friends of office gift exchange

If you have a large group of people on your list, see what categories they fall into (i.e., family, office-mates, friends). Then prioritize. Make some phone calls / send texts to ask if they'd be open to a "names in a hat" gift exchange. You simply put all the names on small papers in a hat – then you randomly pick the names.

Set a dollar limit and it's fine if those participating make suggestions of what they'd like that fits within that price range. That way, you only need to buy one nice gift for one person instead of a bunch of awkward gifts, which could take you way over your budget anyway. And everyone gets a gift who takes part in the exchange.

Set a holiday plan for next year

To avoid getting stressed about financial aspects of the holidays, plan ahead. Sign up for a Christmas account at your favorite local bank or set aside your holiday envelope in a safe place – and put away a set, affordable amount every month starting in January. That way, you'll be ready when "Santa Claus is coming to town."