Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Keeping Christmas Cost-Effective

Now that Halloween is over it's time to start thinking about Christmas! Christmas is a magical time of year for children, and as moms who would do anything to see that Christmas morning joy on our little ones' faces it's hard not to go overboard buying gifts and goodies to put under the tree.

But, believe it or not, it is possible to have a special family Christmas and make wonderful memories without breaking the bank.

As much as children may seem to be all about presents and Santa and getting new toys, they really are just as excited by giving and the spirit and warmth and love of the Christmas season.

There are so many ways to celebrate the holidays without having to spend a fortune.

Hanging lights and decorating the house and tree and yard. We buy a few new ornaments every year to add to our collection - a new strand of lights for the front yard, another box of gold balls to hang, another kitschy snow globe or little sparkly something - so that over the years we've stockpiled an enormous collection without ever having felt like we've spent a lot on holiday decorating.

Counting down the days in December with a homemade construction paper chain and chocolate calendar. Writing a letter to Santa and eagerly checking the mailbox every morning for his reply. Bundling up and heading out as a family to watch the Santa Claus parade and the town tree lighting ceremony. Visiting Santa at the mall.

Baking batch after batch of Christmas cookies. Building and decorating a gingerbread house. Making cards for family and friends. Spending hour after hour creating Christmas crafts and homemade ornaments. Curling up with great big mugs of steaming hot chocolate and overflowing platters of shortbread every evening to watch Christmas specials. Reading Christmas stories together every night before bed.

There are a lot of special Christmas moments that have nothing to do with gifts - but gifts are a big part of Christmas for little ones. With a little bit of time and planning, it is possible to give them the magic of an over-the-top Christmas morning without spending more than your budget.

My kids are very extravagant with their wish lists. We go to a couple of toy stores a month or two before Christmas and explore to our hearts' content. The boys point out every item they'd like and I snap pictures of everything so I can keep track. When we get home and it's fresh in their heads they write their letters to Santa with their Christmas gift requests.

Very lengthy lists.

But they know and understand that their wish lists are just that - wishes. They know they won't get all or even necessarily any of the items off those lists.

I start with a dollar value in mind for each kid. It's tricky, sometimes, particularly as they get older and their wishes get more expensive. Typically, each boy gets one "big" item off their wish list and several more normal-sized gifts.

I make a chart with all three boys' names on it to determine who's getting what and to make sure everything is even and fair - number of gifts to open, number of larger and smaller boxes, even approximate dollar value - which tends to take weeks of studying their wish lists, scouring toy store websites and fussing and fiddling until I'm satisfied. Once the list is finalized it goes everywhere with me in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Every toy store, department store, electronics store and book store offers sales throughout November and December - it's simply a matter of paying attention. Any time any item on the wish list is on sale for twenty percent off or more, buy it. Keep receipts - if it goes on sale for even less later, you can always return and repurchase. You may end up making little changes to the list here and there - the Duplo toy instead of the Mega Bloks, the Lego spaceship that's on sale instead of the almost identical one that's not, Spiderman action figures for the stockings because the planned Iron Man ones are sold out of every store in the entire city. The trick is not to add to the list for any reason. It doesn't matter if you find a Tonka truck on clearance for less than half its regular price or buy one get one free Transformers - if they're not on the list, don't get them unless you're prepared to use them as a replacement and cross another item off the list. And, of course, always pay with cash, not credit - it doesn't matter how much an item is marked down if you end up paying interest on it for the next couple of months.

I'm not going to lie; we do go overboard for Christmas. We love to spoil our kids at Christmastime. But I have been using this method of planning, budgeting and sale shopping for years and not only have I never gone over budget but I have never paid more than sixty-five percent of regular price for my entire Christmas shopping list - freeing up more money to put toward extra treats and special holiday family experiences. 

Originally published as "Keeping Christmas Cost-Effective" on my weekly column at

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