Christmas Shopping on a Budget

It’s not even Halloween yet, and this is post about… Christmas presents? Odd timing, I know, but let me explain why it’s cheaper and generally better to think ahead for the holiday season.

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If you’ve ever been frustrated by the huge volatility in buying consumer goods, then you have a general sense of the product seasonality that exists in the market. This handy Lifehacker guide below gives a general sense of when the most optimal time to purchase anything is:


On a more specific level, however, there’s something called algorithmic pricing that can cause fluctuations in price daily, or even hourly. If you’ve ever shopped on Amazon, you’ve encountered algorithmic pricing. To make sure that you’re always getting the best deal on an Amazon product, use sites like camelcamelcamel and Keepa to look at historical prices; you can even use them to set desktop or email alerts for when a product drops below a specific price point.

Okay, that’s the baseline. Armed with the tools above, there are two major approaches for the frugal-minded when it comes to Christmas shopping:

Buy cheap presents on sale to minimize total shopping cost
Buy ‘expensive’ presents on sale to maximize each dollar you’ve budgeted out

Aka, buy expensive for cheap, or cheap for cheaper. Realistically, you probably want to do a mix of the two. For close family and friends, you shell out the cash (or the time, if you’re crafty) on nicer gifts that you’ve actually thought about. Then there’s the circle of acquaintances and coworkers that fall into the friend category, but not more than you want to pay $20 on a present for.

A general checklist that will keep holiday overspending in check:

1. Write a list of gift recipients

Before you can do any holiday shopping, first figure out who you’re actually buying presents for. Parents, siblings, roommates, significant others, best friends, neighbors… write them all down! If it’s a long list, split people up by those who you’re close enough to  actually pick something out for, and those who are only getting generic presents.

2. Set an overall shopping budget

This can be done with groups (e.g. family vs friends; close friends vs acquaintances, etc.) or just with an overall cap on how much you want to spend for the holidays. I personally advise against setting limits for each individual, as that can actually end up being too limiting. In many cases, I’ve found a perfect gift for a close friend that was actually way cheaper than a ‘generic’ gift I got for someone else. Perhaps that means I should’ve found a cheaper generic gift… either way, allow yourself some flexibility!

3. Make sure your shopping budget actually fits into your real life budget

This is too important to skip over. If you’ve told yourself, “this year I’m spending $600 on presents”, that money obviously has to come from somewhere. That’s where the timing of this post comes in. One of the best ways I’ve found to budget for the holidays is to start shopping early, so that my gift giving expenses are stretched across months. It’s hard for me to come up with $600 on the fly, but I can squeeze out $200 every month far more easily. FYI, I’m not pulling those numbers out of thin air – $600 is actually my goal for this season!

4. Spend actual time thinking about what you’d like to get each individual

Oftentimes, when I’m worried for time, I’ll find that I’m willing to spend more money on a present if I don’t know what else to get a person. This year I’d really like to avoid that. Using the sheet of paper from step 1, I have actually jotted down notes on gift ideas for each person on my list, which makes finding the perfect present a lot easier.

5. Use shopping deals to your advantage

Know when sales are coming! Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Prime Day are all great examples of days where you can get great deals online, but the key to saving money I think actually comes far more from day-to-day savings. Some of my favorites?

  • Credit card points
    Some cards like Chase Freedom will give extra 5% cash back at specific stores from September-December.
  • Online shopping portals
    EBates and SwagBucks are examples of sites that give you cash back for shopping through their site. I’ve never used them, but I really like Chase’s Ultimate Rewards shopping portal, where I can get bonus rewards points on purchases just with a few extra clicks. The point is, there are plenty of places that are practically handing out free money.
  • Coupon codes
    Many sites will give you a discount by joining a newsletter or becoming a member. Set up an email address for junk emails, and you can use those codes for extra discounts on products you would have bought anyway. Another good practice is to quickly search online for any active coupon codes you can try out.
  • ‘Sale on sale’ Events
    Whenever I see an ad or an email that says there’s a sale on sale, I’ll take a look and see if there’s anything worth getting as a gift for others. This is something that I do year round, and means that I end up giving friends nicer quality gifts. You never know when the perfect present will pop up!

6. Before you buy, ask yourself, are you using this money in the best possible way?

For generic gifts especially, there are always ways to cut down on purchases. The goal here is to give something that’s cost effective, but also lets that person know that you cared enough to give them a present. Think about this: for about $10 per person, you could give out a bottle of wine, a baggie of homemade cookies/brownies/fudge, and a handwritten (homemade) card. The worst kind of present is the gift that’s never used. That’s not a problem with gifts you can eat! Very few people I know in my life don’t love getting booze as a present. If food isn’t an option, you can go the route of other useable gifts – hand soap, candles, and lotion. However, I actually think this is generally a bad idea. Why? These products are typically scented, and it’s incredibly difficult to choose out a scent that you know someone likes (also, generic gifts like that will so easily be re-gifted, unless that doesn’t bother you). Spend 5 minutes to recall an actual interaction you’ve had with the person to better tailor a gift. It’ll make your present far more memorable. If that’s not possible, then maybe you shouldn’t be buying a present for them anyway.

That’s my plan for this holiday season! My goal is to have everything by the first week of December so I can actually enjoy Christmas, and not panic about spending money on someone I forgot.

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