Personal Finance Basics

Saving money during the holidays: tips for a budget-friendly Thanksgiving and Christmas

November 16th, 2023 Nov 16, 2023 • Read time: 12 min


The holiday season is upon us and that means making your (shopping) list and checking it twice to make sure everyone in the family gets what they want…within reason, of course. Unfortunately, money does not grow on trees, which makes it very important to set a budget when shopping during the holidays. But don’t worry–you and your family can have the happiest Thanksgiving and merriest Christmas on any budget. We’ll show you some tips and ideas to help you save money this holiday season.

Setting a Budget for Thanksgiving and Christmas

The key to saving money for your holiday shopping? Setting a budget. Having a budget is a smart way to manage your money no matter the time of year. Read below to understand how creating a budget can help you save money during the holidays.

Importance of setting a budget

It’s simple–when you set a budget for yourself, you’re being responsible and smartly managing your finances. By taking a good look at what you earn each month as well as all of your monthly expenses–such as food, utilities, credit card payments, and any other bills–you can figure out how much money you have left over each month. From there, you can decide how much money you’re able to save each month and how much you can spend on things such as holiday items. Setting and sticking to a budget helps you:

  • Avoid debt from piling up. If you’re sticking to your budget and not spending more than you can afford, you won’t pile up unnecessary debt such as credit card balances.
  • Cut down on stress. Not having debt is a great way to limit the stress in your life. But having a budget also lets you focus on the things you can afford rather than worrying about items you can’t afford.
  • Prioritize your spending. By knowing exactly how much you can spend during the holidays or any time of year, you better understand that whatever money you do have to spend should go toward important items. For the holidays, that might mean the gifts your loved ones want the most.

Tips for setting a realistic budget

When you’re setting a budget, it’s important to set one that you’re realistically able to stick to. Here are a few ways to do that.

  1. Review your past spending. You can learn a few things by looking at how much you’ve spent during past holiday seasons. If you spent a little bit too much one year and had to deal with debt as a result, that’s a good lesson because now you know you can’t spend that much again. On the other hand, if you found yourself with more money left over than you expected one year, you can use that as a guide and know that you can spend a little more without worry.
  2. Consider all expenses. During the holiday season, it’s easy to focus your spending on one thing–gifts. But if you don’t take into consideration all of the other holiday expenses, you could find yourself in trouble. Things like wrapping paper, decorations, cards, boxes, extra food, stocking stuffers, and plenty of other costs add up, so make sure all of that is included in your holiday budget.
  3. Adjust for income changes. Maybe you earned a promotion or a raise. Or perhaps you had to take a pay cut. Either way, make sure to update your budget with those income changes in mind. An increase in your pay or a well-earned bonus can help you expand your budget so you’re able to spend more. But if your income is less, you’ll have to adjust your budget so you’re not spending as much as you normally would.

Budgeting tools 

When trying to set a budget, it’s helpful to know that there are plenty of tools to help you save money.

  • Budgeting apps. All you need is a phone to get yourself on a budget thanks to the many available budgeting apps. Investopedia provides a helpful list of the best apps in 2023 for every type of spender and saver. On their list is You Need a Budget (YNAB) as the best overall budgeting app, Mint as the best free budgeting app, Simplifi by Quicken as the best for cash flow, PocketGuard as the best app for people who overspend, and Zeta as the best budgeting app for couples.
  • Spreadsheets. Sometimes a simple spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets is all you need to keep all of your expenses organized. Quicken is also a helpful budgeting program.
  • Online calculators. From basic calculators to financial calculators, a quick Google search will provide you with plenty of options that help you do the math when it comes to keeping a budget.

For more tips on how to prepare a budget for the holidays, read our article, Holiday Budgeting and Planning Tips!

DIY Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations

Making your own Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations can help you and your family in more than one way during the holiday season!

  • It saves you money. Holiday decorations may not seem expensive on their own, but when you buy a lot of them, the cost adds up. Instead of buying decorations, use items you already have at home. You’d be surprised by how many beautiful creations you can make with household items. Just do a quick Google search and you’re sure to find hundreds of ideas for homemade decorations.
  • You can be creative. When you’re creating your own Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations, you can put your creativity on display and have the family join in on the fun!
  • You create personalized memories. Stores may sell nice decorations, but they likely don’t have much personal meaning. When you all make your decorations, you can add personal touches like names and dates. Plus, you’ll always cherish the memories of making these keepsakes as a family.

DIY decoration ideas

The sky is the limit when it comes to do-it-yourself decoration ideas. Here are just a few:

  • Centerpieces
  • Wreaths
  • Ornaments
  • Candle holders
  • Garland
  • Napkin rings

If you have a Pinterest account, search there for some great inspiration and specific ideas.

How can you save money by making your decorations? By buying your materials in bulk for a discounted rate, by using recycled materials, and also by reusing items you already have in your home.

Affordable meal ideas for the holidays

Another way to save money during the holidays is by making a budget-friendly meal and by shopping smart. First, decide on a menu and list everything you’d like to serve as well as how many people you’ll be serving. From there, make an ingredient list. Next, compare prices and sales between your local grocery stores and warehouse stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, BJ’s, etc.) to find the best deals on the items you need for your meal. Finally, take advantage of store coupons, either in your local newspaper or online.

Most supermarkets begin having sales on Thanksgiving meal items–such as turkeys, potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pies–in early to mid-November. So be sure to watch for those sales and do some comparison shopping to get yourself the best deals on your holiday meals!

Ideas for affordable Thanksgiving and Christmas dishes

Fill your table with affordably delicious dishes. These are staples at the holiday meal table and can be purchased at a low price in most cases.

  • Mashed potatoes. If you like to mash the potatoes yourself, a bag of potatoes is generally very affordable. However, if you want to go the easier route, you can buy pouches or boxes of instant mashed potatoes, usually for less than $2 each. Most are made with real potatoes and are available in different flavors as well.
  • Homemade stuffing. If you have bread, seasonings, broth, and some veggies in the house, you’ve got what you need for tasty, budget-friendly stuffing!
  • Roasted vegetables. Produce is usually affordable, so grab some veggies and roast them in the oven for a nutritious side dish. If you have a vegetable garden, even better! Pick your own veggies to save even more.

Along with budget-friendly menu items, there are also a few ways to save even more when shopping for groceries.

  • Buy generic brands. In many cases, generic-brand items are virtually identical to their more expensive name-brand counterparts. So, rather than pay extra for a label and a recognizable name, go for store brands to get the most for your money. These include Good & Gather (Target), Market Pantry (Target), Great Value (Walmart), Kirkland Signature (Costco), Member’s Mark (Sam’s Club), Wellesley Farms (BJ’s), and a variety of grocery store generic brands.
  • Shop at discount stores. You’re going to save money when you shop at a discount store. You may be familiar with stores like Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, Big Lots, any number of dollar stores, Aldi, Lidl, Save-A-Lot, Trader Joe’s, and Grocery Outlet, to name a few. If you have these stores in your area, take advantage of their great prices and high-quality products.
  • Use cashback apps. If you don’t have Capital One Shopping or Rakuten on your phone, download the apps now! They’re free, and when you purchase at a participating store through the cashback app, you earn money back on your purchase. For example, if you’re ordering some groceries online from Walmart and you make the purchase through Rakuten, you might get 2% of your entire order total back. It may not sound like much, but each purchase quickly adds up. And like other retailers, these apps often have limited-time extra discounts where that 2% from Walmart might be 6% cash back for a couple of days.

Gift giving on a budget

While family gatherings and meals are certainly at the heart of any holiday celebration, the season wouldn’t be complete without gifts! In fact, gifts will likely be most of your holiday shopping budget. When shopping for gifts, it can be easy to get carried away and be tempted to overspend. But just remember that you can find amazing, thoughtful gifts even while sticking to your budget–and you’ll save yourself the stress of finding yourself in debt from overspending. And, truthfully, your loved ones will appreciate any gift you give. The saying, “It’s the thought that counts,” certainly applies, so you don’t have to break the bank to give a gift that will be cherished.

Ideas for affordable gift-giving

Besides shopping smart and keeping an eye out for holiday sales, there are a few other ways you can save money on gifts.

  • Make a gift yourself. Who says you have to buy a gift? If you have a special talent, put that to work to create a gift that will be treasured. For example, if you know how to knit or crochet, make a hat, scarf, or blanket using the recipient’s favorite colors. If you’re an artist, draw or paint someone a picture and place it in an affordable frame. If you’re a writer, create a poem or short story. These gifts are usually even more appreciated because of the thought and creativity put into making the gift.
  • Go with gift cards. The gift card is the present that everyone loves. And practically every restaurant and retail establishment offers gift cards to buy at any time of year. During the holidays, many businesses offer bonuses, such as a free $10 gift card when you buy $50 of gift cards. Take advantage and give your loved one even more for less money–or keep the bonus card for yourself!
  • Experiences. Here’s where you can get creative without spending a lot. Gift someone with an experience, like skydiving, whitewater rafting, sailing, go-karting, wine tasting, cooking lessons, city tours, whale watching excursions, a round of golf, a night of karaoke, a sunset cruise. The possibilities are endless. You can usually find great deals on experiences through sites like Groupon.

If you think outside the box, there are a few other approaches to giving gifts without spending much money.

  • Regifting. If you have an old unused gift or item collecting dust in your basement or garage, put it to use. Regifting is a great way to give someone a nice present at no cost to you. Don’t worry…your secret is safe with us!
  • Gift exchange. White Elephants, Secret Santas, Pollyannas…there are many different names for gift exchanges. And if you set a dollar amount as a limit, you can have a blast trading gifts with others while staying within your budget.
  • Volunteering. Give a loved one or an organization, charity, or cause the gift of your time. It’s free for you and so rewarding for everyone involved.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals

If you’re old enough to remember when Black Friday deals only happened on Black Friday (not the entire week before), you may recall those terrifying videos of bargain-seeking shoppers stampeding into stores the second the doors opened. The history of Black Friday is an interesting one.

The term “Black Friday” was used almost exclusively in the city of Philadelphia from the 1950s until the mid-1980s. Philadelphia police coined the phrase to describe the madness that occurred in the city on the day after Thanksgiving, as thousands of people from the surrounding suburbs came into the city the day before the annual Army-Navy football game, held the Saturday after Thanksgiving. As this was the one day of the year Philadelphia police dreaded, it became known as “Black Friday.” In the 1980s, retailers discovered the term and reinvented it as a positive event by explaining that the day after Thanksgiving was when America’s stores turned a profit–going from “in the red” to “in the black.”

Once online shopping took hold, particularly around 2005, retailers established other sale events such as Cyber Monday, which occurs the Monday after Thanksgiving. Cyber Monday is the second-biggest shopping day of the year and the biggest for online sales.

Just about every retailer has a Black Friday and Cyber Monday sale, but certain product categories remain the most popular for shoppers on these days. Electronics generally dominate the sales, as stores offer big discounts on items such as TVs, computers, phones, headphones, and appliances. But you can find great deals in literally every other category–clothing, home goods, gadgets, and even cars.

Tips for finding the best deals

How can you find the best Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals? Here are a few ways:

  • Compare similar products. If you’re looking to buy a new TV during the holiday season, for example, the first step is to do your homework and compare brands. Check out expert and customer reviews on the products you’re considering to see how well-made and reliable they are.
  • Research prices. Once you’ve narrowed down your choice to a few brands, start looking at prices. Every store that sells TVs will have some type of Black Friday or Cyber Monday sale on televisions. Keep a list of each store and their price for the items you’re thinking of buying. Then dig even deeper…do you have a store credit card that offers an extra discount? For example, Target’s Red Card gives you an extra 5% off purchases. That makes a huge difference on an item like a TV. Remember when we talked about cashback apps? Be sure to use those when you’re calculating final prices. Walmart may offer only 1% cash back on electronics, but Best Buy could be offering 3% at the same time. That will also make a big difference in price. The bottom line is, consider all kinds of discounts before making your purchase.
  • Set a budget. As we mentioned before, setting a budget and sticking to it keeps you from spending more than you can afford. If a TV is someone’s big gift this holiday season, they might not get much else besides that if you work within your budget.

Here are some other ways to avoid overspending during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

  • Make a list and stick to it. Don’t let those huge discounts tempt you. As soon as you go off of your list, you’re going to start overspending. Stay with what’s on your list, no matter how low some prices are.
  • Avoid impulse buying. Sticking to your gift list helps you avoid buying impulse items simply because they’re on sale. If you don’t need the item and it’s not on your list, just keep moving.
  • Pay with cash. This is a great way to stick to your budget. Because if you have $300 in cash with you, and you want to buy more than $300 worth of gifts, you’re out of luck. It’s harder to be that disciplined when you’re charging gifts on your credit card, which will ultimately lead to debt you don’t want.

Spirit has no budget!

The commercialism of Thanksgiving and Christmas makes it easy to get swept away in the season. The pretty lights, the big sales, the songs and movies, the decorations, and the gifts. And while all of those things are fun, the most important part of the season is spending time with family and friends and making wonderful memories you’ll cherish forever. The last thing you want is for debt to ruin all of that.

By creating a budget ahead of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, saving money by creating your own decorations, shopping wisely for your holiday feasts, and putting in the time to find the best deals on gifts, you can spend your entire holiday season basking in all the joy that comes with this most wonderful time of year without a single worry about money.

Sun Loan wishes you and your loved ones a Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and a joyous holiday season!

Author – Amy Sines

Amy Sines is Vice President of Operations Support at Brundage Management Company, the management holding company for Sun Loan. She brings two and a half decades of experience in the consumer loan indu... Read more »

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