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christmas treeHacking The Holidays


by Brad Hines 11-24-13 11:45 am

Holiday spending takes a major whack at our wallet–gifts, travel, entertaining, and plastic Santas on the roof. Here's a comprehensive guide on how to "hack" the holidays for not only savings, but for more meaning as well.


Holiday gifting, as an economic principle, is a terribly inefficient one. Despite the face value of the gifts we bear to people, folks will mentally discount it–from already owning it, to simply not liking it like you thought they were going to.

Here are some ways to make gifting more efficient by both spending less and being more meaningful to the receiver:

Have a list, a budget, and broaden the context of Christmas throughout the year: Retailers are well aware hacking the holidaysof their ability to create a holiday shopping frenzy by releasing products this time of year. By having holiday shopping in your mind ahead of time, armed with a plan to stick to, you can avoid being sucked into to buying more than you need. This means no impulse shopping, and no self-gifting. If there is something you see while shopping that you want, don't feel bad about telling someone who you know who wants to get you a gift. Gift list trading is a great idea even for adults, as it makes the process of shopping more efficient, since everyone gets what they wanted if it was on a list.

Also, think about Christmas gifts year round. There's no reason you can't get a gift in July (maybe because it's cheaper too) and put it away until December.

Use cash and debit cards wherever possible -This is a good way to take the sting out of seeing a buzz-killing post holiday credit card statement. Also, if you withdraw your entire Christmas budget in cash, it becomes very easy psychologically to see what you are spending and keep it in-line. Prudence spending is often easier with cash, as you "feel it" more when you spend.

Beverly Harzog, author of Confessions of a credit junkie, also reminds me, If you must use credit, make sure to not spend more than 30% of your limit as that can damage your credit score which you of course need to be keeping in shape.

Turn the law of diminishing marginal utility on its head: Economists recognize a natural law of consumption, which is that we enjoy things less as we get more of the same. (Think about how you enjoy your seventh slice of pizza compared to the first as an example.) Get more psychological bang for the buck each holiday by spreading gifts out.

If you are Catholic, or even not otherwise celebrating something else denominational, consider to adopt the 12 days of Christmas as a concept, or even simply using a budget for several small gifts vs. one big one. It's more fun even if you just open a gift Christmas eve, or if you hide a gift for someone to open December 26th.

Conversely, as a giver, understand how the law of diminishing returns acts, that the more you give to people in the same time frame, the harder it is for them to process and truly appreciate each gift.

Showering a child with gifts is also a sure fire way to get them caught up in the rat race of materialism, and under-appreciating things.

Setting the expectations is an overlooked approach to not just savings, but a reminder of what the holidays are supposed to be about. Don't be afraid to set a number of gifts as a limit for each member of the family. Explain why. Take everyone to do some volunteer work in the next few weeks, like at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Being with your family, engaged in that type of charity is both something meaningful, and a powerful reminder that "stuff" is not that important.

Similarly, if you are on a tight budget, it is okay to tell friends and relatives alike, and ask them not to gift you as you can't in return. There are few people who can't understand that, and it's not something to be embarrassed about.

efeThere is pretty much zero excuse when online shopping not to comparison shop, which involves driving nowhere, and typing in your pajamas if you want.

Some Online Shopping Hacks

Consider joining Amazon Prime for free as trial the month of December if you can, and then canceling it before the 30 days is up by scheduling a reminder for yourself. You then can search from an absurdly large database of "Prime eligible" items all with free shipping. Now, armed with free shipping, go ahead do all your shopping online, saving on gas, and time, and the risk of a car accident. Frankly, at this point countless online merchants offer free shipping, just make sure that: 1. It is in fact cheaper than going to the store. 2. That it's not cheaper online someplace else even including shipping.

Searching for gifts within Amazon is a breeze, because of the power of keyword associations. For example I like to put in a term related to something I know my family member likes, and although I don't know what I am looking for per se, a quick scroll through the results often shows something I hadn't thought of it. Try it. Got a sister into Yoga? Dad into gardening? Type in "Yoga", "Gardening"; and you will find products you didn't even know to search for, and so forth.

Every Item that you find on Amazon, go ahead and do a search for the same item in Google Shopping. If the item is still cheapest in Amazon, you're good.

Also be sure to go ahead and search for "Cyber Monday, free shipping" on Google for online shipping from other merchants.

And plenty of shops will offer the free shipping if and when you hit a certain dollar amount, like $50 or $100. You may also be able to get the shipping fee waived by picking your product up in person at a local store. Otherwise, check Chippmunk for free-shipping coupon codes.

Looking for discounts

There is pretty much zero excuse when online shopping not to comparison shop, which involves driving nowhere, and typing in your pajamas if you want. Anything you are on the brink of purchasing online, or even in-store, go ahead and Google "item, coupon" for it (i.e. "Michael Graves Tea Kettle Coupon). You'd be surprised how many times for an extra 15 seconds of work in a Google search, that there is a 15%-20% discount code available, or a print-out coupon for in-store use.

Find those codes automatically by using Honey, a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that can automatically add coupon codes from all around web, at the time of checkout.

Homemade gifts

Tend to be cheaper, and more meaningful to the recipient. A quick Google search for "DIY gifts" yields no end of stuff that you can make yourself reasonably fast, and of good quality. Besides, I heard a humorous TV commercial recently where the voice-over said something to the effect of "No mother has ever turned down a homemade Christmas tree ornament"! (Make it good though!).

One year I made these snowman ornaments from toilet paper rolls below as an example. They took five minutes each to make, so I just kept going and made a bunch.


Use a Zazzle or Cafepress

If you are simply not that crafty of a person, I recommend merchandising websites Zazzle or Cafepress, where using digital photos you can personalise hundreds of different gifts all the way from a tree ornament to a t-shirt, to a throw pillow and everything in between.

Wrap gifts in your very own printed Giftwrap. I recommend It's a nice personal touch during the holidays when while opening up a gift, people find out that you made the wrapping paper too. Although a bit pricey at $13 a roll, it's high quality paper, and it's one of those touches you can use to show people you really care.

Charity giving, as a gift itself:

Let your gift recipient make a donation of their own desire. Perhaps more so than material goods, you can give folks the gift of feeling good, knowing that they helped someone out. Using Kiva, you can literally send people a gift card of a microfiance loan that they can then go to and choose through thousands of people around the world who need money, the reason for it, and then to help them out.

I also like Oxfam (America Unwrapped program), which gives your recipient the choice of either an actual chairty as giftsloan to a struggling entrepreneur; or things like livestock, books, food; respectively.

These, often tax-deductible gifts, are great because they get to the heart of what the holidays were originally supposed to be about.

The beauty is that your gift receiver is receiving the gift of giving themselves, as they can bestow it (the money, or item) to anyone the like. Few don't feel good after doing it.

An old fashioned Yankee Swap or Secret Santa are perfect for groups of people like co-workers, friends, or distant relatives who it would be a wallet-nightmare, and massive time consumption to buy a gift for every last person. Google the generic term "White elephant gift exchange" for all kinds of variations to learn about.

Gift card arbitrage

Is when you take advantage of gift card marketplace websites like,, etc. Basically, many people receive gift cards they don't want, and sell them for pennies on the dollar. If you have shopped around, and you are certain that a particular store is where you want to shop, go to one of these sites and search for gift cards for sale. As an example you might find a $100 gift card that is for sale for $70-80.

There is an obvious influx of cards for sale on the giftcard sites after the holidays, and this is a great time to check for giftcards to your frequently-shopped-at-stores, for as much as 30% off sometimes. (And if you yourself receive a giftcard you don't like, you can convert it to cash or another gift card at any of those sites for often up to 90% of the face value).


School supplies as gifts

Every September is back to school shopping, late September and October that stuff is steeply discountedschool supplies as holiday giftsSome of those school supplies can double as holiday gifts, why not buy extra colored pencils, paper, and the fun stuff to put away for stocking stuffers until December?

Creating rich traditions can act as supplemental padding to an otherwise unfulfilling, exclusively gift based holiday. It could be baking something together, a certain game you play, a song you sing, or buying a $10 book (an actual paper one!) and reading it to children on a special night like Christmas eve. Traditions happen naturally when you do something new one year that was so fun that you want to adopt it for the next, but it takes trying something new to get there. When people have these annual events to look forward to, they think less of material gifts which often end up burdening them in the end as stuff-again, that diminishing marginal utility law.


Buy after Christmas, for next Christmas

Financial Attorney and Debt Specialist Leslie Tayne, Esq. of Tayne Law
Group, P.C. says:

"The best tip I can offer for saving during the holidays is tocapitalize on clearance and do as much stocking up one year ahead of time. Every year, once the holidays have passed, stores dramatically drop prices of their leftover seasonal merchandise and supplies. I typically purchase all of my decorations, wrapping paper, and small stocking stuffers as soon as the holidays are over for extra savings while stocking up on holiday supplies for the following year. I can save anywhere between 50%-75% off the initial price while also sparing myself the time and hassle of having to trek out to the store during the holiday season rush. Dollar stores are also a viable option for saving on holiday needs. If traveling, check online for discount coupons and be as flexible as possible for last minute travel when discounts become available as last minute travel can sometimes be cheaper."


holiday shopping expertLet the deals come to you via newsletters: Tara Kuczykowski, "Deal seeking mom" and the Deal Expert for Staple's Holiday Council, tells me to sign up for the e-mail newsletters for your favorite brands. You'll get advance notice of big sales and, occasionally, exclusive promo codes for additional savings! If you'd prefer not to clutter up your inbox, create a free e-mail account specifically for this purpose that you can scan occasionally.

Re-schedule Christmas

Serious bargains can be had by serious bargain hunters, by literally re-scheduling Christmas for a few days later, say maybe the 27th. It doesn't mean you still can't eat dinner and give a gift or two on the 25th, but rather, that you can give the gifts a few days later to the holiday tune of some serious savings.

Set it and forget it Definitely errs on the less meaningful side, but it is an interesting way to automatically gift people. If you have a lot of money–perhaps more money than time–and a lot of people to gift, this approach certainly saves time. is a service that can literally send out a variety of gifts, from your budget, to anyone you deem, automatically.

Give fun experiences

I like to tell people to sign up for Groupon, Livingsocial, and other daily deals sites in their loved one's city. Items, say for example tango lessons, will be steeply discounted, and you can introduce people to fun experiences in their own city from afar they might not even have known about. Jon Lal of also adds to this that it's a great way to not have to pack a lot of gifts if you fly somewhere for the holidays.

The gift of service

Take photography for someone. Polish shoes. Organize someone's closet. Bake a batch of homemade cookies. Fix something at someone's house that's been broken for a long time. The gift of service not only saves money, but it gets to the point of what they needed, and shows that you care.



Travel can be a huge expense each Christmas, while there are many travel hacking websites that I recommend like and, here some basic holiday related ones.

Gifting local gifts, like experiences as I mentioned, perhaps by Groupon and Livingsocial will avoid the associated hassle of traveling with gifts.

Shipping gifts to yourself, to your destination will also avoid traveling hassle and costs.

Time booking your flight to either before the first week in November, or again when they dip the third week before Christmas Dec. 4-10 according to Travelocity.



Use to hire temp workers to help you with your party. For as low as $20 an hour, you can people help you with anything from gift wrapping, to bartending your holiday party.


christmas shopping expertStephanie Nelson of tackles the entertaining on the cheap portion for us below

Host a holiday party for less - If you've traditionally hosted a formal dinner party, change to a more casual theme and serve a less expensive meal. Instead of a four-course beef tenderloin dinner, try a potluck meal. The host provides the beverages and entrée and guests bring appetizers, salads and dessert. Another idea for a fun theme is a "make your own taco" bar or a baked potato bar filled with bowls of assorted toppings. People care more about being included in social gatherings than the specific menu.

Host a luncheon or brunch - Another idea to save money is hosting either a luncheon or mid-morning brunch for friends instead of a full dinner party, and possibly partnering with a friend to share the event's work and expenses. Daytime entertaining generally means not serving alcohol, which is also easier on the budget.

Watch the cost of dish ingredients - When planning what to prepare for dishes, consider the cost of ingredients before deciding what to serve. For example, an appetizer that uses prosciutto ($14 per pound), provolone cheese, Dijon mustard, and puff pastry costs about $10 to $15 to make. Instead, choose a budget-friendly copy of this appetizer by substituting ingredients: use crescent roll dough, deli ham, mozzarella cheese and brown mustard at a cost of less than $5. Check for coupons for the rolls and mustard to get an even bigger savings.

Choose Chicken over Shrimp - Instead of spending $20 on two pounds of raw shrimp and cocktail sauce, serve marinated and grilled chicken strips with a dipping sauce for less than $6 (assuming you buy the chicken on sale, of course) and make a homemade dipping sauce, such as a Thai peanut sauce or a honey-mustard sauce.

Bake Festive Holiday Cookies - If you are baking for a crowd, find some great cookie recipes that are easy on the budget. Generally, simple cookie recipes that are variations on sugar or oatmeal cookies are less expensive to make than cookies with nuts, chocolate, coconut, condensed milk, and dried fruit. Rolled sugar cookies cut in holiday shapes and frosted with homemade butter frosting with almond extract are less than $2 a batch.

Please leave your thoughts below, especially if you have a tip of your own to add:

Brad Hines photo picture imageAbout the writer: Brad Hines is the president of, and the founder of He is a digital marketing and social media strategist. A writer as well, he typically writes about Internet, e-commerce, and marketing. His best marketing advice is that marketing really comes down to story telling and how well you can do it. He once bought Duralogs and windshield washer fluid for Christmas gifts at Walmart on December 23 with the rest of the sad sacks. He can be followed on Twitter:


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