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12 ways to save on holiday gifts

Key takeaways

  • You can spread holiday cheer without spending a bundle—if you set and stick to a gift budget.
  • All the same smart shopping rules apply when you buy for others, but there are holiday-season tricks that could save you money too.
  • Account for wrapping and shipping fees in your budget—and look for deals there too.

No matter how many presents you plan to buy, these cheap gift-buying ideas keep costs down without minimizing the merry. Here's a guide for being a smart Santa this season.

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1. Set (and don't forget) your budget

It's always the thought that counts. And if you're thinking of going into debt to buy presents, maybe think again. Instead of buying more than you can afford, consider picking a maximum spending amount, money that you already have or can save up ASAP.

2. Make a list and check it twice

Next step: List everyone you're buying gifts for, and how many gifts you're planning to give each person. It may be just a single present for your friend, but for your kid it could be one for each night of Hanukkah. List recipients in order of how psyched you are to buy presents for them. Then, assign a total dollar amount you'll spend on each person, including wrapping and shipping.

If you exhaust your overall budget before you allot cash for recipients further down the list, you have a choice: Reduce how much you spend on people at the top of the list or skip buying for those toward the end. You could still give them gifts; you just need to get creative. For instance, you could pick up a gift at a local swap (more on that below), get crafty with items you already have, or regift something you own that they'd love (we won't tell).

3. Shake up group gift exchanges

Buying something for everyone in a family or friend group drives up costs fast. Instead, consider a gifting game such as Secret Santa or White Elephant, where each person buys for just 1 recipient in the group. Another cheap holiday gift idea: Favorite Things, where each person brings, say, 3 of their favorite things priced at a set dollar amount to give to others in the group. Each person goes home with 3 of others' faves. Bonus: These lower-priced alternatives may be more fun than the traditional everyone-buys-for-everyone exchanges.

4. Stay on task while you're shopping

Shopping and buying are different. Buying is purchasing an item you've already picked out. Shopping is wandering (or clicking around) a store. There's nothing wrong with shopping, but if you want to save money on holiday gifts, stick with buying just what's on your list. That could help you avoid overspending, especially amidst the many temptations retailers promote during the holidays.

5. Compare prices

Consider using free third-party apps that help track prices over time and alert you if your desired item goes on sale. Or do a reverse image search of the product you're eyeing. Apps will hunt for similar-looking items across the internet and let you know how much lookalikes (or the exact same item) cost elsewhere. If you start holiday shopping early, you could wait to see if any gifts' prices drop.

6. Pause before buying

It's so satisfying to hit that "place order" button when you shop online. It's more satisfying to find a coupon code and then get that item for less. Searching for discounts before you check out might be part of your routine when you're buying for yourself, but there's no shame in the coupon game even when you're being generous for the holidays.

7. Be flexible about what you buy

Unless a loved one specifies the gift they want from you, consider buying from categories that may be discounted.

8. Shop on Green Monday

Not to be confused with Cyber Monday right after Thanksgiving, Green Monday is the second Monday of December and could offer some of the best sales of the season. In fact, a major electronics retailer had bigger discounts on Green Monday than Black Friday in 2021.1 Just confirm any so-called sales with a price tracker to see how great a deal really is.

9. Use your old gift cards

The average American has $175 in unspent gift cards, vouchers, and store credits.2 See if you could buy presents with yours, especially if these gift cards are for places you normally don't visit. They could be the perfect way to pad your holiday budget and score a gift for essentially free.

10. Shop in unconventional places

Heading to social media, yard sales, and swap forums could help you find gifts on the cheap, or even for nothing. Plus, kids might not recognize the difference between a new and used present. Also consider hitting up thrift stores and resale sites. You might find vintage items there that can be less expensive than new gifts and more special.

11. Skip expensive wrapping

Do you remember the wrapping of any gifts you've received? Probably not. Check out dollar stores for potential deals on gift bags, wrapping paper, ribbon, and tags. Or make your own paper with construction paper, newspaper, magazines, or catalogs. And get in the habit of saving the bags and ribbon from gifts you receive. That way you'll be able to wrap next holiday season's presents for free—and do the environment a solid too.

12. Get ahead of postage

For gifts to faraway friends and family, follow these 2 rules: Mail early and mail cheap. The busy holiday shipping season can cause shipping delays and higher prices. Sending gifts early can help your gift arrive on time and help you avoid more expensive express shipping fees. Spend time researching the cheapest shipping method for each of your packages; different providers may offer different rates depending on the packages' specs. Also remember that USPS priority mail flat rate boxes and envelopes ship at a set rate anywhere in the US for any package 70 pounds and under, so it may be a good option for heavier presents. Or stick to buying gifts from sites that offer free shipping for anyone on your gift list you won't see in person.

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More to explore

1. Jared DiPane, “Best Buy’s Green Monday deals beat Black Friday pricing with huge discounts on TVs, PCs, and more,” CNET, December 13, 2021. 2. Jordan Mendoza, “Check your wallet: nearly half of Americans have $21 billion in unused gift cards, survey finds,” USA Today, September 6, 2022.

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