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Jingle Broke: 9 Hidden Holiday Costs & Their Affordable Alternatives

All that tinsel can add up. For decorations, gifts, and parties, homemade alternatives and other options can save money.
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If Santa brought you not what you want, but what you need, he wouldn't have a toy workshop, he'd have a mint — for printing all the moolah needed to pay for a perfect, picturesque Christmas.

The holidays mean spending dough on a sleigh full of presents, but it doesn't mean you have to slay your bank account or credit balance in the process. You know what we mean: Green as a Grinch, dollar bills fly out of your pockets as you pay and pay and pay for all the extras. To avoid the burden of overspending this season, we recommend taking a look at these seven expenditures that offer wiggle room for extra savings.

Christmas Lights


Cost: $15.99 (incandescent) vs. $34.99 (LED), 200 count string
Seasonal Skinny: Holiday lights definitely make spirits bright. But with old-fashioned incandescent lights, the energy consumption is at least three times as much as with LEDs.
How to Save Instead: So which one's cheaper? True, LEDs will cost you more money up front, but they'll last a lot, lot longer: possibly even 40 holiday seasons from now, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. They estimate that over 10 seasons, the cost to light a 6 ft. tree for 12 hours a day will run $122.19 for incandescent C-9 lights, compared to $17.99 for LED C-9s. Factor that in with how long your LED strands will last, and you'll light the way to savings.


Wrapping Paper

Cost: $3 to $13 per roll
Seasonal Skinny: It's hard to find reliable estimates on how much Americans spend per household on wrapping paper, but it's easy to see how the costs add up. Add gift bags and tissue paper to the mix, and you might be looking at $100 or more just to wrap presents for a family of four. And spending money on high-end wrapping paper not only means you're tossing money into the trash, but you're also growing your local landfill; the EPA estimates that Americans throw away 25% more trash than usual during the holiday season, and much of that is wrapping paper.
How to Save Instead: To preserve the fun of unwrapping gifts from Santa, Julia "Bargain Babe" Scott suggests a dozen alternatives to wrapping paper on her blog, MintLife. These ideas run the gamut from using old cookbooks and children's books, to simple brown paper bags with one phrase written over and over. "Tis the Season to Be Green" sounds about right.


Wine or Alcohol as Host Gifts for Parties

Cost: Varies, $10 to $50
Seasonal Skinny: Few things say "Happy Holidays" like a bottle of wine or other seasonal spirits you bring to a party. And few things blow out your credit cards faster than buying booze for every social occasion this winter.
How to Save Instead: "Consider bringing baked goods or something homemade," says Michelle Dosher, managing editor of the Home & Family Finance Center of the Credit Union National Association. "Chances are your host or hostess will appreciate this gesture much more than receiving more stuff." But if it's wine or bust, you can't beat Charles Shaw wines at Trader Joe's — known as either "Two-" or "Three-Buck Chuck," depending on where you live. Don't believe us? Trust sommelier Sam Lipp, general manager of the Union Square Cafe in New York. In a January article on Thrillist, he tested eight different Shaw blends, and rated four with scores of 7 or more: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot and Shiraz. But avoid the White Zinfandel, which he described thus: "This thing smells like a pie. It's the strawberry patch that nature forgot about, then rained and hailed on." In other words, the alcohol equivalent of fruitcake.


Christmas Cards

Cost: About $1 to $5; 49 to 98 cents each for postage
Seasonal Skinny: Sadly, most cards get read for about five seconds and thrown away — so fast that sometimes, we miss who sent them if we don't check the return address. When asked what she does with old cards, blogger Elin Grimes put it thus on Quora: "This can be problematic... they are borderline pointless and sentimental."
How to Save Instead: The cards will at least stick out (and save you money) if you put the kids to work making them. That at least gets around the bland sameness of trite greetings. Email cards are OK, but also run into the same problem of mass-produced holiday pablum. Better to do something special, novel, and free: Upload some favorite Christmas songs for friends and family onto Dropbox or Hightail (see next tip). Or: Record an audio holiday greeting you can email to folks via MP3.


Overall Electricity Usage

Cost: $30 to $50
Seasonal Skinny: In some neighborhoods, Christmas and holiday light displays can get downright competitive. But as far as we can tell, no one is competing to have the highest electric bill. If you're curious as to how much you might be spending to run that 25-foot inflatable Santa, check out this holiday lights electricity cost calculator.
How to Save Instead: One way to save money over the long run is to invest in those aforementioned LED lights, or opt for solar-powered Christmas lights. Or just opt for non-electric decorations. (Sorry, inflatable Santa.)


New Holiday Music Albums

Cost: $9.99 and up
Seasonal Skinny: It's almost a requirement that some plastic pop artist or the like releases Christmas or holiday music this time of year. But if you've heard any of these new albums, they're mostly rehashes of old songs or else chock full of forgettable or bizarre ditties.
How to Save Instead: Have a "music pot luck" where friends bring over some of their favorite Christmas albums. Make sure they bring more than one, so as to avoid everyone bringing the music from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." For added frolic, burn some of the best cuts onto CDs, or create a Dropbox or Hightail download of MP3s, for everyone to remember the party.


Christmas Decor

Cost: Varies, but decor costs can run $100 and up
Seasonal Skinny: Holiday cheer, for some, is all about breaking out the festive decorations: Trees, ornaments, etc. But how much lucre evaporates from your wallet when you start to factor in doormats, inflatable Santas, mantelpiece decor, Advent calendars, marzipan nativity scenes — and, to quote Dr. Seuss, "tar-tinkers and hoo-hoovers"?
How to Save Instead: No darlings, we're not trying to get all Grinchy on you. But remember: People wipe their muddy, snowy feet on doormats. Christmas decor overkill turns a home into the domestic equivalent of an ugly Christmas sweater. Less is more here, so make like Santa and check your list twice, leaving just the most special items on it. Consider buying used items via craigslist or eBay as well.


Advent Calendars

Cost: Anywhere from $20 to $62.75 for a LEGO Star Wars advent calendar
Seasonal Skinny: Advent is a pretty special time for many, but you'd never know it by all the schlock now thrust onto Advent calendars: One Direction, whiskey — there's even a "Naughty Advent Calendar" by adult toy retailer Ann Summers. It was voted the "Badvent" Calendar of the Year by the Christian satire website ShipOfFools.com.
How to Save Instead: In this case, saving money means not wasting it. Christmas as we know it is not celebrated on the Death Star. Christmas cannot be airbrushed and Auto-Tuned like the bad boy band du jour. And it certainly doesn't deserve the cheesecake treatment, even if Christmas candy is a tradition. Get out some felt, scissors, and glue, then gather the gang around to make your own calendar instead.


Fruitcake Ring

Cost: About $15 to $25
Seasonal Skinny: It's interesting that a website called Sportsman's Guide, which also sells ammunition, offers a two-pound fruitcake that can easily be tossed in the air and used as a substitute clay pigeon.
How to Save Instead: Bake a cake that's more edible and less fit to serve as a barbell. But if you need a durable stand for your Christmas tree, that's another story: Pop that tree trunk right inside the store-bought cake ring.


Christmas thriftiness will help you stay within budget — and feel good about it — as you make the rounds in best Santa Claus style. And if the season so moves you, there's something else you can do with that saved money: Give some of it to a cause you care about. Helping others lies at the heart of holiday spirit, and kicking off as it does with Thanksgiving, it's an ideal time to express gratitude for all we have. Give gifts of generosity and it's a sure bet no one will want to return them, though they will bring the recipient many happy returns.


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Contributing Writer

Lou Carlozo is a DealNews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the Managing Editor of WalletPop.com, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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2 comments
BlueOak
Regarding the holiday lights...

1) In our region, mini-lights are far more popular than C-9s - we rarely see the C-9s in displays. Using the same DOE site, the operating cost difference is far closer between incandescent and LED mini-lights : $55 vs $33 over 10 seasons.

2) Related to 1) and the deal killer: the LED up front cost premium. We currently own 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation LED holiday lights. We have found them only marginally more durable. The weakness: the sockets, and bulb wires. All GE name brand. Replacing them nearly as frequently kills the savings.
gfbhwo
Regarding the cost of Christmas decorations (and other paraphernalia like wrapping paper) we have adopted the practice of shopping for those right after the Christmas period when they drop in price 50% or more.
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