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Ho, Ho, Dough: 8 Holiday Expenses and Their Thrifty Alternatives

The holidays mean lots of gifts and parties, and that means lots of spending. But budgeting and homemade alternatives can help you save.

Even if you've wrapped up most of your holiday shopping and sealed it with a bow, you might still need to ask Santa for a new wallet if those other holiday expenses make it explode at the seams.

But hey: If the Man in Red can squeeze down the chimney, we could all stand to tighten our belts a bit as well. Truly, you need not skimp on the celebration to get that holiday savings sensation, which even outranks a flying sleigh ride for a cheap thrill. Here are eight expenditures where saving a dollar is as easy as tracking the infamous Reindeer Eight on NORAD.

Company Christmas Cards

Cost: About $75 on Amazon for a box of 100; 49 to 93 cents each for postage

Seasonal Skinny: Forget the fancy gold foil on the inside of the envelope. If typical Christmas cards get a 45-second read, then cards from a business or company often get thrown out before they get torn open. Recipients know they're one of countless people on a mailing list getting a "warm holiday greeting."

How to Save Instead: Make a festive 2-minute video with the office posse, post it on YouTube and Facebook, and send the link to your customers and associates. It's a personal, festive alternative, especially if you can get the company Scrooge to belt out a few lines of "I'm Mister Snow Miser."

Christmas Treats

Cost: Varies

Seasonal Skinny: If you think about it, this is a wonderful time of year to go all out with baking cookies. But beware going overboard; there are ways to keep the quality high and the expenses low.

How to Save Instead: Bake plenty of sugar cookies. Most people with a sweet tooth never met a sugar cookie they didn't eat, and these treats are among the simplest to make and least expensive to prepare. Dust 'em with some green and red holiday sugar and you'll live up to the spirit of the season as your guests show all the restraint of starving reindeer.

Holiday Parties

Cost: $100 or more for a dozen people

Seasonal Skinny: You love to entertain, and Martha Stewart's got nothing on you. But Martha has lots of elves. (How much she yells at them like Scrooge is her business.) She also has an unlimited budget. Maybe you think you do, but in that case it's easier to break a credit card limit than a tree ornament.

How to Save Instead: The proverbial pot luck. You can even go off the well-worn sleigh path and give it a whimsical theme such as "A Chinese Chow Christmas" or "Silent Night, Pizza Flight." Give it an unexpected touch by having holiday-themed to-go boxes ready so everyone can take home edible memories.

Holiday Travel

Cost: Varies

Seasonal Skinny: It's common knowledge that airfare and lodging prices shoot up during December, and those who wait too long can get stuck in more than just long lines. Too bad Amazon doesn't sell printing presses that crank out $100 bills.

How to Save Instead: With travel websites, you can go in confident because some forms of travel are actually "off" for the holiday, and that gives you leverage. "Business travel is usually down and I'm going to go in, look at the published rate and start at 60% below that rate," says Brian Ek, a travel analyst at "Think big quality low budget — a nice star-level hotel, for example — make an interesting bid and see what happens. Especially around the holidays you'll be surprised at what you can get."

Gifts for the Gang

Cost: Varies — it all depends on how generous (or carried away) you get

Seasonal Skinny: Once you start making a gift list and expand it to the office crew, the barista, the dog walker, etc., there's no telling when you might stop.

How to Save Instead: Make that list and trim it twice. We're not suggesting you get stingy as much as sensible. If you want to give with abandon, substitute gift cards with homemade brownies (or those thrifty sugar cookies). And second, take a closer look to make sure you didn't embrace too wide a circle of recipients.

Advent Calendars

Cost: $73.99 for a Lego Star Wars advent calendar. Let the force be with your bank account, because you're gonna need it.

Seasonal Skinny: Advent is a pretty special time for many, but you'd never know it by all the schlock now thrust onto and into Advent calendars: Play-Doh, whiskey, make up, etc. Some calendars are admittedly yummy, though; If you like tea, David's Tea has its 24 days of tea Advent Calendar.

How to Save Instead: Keep in mind that many Advent calendars have a short shelf life: Star Wars pieces, for example, vanish into the same parallel universe as lost socks. But an excellent, cheap and heart-warming way to mark Advent is to make your own calendar using family photos cut into small squares. For as long as you keep it, this DIY item will mark special moments in time from the year.

Christmas Light Strings

Cost: $3.98 (incandescent, 100 bulbs) vs. $24.98 (LED, 100 bulbs) at Home Depot

Seasonal Skinny: It may look as though it's much more thrifty to go incandescent — and in the very short run it might be. But if you plan on using your lights for five seasons or more, you're being naughty to yourself and definitely not nice.

How to Save Instead: Those LED strings could conceivably last up to 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. And over the span of just 10 years, the purchase cost of an LED string averages out to $2.50. This is also a lot cheaper in aggravation costs than trying to find that @#% fried light on the incandescent string. Now that could take 10 years.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Cost: Varies, but $50 is certainly possible

Seasonal Skinny: You know Aunt Ethel can't avoid it, and you don't have the heart to tell her: A sweater decked out in cuddly kittens in Santa hats has all the apparel appeal of a velvet Elvis painting. But you've been invited to a hipster party where it's an ugly sweater theme. What to do?

How to Save Instead: If you're a hairy-chested guy, break out some holiday-themed paint and go for it. If you're a thrift store maven — and even if you're not — grab the first oversized, XXXXL pullover you can find and get creative. Or put in a call to Aunt Ethel to borrow "that beautiful kitten sweater." Don't be surprised if she holds out, though. That Thing From the North Pole Kitty Cove is her pride and joy.

There's but one category where we don't recommend thinking cheap — and that's helping the less fortunate. There's no doubt that buying, giving and getting gifts represents a highlight of the season. When you can make it possible for someone else to get a goodie — whether through Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army or a local charity — you're making spirits bright.

Readers, how do you save on holiday expenses at Christmas? Share your tips in the comments below!

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, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Unless marked as a "Sponsored Deal," the opinions expressed here are those of the author and have not been reviewed or endorsed by the companies mentioned. 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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