Happy Holidays

Making Merry on a Poor Man’s Budget

Most of us have suffered through the “lean years” at some time in our life. Others are just tired of the annual drain on their bank accounts each and every December. I am both of those people. But not having or not wanting to spend money at Christmas however, doesn’t mean that you don’t want to celebrate. Over the years, I’ve discovered lots of ways to have fun on a low budget or even no budget. It’s your own attitude that can make or break a holiday season. I’ll discuss low cost gift giving in another post, but for now forget the high priced purchases and make some plans that will make memories for years to come instead of sending bills into your January mailbox.

 #1) Plan a game night. People tend to forget about things that have been in their house for a long time. Things like board games. But board games are just as much fun today as they were when you bought them. Pick a date in December for a family game night and write it on the calendar. While doing things on the spur of the moment can be fun, anticipating events gives everyone in the family something to look forward to and it will make the evening feel more special. Make ice cream sundaes or bake a cake, whatever you happen to have on hand in the cupboard that will feel like a special treat. Then, turn on some Christmas music in the background, roll the dice, and get playing!

#2) Organize a scavenger hunt. I did one of these many years ago and it was a boatload of fun!  Make a long list of items to “scavenge,” break up your invited guests into teams (four to six will fit into a car) and send them off to hunt!  A list might include ordinary lots of ordinary items like a pen, rubber band, paper clip, hand sanitizer and a toothpick. Since it’s Christmas, add some holiday hunts like a star, a Santa, a candy cane, and a bow. Make your list long and add items that people aren’t likely to have in their purses or the glove box of their car. You don’t want them to be able to pick up everything by making  a single stop at one of their own homes either, so be sure to add lots of quirky items that everyone doesn’t have — a Ball canning jar, a can of cat food, a baby rattle…Ask for items such as a “Taco Bell drink cup” or a “logo printed shopping bag from a downtown store”–things that will force them to go across town to specific places.  You get the idea. You want teams to have to really hunt for things. The first team to return with the most items on your list wins!

#3) Organize a holiday swap. If you are struggling to make ends meet this Christmas you probably have friends in the same situation. Even if your friends are not strapped for cash they would likely enjoy participating in a holiday swap. Everyone likes to find a bargain. What is a holiday swap? It’s a way for you and your friends to swap what you have for what you need. Your role is to set up tables in your garage or living room. You next invite friends, family, neighbors, everyone you know, and maybe even those that you don’t, to bring all of their excess holiday items to the swap –Gift boxes, gift bags, wrapping paper, lights, ornaments, snow globes, unused candles, holiday dishes, cookie-cutters, tree skirts, window clings, potpourri, stockings, artificial trees, garland, Christmas DVDs, CDs, Christmas cook books, and decorations that you are just plain tired of, all of it can be brought to the swap . You may not have enough holiday tree ornaments but you might have three extra strings of tree lights. Your neighbor might have an excess of gift wrap while you have more bows than you’ll ever be able to use. Participants bring their items the night before and agree on a value for everything they bring — garage sale pricing is preferable. While they are there you put a price tag on all of their items. Then, give them a voucher for the dollar amount of the items they have contributed. For an example, someone brings three rolls of gift wrap and three bags of bows. You price their items at $1 each and give them a voucher for $6. The following day when the swap opens participants use their vouchers to “shop” for things they need and want. Keep the swap hours limited so that everyone arrives to shop at the same time and has an equal chance of grabbing the items they want. One or two hours is long enough. Anything left over can go back to its owner or be donated to a local thrift store.

#4) Hold a cookie exchange. Everybody loves Christmas cookies. Choose one Saturday afternoon or week day evening in December and invite your friends to bring 6 dozen of their favorite homemade cookie. Cookies should be packaged in plastic bags; one dozen cookies per bag. Cookie packages are laid out on the table and once everyone has arrived, each person selects six different cookie packs of their choice. Each person only has to bake one batch (of 6 dozen) cookies but they get to take home six different varieties. When making your own 6 dozen, if you are strapped for cash, avoid choosing a cookie recipe that calls for expensive ingredients. Leave out the chocolate chips, candy pieces, and nuts. Instead choose a recipe that uses ingredients you already have on hand. Cutout cookies, gingerbread boys, or pin wheels are more labor-intensive but the ingredients are less expensive than many others. Save yourself a few dollars and spend your time rolling and cutting instead. Your busy friends will appreciate your extra effort.

#5) Set up a card table in the corner and start a jigsaw puzzle. Family members can work on it piece by piece in their own free time. It’s a nice quiet way to relax at the end of a long day or on snowy days when you’re stuck inside.

#6) Take a wintertime hike. This time of year you will likely have the hiking trails in local parks to yourself. The scenery is just as beautiful in December as it is in July. Bundle up and spend a morning exploring.

#7) Plan an evening of Christmas caroling with your friends or neighbors. Walk from house to house in your own neighborhood. Or visit local nursing homes and sing a few holiday songs. The patients will appreciate it more than you know. At the end of the evening, invite everyone back to your house for cookies and hot chocolate.

#8) Have a Christmas movie marathon. If you don’t have any Christmas DVD’s of your own, borrow a few from the local library. Old favorites like “White Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Holiday Inn,” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” are also easy to find in thrift stores and usually cost less than $1. Gather everyone around the TV, pop some popcorn, and enjoy!

#9) Take a “light drive.” One night before Christmas my dad always piled the family into our car and drove us around town to look at all of the Christmas lights. To this day, my family still makes this annual trek every year. It costs nothing. Christmas light displays are there for everyone to enjoy. Pack a picnic basket and enjoy dinner in the car or return home for a cup of hot chocolate or a milk and cookies treat.

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#10) Check your local newspaper and your county’s Visitors Bureau website for local free events. A limited budget is no excuse for sitting at home all season. Lots of towns have Christmas parades. Local schools have free Christmas concerts. You don’t have to have a kid involved to attend. There are also a lot of craft fairs happening this time of year. Look around at one or two and you might get some ideas for inexpensive gifts you can make. Local churches have nativity programs that can be attended for free. Many shopping malls also have seasonal entertainment that you can sit and watch free of charge during the holidays.

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#11) Volunteer. Make a plan to spend a day serving Christmas dinner at a local food kitchen. You’ll not only be helping others but you’re likely to make some new friends and have some fun too. We have an arts center in my community that produces an annual production of “The Nutcracker.” It’s possible to see the show for free if you volunteer to usher or work in the concessions stand. Offer to take an elderly neighbor Christmas shopping. If they don’t own a car, it might be their only chance to get out to the stores.

No matter what you choose to do this holiday season you want to make it special. Plan activities by placing them on a calendar. It gives you and everyone in the family something to plan for and look forward to. Anticipation is half the fun!

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