Published on november 10, 2017

How to Keep an Extra $1000 in Your Wallet: Holiday Saving Tips with Thrifty Expert Califia Suntree

written by Team thredUP

The holidays are traditionally a time of excess waste and spending. Did you know? The average amount spent on Christmas in America is $1000. For most of us, that means plopping an extra grand on the credit card. Not ideal. This year, just don’t. There are so many ways to have a thrifty holiday, including inexpensive gift ideas (DIY!) in lieu of pricey presents, hosting potluck dinners instead of footing the feast, and making holiday cards yourself. We enlisted the help of Be Thrifty author Califia Suntree to give us some pro advice on holidaying on a budget. Here’s to starting the New Year off right, and with an extra grand in your pocket.  

 Perhaps I’m a Scrooge, but I think $1,000 on Christmas gifts is just crazy (lucky for my bank account, I have a small family and no kids). Even though only about 25% of total holiday spending is on decorations, food, and greeting cards, for many people that still might be the best place to economize—around the edges. Some people get pleasure from going over the top with gifting, and kids want the latest and greatest. In that case, try some thrift in those peripheral areas.


1 . For holiday dinners, definitely do potluck, that way the financial burden gets shared and you can invest in better ingredients for your own dish, rather than scrimping on a full dinner for 12. Come up with a theme (traditional or not) and share recipes with guests that harmonize around the theme. For adamant non-cooks, ask that they bring wine, or research the best places for takeout appetizers that fit your theme. We have an entire section on the most budget-friendly cuts of meat in the book, and also recommend considering brunch or simple cocktail parties instead of dinner, as ways to spend less on entertaining.

potluckPhoto Credit: UO Blog

2. The thriftiest way to do holiday shopping is to make your list of the people you need to buy gifts for well in advance—like, months in advance. Even if the list is just in your head, that way you can start keeping an eye out for items that those people might like, and that might be on sale or simply more available in other seasons. I start during the summer, when I notice there tend to be a lot of random sales to tempt people into stores. The more time you give yourself, the less likely you are to overspend at the last minute, and the more time you have to be creative. A well-thought-out, carefully selected (but inexpensive) gift will go over better than an expensive but generic one, at least in my circle!

christmas shopping listPhoto Credit: Jamie Bartlett

3. Even if you don’t DIY your entire gift list, it’s a great way to supplement store-bought gifts, so they can be less elaborate. For example, I love a gift bag with a lot of little things in in, like a nice soap, a little vintage brooch, and some handmade sweets. To me, the holidays are all about the homemade cookies and amazing family-heirloom recipes that everyone prepares just once a year. I would say don’t underestimate the specialness of that. I’m a food person, so a gift of someone’s handmade cookies sends me over the moon. If you aren’t much of a cook, one of my favorite holiday-gift recipes is what I call Christmas Miracle Mix.

Christmas Miracle Mix

4 cups Rice Chex
4 cups Cheerios
4 cups mini pretzels
1/2 to 1 lb. nuts
2 lbs. white chocolate, melted

Combine the ingredients in a big bowl. Add melted chocolate and stir until it’s all mixed up. Pour onto wax paper, spread it all out in a thin layer Let it dry and break it up. Bag it in cellophane or plastic and tie with a nice bow.

christmas chex mixPhoto Credit: Something Swanky

Another one I love is homemade cocoa mix (like this) flavored with cinnamon, or chili or other fun flavorings and put in a pretty jar.

On the DIY note, when you are out shopping for gifts or decorations and see something tempting, pause for just a second and think, “Could I make this easily, and for less?” Sometimes the answer is yes (sometimes it’s no! Not everyone is down for wreath making or knitting or jam making, and that’s just fine). A lot of sweets are insanely easy, but also things like bath salts (which are just Epsom salts with a few drops of essential oils). In our family, it’s a tradition to give paper white or hyacinth bulbs in pretty crockery as Christmas gifts. You can buy kits for this, but it’s cheap and easy to just pick up a bag of bulbs from Home Depot and pretty pots and dishes from the Goodwill. The flowers grow and bloom and then the giftee can keep the crock or return it to the Goodwill in the great cycle of thrifting!

4. Why are greeting cards so insanely expensive? I don’t get it. It’s just decorated paper, but nice ones are a few dollars EACH, and I send a lot of cards. I use the internet to shop for pre-folded blank cards or little blank “postcards,” with matching envelopes, which are widely available online from craft stores, and then decorate them with die-cut paper shapes that I also find on the internet, which cost very little. Scrapbooking websites have gold foil shapes and everything under the sun. It takes a few seconds to put a dot of glue on each cut out, and I find it relaxing. I also absolutely adore vintage cards, and whenever I’m at flea markets or vintage shops I check the cards, which are usually about 50 cents each. They often have writing, but you can cut the image part off and glue it to your pre-folded cards and voila, a blank card.

DIY giftsPhoto Credit: Camille Styles

5. Even with homemade stuff and potlucks, the holidays can get extremely expensive if you get really into it, so be sure to set a budget you can afford beforehand, and then do what you need to meet it. Set per-person limits on gift spending, and overall limits on the season, so you don’t go into the New Year burdened with an enormous credit card balance. If you have to be modest, your loved ones will understand. The season doesn’t have to be about extravagance, it really is about gathering together and showing your love and appreciation for those around you.

Thoughts on giving secondhand gifts:

This is a tricky one, because people have extremely varied opinions of used or vintage objects. Most of my favorite gifts that I’ve received have all been cool vintage finds, because they aren’t just the usual stuff that you can find at the mall. They required some hunting, some thought, and some understanding of my taste. A fluffy vintage cashmere sweater comes to mind, as well as vintage jewelry. It’s the best, and it really doesn’t matter to me what it cost. As I mentioned, I also deploy secondhand shops for things like bulb dishes or containers for handmade treats. I think if you find a very cool designer accessory, for example, that you know a loved one will adore, it will probably go over just fine even if it’s used; however, you do need to know the attitude of the person receiving the gift, and also show that you put some thought into choosing it. That said, I almost never gift secondhand to people I don’t know that well; I would more likely opt for handmade.

 Do you have any great thrifty tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll include them in a future post.