Start Your Holiday and Birthday Shopping Now

Photo credit: Bradley P. Johnson, CC BY 2.0.

With the holiday season finally over, you’re probably relieved to have all that gift-giving business behind you. The holidays can be fun, but expensive, and so many of us end up ringing in the New Year feeling like we broke the bank.

But while the holiday season is over, gift-giving isn’t. You’re sure to have other holidays and lots of birthdays to shop for, and before you know it you’ll be going down your Christmas list again.

I start planning for a year’s worth of gifts in January, and over the years I’ve assembled a list of strategies to help keep those gifts — and cards, and gift bags — as budget-friendly as possible.

Knit those scarves now

One of my favorite low-budget gifts is a nice, handmade scarf. It’s easy to make, inexpensive, and always appreciated. My best friend taught me how to knit one winter (with the help of some YouTube videos) and now I love making scarves as presents.

However, knitting takes a long time. If I want to make enough scarves for my whole family, I have to start in the summer. As it turns out, starting early is smart for my timeline as well as my pocket. A lot of yarn is on sale during the warmer months, and you can save a ton of money on an already inexpensive gift. I like to go to Michaels or Joann Fabrics and Crafts on a day when there’s a great sale (you can check out their deals online ahead of time) and buy all the yarn I’ll need for the holiday season. I use the biggest, fuzziest yarn, which regularly costs about $10 for a little under 200 yards. I often find it on sale for $7, but when I see it for $5, I’ll buy a bunch.

Want to save even more money? Crochet instead of knit. While I like the look of knitted scarves, crochet can be more delicate-looking, and crocheting scarves saves both money and time. Most people can crochet faster than they knit, and for crochet I use a thinner yarn for my scarves, so it can be much cheaper.

You can also save money by making infinity scarves — they’re often shorter than a traditional scarf, and therefore take less time and yarn to make. 

Learn how to make candles

I love making candles, especially as winter-time presents. I use empty pasta sauce jars and paint flowers or stars on the jar for a personal touch. They make a great DIY present, but for candles to be a truly cost-effective gift, you might have to do some planning.

While it really only takes me a day to put the candles together, I start preparing much earlier. From the beginning of the year, I start saving my pasta sauce jars. I soak them until the label comes off, run them through the dishwasher, and keep them under my sink until I’m ready to use them.

Then, I wait for a sale at my favorite craft stores. Wax can be a little pricey — about $30 for a 9 lb pack, and with the wicks and scented oils, I’m at about $6 per candle before paint. But I watch my email for store promotions, and if I shop on a sale day I can usually get that price down to $4 a candle.

When the candles have cooled down, I paint the outside with acrylics or puffy paint. This is a great way to customize your candles for each of your friends or family members, and it makes the gift feel more personal. I might paint some flowers on the jar for a Mother’s Day candle, or a holly branch for a candle I’m gifting during the holidays. 

Buy cards in bulk

I hate spending money on birthday and holiday cards. They can be so expensive — often around $4 a pop, and that can really add up if you’re putting a card in with every gift you give.

So I buy attractive-but-generic cards with blank insides. These cards come in packs of 6 or 8 and cost only a couple bucks, and if you look in the Target dollar section, they might only cost $1. I keep a small collection of cards in a folder and pull one out whenever I need a birthday/holiday/congratulations card. It’s convenient, inexpensive, and it saves me the trip to Hallmark.

Buy gift bags in bulk and start filling them right away

I also love buying gift bags in bulk. The bags I get might not be fancy, but brightly colored paper gift bags usually come in a pack of six for about the price of one premium bag.

At the beginning of the year I’ll grab some bags and assign each one to a person I know I’ll want to shop for. I’ll take some markers and put the name of each person on the outside of the bag. Then, throughout the year, when I find something I like for that person (that’s on sale) I’ll buy it and put it in their bag. That way, by the time a friend’s birthday comes around or when it’s time to exchange Christmas gifts, I’ll have something to give them — and it’s already wrapped!

You can buy a lot of low-cost gift bags when Christmas items go on sale in January, and it’s a great way of getting ahead on shopping without breaking the bank. I find that I spend the most money when I’m panicked for presents. I’ll realize I only have a few hours before a birthday dinner with a friend and rush into a store to buy whatever looks good, regardless of cost. Keeping labeled gift bags bags in my closet reminds me to think of friends when I see a good deal, and to plan ahead.

Yes, this takes up a bit of my closet space, but it’s out of the way, and now I know I’ll have something ready for the people that mean the most to me.

Regift as much as possible

Some people think that regifting is tacky, but I see it as a great way to use what you’ve got to save money. In fact, I think of regifting during the holiday season as a fun challenge: if I can regift to the point were I don’t have to buy any presents, I’ve won.

One year, between work, school, family, and friends, I was roped into four secret Santa exchanges and one white elephant. It was a little overwhelming, and I was worried about the costs. I ended up taking the secret Santa gifts I received and re-gifting many of them to my own secret Santa person, after setting one aside for the white elephant party. It was perfect because I ended up keeping the few things I really liked, but was able to regift everything else I got. I also got to be involved in the activities without having to spend a lot of money on gifts.

If you’re going to do this, make sure you make a list of who gave you each gift and where you received it (to avoid awkward regift situations). You might think you’ll remember who got you that notebook or wallet, but you’ll want to play it safe.

Stock your kitchen with baking supplies

One of my all-time favorite money savers is bringing baked goods to parties. Maybe you’re heading to a work party or your new beau’s family’s house. You don’t know who will be there, but you want to bring something for everyone. A lot of us default to “a nice bottle of wine” or “an attractive cheese box,” but that can get expensive. I prefer to bake goodies instead. I love making zucchini bread, lemon poppyseed muffins, or snickerdoodles because they’re not something you see every day. People love getting a baked treat, it’s fun to make, and it’s much easier on your budget.

Before you head off to the party with your treats in hand, practice your recipe to make sure you’ve got it just right. Also — and trust me on this one — keep a couple boxed mixes in your cupboard so you’ll be ready to go in a pinch.

If you’re a “start planning for December in January” type of person, what gifts do you look for? How do you keep your holiday/birthday/Mother’s Day shopping within your budget, and what tips do you have to share?

Jilly Pretzel is a fiction and nonfiction writer from Southern California. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and now teaches writing at California School of the Arts in San Gabriel Valley. She has recently written for The Penny Hoarder, Love TV, and Orange Coast Magazine.

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