How to survive the holidays on a budget

Avoid overspending throughout the holiday season, even as you ring in the New Year. These budgeting tips help keep you on track.

Dori Zinn Contributing Writer
Dori Zinn loves helping people learn and understand money. She's been covering personal finance for a decade and her writing has appeared in Wirecutter, Credit Karma, Huffington Post and more.
Dori Zinn
4 min read
holiday budget
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Tempted to overspend this holiday season? It's easy to feel like you need to buy your loved ones everything they want. A recent Bankrate survey found that more than 60% of Americans feel pressure to spend more than they can afford during the holidays. It doesn't help watching influencers and friends have big holiday celebrations, either. 

Luckily, you don't have to compete. By setting and sticking to a budget, you can save yourself the stress and overspending all season long, even as you welcome in 2020.

Below are practical tips for setting a realistic holiday gift budget you can actually keep. Be sure to also check all our holiday survival tips and Black Friday sales.

Read more: Holiday gift guide 2019

1. Set a strict dollar amount

From knick-knacks to doorbusters, you can overspend faster than you think. Start by thinking about how much you want to spend this year without going crazy -- or broke. That might be $100, $500, $1,000 or whatever you're comfortable with and your budget allows. What works for your family might not work for someone else's. Ideally, you would have started setting money aside for holiday shopping months ago; if you didn't, strictly work with what you have.

It might help to review your finances, like how much wiggle room you have in your household budget, to see where extra money can come from. Try not to think about going up to your credit card limit, because you could end up rolling a high balance over from month to month and accruing high interest charges. That means you're paying much more for the gift than it originally cost. Instead, think about how much cash you have on hand, which you'll use to pay your credit card balance in full at the end of the month.

Watch this: How to get great deals on Black Friday

2. Make a list (and check it twice)

Chances are, your to-buy-for list is longer than it needs to be. Try to pare down your list as much as possible. It's easy to feel like you need to buy something for someone, but you probably don't. 

Gifts are not a required part of the holidays, even though they are a nice gesture. Think about who you want to spend your hard-earned money on and who will get a thoughtful card. Another strategy is to connect with friends and family in advance to set a gift price limit or agree to forego gifts altogether. This will get easier every year you do it.

3. Don't buy everyone everything

Once your list has been cut down, you have a better idea of who to buy for and now you can concentrate on what to buy them. Rather than many gifts for everyone, consider a couple gifts for a few people.

This can be difficult if you have children in your life that you love to spoil at holiday time. While it's fun to watch kids rip open wrapping paper and fawn over their latest gift, it's not a necessity. Take the time to consider a couple meaningful presents -- or maybe even just one! -- for everyone on your list. The care and thoughtfulness are more powerful than the quantity.

Read more: The best gifts under $25

4. Make some food

Gathering for the holidays means there will be plenty of food. If you're hosting anything at your house, it's easy to feel like you need to do everything yourself. But you don't have to.

Many people are happy to pitch in a dish if you ask them. Request that all guests bring something and keep the list handy so you don't have too many duplicate items. If you're heading out to a Friendsgiving or similar gathering, offer to bring something of your own.

Food is also a good alternative to a traditional gift. Whether you have some homemade goodies wrapped up for your loved ones or host a holiday at your house, don't feel like you need to do it all

Read more: 15 easy tips for healthy holiday eating

5. Your presence is a present

Watching your loved ones open gifts can make your heart grow two sizes. Arguably, giving the gift is much better than getting one. But there's something else you can give: your time.

Think about the moments with your loved ones when you were younger. Do you remember all the toys or games you got more than who spent time with you? Maybe you were thrilled to get a new bike, but who is the one who taught you how to ride? 

Giving experiences, rather than things, is a bigger gift than you may realize. Consider things like:

  • Making a meal or dish with someone
  • Taking someone to a movie or out to their favorite restaurant
  • A trip to the aquarium, national park, zoo or museum
  • Going to a concert, musical or play
  • Catching a game of their favorite sports team
  • Time to teach them a new skill, going for a walk in the park, throwing the ball in the backyard or binging on your favorite TV show together

And there are countless other ways you can dedicate your time in a meaningful way to someone you love. Once you limit who you're buying for, splurging on more meaningful experiences could save you money in the long run.

Best holiday gifts for under $50

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Originally published earlier this month.