8 ways to stretch your holiday dollar

A little thought can save you a lot of money on gift-giving. UAlberta experts show you how.


Alycia Pollard, associate project planner with UAlberta's Campus Sustainability Initiative, demonstrates how to make a tree ornament from reused Christmas cards.

If you’re on a tight gift-shopping budget this holiday season, don’t despair—with a little effort, it’s still possible to put some holly jolly joy under the tree, say University of Alberta experts.

“It’s very realistic to have a happy holiday and avoid disappointment by spending less,” said Angela Johnston of the U of A’s Office of Sustainability. In fact, your holidays may be happier because of it.

“If people do overspend, it can have a negative impact that lasts well past the holidays, if they’re getting into debt out of a sense of obligation. It can be a relief to not spend a lot of money,” she said.

About 15 per cent of Canadians surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers said they plan to spend less this year, but eight out of 10 expect to spend the same or more than last year, an average of $1,500 each.

Johnston and John Pracejus, director of the U of A’s School of Retailing, recommend a mix of eco-friendly ideas and smart shopping to provide thoughtful, low-cost gifts that help trim the bills:

1. Give the experience.

“Some of the best gifts are experiences and the time you spend with someone,” Johnston said. Consider buying an art or dance class for someone who’d really like it but can’t afford it, or for both of you, tickets to a concert you’d both enjoy. “You’re making memories for years to come.”

If that’s not in the budget, create a gift certificate that offers your services for doing chores, giving shoulder massages or a special skill, like hairstyling. Volunteering together is another great way to spend quality time and also do some good, Johnston suggested.

2. Make a donation in their name.

This could be perfect for a loved one who is passionate about a social cause—for instance, donating to a local rescue on behalf of an animal lover. “A donation would be very meaningful and specific to them,” she said.

3. Hand out homemade.

Make use of any skills you have, like baking, knitting, painting or drawing, to create personalized gifts. “It shows you are willing to put in the time to create something personal and meaningful for them,” said Johnston. “And it’s not something you could ever find in a store.”

4. Set a budget and stick to it.

“If budgets are tight, some families say no more than $25 or $50 per person. They set a reasonable expectation,” Pracejus said. He suggests making an agreement with your spouse, and following through with it, to not go beyond a designated limit.

5. Read the flyers.

Instead of automatically recycling that fat wad of sale flyers that arrives in your mailbox or in the newspaper, take time to thumb through them first. “I’m constantly surprised at the vibrancy of flyers,” said Pracejus. “The prices advertised in flyers are usually good ones. There are deals to be had.”

6. Shop second-hand and discount stores.

Though not everyone’s preference, second-hand stores can offer finds, even if used clothing isn’t on your shopping list, Pracejus said. “Giftware, kitchen goods, holiday decorations can be found sometimes unused and still in the box.” Also consider dollar stores, flea markets and discount stores that sell new goods. Their prices are often below full retail. Buy, sell and swap sites like Kijiji are also good places to look for one-on-one deals, he said.

7. Do your homework.

If you’re going to spend the money, try to get quality, too. “Today we have access to all kinds of online reviews, so whether you are buying in the store or online, you can read what other consumers think about a product,” Pracejus noted. “Some of the things they’ll mention are, did it last, did it break, did it meet their needs? In general, customer reviews will leave you more informed.”

8. Look for bargains year-round.

Don’t restrict yourself to shopping for holiday gifts in December. “For most items in most stores, the longer you wait to buy it, the less the selection there’s going to be,” Pracejus said. Keeping an eye out year-round makes for less stress on the wallet. “It allows you to spend a bit here and there.” Liquidations and end-of-season sales are good opportunities to pick up gifts at bargain prices. If you are on a really tight budget, instead of shopping on Dec. 24, you might try shopping on Boxing Day instead. “If you don’t have to exchange gifts on Dec. 24 or 25, you might save some money by waiting.” That said, if you’re looking for the “it” item of the year, you won’t find it in July or August, he added. “You’ll have to wait.”