Fun times and saving cash rarely go together, and the holidays might be the most obvious example. With all the parties, gift giving, travelling, and alcohol (not to mention alcohol and alcohol) (and booze) it can be all too easy to start the New Year in debt. But celebrating the end of the year doesn’t have to result in the end of your savings account — check out our tips to make this holiday season the cheapest, easiest, and most fun yet.
1. Shop Online
If you’ve got a few days up your sleeve, practically every gift is cheaper online. Sure, there are some exceptions (anything remotely heavy will guarantee the Christmas gift of exorbitant shipping fees), but in most cases, shopping online can save loads of cash. This is especially true if multiple items are bought from the same vendor, which cuts down shipping costs.
2. Seek Out Discount Codes
You know how nearly every time an order is completed online there’s a little box for a discount code, in case the company is having a special offer? Sites like RetailMeNot and Honey compile these codes so that anyone can take advantage of little-known sales.
3. Know How to Compare Prices
Always find out what competitors are charging by comparing the prices on Amazon, Google shopping, Shopzilla, Pronto, and eBay. When shopping in the real world (some people still do that!) take a picture of an item’s barcode and upload it to an app like ShopSavvy for a speedy online comparison.
5. Shop With Friends
If you can convince some friends to buy from the same place as you, it opens up a whole new world of discounts. Groupon, LivingSocial, and BuyWithMe are great places to get started. Deals can change daily, but check the fine print to make sure no one’s being saddled with tough restrictions or extra fees.
6. Be Social Media Savvy
Follow your favorite stores on Twitter and like them on Facebook to keep up to date on any special deals. This is good advice year round — Victoria’s Secret, for instance, likes to randomly give out coupons for free underwear. Believe!
7. Buy Second-Hand
It’s good for the planet and really good for the wallet. While used dental floss or underwear don’t make the best gifts, there’s no reason not to buy items like weights, books, or even furniture and clothing on Craigslist or eBay (or from a thrift shop, if those things still exist). It might not be wise to buy electronics, though — there’s no warranty on a second-hand iPhone!
9. Stick to a Budget
This is important for every category on this list, but it bears emphasis: Decide how much to spend and stick to it. Even if the best deal on Earth presents itself during a shopping spree (“I’ve never seen a cheaper birdbath!”), don’t buy anything just because it’s cheap. A good way to keep a lid on spending is to buy yourself a gift card and shop with that — leave the rest of your wallet at home!
10. Shop at Outlet Stores
Shopping for clothes online always comes with the risk that the item won’t fit properly and will need to be shipped back and forth until it does. Outlet stores often sell clothing for prices similar to what you might find on the Internet, and it’s always comforting to know exactly what you’ve purchased.
11. Plan in Advance
As far in advance as possible! BoltBus tickets, for example, can cost as little as one dollar when booked early — so even if you’re not sure when you’re traveling, you can buy several tickets for different dates.
12. Use the Right Booking Service
If air travel is unavoidable, find your flight using specialized search engines like Kayak or Bing’s Flight Search, which will even point out when it’s a good idea to wait for prices to drop. Once a deal is found, compare it against the price on the airline’s own website in case it’s cheaper (it happens). And if the vacation will involve hotels and activities, peruse the rates of tour companies like Affordable Tours, Trailfinders, or Expedia. Airline fares can get heavily discounted when they’re bundled in with accommodation, meals, and tours.
14. Pack Food and a Reusable Water Bottle for the Trip
Not just because it’s cheaper, but any food that crosses your path when travelling is probably not worth consuming. Plus, filling up a bottle at water fountains will help out Mother Nature by keeping plastic out of landfills.
15. Measure and Weigh Your Bags
Cheap airlines make their money by charging ridiculous fees for one extra pound of baggage. Don’t fall into their trap!
17. Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate
Ah, that time-honored friend of the frugal: negotiation. A room left unused or an airline seat left empty can’t be resold. If something is available, especially at the last minute, then you’re holding more cards than you might think.
18. Get On Annoying Mailing Lists
Hotels, airlines, travel companies — subscribe to every mailing list they’ve got and filter them into a dedicated email folder. Nearly everything they send will be useless, but every now and then, a phenomenal deal leaks out.
19. Know Your Guest List
Saving money is all about numbers, and while a “More The Merrier” stance looks nice and seasonal on an invitation, it can quickly balloon out of control. Keeping a tight lid on the guest list will make sure there’s no need to run out and buy extra food or alcohol, plus it’ll lower the odds of random people staining the carpet and breaking your stuff.
20. Don’t Mail Invitations
This might be unnecessary advice for the Millennial crowd, but remember: Paper invites are fun, but the cost of stationery and stamps adds up. Plus, who wants to run the risk of a papercut? Those things are deadly.
22. Co-Host With a Friend
This is a super easy way to halve the cost of a party. Just remember that both hosts need to help clean up, no matter who holds the event!
23. Restrict Alcohol Options
Of course, not offering alcohol at all will save a lot of cash (remember, saying “Mixers will be provided!” is a good way to seem generous without buying everyone booze). But for those determined to get their guests drunk (and we salute you), it’s cheaper to serve only one kind of drink. Tap a keg of beer, or pretend you have a “signature cocktail” — a big bowl of punch or spiked eggnog is an easy way to hide the taste of cheap alcohol. Just don’t leave the bottles lying around!
24. Party During the Day
Who said parties have to be at night? Hosting during the day will guarantee the guests won’t drink or eat as much. An awesome idea is to invite a big crew over for brunch: Pancakes and eggs are cheaper than any fancy dinner, plus mimosas are a pretty cheap way to get an afternoon buzz on.
26. Decorate on the Cheap
It’s nice to pretty up the place, but that doesn’t mean breaking the bank. Candles, Christmas lights, little piles of fruit, or a few pieces of mismatched crockery are very funky (and frugal) ways to decorate your pad.
27. Don’t Host!
Organize an event at a restaurant or a bar instead. The cost of using a small slice of a venue’s floor space will probably be less than paying for your guests’ food and alcohol.
28. Make BIG Batches
No matter how many people are coming for dinner, always make more than is needed — too much food is better than not enough. It’ll save the cost of energy that’s needed to cook another meal from scratch, and cooking in bulk is the best way to take advantage of any sales at the grocery store. Freeze the leftovers in square containers (they’re easier to store) and you’ve got premade meals that make healthy eating that much easier.
29. Get Acquainted With Your Crock Pot
They might seem a little expensive at first glance, but crock pots are a thrifty chef’s best friend. Not only does cooking low and slow make for incredibly rich flavors, but they’re the best way to prepare cheap pieces of meat. Brisket, bone-in beef, pork shoulder and ham hock are some of the toughest (and therefore cheapest) cuts, but slow cooking them will leave them tender, juicy, and delicious.
31. Stretch it Out
For thousands of years, people all over the world have known that pasta, rice, and potatoes are super filling and easy on the wallet (or ancient leather coin purse). As a result, there are countless meals that use them heavily. From rice alone, one can make paella, risotto, stew, and even desserts. Pick a country, find a cheap recipe, and act like it was chosen for its exotic spices rather than the easy price tag. Serve with piles of bread.
32. Serve Vegetarian
Animal rights aside, one of the best reasons to go meat-free is the cost. A lot of countries have vegetarian traditions, but the widest variety of ultra cheap, meat-free meals probably comes from India, since many strains of Hinduism encourage a diet free of meat and eggs. A traditional meal of lentils (or “dal”) and rice is delicious, exotic, and costs under a dollar per serving. No one will miss the meat!
34. Eat Everything
Waste not, want not! Use bones to make stock, turn stale bread into croutons, put dried orange peels in tea, freeze overripe bananas (they’re a great for making cheap, healthy ice cream), eat everything. In a similar vein, eat more organ meats — they’re incredibly nutritious, and since they gross most people out, a lot of them are very cheap. Tongue, anyone?
35. Use a Toaster Oven
If you don’t have one, it’s time to invest. They're easy to clean and they save a ton of energy — no one needs to heat an entire oven to make a pita pizza!
A beer in a bar can cost as much as a six-pack at home. Drink at yours or a friend’s place for as long as possible, and try to fill up on food as well — it’ll make you less likely to order a 15-dollar bowl of jalapeno poppers when the drunken munchies set in!
37. Plan the Night
Mapping out where you plan to go will not only give the evening a sense of direction, but it’ll eliminate the odds of drunken, cross-town taxi rides when you all get sick of a place and your friend is positive he knows a great bar uptown. (Hint: It doesn’t exist.)
38. Leave Your Wallet at Home
Before you start drinking, decide how much money you’ll spend. Leave the house with nothing but cash, some ID, and a promise not to borrow money from your buddies. It’s amazing how easy it is sticking to a budget when there’s simply no extra money to spend!
40. Find Deals Online
Scoutmob, Foursquare, and Restaurant.com are great money-saving sites. Figure out where you want to go out, plug in the info, and there’s a good chance there are some group specials going on. Foursquare is especially happy to give discounts to people who use MasterCard; just make sure the card is processed as a credit card, not a debit card.
41. Avoid Cover Charges
“Oh, so you want me to give you money for the right to buy things from you?” No, thanks! Covers quickly add up, and while one might be a forgivable splurge, don’t make it a habit.
42. Order the House Alcohol
A “whiskey and Coke,” is probably cheaper than a “Jack and Coke,” and the same goes for most drinks. Similarly, it’s always cheaper to order beer on tap instead of the bottled stuff.
44. Drink the Good Stuff First
There’s nothing wrong with having a refined palate. If you like more expensive beer, go ahead! But as we all know, the drunker we get, the duller our senses become — and there’s no point in shelling out for expensive, nuanced flavors that will barely register in your drunken mouth. Fancier drinks are fine early on, but they’re simply a waste of money once you’re tipsy.
45. Be a Designated Driver
If drinking is secondary to the pleasure of socializing with loved ones, volunteer as the designated driver. It’ll save on taxis and alcohol, plus your friends will probably want to buy you some drinks or food as a thank you.
46. Track Your Drinks
Mark on a napkin how many drinks you’ve slammed throughout the night. This will keep you ever-mindful of how much you’ve had, how much you’ve spent, and how close you probably are to blacking out. The numbers don’t lie!
Got something to add? Let us know in the comments below, or tweet the author @ncjms.