I Tried All the Thrifty Holiday Gift Hacks So You Don’t Have To
Angela Colley — Good Idea/Bad Idea
The holidays are really about spending time with loved ones. Eating cookies by a fire (or drinking too much eggnog by a fire if your family gets on your nerves). Singing carols around a piano (they do that in movies!), and generally enjoying yourself. It isn’t supposed to be about presents, but let’s face it: You’re going to buy presents—a lot of presents.
Shoppers are planning on spending an average of $929 for gifts this year, at least according to a recent study. Yeesh. And while I usually spend less than that anyway, right now I’m trying to buy a house and devoting every extra dollar toward a down payment. That means this holiday season I’m either not buying as many presents (not likely), or finding ways to gets gifts for everyone on my list for less. Thankfully, the internet is full of hacks to help you save on holiday gifts. After getting advice from CBS MoneyWatch, Real Simple, The Balance, and even Apartment Therapy, I figured why not? Let’s do this!
Tip 1: Make Your Own Gifts
If you’re super-crafty and love the idea of spending hours hot gluing things to other things, making homemade gifts is an effort of love. I fall somewhere in between sorta-crafty and sorta-cheap, so I had my doubts about this, but DIYing Christmas seemed to be on everyone’s list of money-saving tactics, so I tried it.
I opted to knit a hat for my mother because I can kind of knit and hats are small. First, the idea of saving money flew right out the window. I needed supplies to actually make the hat. The yarn was less than $20, but the second trip for more supplies added another $15, coming to a grand total of $10 more than I’d normally spend on a beanie.
The actual DIY part might have been fun if it wasn’t the holiday season, but it was and I had a million other things to do. That meant I was stuck knitting into the wee hours and on my lunch break. I estimated it would take five hours to finish. It took twice that.
And then everything went wrong. Once I was finally done, I washed my masterpiece and laid it out to dry, fully expecting to wake up to an exact replica of the picture on the pattern. Instead, I woke up to something roughly the size of a watermelon. My solution? I threw it out and just bought a damn hat.
The verdict: Making your own gifts can be fun, and if you’re making a large quantity—like 25 seashell candles for everyone in the office—you can save money buying supplies in bulk. But remember the golden rule of crafting: Unless you’re Martha Stewart, what you see in the picture is not what you’re going to get IRL.
Tip 2: Secret Santa
I’ve never been big on Secret Santa—the ‘game’ where a bunch of so-called friends (or wary coworkers) put their names into a hat to be drawn by someone else who then secretly buys a gift for the person they selected. To me, it adds a level of cheese and discomfort that makes the holiday gathering even more awkward. But I also spend about $360 a year on gifts for my core group of friends, so when someone suggested we try Secret Santa this year, I was all about it.
The limit was set at $40 per gift and we decided to try Elfster to organize the thing. The first time was an utter disaster. Three people didn’t sign up (which went unnoticed until after the name drawing) and two people got their own spouses. On the second attempt, I made my own system and texted each person individually.
Three friends begged me for a trade immediately. By then I was mad with power and declined. I got lucky by selecting the name of someone I knew well, and had my gift grabbed in less than hour. It. Was. Beautiful.
The verdict: This can save you money and free up some gift buying time, but be prepared to get the one person you secretly didn’t want. This happened to at least half the people in my Secret Santa pool.
Tip 3: Discounted Gift Cards
This tip seemed to make it on everyone’s list. The concept is simple. People post their unwanted gift cards for sale on a third-party reseller site. The reseller handles the mechanics of getting the card sold for a small chunk of the proceeds. And to entice buyers, they offer a discount on the cost of the gift card. (Think eBay, but for gift cards). And since you’re getting the gift card at a discount, you’re already saving money before you even start shopping, at least in theory.
I chose Gift Card Granny, partly because I like the name and partly because the site is supposed to offer good discounts on unwanted gift cards—and it does, but there’s a problem with that: The discounts vary by the seller and the dollar amount. Looking at Target, I could get a 9 percent discount buying a $500 gift card, but I didn’t want to spend that much. The $200 card I picked only offered a 5 percent discount.
And then there’s the shipping. The website says the gift card needs five to seven days to make it to your house before you can use it, but it took 10 days for mine to arrive. By then I’d missed Target’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales and everything was back to full price.
The verdict: On the plus side, the gift cards are verified and it does work, but I spent an afternoon researching resellers and three days frantically checking the mail wondering why my gift card hadn’t come, all to save $10. If you can really plan ahead and combine a good sale with a gift card bought at a discount this might be worth it, but don’t bet on saving big just by buying the unwanted gift card.
Tip 4: Black Friday
Until this year, I’d physically shopped on Black Friday once in my life, but everything I’ve ever read says the best Black Friday deals are in-store, so out I went.
My first stop was Target. I was fully expecting a mob, empty shelves, aisles littered with products strewn around, but it was practically empty. I found a parking spot. There were cashiers with only one or two people in line. And everything was still neatly displayed. I found the one thing I wanted right away and was out of there.
Feeling lucky I went to Best Buy next. Big mistake. No one was at Target because they were all stuck in the hellscape of never-ending lines that was Best Buy. As soon as I walked in, I saw a guy just taking DVDs out of a bin and putting them on the floor (why?). The lines were wrapped down the aisles. The employees looked like they were going to curl into balls and cry right there on the floor. All the doorbusters were gone.
After standing in line for 20 minutes, it happened. The cashier’s chip reader wouldn’t work. Not even a manager could get it to work. Finally, I had to go over to customer service to try again, another 20-minutes down the drain.
I’d had enough of Black Friday and went home, proud I’d at least gotten a couple of gifts at a good discount. That feeling didn’t last though. Two days later I saw an even cheaper sale online.
The verdict: The doorbusters offered some great deals, but it won’t matter much unless you’re willing to get there early enough to stand in line and storm the gates. Everything else I bought I found online cheaper, and you probably will too.
In the end, trimming down my Christmas budget was clearly an issue of saving money versus the value of my time. Sure, you can pinch some pennies with these tips, but everything I tried took up a lot of time. The holiday season is already stressful enough; losing precious hours to knitting or standing in endless lines wasn’t worth the few bucks I saved. Next year I think I’ll just stick to a list, shop some sales online, and spend my time doing the fun things—like eggnog!