Ten Ideas For A Zero Dollar Christmas

by Katy on November 16, 2014 · 44 comments

Zero Dollar Christmas

I’m from the school of thought that believes that having limitations in life breeds creativity. Sometimes those limitations are yours by choice, but more often they aren’t. Either way, you can choose to bemoan your limitations or you can embrace them.

I choose to embrace my financial limitations.

Challenging myself to come up with creative frugal hacks happens all year long, but my creativity really blooms come gift giving season. (And in a family that includes seven holiday birthdays, I really need to put on my thinking cap!) I normally don’t set a concrete budget for myself, but this year I’ve decided to aim for a zero dollar Christmas/Chanukah/birthday season.

Yes, you read that right. Zero dollars, as in nothing, nada, bupkis.

Will I be able to achieve this goal? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it certainly won’t happen unless I try.

Here’s what I’ll be doing to meet this insane goal:

1) I’m using up some random frequent flier miles through Mags For Miles to get free magazine subscriptions. I hardly ever travel, but when I do, I fly with whoever is cheapest and I have zero brand loyalty. Also, my most recent flights have been randomly booked through my husband’s employer or The Today Show. I always make sure to sign up for a frequent flier accounts, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever accrue enough miles to earn a free ticket. These miles then sit dormant. However, I can spend my miles on free magazine subscriptions! My athletic 15-year-old nephew will be receiving a subscription to Sports Illustrated, (a $39 value) as will my 16-year-old son. This service works for almost all major airlines, and there are many magazines to choose from.

2) I’m registering for American Express’ Small Business Saturday. This program, which runs the Saturday after Thanksgiving (November 29th) rewards card holders who shop at their registered locally owned businesses. For each $10 you spend, American Express will refund you $10. Up to three times! A quick look at my zip code showed over 100 “shopping” options. This didn’t even include the dining, entertainment, travel or services categories! And since my husband and I both hold cards, we’ll be able to double our refunds! That’s $60 free dollars! I plan to buy $10 gift certificates at different businesses, and then let the recipient shop at their own convenience. (BTW, these make great stocking stuffers!)

3) I will be gifting things that came my way for free, and here are three examples so far:

  • My neighbor passed along a brand new Pendleton Wool board shirt, which was too big for him. (A $120 value.) My husband gets itchy from these shirts, but his brother loves them! And since he’s one of the six members of our immediately family with a December/January birthday, he’ll be receiving the shirt.

  • I found a lovely child-size silver and natural stone bracelet on the ground, which will perfectly pair with a review book I received for free about how to make your own earrings. I’ll add some extra beads I already have on hand, and present it all together to my ten-year-old niece.

  • My daughter is a true artist, yet she carries either my husband’s ancient and enormous art school portfolio or a paper one leftover from her high school advanced placement art class. So when I spied a perfect medium sized (and new looking) portfolio in a free pile, I snapped it up. I quickly determined that to buy it new would have set me back $45!

4) I will be bringing unwanted books into Powell’s Bookstore in exchange for gift cards and store credit. I know I have an enormous box in my father’s attic, which I’ll sacrifice to the goal of my $0 Christmas! Also, Powell’s sells much much more than books, so I’ll be able to pick up various small gifts this way. (Why I am using the books I’ve stored at my father’s house? Because I’ve already gleaned all unwanted books from my own home!)

5) I will be giving away some items that I already own. And before you start picturing bags of unmatched socks, you need to know that I’ll be gifting some wonderful items. A fantastic blank vintage scrapbook for my sister is one example, but the rest I’ll keep under my hat as family members have been known to read my blog.

6) I do all my internet searches through Swagbucks, which allows me to earn $5 Amazon gift cards. It’s not a lot, but I’m able to accrue enough gift cards to make it worth my while. (I also use my mother’s Amazon Prime account to get the free shipping.)

7) My husband has one of those congratulations-on-ten-years-of-employment gift catalogs. He gets to choose one item, and we’ll use it as an opportunity to get something significant for one of our teenage sons.

8) My husband has a Sears credit card, which he uses for business expenses. His reward this year was $80 in Sears gift cards, which we’ll use to buy gifts.

9) I will gather any unused gift certificates and gift cards and use any remaining balances towards gift giving.

10) I may host a gift swap party at my house. Each invitee would bring three or four items and then have the opportunity to leave with new gift-ready items for people on their own gift lists. One person’s dust catcher is another person’s treasure!

Each and every one of us has different opportunities for free stuff in our lives. I may live within walking distance from an amazing used bookstore, but you might live next to a store that throws out perfectly good merchandise. It’s available for all.

Do you feel a $0 Christmas is possible or even a respectable goal? The average American spent $801 on Christmas in 2013, which when paired with the statistic that those with a credit card balance owe an average of $10,902, means that spending nothing suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

You may notice that I didn’t include any homemade gifts. I may attempt some crafty projects, but those often require purchased goods. And even though I spent money on the supplies, I’ll still be gifting jars of my homemade applesauce.

Would you ever attempt such a drastic limitation to your holiday spending? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen November 16, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Katy, you have touched me where I live! I have spent so much $$$ shipping items out to distant family that the thought of shopping and shipping gifts is not at all appealing.
I will be making a few simple food gifts; I already have the ingredients and re-purposed containers.


Katy November 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm

I love this! Everybody loves food, simple or otherwise!


A. Marie November 16, 2014 at 2:11 pm

“I’m dreaming of a cheap Christmas…” Thanks, Katy, for setting us all the example as usual.

My own spending may actually be close to the $801 national average–but $600 of that is charitable gifting. (This year, this gets divided among a reputable charity for hunger abroad, my local food bank for hunger at home, and Doctors without Borders for fighting Ebola and other plagues.) I’m also extremely fortunate to work (telecommuting) for a generous and broad-minded small company that will be giving me about the national average as a Christmas bonus. (Believe me, I’m grateful every day for how lucky I am–and try to stay non-consumer all the same.)


Katy November 16, 2014 at 2:17 pm

We give a monthly charitable donation, and make no changes at Christmas, but I am impressive with your giving. Great organizations too!


Jane F November 16, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Interesting challenge! I look forward to seeing how it unfolds!

I’d be curious what the sum of your gift cards/swagbucks adds up to.


Patricia November 16, 2014 at 2:18 pm

This is a great resource for those looking at low/no spend. Next year I hope to do the same and instead of planning presents all year like I currently do……I will resource and make them. Creating a file now on ideas…decorations made from old books and bibles, using scrap wool for ornaments, home made x-mas cards, making bath bombs, food gifts, gifts people need for work or school supplies(you would be needing to purchase anyway). Thanks for the re-gifting ideas!


marie November 16, 2014 at 2:52 pm

i too am curious on how to all works for you. I’ve been collecting odds and ends of things that i’ve found in my home for gift giving, and have a budget of $200 for 10 people. Swagbucks isn’t something i’ve done, but it sounds like it might be worth it.


Dusti McLain November 16, 2014 at 3:27 pm

This is really inspiring. I haven’t planned far enough ahead to do a $0 Christmas this year, but I’m trying to whittle as much off the budget as possible.


debra November 16, 2014 at 3:36 pm

I’m right at the $801. I give my married kids $100 for each family member, so that’s $700. I also got my 3 granddaughters 2 bath towels that i’m going to embroidery their names on and each a beach towel clearanced at kohls. A $17 robe (on sale and a coupon ) for my mom,a $4 modern quilt calendar for a friend, a new $1 pair of keds from the thrift store for another friend, and cookies and breads for others. I will make a few scarves and quilted pillows or runners for a few other friends, but i have all the stuff for them.
Your example is wonderful though!


Rosa November 19, 2014 at 6:12 am

We’re right up there too. I just finally gave up – as long as we can afford it (and we can) the effort of trying to change family expectations is just too much. My mom remarried into a high-spending family and my in-laws have big (and quite clear) gift expectations. So instead of banging my head against that wall I practice frugality in my own life and give them the $$$ that apparently mean love in their minds.

I love all these ideas, though. And the mental energy of finding cheap things people like seems more like love to me than our “spend an hour picking things off people’s Amazon wish lists” method, truthfully.


Alexandra November 16, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Katy I am sooooooo impressed with you and your Xmas plan! Well done. And it isn’t crappy kleenex holders, this is good stuff. Wow. I am motivated to get off my duff and get creative.
I really never thought of a single idea you had. HA! Thank you for the inspiration.
big hug.


Katy November 16, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Crappy Kleenex box holders? I love it! (Especially since I don’t buy Kleenex.)


Jane F November 16, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Another thing I like about this (though a little somber) is that its giving you an incentive to clear out some of your father’s house. Having just cleaned out my Grandma’s, I think its great to do little bits of that looong before it becomes necessary and emotional.

Not only are you going through your old books at your fathers but you transforming (decluttering) them into gifts for loved ones!


Katy November 16, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Luckily, my father is in great health so I don’t anticipate this task for many years.

Sadly, the books are in one enormous box on the third floor of a very tall house.


Jane F November 16, 2014 at 5:09 pm

Glad to hear it!


WilliamB November 17, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Time to scrounge some small second-hand boxes, right?


The Frugal Shrink November 16, 2014 at 4:37 pm

I love this!! Very inspirational. Can’t wait to follow along and see how it goes!


Katy November 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm

I’m curious to “see how it goes” as well! 😉


Debbie W. November 16, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Love all your inspired (and inspiring) ideas! I do believe that a near-zero dollar Christmas is possible, with year-round planning and open-mindedness as to what constitutes a “gift”. 🙂 Over the years, our family and friends have come recognize us as thoughtful, but far from lavish gift-givers, and, after all, isn’t it the “thoughtful” part that is the most important? Meanwhile, I think I may have to steal your very fun “gift swap party” idea, and invite some like-minded friends! 🙂


Diane November 16, 2014 at 6:25 pm

With mailing costs so high now, I am making only lightweight gifts to send to my sisters and a few friends. Homemade Christmas Potpourri, a tiny Paper Christmas scene packaged with glitter and a glue stick to put together, and chocolate covered marshmallows dipped in crushed peppermint with a packet of Starbucks cocoa. Not exactly zero $, but very little spent overall.


Krystal November 16, 2014 at 6:48 pm

FANTASTIC. We don’t participate in any gift giving, save our dog walker, bit these are GREAT ideas for birthdays or other gifts that may cross our paths!


Leslie November 16, 2014 at 7:10 pm

You’ve inspired me!


Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom November 16, 2014 at 7:47 pm

I hope one day to be able to attempt a no-spend Christmas, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m so blown away by this concept and think you’ve got a great plan in place. Our budget is about half of what it usually is and your ideas have really started to get me thinking outside the box. Thank you.


Skidd November 16, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Yes!! I’m doing this, too!
Since my dad has EVERYTHING he needs, I’m making him a cd with a plethora of photos of his only granddaughter to use as a wallpaper slideshow on his computer.
I crocheted my sister-n-law a cool basket with leftover yarn.
My grandmother, mom, and possibly a few other family members will be getting gifts purchased with old gift cards that I received and never used.
I’m making my mother-in-law a cute sign made from printer paper and scrap fabric (it will say something about being a grandma of 5).
And I’m re-covering some decorative pillows that I never use to match my sister-in-laws kitchen.
It’s so fun having a zero budget Christmas!


Katy November 16, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Wow, great creative ideas!


Renee November 16, 2014 at 8:35 pm

It won’t be a no-spend Christmas here, especially since we will be flying down to California for the holidays, but I am pleased that gifts for one of my daughters and my two nieces will be Lamily dolls which were “gifts” from having contributed to their Kickstarter fund. My mother will be receiving a necklace I bought for myself from a friend who makes jewelry, but which I have since decided would suit her better. The girls are taken care of and now all that’s left is my husband (who is impossible), and whoever I draw in the family Secret Santa exchange. My goddaughter, older nieces and nephews will all get Amazon gift cards. There will be absolutely no stepping into a mall for me this Christmas!!


Katy @ Purposely Frugal November 16, 2014 at 9:00 pm

I don’t usually do Christmas shopping this early, but I bought $57 worth of gifts off amazon for $1.29 out of pocket. I made sure it all qualified for free shipping, one item had a $2 coupon, and a couple items were marked down. Then I used amazon credit from swagbucks for the rest, and just $1.29 was left. I now have gifts for 6 people! And my husband’s side of the family is talking about not doing gifts this year!


Katy @ Purposely Frugal November 16, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Also I’ve been entering blog giveaways for hopes to win something I might be able to regift, but haven’t won anything yet. Although in the past couple of years I’ve won a book, a $50 giftcard and a t-shirt.


K D November 17, 2014 at 4:34 am

Wow! What a great plan. I have a Discover card that I use regularly and I redeem the points for gift cards that are discounted ($20 worth of points for Staples gift cards, for example). I use the gift cards as gifts or to buy gifts. But you blow and you readers blow me away. You have had a lot of great blog posts over the years but I think this one would rate among the best.


Tonya November 17, 2014 at 8:56 am

Maybe you meant to say, “You and your readers blow me away”. 🙂


marieann November 17, 2014 at 5:21 am

These are all great ideas, but most of them don’t apply to me.
We don’t have reward credit cards as they cost money. I fly once a year and I give any points to my sister who flies more often. No book stores giving points.

We do have reward points with a grocery store and use that to get gift cards for our sons and I do knit and sew the gifts for my great niece.I send money to my 5 great nephews overseas as the mailing costs for handmade gifts are to expensive.
So we only buy gifts for sons and we spend quite a bit of money on them, probably the $800 you mentioned, though in Canadian dollars that would be closer to $1000.They make a list and we buy from that so it’s mostly items they need but can’t afford to buy yet.
We tell them it’s part of their inheritance 🙂


Elizabeth Vega November 17, 2014 at 6:27 am

I’m certain that the gifts you give are more considered and thoughtful than many of the spendy mall-type things other people will be giving/getting.

I’m grateful that most of the gift-giving in our family focuses on the children, and most of THAT is pretty practical…Clothes, books, and sturdy, educational toys. The rest of us exchange homemade gifts, or things that are “expensive” when you buy them for yourself, but are still “inexpensive” gifts, like $4 chocolate bars, and $6 bottles of microbrew.

I really enjoy the generosity of the holidays, but not the consumerism, which is why my gift list grows every year, and also why I need to constantly challenge myself to find new and creative ways– like yours– of being generous of spirit, but still thrifty of wallet!


Katie November 17, 2014 at 6:45 am

The love and thought you put into each gift is amazing and I’m sure the recipients appreciate that regardless of the cost.

I didn’t know about the Mags for Miles. That’s a great idea! Speaking of magazines, I have tons of banked Pampers rewards and I think there are several magazine subscription options when redeeming.. Note to self to look into that!

We’re not operating on a $0 budget this year, but we are trying to be as frugal as possible. I signed up for SwagBucks a few months ago and have already have enough Amazon GCs to cover a few stocking stuffers. I’ve been begging those $10 LL Bean codes from friends and neighbors. So far I have a zippered pouch for my father and a water bottle for SIL. Completely free.


Leslie November 17, 2014 at 6:58 am

We don’t do zero dollar Christmas but we have a family exchange with a twist. This year, the limit is $15 and we can only purchase second hand items (preferably from a charity thrift store). It can be a funny gag gift or useful. We can even shop from our own closets. If we choose to make/bake something, the $15 limit still holds. Gets the creative juices flowing. Even the gift wrap is to be recycled. I have a dept. store gift box from Marshall Field’s I have been using since 1976! It’s a family heirloom and my kids come to expect recycled wrap since I’ve done it all their lives.
Whatever money we save, we donate to our favorite charity/cause on top of our usual giving.


patti November 17, 2014 at 8:36 am

Love this post! Thanks, Katy. I am making some knitted dishcloths for Christmas gifts with yarn I already had stashed and am knitting my husband some socks. I try to think of what is consumable and useful when I buy my gifts. I think I will try a zero or low cost Christmas next year. I have some ideas that would be good for the men – one is a remote control pillow (it has three pockets for the remotes). I made this for my husband out of a leather look alike fabric but want to make one for my brother and son. Could probably find vinyl or leather type fabric at a Goodwill either in a coat or a big floor pillow. I also have seen a cool game board made from plywood – cut it with eight sides, stain it, glue green felt on the top and playing cards around the top edges, poly urethane it and voila! a poker table. I found this in The Big Ass Book of Crafts where everything is cool and made from recyclables. My library had the book!! I found the plywood on the side of the road and bought some very cool playing cards at a yard sale. Just haven’t done it in time for this holiday.


cathy November 17, 2014 at 8:54 am

These are great ideas! I especially like your suggestion to buy gift cards on Small Business Saturday. In my efforts to do the holidays as frugally as possible, I was already on the zero $0 path, but didn’t realize it. Our Kroger affiliate offers a $25 credit for groceries (defined in the broadest sense) for each transferred prescription. I used the last $25 to buy cute canning jars that I’m using to make jam from fruit from our tree. We don’t seem to have unused gift cards lying around like a lot of people, but I did locate my REI dividend. Using that for gifts, probably stocking stuffers. As always, thanks for the inspiration!


Tonya November 17, 2014 at 8:57 am

Great post! How creative. I look forward to a follow-up post about how successful your plan is.


Paula in the Yoop November 18, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Love this challenge! Our CU offers reward points if you use their debit card as a credit at check out. Simple enough, but I never do. After reading this I’m wondering why not??!! I could probably knock off a gift or 2 with reward points earned!!!

I use swagbucks, but ever with any consistancy I have 2, $5 Amazon gift cards earned, over the last 12 months. again, so easy I just forget about it!


Adrienne November 18, 2014 at 3:59 pm

I love this post! I had heard about small business Saturday but never really paid attention to the details. I just signed up and there are tons of cool stores participating near me! Another thing I’m doing to lower my holiday expenses is credit card sign-up bonuses. I just qualified for $100 amazon gift card for using my Discover It card one time! Very awesome.


Cari November 20, 2014 at 10:43 am

My husband and I do the Small Business Saturday deal too, though we get a little selfish and use the gift cards for ourselves. WHOOPS! 🙂

I’m curious about how your family responds to your frugal gift-giving. As some of the other commenters noted, some of their family members wouldn’t be as receptive to this kind of gift exchange. And I have done this sort of thing with my own family, with mixed reactions. Have you had a hard time getting people on board with it? And how do your other family members approach gift-giving for you in return?


Jane F November 22, 2014 at 4:25 am

I keep thinking about this cool idea!

One thing I am wondering, and I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, is how you see the Compact fitting in with a zero- dollar xmas.

Certainly, the gift swap party, Powell’s, and shopping from home are compact-y. But what about the the $80 Sears gift card?

I realize that you’ve been making a point to go thrifting much less this year leaving your present stash smaller than usual. I’m just playing with these ideas and am curious how you are approaching the holidays from a compact lens.


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