How To Create Fun, Memorable, Even Beautiful, Christmas Traditions On A Budget

You all asked me for some posts about holidays on limited budgets. I’m right there with you, and it’s actually quite a lovely spot. We’ve got options.

For example, we can shift the focus from gifts to ambiance. Consider decor, and the many ways to intensify the jolly without diluting net worth.

Wallet-Respecting Yet Christmas-Cheering Decor

Target Snowflake Pillow

  1. Christmas trees. Trees are priced by the foot. Under 6′ is affordable, under 5′ even more so. So go small and go crazy with your hoard of decorations and lights. Find impact in density vs.verticality. If you do have extra money in your pocket, seek out an organic tree farm. I found a list from a few years ago, here, but as any updated information seems to be available regionally, it’s probably best found via your favorite search engine.
  2. Along with our tree, I always get 9′ of garland. I hang it, with 3 hooks, over a double pocket door into our study, off the living room, and festoon the 3 hanging points with wired ribbon bows I tied myself. They’ve lasted for years. Just use wide ribbon, in a bold pattern, maybe with metallic details. Frankly, one could cover one’s house in bows and be done.
  3. There’s always room for kitschy, homey pieces from the modern equivalent of dollar stores. If we browse Target , for example, we find berry trees, cute knit ball garlands, plaid tree skirts, and the snowflake pillow shown above. (Only in stores.)
  4. Amazon is also good for budget whimsy. One morning, this Thanksgiving weekend, I put out all my boxes of tea on the counter and told the kids we were having a Business Travel Via The Marriott Courtyard experience. I might now just buy this tea display
    and cover the Stash sign badly with green and red puffy paint holly leaves and set it out every year. Crafty I am not. I’ve also thought of getting a sidewalk chalkboard sign to stand by my door for holiday mottos and doodles.

And, if I COULD craft, I’d make one or more of the projects I’ve collected here, on Pinterest. Guys, it is HARD to find tasteful projects. I did my best.

Budget-ish Christmas Food & Drink

Preppy Cookbook Pot Roast

News to High WASPs of the world. You do not have to serve rack of lamb, tenderloins, or lobsters. I know, surprise!

Of course, the best way to celebrate thriftily is a potluck. But I think the host ought to provide a main course. And I’m going to suggest protein of one sort or another, because a) protein dishes are dense heavy for guests to carry and b) everyone needs to eat robustly to mitigate alcohol consumption. Enter cheap cuts of meat, poultry, and tofu for the vegetarians.

Here are a few recipes I have found festive but affordable, from two cookbooks worth owning.

  1. Pot roast via The Preppy Cookbook. This is seriously delicious, and the vegetables you cook alongside create a just-thick-enough gravy to feel like Christmas.
  2. Chinese beef stew via Nina Simons China Express. While not an authentic recipe per se, this stew gets its Northern Chinese vibe from a liberal use of star anise. Easy, filling, different.
  3. Chicken paprika, also via The Preppy Cookbook. How to make chicken fancy, and give the old rosemary roasted standby a break.
  4. Sweet and sour tofu, also via Nina Simons. Frying these tofu rectangles gives them good mouth feel, the sweet and sour sauce based on ketchup, yes, really, is nifty, and you can use green and red bell peppers for holiday color-coordinated bonus points.

BTW, make sure you’ve got lots of vegetables on the table. It’s a gift to feed people vegetables, because it can be so hard to get enough of them in our diets – what with all the washing and chopping required. Besides, if you ask guests to bring lots of veggie side dishes, you can go light on the main course. Everyone benefits.

Presents Without Pain


I know some people do full-on minimal at Christmas and give up presents altogether. That just doesn’t feel right to me. To each their own. My family has been right-sizing Christmas present-giving for several years now, and here’s how.

  1. Make stockings count. Everybody who comes to Christmas morning brings one stocking present for everyone else attending.
  2. Draw amongst the immediate family of adults. We each pick one sibling or spouse.
  3. Focus on children. Grownups don’t mind having only one or two presents to open when we can watch the next generation exclaim, “Ooo!”
  4. Agree on price guidelines. We aim for anywhere between $50 and $250 per present and it’s really OK to come in on the low end. Of course nobody has ever said that aloud in public ’til now, but hey, we peak High WASP in its unsaid codes.
  5. Don’t be afraid of the Christmas list, the Amazon registry, the declaration of needs. When we’re short on funds, using Christmas as a time to replenish necessities is just fine. No use for a tasteful vase when your toaster’s broken.
  6. And, ultimately, if you can, DIY. I once knew a woman who gave everyone a little paperwhite bulb in a planter to force bloom on their kitchen windowsill. I always loved the idea. Here’s a tutorial.

May all your Christmases be bright. Even when the family fortune fades, there’s light to be found.

(Editorial aside: I like to be holiday inclusive here whenever possible. In this case, my only experience with midwinter holiday hosting has been Christmas. Hanukah, although it often happens around the same time, isn’t just a Blue Christmas, and I didn’t want to shove it into a green-and-red box as a token gesture towards cultural diversity. I’ll let other people who know the issues around other winter holidays tell their stories more authentically than I can. Feel free to school me on the right approach.)


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  • White amaryllises. One local hardware store sells them for about $8. Lovely around the house, and as you said they make wonderful presents too.

    Board games are a wonderful tradition, fun for all, and cheap, esp if you already have them. Otherwise, one board game makes a nice inexpensive present to give the whole family.

    Discovering that my niece, in her 20s, has a Pinterest board has helped me to give her things I know she’ll like.

    I made this last year using those small lights on copper wire (with a battery pack), and plastic icicles I found at the dollar store. Looked lovely, and I have two left thumbs when it comes to crafts. I kept it up through January because it was more “wintery” than “holidays”.

    Merry Christmas!

    8:04 am
    Lisa said...

    Merry Christmas! And copper wire lights sound wonderful. Board games – we like Fictionary:). No board, technically, but infinitely playable especially for wordy families.

  • Wonderful ideas. Thank you.

    8:11 am
    Lisa said...

    You’re welcome!

  • We always have a small tree because our bungalow is so small…cozy though.
    Bravo Lisa! ! There are a lot of great thoughts and ideas behind this post…
    I am not much of a crafter but am greatly influenced by Mother Nature to add organic festive green touches like sprigs of holly, pine cones and a swag of fir on the front door.
    Have fun getting ready for the holidays.

    10:49 am
    Lisa said...

    I hope you have fun too!

  • Great ideas! I’m not crafty, either, but a few years ago I came up with a great way to decorate the front of the house. There are huge window boxes on each side of the front, each 8′ long and probably about 14′ wide. It would cost a fortune to buy greenery to fill them. I pick up free tree branches cut from the lower part of Christmas trees at the local nursery (you can take as many as you want, I fill up the minivan). Then I buy relatively small amounts of different kinds of boughs. My son and I “plant” the branches in the dirt, and then put small white lights all around. We also wrap pine roping around the pillars on the entry/front porch and put white lights over them, too. It looks great!

    10:50 am
    Lisa said...

    Yes. I almost wrote, “never underestimate the impact of some greenery and white lights.” Both you and Hostess said it for me. Thank you!

  • Setting a price range and sticking to it is a good way to be sure that guests of all means feel comfortable. The well-to-do can always slip their older children cash along with leftovers as they depart.

    5:42 pm
    Lisa said...

    Travel money, we call it;).

  • A smart post in all senses of the word. I’d add: if you live in the right climate, pinecones are free, and make a beautiful centrepiece in a glass bowl, sprinkled with ornaments or greenery. Even if not free the big ones, they will last years.
    Another low cost casual dinner or lunch is a chili (veg or meat) ladled over big baked potatoes, sprinkled with sharp cheddar or not. Especially good for filling bottomless pit teenagers.

    A good dollar store has heaps of decor, such as column candles, that look festive when massed.

    5:43 pm
    Lisa said...

    Good point, on the massing of column candles. The same can be done with votives.

  • Great ideas! My husband’s family focuses on stockings too; fun for all ages! And we draw Christmas gift names at Thanksgiving. I like that tea display rack because the standing Christmas gift my husband gives me is the assortment of Bigelow herbal teas from Costco & the boxes keep falling out of the cabinet when I go to grab a box from the back. We’re all about thrifty holidays, buying both the Thanksgiving & Christmas turkeys or hams when they’re on sale before Thanksgiving–glad we have freezer space. I love potlucks too, & I’m looking forward to our book club’s potluck & the tradition of bringing a used book for the gift exchange game in which everyone draws a number. Guests select & open a wrapped present in numerical order & then the next person either gets to steal one of the opened presents or select a wrapped one, & so on until everybody has a present–not necessarily the one they wanted, but it’s lots of fun. I wasn’t sure what the game was called, so I Googled it & found it called “Yankee Swap” if the guests bring new gifts, or a “White Elephant” exchange if the gifts are used. Sounds like there are all sorts of different variations.

  • P.S. I forgot to mention that I totally agree that DIY is great but I’m not especially crafty either. The past few years I’ve had fun making edible holiday gifts, though. For ex. freezer jam because canning seems daunting to me, candy such as easy fudge or toffee that doesn’t require using a thermometer, etc.

    5:45 pm
    Lisa said...

    I made a caramel sauce for my Thanksgiving apple pie and thought how magical caramel is, and how I could give it as a stocking present, if I could locate some little jars;). I think simple candies are a nice touch.

    7:32 am
    Ellen said...

    In my knitting group, we call this game Pirates Booty. We use dice. I’ve heard other names as well. A friend of mine married into a family where they place this game on Christmas Eve, using books. Sometimes you end up with a book you might never read, but trades can keep on going after the game ends if need be. That family reserves Christmas morning for the children. I always like that idea, but haven’t gotten all of the family on board. But we do exchange gifts among adults, and we keep the price limit at $25 out of respect for the lower budgets that some members are on.

    And for the record: Lynn Rosetto Kaspet’s recipe for Tyrolean Pot Roast in the Splendid Table is the ultimate pot roast, fi for the most elegant of meals!

  • Nice candles are always appreciated it seems, in my experience anyway, and baked goodies like pumpkin bread or lemon poppyseed bread (that can be frozen for enjoyment later, as we seem to be overwhelmed with sweets during the holidays) or freezer jams (again, this can be appreciated later). For the tea lover, I love to give special organic tea blends ordered online from Rishi or purchased from stores like Wegman’s. For the coffee lover, there are all sorts of gourmet coffees from various suppliers. Presentation is everything – you can get creative here and make even the simplest gift seem really special. All in all, I loved all your ideas for a thrifty holiday! Now, can someone give me some ideas for a 5-year old boy who seems to have it all already? This grandma wants to know!

    12:02 am
    Kathy said...

    @Jane, A little tool box complete with real little tools and a flashlight. For girls of the same age I always do little purses with a mirror, comb, lip gloss, a few coins and a hankie (my grand-daughter asked me, “What is a handkerchief, GrandOne?” After I patiently explained it, she still looked a little puzzled and said “I just use a tissue!”.

    8:06 am
    Jane said...

    @Jane, That’s a great idea, Kathy! Thanks. The handkerchief brings back memories of when my mom gave me child themed hankies – I still have a few of those tucked away. Thank you also for a good laugh today!

  • Merry Merry! A fun post full of ideas, thanks!

    9:58 am
    Lisa said...


  • Get a wooden/sturdy box about the size of a case of wine. Cover it with a pretty cloth and put the tree on that. It makes the tree higher and a smaller tree costs less.

    9:59 am
    Lisa said...

    @Robin, Hey! Good idea! Also makes it easier to get underneath with the lights and everything.

  • @Ellen, thanks for sharing about Pirates Booty, knitting club, & family traditions! I love pot roast!

    @Lisa, it just so happens caramel sauce is one of the food gifts I’ve been thinking of making! I bet it was wonderful on your Thanksgiving apple pie! Yes, little jars of it would be great stocking stuffers! I found a recipe for it when I was Googling toffee & caramel for candy recipes–otherwise, making it would probably have never occurred to me. And now you mention you’ve made it. I don’t necessarily believe in signs, but I’m taking that as a pretty good sign I should make it!

    7:53 am
    Lisa said...

    I think so:).

  • One year (as a gift for my daughter’s boyfriend’s family) we purchased a tabletop tree (probably it was from Michael’s but one could use a fresh tree), baked gingerbread men cookies which we decorated by icing on the names of family members including the dog and hung them on this tree. So adorable!

  • Luff this post and am still thrilled by your authenticity and commitment comment on my blog!!!! xxxx