I thought I'd share some of my frugal ways to keep the holidays happy but not break my bank account. We're still suburbanites, and I'm only a few months into getting back to health after my retirement so I'm not yet geared up to make the gifts, which is usually the most cost-effective method other than opting out. I'm already thinking about what I can make for next year. Most likely black currant preserves or hardwood cutting boards. It may not be too late for these this year if you have some nice wood left over from a project. If you have scraps of maple or oak (at least 4 inches wide, 3/8 or 1/2 thick, and 6 to 10 inches long) square them up, give them a good sanding and wipe them down with mineral oil. These are wonderful. Even if you buy the wood (solid, clear if you can afford it) they are only a few $$ each. Try to find a cutting board made of solid wood in the stores. Virtually all are laminated scraps these days. I made a three this year as 'gifts' but liked them so well I couldn't part with them. Perhaps I can do better next year.
For now, this is about conventional holiday giving. We set cost limits for most people's gifts. With the exception of what DH and I exchange and DH's Mother, we have a limit of about $50 per person for close family and $20 for close friends for a projected monthly budget of about $50 per month. If I find a quality gift for less, then I don't keep buying for that person. With careful shopping I can find nice gifts for much less than the 'limit,' especially when I have all year to shop.
Your List: Our definition of who is on the list as 'close' is also stringent-- usually immediate family like a sibling or child. 'Friends' are also carefully enumerated and usually are in the single-digit range. For gifts between DH and DW, we usually defer a higher-cost item for Christmas, often a home improvement that continues to give enjoyment. I've been asking for a dual-pane window on the western side of the house for a couple of years, maybe this year! I have gotten wonderful gifts like my dog-proof 'burglar door,' after our crazy dog broke through yet another mended screen. It lets in the cool air but keeps the dog and the bugs on the correct side of the house. Because DH is very handy, installation is 'free' and part of his gift to me.
Packaging: We've used gift bags, often the same ones, rather than wrapping paper for years. My sister's family gets together with us, usually late on Christmas morning for gifts. Reusing those gift bags has become part of the celebration. Some go back 10 years or more and are like old friends. We exchange gifts then pack the bags back in the Christmas bin for next year. Tissue that isn't ready for window-cleaning duty is included. These originally cost 1$ or less at an after Christmas clearance and now $3 to $5 each if bought new. This practice alone had easily saved us each $20+ every year.
What to give: I try to give useful but consumable items, or very useful durable ones. (I'll address the useful durable items in a later paragraph.) Rationale is that a gift often creates some sense of obligation for the receiver. I've gotten the occasional gift of a durable item, especially a dust-collector or wall-hanging item that makes me wonder what the giver was thinking. Must I now hang or place this somewhere that they can see it when they come over?? Not meaning to seem ungrateful those items are usually not 'us' so I try to avoid being that kind of gift-giver. My sister keeps her 'what to get me for Christmas' list all year, so I usually have no trouble getting her something she wants. I've learned from her and now know exactly what to request for my 'big present' from her: something on my preparedness-needs list. Another consideration is whether I need some of 'that gift item' too? This year is a little different than most, as I've discovered that many people in my small circle of gift-giving also maintain preparedness supplies. One of my favorite supply sources gives discounts, some of which are really large, when you order a case of something. These may or may not be listed as buying-group specials. Here's an example: If I wanted 4 cans of an items at $11.50 per can (total of $46) and the price is $8 per can if I order a case of 6 cans (total of $48) and the shipping cost is the same, then it's essentially getting 1.8 cans free if I order a case. That's 2 cans that can be considered as Christmas gifts for those friends or family members who will appreciate them, all for $2. That's $1 per 'gift' can with a retail value of $11.50. Some of the case discounts have break-even prices under 4 cans, but that's about the norm. Useful and consumable gift for $1: SCORE.
A Measure of Value. When I see an item on clearance or sale that is a really good bargain, I will consider whether it's a good match for someone on my short list. Often, it is a very useful durable item as mentioned above. If there's a match, I buy it and put it away with their name on it with a sticky note. Local shops going out of business or seasonal markdown? Could be something there. This year's top item was from Sierra Trading Post. I found a high-end kitchen knife with sharpener (not made in China!) during a special discount offering ( they send via e-mail about once a month, if you sign up) that cost about $26 each, with a 'retail value' of over $100, slashing the $50 limit gift in half. I also found some Smartwool socks at STP for about $4 a pair early in the year. I bought myself 2 pairs to try them out. They were great, so during a later discount window I bought some for gifts for the ladies who I know will wear them. That's $9 (pro-rated shipping included) for 2 pairs of socks that would normally cost upward of $15 a pair, also cutting the $20 dollar limit gift in half. By the way, with socks as gifts I always buy at least two identical pairs. That way if one sock gets lost or worn out, you still have a pair and a spare. (Remember that when packing socks for your GO bag.)
One more thing: If you have a friend or family member who is struggling financially, consider a token gift and cash or a gift card to a discount grocery store (I'd go with Target, of course!). I usually write something like "I hope this is the right size and color! Merry Christmas!" on the card. A gift card to a store where they can purchase groceries can free-up their cash for other necessities. A gift card to an expensive store or one that only has specialty items (Victoria's Secret?) may leave them wondering what universe you're living in.
Today is the 20th of October. I'll need to double check my list, but I think everyone except DH is covered for this year. It's a good feeling. Gifts are ready to be bagged or mailed, I have no credit card bills to greet me for the new year, I haven't overspent or reduced getting what we really need, and everyone is getting something useful or edible.