My goal was always to have fun at Christmas, to spend the time visiting, watching holiday specials, cooking, decorating, and just taking in the season. I developed my theory over 20 years ago when I had a newborn and three family members who also had birthdays clustered right around the Thanksgiving/Christmas time, and I really liked the way it worked then, so I’ve refined my technique. I had to abandon my technique for several years in a row when we had a highly unusual working schedule, I won’t bore you with the details, but things have finally reached the point where I can take more control of planning my time. These are the best techniques I found that work for me:
1. Have a “Present Drawer”. It can be a Rubbermaid tub with a locking lid on the top shelf of your closet, or an actual drawer, whatever works for you. Throughout the year, accumulate non-specific “presents” and keep in this drawer. Things that you get for free or cheap, bonuses and goodies, and (gasp) gifts that people gave you that are wonderful … and you truly appreciate them … and you are grateful … but you just don’t want them so you’re going to re-gift them. Suggestions: pretty candles, nice-smelling personal care products, coffee mugs (even if you don’t drink coffee – hot chocolate, warmed chocolate milk, desserts, etc.), attractive office supplies like dry-erase wall calendar (so it isn’t tied to a particular date!), gloves and scarves that you got on clearance right after winter earlier this year, novelty socks, flashlights (that you get for FREE at Harbor Freight), soft-side zip-up coolers that you got for 99 cents right after the back-to-school sales I was screaming at you about earlier this year, you get the idea. This present drawer is useful all year round. Does your child have a birthday party to go to and didn’t tell you until a couple of days before and you’ve already used up your budget for the week? Did you find out about a teacher’s retirement, birthday, new baby? Someone gave you a present and you haven’t picked one out for them?* You find out a relative has a new significant other who will be visiting and you haven’t the first clue what they like? The more you think about it, the more you’ll come up with scenarios in which it is useful to have things that you can grab in 10 seconds, put in a gift bag (that you got on clearance at the end of the holidays LAST year and you keep at the bottom of this drawer/box/tub), tie with a curly ribbon (ahem – again on clearance and in the drawer!), fill out a hasty gift tag (still in the drawer with a pretty colored marker!) and emerge from the room calm and collected and an absolute hero, instead of a non-present-giving, rushing around and embarrassed person that you WOULD have been if you weren’t such a superstar. One note about the supplies – because when this happens it is usually under pressure – I keep my supplies which are scissors, a roll of tape, three different colored markers, gift tags and mini-envelopes, and some colorful stickers in a Ziploc bag in the present drawer. I keep also several gift bags, flattened in the drawer. The supplies are NOT used for anything else and NEVER taken out of this drawer except for use right then and there. When you need your present drawer, you don’t want to be rushing around looking for a pen or scissors, have it all right there and never take them out.
2. Think assortments – collect sample sizes, sometimes you end up with them randomly, and imagine a nice goodie bag as a gift. You get coupons all year long for personal care products, and many are good on sample sizes. Save those, gather a bunch in an attractive bag or box, line with a few sheets of holiday-themed tissue paper or wrapping paper, tie with a ribbon and it makes a cute gift. If you are looking for something in particular and want to save some time tracking prices and figuring out if you have a coupon or not, I recommend a site like The Grocery Game for the heavy lifting. It’s a subscription site, but as I’ve explained before, free sites (like mine) can’t be all things to all people because the blogger has to make money other ways. The Grocery Game assembles the prices of the items on sale in the stores you choose and compares prices for you. I’ve had that happen – where I needed something right then (quick – where should I go today to get dishwashing detergent? I didn’t realize I was almost out!) and I typed in the description and it gave me all the stores that had it on sale, with and without coupons. Saves a ton of time and really doesn’t cost much.
3. Think breaking up larger packages into smaller ones. Using the coffee mug I mentioned above – there are many things that you can get a grocery store, that might be in unattractive packaging, but if you just change the packaging, it becomes a gift. Boxes of hot chocolate – get several brands and flavors, only when on sale with a coupon, plus different herbal teas, flavored creamers, etc. Take them out of their unattractive retail bulk packaging, and assemble them differently. It can be as easy as clear plastic wrap tied with curly ribbon. A few of those put back in the mug, then the mug wrapped in pretty tissue paper and in a pretty bag goes from cheap retail packaged groceries to a creative and tasty gift.
4. Collect gift cards all year long, that you bought at a DISCOUNT, save them for either shopping that you want to do, or give the gift card itself. More popular stores like Sears and Target will rarely have a large discount on the card itself, due to demand, but many clothing and specialty store will get HUGE discounts many times a year. I see Old Navy, JC Penney, and some craft stores at 15%, 20%, or more. Keep a price book for gift cards the same as you do for your top groceries and buy when they reach the right buy price. Then, you’ll have a discount walking in the door no matter what you buy. I use an online service called Cardpool to track prices and buy them, and I also watch store circulars for good deals – for example, earlier this year I told you about Publix offering $10 off a $50 Old Navy card, and Rite Aid offering $5 back for every $25 spend on certain gift cards. You have to watch those all year round, use discipline and save them for the right time. I organize mine in an index card file, with the card filed by store name and denomination so I can grab what I need in a hurry if I have to run out and get something. There’s also a few I keep in my purse all the time – gas gift cards and Subway mostly.
5. Speaking of shopping at the mall and stuff, now every store out there has a website, newsletter, and special online deals. If there’s a store you like, or that you know your kids or other family members like, go to their website. They likely offer online coupons, some can be used in store, and they likely have a regular newsletter. You’ll get notified when things go on clearance or when there is a current coupon. Many mall stores will accept coupons on smart phones, so you don’t always have to print them out to use them.
6. Find every reward program out there and use them – while you are on the store website (above), find out if they have a Rewards Card. NOT a credit card – don’t do that – but just a card with a customer ID number that will earn you rewards for your purchases, maybe give you a better discount, maybe give you extra coupons, maybe gives you a gift card or money off after so many purchases, all programs are different. I belong to several, and honestly, not many offer anything significant, but they all at least help. I do NOT sign up for credit cards – only rewards programs. The ones that I found that are worth it are the ones where the rules are pretty set – like Bruster’s Ice Cream for example. EASY. You get a punch card, and each visit they punch the card. After six punches, you get a free something. Monday is double punch day. EASY to understand and follow. Walgreens also has a rewards card, every purchase counts, there are some bonus items that are clearly marked weekly in the store and the circular, and after a certain number of points you get money off your next purchase, and the total is printed on your receipt every time. EASY. Some are super complicated, like Sears. I’ve been a member of their Shop Your Way rewards and I honestly can not figure it out at all. I’ll get an email saying “Yay! You have $10 in rewards!” then I go to the store and find out it’s only $1.16 or some other weird calculation. They have so many conditions and pluses and minuses and ifs ands and buts that I have never been able to figure it out. I don’t understand their bonus structure at all. About the only part I understand is that purchases equal points, and the points randomly go up and down, and they expire. I tried to figure them out, and I even contacted customer support MULTIPLE times, and they were NOT responsive. I had receipts, I had emails that showed what my points should have been, I had all the documentation any one could ever ask for, and I never got a response. They would ask me for more information, which I would provide, then they’d ignore me. So … my method has been to show up, use my rewards card, and if I got money off then great, but I stopped trying to understand all the teaser (liars! LIARS!) emails that would claim I had this goodie or that and it would turn out to be false. Talking to the people at the store is useless, they will just refer you to the 800#, the 800# will waste your time and ask you to email something, you will email them, they will ignore you or send you a form letter asking you to send in what you just sent in. Useless. I will say, however, that every time I have used the rewards card I have received SOMETHING off. Anywhere from $3 to $10, regularly.
7. Use non-store specific rewards programs for giveaways and prizes – for example, Coke has MyCokeRewards.com, where you enter codes from the soda caps and multi-unit packages and get points for every entry. One drink has 3 points, and around 120 points you get a free magazine subscription. If you know someone likes a particular magazine – they have all sorts of ones – Parents, Family Circle, Latina, Outside, lots of them – and if there’s a family member you know well, you can get them a magazine subscription without any extra cost, from stuff you are already buying. Kellogg’s products also have rewards codes printed inside the box, and they have rewards in their catalog for all sorts of things too – mugs, tote bags, other things. Once you start looking you’ll find more – Lean Cuisine, Skinny Cow, all sorts of products have their own rewards programs where you get things other than their particular food products.
8. Watch for the “get one, give one” promotions year round, but especially closer to the holidays. Speaking of magazines, if there’s one you really like, you will often find that close to the holidays, they will offer a “buy one, give one!” subscription offer. Several of the fashion magazines do this, and so does All You (coupon and shopping magazine) and a few others I’ve run across. Watch for the offer and take advantage of it when it comes around, which is usually just once a year. In a similar manner, watch for the gift-with-purchase or bonus buys at retail stores (that you will find out about when you sign up for their email newsletter), where you buy something, and they give you a gift card to use next time. Watch for expiration dates, but you can save those gift cards to shop (or give the card itself) for gifts. Target regularly does this, every week all year long, just look at their circular. Other stores like Old Navy, Office Depot, and Belk do this and have done it recently. Don’t overlook office supply stores for gifts – they often have practical, pretty and useful things you can give as gifts – calendars, nice pens, gift sets. Don’t overlook auto supply stores or tool stores either – you can find interesting and practical gifts like flashlights, first aid kits, work gloves, calendars for guys, car air fresheners, all sorts of other things that anyone would like. Advance Auto and Autozone frequently have percentage discount coupons, and Harbor Freight Tools offers a free gift with every purchase (you need the coupon but they are available everywhere including printable online).
9. Keep an online wish list and watch for the sales as they happen, which might be any time during the year. Most of the retail stores, and online stores like Amazon, will allow you to sign up for an “account” without actually buying anything and without entering any financial or purchase information. Then, you can add to your wish list with the items you know family members want, and be notified when those go on sale. Another great place to check if you need to go ahead and make the purchase is a coupon code site like Retail Me Not or Entertainment, where you can get a code to enter online and get the best discount on that day you are ready to shop. Sign up for their regular newsletters so you’ll know the latest ones.
10. If all else fails – everyone likes cookies. You got sugar, flour and butter at free or pennies throughout the last several months, spend a day and make lots of different kinds of cookies. Some will have chocolate chips, some will have nuts, some you might have other goodies in them – broken up candy bars that you got for free, granola, raisins, etc. All the ingredients can be free or cheap. Start with a base dough, there are lots of ideas on the web, or gather your own recipes and have them ready for next year. I have my recipes saved in a recipe organizer software on my computer, and one important rule – don’t experiment under pressure! Stick with the basics, keep it simple, stay with what you know. Make several kinds of cookies and assemble a few of each kind on a sturdy paper plate (that you got for free or pennies after the summer picnic season sales), cover with plastic wrap (again – bought at the lowest price earlier this year), tie some pretty ribbons or put colorful stickers on it, and it’s a gift. You can also use plastic food tubs for these if you have to travel with them, to protect the cookies. For recipe organization, I use Cook’N recipe organizer software and that link will get you a bonus 20% off, directly from the software manufacturer. If you would prefer to buy it from Amazon instead, maybe you have other things you want to buy, here’s a link to get it at a discount from Amazon with free shipping: Cook’n Recipe Organizer Version 10
Hopefully you find these 10 tips useful! Feel free to add your own in the comments to share with everyone!
* Having someone give you a gift and you haven’t picked one out for them can be a really uncomfortable moment. This was likely the inspiration for my Present Drawer, and after I started one, I never had it happen again.