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Fun and Free Christmas Traditions for Frugal Families

Updated on November 28, 2011
The elf is watching every move...
The elf is watching every move... | Source

Christmas Should Be Fun

Christmas is often a time of decadence. There are lights, and presents, and food. There is wrapping paper, ribbons, and toys. There are presents, and more presents, and more presents. And there are plenty of bills. There are also ballets and choruses, ice skating and hot cocoa. Advent calendars to buy and candy canes to pass out. Santa portraits, breakfasts with Santa, Christmas parties, teacher gifts, school exchanges, donations to make and did I mention presents to buy?

For the frugal family, especially those who are practicing forced frugality, it's a budgeting nightmare. It's a time of stress, and bills, and declined credit cards (unless you've already cut those up, in which case you spend a lot of time kicking yourself.) But there are ways to enjoy the holiday season without breaking the bank.

Of course, you could buy a tree and it's trimmings, the accoutrements to put beneath it, a few fresh evergreen wreaths and then go out and spend an evening ice skating and sipping hot cocoa before a night at the Nutcracker...there are other ways to get into the seasonal spirit.

If you're on a budget, make a list of what Christmas is to you. Of course you should splurge, it's the holiday season! But there's a difference between splurging responsibly and losing your mind. Choose your splurge, and it'll be that much more enjoyable.

Beyond that splurge, take a good hard look at that list. What really makes Christmas are the traditions. Rather than spending your time stressing over the expensive ones, try starting a few inexpensive or free activities. You'll be more relaxed, they'll be easy to reproduce eveyr year (after all, they are FREE), and the kids will remember them just as clearly as the Nutcracker ballet they slept through. Maybe better.

Tree Alternatives

For those who are often on a tight budget, an after-christmas artificial tree on clearance might be a good investment. After the first investment, it's free and takes the pressure off of that annual expense. And if you treat it well, some trees will last many years.

If you don't have access to an artificial tree, ask a local furniture store or appliance retailer for an oversized box, cut two tree shapes and interlock them. Let the kids color them. Yes, you'll feel bad that it isn't a 'real' Christmas tree. But next year, they may just beg you to do the same thing. It's about making memories, not making 'the right' memories.


Trimming the Tree

This seems like a no brainer. Everyone gets a tree for Christmas, and everyone trims it, right? Actually, quite a few families don't want to deal with small kids and breakable ornaments. They trim the tree on their own, when the kids are asleep, and spend the next few weeks admonishing the kids not to touch it.

Instead, pull out unbreakable ornaments and a few garlands and let the kids help. Better yet, start by making your own clay dough ornaments. Sign each one with the child's name and the year. Encourage them to make something that means something special to them that year. (For example, the year I was pregnant with her sister, my oldest daughter made an ornament of me with a huge pregnant belly.) When you unpack the ornaments together, tell whatever stories they bring to mind. The first year you do this, there will only be a few 'special' ornaments on the tree. That's okay. Each year you'll add a few more, and by the time your kids are in middle school, unpacking the ornaments will be a whole evening's worth of memories. Better yet, even though they're in middle school, the memories will make them happy to spend that evening sorting through ornaments and reminiscing. Even if they claim to be too old to make any more.

Need Some Christmas Title Inspiration?


Who doesn't have a shelf full of holiday books? (If you don't, your local library does) Spend some time Thanksgiving weekend sorting out 24 holiday themed books. You might choose to wrap them up in newspaper or paper bags or even old wrapping paper. Or, just tuck them into a big bag and hang it near their bed. Each night before bed, one kid gets to choose one book. You can choose randomly and be surprised each night. Or you can plan it out a little better by numbering each package. Coordinate the Christmas story for the night before you visit a living nativity, read Frosty the Snowman on a weekend when you can go outside and build a snowman. And of course, end with "Twas the Night Before Christmas".

Other Advent Ideas

All kids love to count down to Christmas. Instead of the traditional candy calendar, make an advent chain. 24 links of construction paper, and you can write an activity on each one. Make it something simple, like "Make a Christmas card", or "Sing a Christmas Carol". It's the surprise that counts. They can cut one link off each day and follow the directions. (Don't forget to add in "Have Hot Cocoa for breakfast")

Use your leftover Halloween chocolate to make your own Advent calendar out of small boxes and paper cones. (You do still have leftover Halloween candy, right?) You can supplement these with fresh candy, little party favors that have been forgotten but not destroyed, and little coupons for activities like making s'mores or baking cookies.

Bake Cookies

It's a timeless tradition that too often gets overlooked. Spend an afternoon in the kitchen baking cookies together. You can try out a new recipe or pull out a favorite old one. You can frost them or leave them unfrosted. Whatever you decide works best for your family, there's probably at least one cookie that is full of Christmas nostalgia. (If you don't have a favorite Christmas cookie, hurry up and find one! There are gingerbread men, candy cane sugar cookies, snowballs and jelly thumbprints, to name a few.)

If you don't have the time or patience to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you can use a tube of cookie dough or make up some sugar cookie dough in advance and roll it into a cylinder and chill. Simply slice. Or, cut out a triangle, flip out the crescents to make wings and add a rolled head to make angels. Or, roll several balls of dough between your fingers and let the kids design snowmen. Use chocolate chips for coal eyes and buttons. You can make stars and wreaths this way as well. Easy cookie dough fun (without the cutters)

The Christmas Elf

Elf on the Shelf has become a national phenomenon. But he was designed after a trendy little elf that was part of Grandma's holiday decorating decor. You can make your own elf, or find one in the attic, or make an initial purchase of a bona fide original Elf on the Shelf. The elf will reappear every year for the rest of...forever, theoretically.

The premise is that Santa has a helper who hides out in everyone's house and takes notes. Every night the elf reports back to Santa and then finds himself a new hiding spot. Kids wake up each morning and then go on a small scavenger hunt trying to find the elf. Document his ingenious hiding spots by taking pictures of the finder pointing or whispering their secret wishes.

Go on a Pajama Ride

The last few days before Christmas, it's hard to sleep. So choose a night to stay up late, fill a thermos with hot cocoa or cider, and dress the kids in their warmest jammies. Wrap up in fuzzy blankets and go off on a pajama ride. Visit the best local light displays and if your town has a Christmas Tree Lane, don't forget to take a drive down there, too. Turn up the Christmas Carols and sing along.

Your kids will remember these nights forever, and all it costs is a tank of gas. (If you can't spare that, at least take a walk to see the local displays. The lights really do make the magic come alive, and there's something about getting to experience them while dressed in fuzzy footie pajamas that make it that much more magical.)

Take Pictures

Whatever your family's traditions are (or grow to be), document the yearly experience with pictures, lots of them. And then remember to use those photos in albums, so that you can look back and see how the your family has grown throughout the years. It seems like something you'll never forget, but someday, you'll cherish those memories.

Your kids will, too. You don't need money to make priceless memories. Just time.


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    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 6 years ago from USA

      Such great ideas here - voted up. I really liked the idea of a cardboard tree, and the advent books. I haven't heard of Elf on a Shelf either.

    • msviolets profile image

      msviolets 6 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by!

      A puppy dog on the shelf sounds like a lot of fun :-)

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 6 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Great ideas! I actually hadn't heard of the elf on the shelf - I must be pretty out of it! Seems like a very fun tradition, and you could even do it with any stuffed animals you have lying around - maybe we'll make ourselves a puppy dog on the shelf since my son seems to have a million stuffed dogs!

    • msviolets profile image

      msviolets 6 years ago

      Thanks Alicia!

      The advent chain can be a lot of fun. My daughter likes it so much she's making some for a few of her friends this year!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You have some great suggestions for celebrating a family Christmas frugally. My favorite is the advent chain. This is a lovely way for children to enjoy the buildup to Christmas!


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