$100 Christmas Report

This year we provided Christmas for our family for less than $100. It occurs to me that others might need/want to be able to do this as well, so I’m writing this report. Two years ago I would not have believed a $100 Christmas to be possible. I managed it last year, but worried that it was only because I’d had things left in reserve from more spendthrift days. I knew if I was going to pull it off, I had to start looking in January. All year long I went to garage sales, thrift stores, and acquired things for free where I could. I stashed my acquisitions in a huge box in my storage room. The inventory rotated some as things were pulled out for birthdays or other uses, but my stash steadily grew. When December arrived I let my kids “go shopping” through the stash to find gifts to give each other while carefully making sure that the things for them were hidden away. The kids delightedly selected and wrapped gifts.

On Christmas Eve I pulled out the stash and arranged it in our family room. I looked around and nearly cried because I could see so clearly that everything was second hand. The boxes for the games were a little battered. The train set had some broken parts. The small doll house had someone else’s writing on it in permanent ink. I worried the kids would come down, look at the array and say “Is that all?” I needn’t have worried. They came downstairs and squealed with delight. All of the things were used, but they were all things that exactly fitted the interests of my kids. Not once did any child comment that I hadn’t purchased things new from a store.

Before I tell all the details of exactly how I provided Christmas for my family for under $100 I need to explain a little about why it works. Our family is not accustomed to buying treats or new toys on a whim. We used to be, but the past year of pinching all our pennies has taught all of us the value of money and we are careful how we spend it. Over the past year we’ve all been aware that most of our non-food items have come to us second hand. My continual attitude of “look what I found!” rather than “Sorry it’s not new” has caused all of us to realize that it doesn’t matter where things come from as long as they are in good shape and meet our needs. That attitude all year long means that when greeted with a Christmas full of second-hand toys/games, the kids didn’t once comment on the few dings and signs of wear. They were just delighted to have the toys/games.

Another reason that Christmas for less than $100 works for us is that we have never promoted Santa as reality. We all have fun pretending about Santa, but even the 4 and 2 year olds know that we’re pretending. This means that the kids don’t have faith that the Man in Red can grant their hearts desire using his workshop full of elf labor. I also don’t have to explain why Santa only brings expensive toys to rich kids. Christmas is still magic for us without believing in Santa. We also don’t have broadcast television, so our kids are not daily inundated with a barrage of advertisements. Their wants are dictated by their interests rather than by advertising manipulation.

With all of that said, I have compiled a list of exactly what we got for Christmas this year by spending less than $100. Below this list I’ve written some further explanations about where I got things.

Item Where I got it Cost
3 stuffed dragons (Home made $0)
Reading chair/pillow (Garage Sale $3)
3 Pokemon Videos (Garage Sale $3)
Jewels in the Attic Game (Garage Sale Leftover $0)
Carmen Sandiego Game (Garage Sale Leftover $0)
Junior Scrabble (Church Sharing Table $0)
Battle ship game (Thrift Store $2)
Escape from Monkey Island (Garage Sale $2)
Plastic Thomas train set (Discard from neighbor $0)
Toy airplanes (Dollar Store $2)
Pink crown (Dollar Store $1)
Horse make-a-picture plates (Discard from grandparents $0)
Dig Dug game (Garage Sale $2)
Jurassic Park video (Garage Sale $2)
4 pairs Earrings (Thrift Store $2)
Polly pocket set (Ebay $5)
garden decor (Dollar Store $3)
bird feeder suet (Dollar Store $2)
luminist cottage painting (Garage Sale $3)
2 men’s shirts (Church Sharing Table $0)
Movie Trading Co gift card (Reselling movies & videos $0)
girl’s sweater (Discard from cousin $0)
Animorph books (Discard from grandparents $0)
“endless” fish puzzle (Discard from grandparents $0)
2 Putt-putt computer game (Garage Sale $2)
Bubble Bath (Dollar Store $1)
2 men’s shirts (Church Sharing Table $0)
Treat foods (Grocery store sales $20)

Things we gave to others:
Crocheted rose blanket (Church Sharing Table $0)
Decorative soaps (Dollar Store $2)
lap quilt (Home made $0)
Oven Mitts (Dollar Store $2)
kitchen dish towels (Dollar Store $2)
Save Dr. Lucky game (Bought it years ago, never played $0)
Neighbor gifts — small german candles & a printed card (discard from Howard’s parents) $0
Didn’t do christmas cards

Total: $61
(But there may be some things I forgot to list or expenses I forgot to account for)

Things we received from others:
Fly “pentop computer”
Electronic 20 questions game
4 Polly Pocket sets
Billy Hatcher & the Giant Egg
1 Dozen Hamtaro figurines
Firefly series on DVD
Phantom of the Opera on DVD
A case for Howard’s 120 colored pencils
2 bird figurines
Shadows over Camelot
3 books
Enya CD
Farmstead Cheeses

Home Made: Crafts have become an industry with whole retail chains dependent on people buying supplies and kits so that they can give things that are “home made.” I did not purchase anything for the things on this list that were home made. I only used materials and patterns that I had on hand. If I had to go out and buy fabric or supplies, then I would have listed the costs of the supplies. This works for me because I have piles of fabric, patterns, and craft supplies lying around my house just waiting to be used. I acquire these things for cheap or free in the same ways that I acquired the other things on the list.

Garage Sale: The local garage sale season starts in March and runs through October. During that season I try to hit at least on or two sales per week. I find them in the online classifieds of our local paper. Usually there are 5-50 sales listed, I look through to find the ones that are closest and sound the most promising. I generally don’t go to sales more than a 10 minute drive from my house. Once this year I showed up at a sale just as they were ready to be done sitting outside. They declared that everything remaining was free for the taking. I came home with the items above listed as Garage Sale Leftover, a dresser, and several decorative shelves.

Church Sharing Table: This is a custom that I helped to get started at our once monthly women’s church gatherings. I set up a table and encourage everyone to bring things they want to get rid of, but think that others could use. Everyone is free to look the items over and take what they want whether or not they brought something. At the end of the night I scoop up what is left and donate it to a thrift store. Setting up the table and running to the thrift store is some work for me, but considering the amount of really useful stuff that I’ve culled from the table, the work has more than paid for itself.

Thrift Store: We have several local thrift stores. They tend to be more expensive than garage sales because they have to pay for the building and employees. However the selection is much better because thrift stores serve as a clearing house for unwanted things. Our local thrift stores are incredibly well stocked and I go there to fill in gaps that I haven’t been able to fill at garage sales.

Discard from ____: One of the best ways to get stuff is to be around when someone else is in the mood to clear out. I guess some people might feel embarrassed about accepting this kind of “charity,” but I’ve been on the other side of the fence. I’ve been the one to give away excess stuff and I know it is much nicer to give things away to a place where they’ll be appreciated than to give things to a thrift store. I still give things away when I’m done with them because I figure what goes around comes around. One of the best ways to acquire discards is to help someone move. People who are moving sort through everything and get rid of lots of stuff that they don’t want to have to haul.

Dollar Store: In general, dollar store items are cheaply made. The toys in particular have a tendency to break easily. They look and feel cheap, but kids don’t care. Kids love dollar store toys. Sometimes you can find a treasure in the dollar store that meets a need and will last for years. Because of this I try to cruise my local dollar store every month or so to see if anything is useful to me.

Ebay: I don’t do much buying on ebay anymore. The people who are selling on ebay are more interested in making money than in getting rid of stuff. Also everything has an added shipping cost which raises the ticket price of the item. Occasionally I happen across a good deal and snap it up, but mostly ebay is useful if you are looking for a specific item. I save money by not being as picky about specifics of the things I need.

Reselling Movies & Games: We had a video cabinet full of movies & games left over from financially fatter times. I went through it and pulled out the games & movies that no one really liked anymore. I sold these for store credit. Right now is also a really good time to pick up video tapes at garage sales because people are replacing their favorite videos with DVDs. If I could pick up a movie I was interested in seeing again for $1 at a garage sale, I’d do it. Howard and I would watch the tape and then I’d resell it for about $.50 at The Movie Trading Co. Over the course of several months we accumulated a balance on a gift card that the kids gave to Howard for Christmas.

Grocery Store Sales: I used the same method buying Christmas treat food as I use for regular shopping. I planned ahead and watched for sales. The candy that went into the stockings was left over from the Halloween surplus. I just put some aside.

Things we received from others: This is the category that is probably hardest for someone else to duplicate. My parents are extremely wonderful and understanding. In November they coordinated with me so that they gifts they gave were the one item that I would have bought for each child had I been able to afford it. This means that the grandparents have the reputation for being brilliant gift givers, but I don’t care so long as the kids were happy. Howard also received several wonderful gifts from schlock fans, I tried to make sure I listed them all, but it is hard to keep track of everything. Would Christmas still have been wonderful without these items? It would certainly have been much leaner, but I think we still could have been happy. If I couldn’t count on things in this category I would probably have snuck money from other areas in my budget, increased my Christmas spending by about $50 to make sure that each child had at least one gift that they were delighted over, even if it meant buying things new.

29 thoughts on “$100 Christmas Report”

  1. Similar

    Sandra & co,
    Yay for y’all! Year-round alertness for giving is key. That is how we did Christmas 40 years ago on the farm. A difference: Everyone around was also short of money. There was no trickle-down from thrift stores and richer relatives. But impecunity resulted in better gifts: preserves from our strawberries and wild blackberries, tailor-made crafts and clothes, and similar items bartered from neighbors. I remember getting a Christmas calf–to which I added a year of work, profiting in cash and character. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This year our family

    This year our family, which is somewhat extended, decided to keep Christmas simple. We all agreed to do gift cards and we all spent Christmas at home. It was lovely and simple. And apparently inspired, since all of us went down sick over Christmas. LOL.

    So, you know, I think this is great.

    You would fit right in with the urban survival lj group. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Freecycle

    Do they have Freecycle out there in Oo-tah, or is it a SFBay phenomenon? Anyway, imagine your “discards” category with some search capabilities!

    I find your story inspiring, especially the “look what I found!” attitude.


    P.S.: As the icon may imply, I found my way here from the Schlockiverse.

  4. Re: Freecycle

    I remember drawing that…

    Re: Freecycle, they have it here, but Sandra doesn’t check her email often enough to take advantage of it. Stuff was always gone by the time she checked on it.


  5. Broadcast Television…

    Kudos for avoiding that in your home!

    Tell you, should I ever end up with children myself that would be the first thing to be removed from the house…
    Saturday-morning cartoons – and the associated adverts – are horrific child-manipulators when viewed from an adult perspective.

  6. Re: Freecycle

    To clarify, I did do freecycle for awhile. But the local group is so active that I had to check my email every 15 minutes all day and then be willing to jump into the car and pick things up on a moment’s notice.

    I’ll probably do it again later in 2006 when I start actively looking for a set of bunk beds to replace the toddler bed & twin in one room.

  7. Re: Freecycle

    It’s sad that freeCycle has gotten so big and so bad. In our area, most of the “first grabbers” are people who gather everything they can to resell. The few things I’ve gotten, though, have made it worth it. When I offer things, I tend to find people who are really in need. I keep their emails and find them other things. I found someone in a particular clothing size the other day who will be inundated as soon as I’m able to go through boxes. For that, I’m pleased.

    You did good, Sandra. I’ve been there. This year was simple for us, too. The great part to hear is that your parenting made it possible. Too many parents are afraid of not buying the toys for fear of disapproval by the child. Kudos! I LOVE sharing tables, too! I usually keep a box of “things that need to go away” near the door and everyone we know gets pointed to the box when they are over. Anything left stagnant after a few weeks ends up at a charity, but usually other people find things that interest them. Makes me feel good that nothing got tossed.

  8. Dragons?!

    ::reading, seriously appreciating, tipping my hat to you and…::

    Dragons? You made dragons? (picture cat sitting *very* tall and interested) May I ask what pattern you used? I’m looking for a few brave dragons 🙂

    We don’t have children, which simplifies things a *lot*, but my husband and I are also pretty lean on Christmas. For the past several years my family and coworkers have been getting a series of ornaments that I make over the year. A couple balls of string for $5 or the leftover embroidery floss from ancient projects and somebody else knows you really like them because you spent your most precious commodity on them – time. It’s a good thing 🙂

  9. What a great and dedicated job!

    We spent a bit more than $100 this year, but then, times were a bit more fat than they have been in the last couple of years, and I spoiled my son just a wee bit. Granted, I only bought things that I know he will play with all year; the Thomas the Tank Engine characters are expensive, but he literally plays with them for hours a day, telling the stories and inventing his own – and I buy the knockoff brand wooden tracks, as he doesn’t care about those. I know he’ll get my money’s worth of playtime out of those trains.

    For everyone else, however, including the 10 co-workers I gave gifts to this year, I don’t think I spent more than $35.00. My family and I drew names this year, meaning that I had two adult gifts to acquire and 1 teen gift. Generally, I make the majority of my gifts, but between an increasingly hectic work schedule (calming down now, thank goodness), the increasing demands of a 3-year-old on the little time I’ve had at home of late, and moving into the new house 10 days before Christmas.. there just wasn’t the time this year.

    Very inspiring post. Mind if I friend you?

  10. Timing

    I knew if I was going to pull it off, I had to start looking in January

    Granted, I spend more currency than you, but I started Holiday shopping December 23rd of this year, for next December. Just before December 25th, the sales are great, especially on open box/ returned items. If you get up early like I do, you can even shop December 25th before the rest of the family wakes up.

  11. Flawless is Over rated

    I looked around and nearly cried because I could see so clearly that everything was second hand. The boxes for the games were a little battered.

    For small dings and scratches (box or item in box) my wife just covers it with stickers. She buys sheets of cool stickers whenever she finds them. Your husband could even make handmade stickers, then sell copies on ebay.

    One of my all time favorite toys was a cardboard Battlestar Galactica for my brother. My father made out of the box from our new furnace.

  12. One of the reasons that the $100 Christmas works for us is that we already have a good stock of basic toys. Buying durable basic toys is a worthwhile investment. I in no way regret the $150 I spent on duplos 6 years ago. They get used every single day.

    Feel free to add me to your friend’s list. New friends are a good thing.

  13. Re: Flawless is Over rated

    Kids don’t even see the dings and scuffs that scream “used” to an adult. All they see is a cool toy or game that they’ve never had before. I keep having to rediscover this.

  14. Re: Freecycle

    I’m a big believer in “what goes around comes around.” I’ve been given so many things that I needed, that it would be selfish of me not to give away things that I no longer need. I suppose I could start selling stuff on ebay, but giving away is less stressful and provides more joy.

    I suspect that ebay is one of the reasons that freecycle has gotten so hectic.

  15. Re: Dragons?!

    Oh!! I have a celtic dragon someone made me that must be from one of her other patterns. I’ve been looking for *ages* for these!! Thanks!

    *grin* Maybe you can count this as another no-cost gift. Sure made my day.

  16. Not quite 0

    I know you said you used things on hand. No, they did not cost you right then, however they DID cost you a little bit when you bought them. Also, as a crafter who sells her crafts…they cost you in time. Granted, time worthwhile. My girls never expect store bought from mom and dad anymore. They know we can’t afford it. But they love seeing what I make for them for Christmas. My nephews favorite gifts for Christmas? Auntie’s SpongBob pillow, cost $1, hand made just for him and his crocheted hat, cost, $3 for the yarn when I bought it on sale.
    I’m glad to see that others also give things made for Christmas and that you “find” wonderful things all year round. The only way to combat the “You MUST buy this and that and everything under the tree” sales pitches. You and I and others like us scare the merchants of this country. Thank you.

  17. Re: Not quite 0

    You’re right that some of the supplies and gifts were things that I had previously spent money to purchase. For the purposes of this accounting I was only counting money that passed out of my hands for these things since Howard quit Novell 14 months ago. That was when I started paying attention to all pennies spent.

    All of the things listed as $0 cost time. There was time spent making home made items. There was time spent sorting through garage sales and thrift stores. I made many trips out that yeilded nothing worth bringing home. I spent lots and lots of time to save money. I used to spend money to save time, now I do the reverse. Funny world.

    You’re right though. A gift that shows careful forethought, whether that forethought be careful selection or careful construction, has a value greater than the dollar cost of the gift

  18. How old are your children? I have some toys and stuffed animals that I’m trying to find a home for. (All in good condition!)

    Are you interested?

  19. I probably am. Is there an email address where we can discuss it privately? If you don’t want to publish your email (I know I don’t like to) then you can go to schlockmercenary.com and click the “email Howard” button and make your subject line “please forward this to Sandra.”

  20. Re: Not quite 0

    I try to make gifts myself every year. In fact, I gave someone a store-bought gift this year and they were disappointed. Seems that he was counting on another year’s worth of coupons for Monthly Homemade Brownies.

    Serves me right for building a tradition or something.

  21. thank you…

    …to both you and howard for sharing this post. i’ve been enjoying the schlockiverse for some time now, and have gotten at least one other person hooked on it, too. 🙂
    fatter times at the holiday season are nice, but we’ve also been weaving our own traditions that do not revolve merely around new gifts and rampant consumerism. unemployment has not been paying nearly so well as my last job did, and i hope to have another job soon. meantime, the kids are doing all right. 🙂
    thanks again for the ideas…have you discovered the recipe for making your own laundry soap yet?

  22. Laundry soap

    I found this recipe when I was looking for ways to cut yet more costs with small children, and it works well on cloth diapers, too. 🙂 I prefer lavender and tea tree oils for scent as both are recommended for cleaning solutions in some of the herbals I’ve read. It’s also handy for not including perfumes/miscellaneous other ingredients that my uber-sensitive skin breaks out from.
    Laundry Soap
    Makes 2 gallons of liquid detergent.
    Preparation time: about 1.5 hours

    1 bar of soap of choice (“Ivory” works well, so does “Dial Pure and Natural”…these happen to be the brands I’ve made this with so far and no brand was specified in the original recipe I had)
    2 gallons hottest tap water available
    1 cup washing soda/baking soda/borax (have used both of the latter 2, not tried the first yet)
    20 drops essential oil of choice (optional – I use a combination of lavender and tea tree oils)

    Shave bar of soap into a small pan (a grater works nicely, as does my paring knife) and just cover with water. Melt fully on low heat, stirring occasionally. (It will take about an hour or so to melt fully, but the low heat is essential as soap bubbled all over the stove top is a pain to clean up if you miss wiping under the drip pans immediately. If it’s not melting quickly enough and/or the water’s evaporated because it’s taken a long time and it got forgotten for a bit, add a little water to the pan.) When soap is melted, add it to the 2 gallons of the hottest tap water you can run in a large container (whatever you’re going to store it in works well for this–I have an economy-sized bucket that used to hold dry soap). Stir in 1 cup of soda/borax until dissolved. Stir in essential oil(s) if desired.
    Laundry soap is ready to use immediately – you’ll want to stir it prior to each use and as it cools, as it will gel and get a bit solid. If you forget and have a bucket full of gelled soap, stir and break it up and it’ll still work. Wash as usual.
    1/2 cup = regular wash
    1 cup = heavy soil wash (adjust as needed, of course)
    I like to run about a half a cup of white vinegar through the rinse cycle of the wash to ensure there’s little to no soap residue, and it also helps reduce static from the dryer.

  23. I grew up believing in Santa as real, but I also grew up very poor. I’m not sure how it would work today, with kids comparing stuff they get, but one big difference, I think, was that Santa only filled the stocking, and for our stockings, we could choose any sock we wanted from our mom’s sock drawer, so we got one adult sock full of stuff. And the toe always held an orange, which limited things, but made it look good. 😉

    And among the stocking stuffers were, say, pieces of homemade candy that looked exactly like the candy Grandma made. But I remember a small handful of stocking-stuffer-like things, say an Old Maid game, always a small stuffed animal or doll in the top, and nuts and candy as filler. Santa didn’t bring presents, Santa just filled a stocking. But it was all less in-your-face back then. (We got something big-and-new for Christmas from Mom, and things like slippers and pajamas and coats then, too, things we needed anyhow. And for others, we sewed (Mom was good) or we bought things from the local equivalent of the dollar store.

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