19 tips for cutting holiday gift, travel and party costs

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Americans face the leanest holidays in decades, and Bankrate has found some great ways from experts and ordinary consumers alike to save money on everything from the perfect gift to the traditional family get-together.

If you’re like Alison Elliott of Truckee, Calif., you may find that cost-saving isn’t just an individual matter but a family affair. Elliott and her large extended family are whittling down gift expenses by using a gift lottery.

“You pick a family name and you spend around $100 on a present,” Elliott says. She spends $10 apiece on other family members. “You are looking at about $380 versus $1,200.”

Indeed, no matter how you trim your gift-giving, you’ll need a strategy. It can be as straightforward as writing a list and sticking to it. Or it can be as quirky as this trick from Certified Financial Planner Robert Pagliarini of Pacifica Wealth Advisors Inc. in Mission Viejo, Calif., and author of “The Six-Day Financial Makeover.” He says stuff the cash allotted for each gift recipient into separate envelopes to help you stay within your budget.

Below are other helpful tips from Bankrate for saving cash on gift-giving, yuletide travel and holiday party-planning.

9 ways to keep you from draining your retail dollars

1. Check consignment shops and Goodwill-type stores. That’s what Mary Herrington of Ridgefield, Conn., will be doing this season. “As a mom to four in a very affluent area, I have to figure out how to make ends meet when they don’t want to,” she says.

Mechel Glass of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta adds: “Try shopping yard sales … some items may still have the tags on them.”

2. Search online for items that have coupons and rebates. They will help increase your savings. For example, you find a camera that costs $300. With a printable online or advertising circular, in-store coupon, the price comes down to $250. Additional research yields a manufacturer’s rebate for $75. Presto, you’ve saved $125. “It’s like a double whammy,” says Web entrepreneur Suzanne Chan of Greenbaby-nyc.com.

3. Ask store managers about upcoming sales promotions. “Most retailers will reveal sale dates on the items you are considering, as they don’t want you to shop their competition,” says shopper Linda Carlson of Seattle.

4. Know the stores’ price-match policies and have substitute choices. Be ready to swap out stuff on your list if you can’t find the original items, advises Fatima Mehdikarimi, whose Web site, www.TheShoppingQueen.com, lists lots of shopping strategies.

5. Give the gift that keeps on being given. Re-gift items you’ve received and can’t use. Take a look at www.Regiftable.com for do’s and don’ts.

6. For very young children, consider gently used toys. They’re offered on eBay and craigslist and in classified newspaper advertisements. “Instead of three brand-new toys, now you can afford seven or eight lightly used ones,” says Lissa McGrath, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to eBay.”

7. Carry larger bills in your wallet while shopping. “People tend to hold on to larger bills longer than small bills. So when using cash, try setting out with a $50 bill instead of a wad of ones, fives and tens,” says Ethan Ewing of Bills.com, a Web site for consumers on how to save money.

8. Use your credit card reward dollars. Redeem them for gift cards. But Michael B. Rubin, author of “Beyond Paycheck to Paycheck: A Conversation about Income, Wealth, and the Steps in Between,” says to use caution with gift cards because people tend to spend more on them than on actual gifts. You may want to first check out sites like Plastic Jungle.com where you can buy, sell or trade gift cards at a discount.

9. Think environmentally friendly. You can save money by sending digital Christmas cards. Want to extend that savings? Use LED Christmas lights, which use 10 times less energy than standard fluorescent bulbs. Rozanne Weissman of the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington says leaving holiday lights burning 24/7 will quadruple holiday energy costs. Use a timer and limit light use to no more than six hours a day.

Over the river and through the woods

Want to go to Grandma’s house but can’t afford it? Nick Friedman, senior editor of Scholastic Parent & Child magazine in New York, offers this creative solution: Use your home computer to make a video greeting from the whole family for Grandma. And don’t forget to call her on the big day.

Still, you may find the allure of large family gatherings around the holidays irresistible, or at least unavoidable.

Six travel tips for spreading Christmas cheer on the cheap

1. Fly on the actual holiday. Booking a seat on Christmas Day can be cheaper and more readily available. Consider celebrating with relatives before or after the holidays, when prices dip dramatically. Amy Shaw of Silver Spring, Md., visits her family in Southwest Florida after New Year’s Day. “For us, the real celebration comes from the opportunity to spend time together as a family. This year we plan to spend the money we save on less-expensive airline tickets in January and hit the after-holiday sales,” she said.

2. Ask about discounts. That’s the advice of personal finance expert Harrine Freeman of H.E. Freeman Enterprises in Bethesda, Md. Some airlines offer discounts to students, senior citizens, government employees and members of AAA and other organizations.

3. Book your hotel room closer to your date of arrival. It’s a risk, but you can usually get a discounted rate. Vijay Dandapani, COO of Apple Core Hotels in New York, says, “Most hotels … tend to lower rates on the day of arrival to avoid inventory losses from unsold rooms.” The best rates are usually on the hotel’s Web site, but you can still score discounts on sites such as Quikbook.com and Venere.com.

4. Buy flights in increments. For example, if you’re going from Seattle to Miami, you might find it cheaper to buy one ticket to Atlanta, then a second one for the leg to Miami. The drawbacks: You’ll have to check in again, and if your first flight’s late or canceled, you won’t have any recourse if you miss the second one. The airlines owe you nothing — no refund and no seat on the next flight. So make sure you allow lots of time between flights.

5. Send gifts and extra luggage ahead via a shipping company. It’s cheaper in many cases to go with FedEx or UPS than it is to pay the extra baggage fees on a flight, and there’s less chance of your gifts getting lost, damaged or stolen. Even better, buy gifts when you get there and travel with a carry-on.

6. Check out travel Web sites. On Yapta.com, you can find flights, track prices and sign up for e-mail alerts when flights hit your price level. Yapta also monitors ticket prices after you’ve bought and lets you know when the price drops. Some airlines will give you a credit for the difference, according to Yapta spokesman Jeff Pecor.

Have some figgy pudding

Gatherings around the holiday table don’t have to be lavish. One of the most overlooked tactics for saving on food is to start by shopping at home. Comb your pantry and freezer for stuff you forgot you had. Hunt down those seven cans of green beans you bought on sale, or that hidden turkey breast for a holiday dish.

This holiday season’s baking and entertaining can be trimmed to fit your budget if you think ahead.

Four tips for planning creative and cost-conscious yuletide parties

1. Don’t schedule parties around mealtimes. Instead serve light refreshments earlier or later in the day, suggests party expert Lisa Kothari of the party-planning Web site Peppersandpollywogs.com. Even better, host a get-together with hot cocoa and cookies, and include the kids. The parents in your crowd will appreciate not having to spring for a sitter.

2. Host a card-signing party. You provide the drinks, writing tables and pens, and ask guests to contribute an appetizer or some cookies, says Ewing of Bills.com.

3. Opt for Christmas brunch instead of dinner, and make it a potluck. That’s what Wendy Kaysing’s family in Santa Barbara, Calif., does. They snack on the leftovers all day long.

4. Go vegetarian. Alice Conway, director of event management at Stratford University in Falls Church, Va., says the food is usually healthier and cheaper. Conway also suggests opting for casual dining over formal, and sharing hosting duties. Going halves can mean half the work as well as half the expense.

Remember, shop early rather than later. Merchants already are lining up great deals and slashing prices to clear old inventory. And last-minute shoppers tend to spend more. If you find yourself in the mall just hours before Christmas, resist the temptation to overspend. A gift’s still a gift, no matter when it’s purchased or how much it costs.

This year, Marshall Cohen, of Chicago, Ill., has shopping in mind as he looks for a seasonal job. “Not only will this give me extra cash but employee discounts as well,” he says.

The best tactic of all? Find the joy in simple, inexpensive things.