I Went Christmas Shopping With Fake Money


Of all the post-holiday letdowns, the one I hate the most isn't the scale or the January weather or the household clutter: It's getting that credit card bill and finding out what my Christmas gifts from my spouse cost us.

In the spirit of avoiding that particular letdown, my husband and I made a new pledge this year: No use of the marital credit card to buy each other's presents. Instead, we would try to come up with gifts for one another completely off the books, using "fake money" like rewards points, rebates, store credits, pocket change, PayPal balances and coupons. Or we could make gifts for one another, but with three little kids running around, neither one of us has much time to be crafty.

I was about 97% successful in shopping for my husband with fake money. He was somewhat successful in shopping for me that way, and he's still working on it — he bought himself an extension by transferring some money from our savings account to his PayPal account, and is hoping to pay it back if and when some of his items listed on Ebay sell.

I got my husband a video game worth about $60, a CD worth $8, some bungee cords worth $8, and a cool wireless photo card worth about $60. Also, I filled his stocking with candy and nuts. And hey, I just remembered that I FORGOT to give him a $22 bag of Kona coffee I hid away in the freezer (bought on Free Shipping Day and with a rebate). Not an extravagant haul (I was much more spoiled, since besides a few modest gifts I received a long coveted Kindle e-book reader.), but not exactly lump of coal territory either.

Here is how I bought that stuff while only using about $3 of "real money":

  • Swagbucks. Late last year, I signed up for this program, which pays you to let Web search data aggregators eavesdrop on your Google searches. After about 14 months, I had accumulated around 700 points called SB, which I traded in for Amazon gift cards. I also transferred a little money to PayPal. I ended up getting $65 in Amazon gift cards, which paid for the video game, part of the CD, and I think something else I got for someone else. (The remaining $3 of the CD, which was marked down to $5 in an Amazon Lightning Deal, was the only money I spent on our credit card.)
  • Amazon Promotional Credit: I took advantage of one of Amazon's free magazine offers, where you can send in a form to request a credit for the value of the subscription instead. This put a $10 credit on my account, which allowed me to buy a pack of bungee cords marked down to $7.99 on another Amazon Lightning Deal.
  • PayPal: While my husband and I agreed that we would not use payment from our regular jobs, we each had received payments for random small transactions through PayPal. For instance, the pittance that I earn through Google Ads for my personal blog goes into PayPal, as do the payments and reimbursements I get for occasional mystery shopping jobs. Any Ebay sales we make also go into PayPal. (Confession: There was some money laundering going on here. I paid for several mystery shopping transactions and postage on an Ebay sale with our credit cards, but was reimbursed via PayPal.) I used PayPal to get the photo card and the coffee for my husband.
  • Store Credits: I used Register Rewards to buy a can of peanuts and some chocolates, I used CVS Extra Bucks to get him a huge Reece's Peanut Butter cup, and I used a $5 Catalina coupon at Jewel-Osco along with a coupon to get him some pistachios.
  • Coupons: I used  $10 Fannie May coupon from the Sunday paper to get him half a pound of fancy chocolates (and paid the $1.50 remaining after the coupon with pocket change), combined manufacturer's coupons with a Walgreen's store coupon to get some free Toblerone bars, and used "buy one, get one free" Reece's coupons with a "buy one, get one free" sale to get some of those for free. I also gave my husband another $10 Fannie May coupon to spend on me, and while I was typing this I ate some of the half pound of chocolate-covered caramels it bought. Thanks, Epu, and thanks Fannie May, because these things are friggin' delicious!

I also used fake money to get gifts for some other people on our list; there were plentiful free photo items available through Shutterfly, Kodak Gallery and others, as well as various $10 off a purchase of $10 or more at stores. And, I got all our wrapping supplies for free: wrapping paper and tape from the Hallmark store using the generous $5 off $5 or more coupons they put out (now expired), and tissue paper and gift tags from CVS during a free-after-Extra-Bucks offer.

Meanwhile, my husband got me several books from his office book exchange without spending any cash. As for the Kindle and other goodies he got me, he did use cash and the cash transferred to his PayPal, but is planning to replace it. I have to cut him some slack since, as a frugal blogger, I hunt down bargains and freebies as my job, while he is stuck in an office most of the day and many evenings to boot.

I feel that this experiment in fake money shopping was successful, so we're going to go for it again next year, this time with a whole year to plan. Actually, we might try to get one another's birthday gifts with "fake money" as well. I'd love to get to the point where I could fund ALL my Christmas shopping with fake money; I'm not counting on it, but who knows? Here are some unturned stones that we could still try:

  • Resale income: I actually brought a bunch of maternity and children's clothing over to our local consignment shop in order to generate cash for my husband's gifts, but I have not yet collected the proceeds. Assuming I make a little cash there, I'll set it aside for future gifts. Also, I haven't gotten around to putting various household stuff up for sale.
  • Referral program earnings. I recently started referring friends to Alice.com, the Web site where you can buy toilet paper and stuff for regular prices and have it delivered free. I haven't earned a ton from this -- $21 in the first month -- but over the course of the year this could certainly add up to another video game. Another referral program that I haven't tried but want to is children's clothing seller Boden, which pays you $5 in store credit for every friend's address you hand over. 
  • Rebates: I have been shopping through Ebates, Mr. Rebates and Shop at Home whenever I buy online, so I'm starting to have small balances accrue in those accounts. Most of them pay a check when you hit $20 or so.

All these little rebates and such don't seem much when they trickle in. That's why I like the idea of saving them all for one purpose -- they certainly seem worth the effort when I put them together and am able to make my husband happy without spending any of our hard-earned paychecks.

If any readers out there used creative means to gift their spouses this year, be it crafts, money laundering or the ever-appreciated "backrub coupon," I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Disclosure: I used my referral links to the various stores and reward programs I used, so if you would like to sign up for any of them through this post, I will receive a small payment or credit. And then I'll have more virtual pocket change to apply to the hubby's gifts next year, so I should really have him write you all some thank-you notes!

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Guest's picture

Online shopping takes new level of "shopping". With identity theft on the rise it's better with these

Guest's picture

That is pretty cool they way could buy without dipping into new cash reserves or charging things. Some people forget all about coupons abd "almost free" things.

John DeFlumeri Jr

Guest's picture

Absolutely killer idea!!

Don't use real money, but make it fun, interesting and creative.

i love it

Guest's picture

I appreciate the disclosure about the referrals. It helps readers make a more-informed decision about your suggestions. Personally, I will be looking into the swagbucks, but I was wondering how many referrals you had under that program to earn the 700 Swagbucks. Was that mostly through your searches or those of your referrals?

Carrie Kirby's picture

Here is some more detail about my Swagbucks earnings:

I have 11 referrals who have actually searched SwagBucks, and they have earned me 488 Swagbucks in all.  I've only earned 376 by Web searches on my own. (I found this info in the My Account section after reading your comment; I wasn't too sure how it broke down when I wrote the piece.) I don't have that many referrals because I haven't blogged about it much or aggressively pursued them; one popular blogger, Crystal at www.moneysavingmom.com, has managed to earn so many SwagBucks that she diapers two kids using the Amazon gift cards she trades them for!

Once you install Swagbucks on your computer, you can get a little toolbar with a search window and the experience is very similar to just searching Google. The results are actually Google results. The only drawback I have experienced is that occasionally Swagbucks will ask me to re-log-in and I don't always remember my password on the first try. Also it will ask you to type in the letters you see on screen at that point so that's a little annoying.

On the other hand, my husband would never use SwagBucks or allow me to install it on his computer. He's kind of a privacy freak and doesn't like the idea of installing software designed to collect data about your searches. Personally, I thought the search data companies were able to collect this kind of data without my consent and certainly don't mind providing it.

I'm not sure if I'm going to save my Swagbucks for my husband's gift again next year. Why? Cause now that I have a Kindle, I want more Amazon gift cards to use on guilt-free book purchases for the Kindle!

Guest's picture

Love the creativity!

I might just have to give this a try. ;-)

Guest's picture

I've been meaning to give SwagBucks a try for a while now. It's reinforcing to hear how much you saved using it.

Guest's picture

love the swagbucks idea!

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I did the exact same thing!

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Guest's picture

Great article!

I personally used my accrued savings from my online surveys to buy my girlfriend her gifts!

Feels great to give meaningful gifts and save money for the two of you at the same time!

I am also somewhat weary of giving away my information, but your article made me curious, I will definitely be using your referral links!

Guest's picture

I am so there ... I think this is a great idea. As Carrie stated
"All these little rebates and such don't seem much when they trickle in. That's why I like the idea of saving them all for one purpose." With this being the beginning of 2010 it seems to be the perfect time to put these ideas into action so that by Christmas shopping time I can have a nice chunk of "fake money" to use. By buying the stuff for birthdays and such that I normally buy through those rebate sites during the year would really add up. I'm gonna hit the freebie and sample sites pretty hard this year also, I've gotten so good stuff this way that would make great stocking stuffers or filler for gift baskets.

Loved the article , Thanks

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With unlimited numbers of products to select from, we carry items ranging from pens, gift sets, cooler bags, drinkware, safety products.

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Simply great guide thanks

Guest's picture

I purchased several Christmas gifts with Amazon gift cards that I earned through Swagbucks. I'll definitely be saving up my Swagbucks again this year.

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Shelly T

I use mostly credit card reward cards for holiday gifts. Either I give the card (say, for a restaurant), or I spend the card on the gift. Then I am just using the rewards from my credit cards rather than having to spend more. I even get a card to use at the grocery store to buy all those ingredients for holiday baking.

Guest's picture

Do you also do surveys or test products?

I have managed to weed out all the bogus or worthless survey sites down to the ones I only make either cash by PayPal or check, Amazon Gift Cards, and more If you are like me, you would love it! I haven't had to use my own money on my kids' clothes, Xmas and B-day gifts, extra special things for myself, and more since signing up! If you are interested, let me know and I can direct you to all the legitimate ones. I am a SAHM, so I have all day to do the surveys. The more sites you belong to, the more you make.

I also do what you do, but I haven't done Swagbucks, but another site just like it...

If any of you are interested in doing surveys, it really is worth it if you have the patience and like to answer surveys. Let me know :)

Guest's picture

I have always used Walgreens and CVS reward items as gifts. A lot of my family members love the toiletries sets I put together for them for Christmas,.

Along the same lines, I started doing Menards rebates about 3 months ago. I've gotten a lot of car related things. So a lot of the men on my list are getting car sets this year from the free after rebate items I got at Menards.

I don't do a lot of swagbucks or that kind of thing. I have considered selling items on cragislist and/or etsy though. I am not sure I like selling on ebay because they take a lot of your money. I also might look into consignment shops in the area.