Keeping Santa Sane: Budget Holiday Decorating


I started this article desperately wanting to coin a new term that combined the words "recession" and "holiday." Much like "staycation" implies a slightly downshifted and saner vacation, I think we need a word that describes a smarter approach to holiday spending and the crazy expectations that give rise to it. Alas, my linguistic skills have failed me; I’ll leave it up to the readers to coin a term that fits the concept best. Meanwhile, how can we get a head start on our holiday festivities and not get caught up in the preholiday madness? Below are some tips for holiday decorating on a budget; they just might help curb the high price of decking the halls and leave a bit more green in your wallet:

Wrapping and Bows

The wrapping and presentation of gifts can be a great chance to challenge your own creativity and engage your kids. Newsprint, road maps, old wallpaper scraps, or rolls of standard brown shipping paper can each be personalized and embellished for a custom gift-wrap look. Swing by your local newspaper — often they just toss out remaining rolls of paper if the roll won’t complete an entire printing. You can sometimes get yards of the stuff for free. I use brown shipping paper and unroll just the right amount for each gift. Then, using a ruler or T-square, I create graphic grid patterns and designs with markers or colored pencil. If you’re a stamper or scrapbooker, this is a perfect canvas for leftover supplies and some holiday inspiration. It’s customized, durable, reusable, and far less expensive than the big rolls of the glossy holiday-specific stuff.

Bows don’t need to be satin or silk — go for a totally organic look by using pinecones as the "bow" on plain brown paper and fasten with raffia or colored twine. Shells, small twigs, sprigs of pine, or family photos can also be used to replace the standard bow.

Gift Tags

I took a few calligraphy classes in college, but with a computer and printer, that skill is no longer a prerequisite for cool gift tags. Use your printer to make customized tags, then embellish with drawn or collaged holiday scenes. Fasten your tags with self-adhesive photo corners or frame them in small vintage frames from a thrift store. Dissect some old holiday cards for colorful and abstract folded gift tags that really pop on plain brown paper or newsprint.


Many of us have heirloom holiday ornaments for the tree, but if you’re buying new, the prices can be outlandish. One quick online search put the average price for a dozen glass bulbs at $14. Try a new approach to trimming the tree — one that uses less cash for decorating and leaves more for merriment.

First, choose a color palette for your tree. One or two consistent and repeating colors can help unify all the various ornaments you’ll make and give the tree a more intentional look. Next, work with your family to craft ornaments from things around the yard and in the house — mist natural pinecones lightly with spray paint in your tree’s color palette, or weave small twigs together to create stars or snowflake shapes using yarn that fits the color scheme. Wallet-sized school photos can be framed with Popsicle sticks and hung with twine to make a family of ornaments. Those old slotted clothespins can be painted to look like toy soldiers, animals, or other characters.


Popcorn is a classic here, but let’s think outside the popcorn box. Evergreen boughs can be tied together and laced with dried fruit or dried flowers for a natural garland. Old wooden spools, beads from broken necklaces, even small glass ornaments can all be strung together for a unique handmade look. Anything that has a hole to loop through or a surface to weave through can become material for garland. Remember, with any natural tree, safety comes first. Always use properly sized tree stands, keep your tree moist, and use low-heat lights.

If there’s one thing this recession is teaching us, it’s how to do more with less. Challenge yourself and your kids to create memories while you work on projects together. You never know what creative impulse or burst of artistic pride will define this holiday as one of your kids’ best. Now, back to that elusive new term for our frugal holiday…any ideas yet?

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Guest's picture

When my daughter was 5 or 6, she came home from school one day, just before Christmas, and said to me, "I think Christmas should be called 'Needmas'. Because so many people get things they don't need and so many people need things they don't get." So we started a family tradition that involved the kids making a list of the things they needed, and that would constitute our Christmas shopping list (we'd get them a few frivolous items for fun). 'Needmas' isn't as eloquent as 'staycation', but I think the spirit of it is in the right place.

Guest's picture
Terry D

How about "holidown"? Downsize the holidays!

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Kentin Waits's picture

Needmas, Holidown and Frugolidays are all great ones! Thanks for posting.

Guest's picture

I like your idea of making a holiday shift: "holishift."