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Surviving Christmas without breaking the bank

'Last chance Christmas Shopping in Toronto' photo (c) 2010, Simon Carr - license: did Christmas become something to “survive”?  Obviously the true meaning of Christmas extends beyond shopping, gifts, and Santa Claus, but chances are that if you celebrate the holiday, shopping is going to figure into it somewhere, even if it’s not your main focus.  So, here are 6 tips to make that process easier.  If you’ve got more, please share them in the comments.

Tip #1 – Shop early

Have you noticed that most people at the mall in December are first-class grouches?  Being around grumpy people saps my energy, so I try and get everything bought by December 1st, including all the household toiletries, cleaning supplies, and bulk foods we’ll need for the month.  That way, the only store I absolutely have to go to during the month is the grocery store for fresh foods.  Grocery stores can actually be quite pleasant until about the 3rd week of December.  Everyone else is at the mall fighting over the last Elmo doll, so I have the food aisles to myself.   Shopping early also allows for time to compare prices and buy what you really want rather than grabbing whatever is on the shelf at the last minute.

Tip #2 – Keep track of what you buy

The downside to shopping early is that in prior years, I have bought extra for my kids.  I picked up things while at the store, forgetting that I already had more than enough for them stashed on the top shelf in the laundry room. Obviously my kids don’t complain when they get extra, but my bank account does.  My spreadsheet list of what I’ve bought is going to make its way onto my phone this year for that reason.

Tip #3 – Shop online

If you’re shopping early enough (see tip #1!), it will save you money because you can choose longer shipping times, which are usually cheaper.  In many cases, books, DVD’s and other items can also be found at a cheaper price online than in a store.

Tip #4 – Cross-border shipping

We Canadians usually feel like we’ve struck gold when we find an online site with a wide product selection at good prices that actually ships to Canada.  So many online retailers ship only to the US, or the prices to ship to Canada are ridiculous.  If you live close to the US border, you may want to consider using a package receiving place on the US side and shipping products there instead.  When you’re deciding on whether this type of arrangement is going to save you money, you need to factor in gas & time to get to the border, border crossing time, pick up package time, and duties on returning to Canada with the package.  You need to declare what you’ve bought when coming back into Canada (it’s the law), and there are no duty exemptions when you’re out of the country for less than 24 hours.

If you can co-ordinate your Christmas shopping with a US vacation, then the savings are going to be a lot better.  When you’re out of the country for 48 hours or more, you can bring back $800 without having to pay any duty.

We went to Pennsylvania on vacation in September this year.  I bought a motorcycle cover for my brother-in-law for his birthday, and a few Christmas gifts.  I saved money on the purchase price and the shipping costs.  I used a delivery network web site to find a package receiving place close to where we were going to be on our vacation and had the package shipped there.  CAUTION – call the receiving place listed on any web site and make sure it’s actually there.  I ended up having to chase the birthday gift from Hershey to Harrisburg because the Ship n Go listed on the delivery network’s web site was no longer in business.  Not how I wanted to spend a morning on vacation, but at least I got it before UPS sent it back.  To add insult to injury, a month later I forgot the present in Ottawa when we saw my brother-in-law in Toronto in October on his birthday.  Sigh.

Tip #5 – Shorten your list

Before we had children, my Christmas shopping list extended beyond our families to a number of friends as well.  Then as we and our friends all started having kids, the list of people to purchase presents for became really long.  None of the kids needed any more stuff, and it was becoming difficult to think of ideas for them that fit our price range.  So, a few years ago, we asked our friends if they would prefer not to exchange gifts any more.  The relief on their faces was unmistakeable.  We all just decided to make our lives easier by not exchanging gifts with each other.  It cut everyone’s Christmas budget and stress levels down quite significantly.  We all know that our friendships are valued even without the purchase of presents.  Is there anyone on your list that doesn’t really need to be there?

Tip #6 – The Christmas list

I’m going to lose a few people on this one because it’s admittedly a bit tacky.  However, over the years this system has won over most of the holdouts in our family because it just simplifies things so much. We all keep lists of things that we’d like on  This site works like a gift registry or wish list, but you can add links from any site, or even just items without a link.  Once you’ve made your list, you send a specialized link by e-mail to the other people in the family.  This link only needs to be sent once.  I have everyone’s lists bookmarked at home.  As people think of things they would like, they add them to their list during the year.  When I start my shopping in the Fall, all the items are on the list, and I just check off what I’ve bought.  No duplicate presents.  No returns of undesired items because I know I’m getting exactly what they wanted.  It also saves me trying to come up with ideas at any given point in time.   In our family, practicality wins out over mystery and surprise.

What about you?  Do you have any tips for me?  I’d love to hear them!

October 26, 2012

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