friends exchanging gifts in front of Christmas tree

Gift-Giving on a Budget

You may be among those prudent souls who create a “holiday savings fund” each year, putting aside a little each month to ensure ample funds when gift-buying season arrives. If you’ve never considered the idea, don’t feel bad: few souls are that prudent.

You may have the opposite gift-buying habit, paying for everything with credit cards and never considering the cost until the bills arrive. If that’s you, you’re hardly alone: a third of all Americans end their holiday shopping in debt.

Of course, there are many options between “save all year for next December” and “pay all year for last December.” And everyone’s personal best approach is affected by:

  • Household income
  • Essential expenses
  • Regular buying habits
  • Size and expectations of extended family, peer circle, and other potential gift recipients
  • Time, interest, and resources for creating handmade gifts

The one universal principle is that it’s unwise to spend more than you have. Even if you’ll never be a “holiday fund” type, it’s best to do some budget planning for end-of-the-year extras.

Family holding Christmas gifts taking selfie
Family taking Christmas selfie

Budgeting Apps

For most people, digital apps are more practical than pencil-and-paper budgeting—if only to eliminate the hazards of math mistakes. Our BridgingApps database showcases a variety of budget apps: favorites include EveryDollar, Goodbudget, and Money Manager.

Sad to report, the Mint app, another longtime favorite, will no longer be available after 2024 begins. The good news is, you can still use it for 2023 holiday shopping. For next year and beyond, Mint provider Intuit suggests the Credit Karma app, although as yet Credit Karma (which focuses on credit ratings and spending habits) has limited budget-creating options. A list of alternate recommendations is in the recent Business Insider article, “7 Mint alternatives to consider as the beloved budgeting app shuts down.”

Shopping Apps

However well you plan a budget, navigating the gift-buying season means smart shopping as well. If you have a weak spot for impulse purchases, it may be best to avoid the malls (all those tempting goodies within physical reach) and shop digitally. There’s added psychological advantage: you can easily review a digital checkout cart, item by item with prices obvious, before clicking “Pay.” And if you realize you’ve passed your budget limit, “uncarting” a digital item is easier than deciding what to do with a physical “extra” after you’ve walked half a store from its shelf.

The Walmart shopping app is rated among the best, and has gift options to suit most tastes. Other well-known retailers with shopping apps include:

You can also shop digitally for gift cards. There’s at least one app, Gyft, designed specifically for one-stop gift card purchasing. It has card options from over 200 retailers.

Two young ladies looking at phone together in front of Christmas tree
Two young ladies looking at phone together in front of Christmas tree

In Closing: A Handful of Tips for Gift-Buying on a Budget

  1. Finalize your budget ahead of time. Last-minute shopping comes with a price of frantic pace and poor decisions.
  2. Use a preloaded gift card (or cash) so you won’t spend money that’s not immediately available.
  3. Don’t rule out discount stores and thrift shops as gift sources. You may be surprised at what you find there.
  4. Save stress (and drive time if you pick up your orders) by doing all your buying from a few well-chosen stores.
  5. Don’t feel you have to buy for everyone you know: a friendly note can be just as appreciated.

Bonus tip: give everyone you meet the best no-cost gifts—a smile and a cheerful word. It does wonders for holiday spirit on both sides!

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