How to Give Frugal Holiday Gifts without Looking Cheap

christmas gifts

Flickr Image by Mackenzie

Remember how exciting Christmas used to be as a kid? You would wake up early, sit under the Christmas tree in your pajamas, maybe read the Christmas story, and then tear open your presents. But, as you grow up, Christmas becomes more stressful than fun, especially when you are on a tight budget. It can be hard to find a good gift that is inexpensive, but not cheap!

I’m not a stranger to cheap gifts. One Christmas my brother and I received calendars that were from the previous year! Another Christmas, a friend of mine received a set of hotel toiletry items! Maybe you’ve experienced a similar situation. Have you ever received a gift that has clearly been used—a half eaten box of chocolates, tarnished jewelry, used makeup, even used undergarments? What about a gift that was clearly free—promotional pens, rebate drug store items, even happy meal toys?

While we can all laugh looking back at these gifts and tell ourselves that we would never do something like this, it’s hard to be frugal at Christmas. We want give something special to all of the important people in our lives but we feel caught between racking up the credit card debt and resorting to the sort of cheap gifts listed above. I think the difference between cheap and frugal gifts comes down to the heart of the gift. Are you giving for the sake of giving a gift? Or, are you giving for the sake of the person? If you have the receiver in mind, as you think about frugal gifts, you aren’t likely to go wrong.

Here are some ideas for heartfelt, inexpensive gifts:

  • Write from the Heart: Make or purchase a nice card and write the recipient a heartfelt note about why you appreciate having him/her in your life.
  • Frame It: Find a nice photo of the recipient and frame it. Or, gather some photos and postcards from his/her favorite destination and frame them. You could also frame the recipient’s favorite poem.
  • Thrifting: If you have a good idea of the recipient’s style head to the thrift store for some great frugal finds on clothing and accessories.
  • Fun Reading: Head to a used bookstore and find a few classic books that fit with the recipient’s interests. If the recipient prefers magazines, find some current editions of their favorite magazines for a little light reading over the holidays.
  • Homemade Items: Spread some Christmas cheer with homemade cookies, bars or candy. Try out some of these recipes! Use your creative skills to knit some mittens, make jewelry or write a song. Try your hand at some of these homemade gifts!
  • Gift Baskets: Create a personalized gift basket with some of their favorite items. Depending on the recipient’s interests, you might create a movie theater basket, spa basket, snack basket, grocery basket, the possibilities are endless!
  • Gift of Experience: Give the recipient tickets to an upcoming movie, museum, concert or event. You and the recipient can enjoy the event as well as some time together.

Join the Conversation: What frugal gifts have you given that have been well received? Have you ever given a frugal gift that didn’t work out?

This entry was first posted Dec. 4, 2012.

Frugal Fitness for the Holidays

I don’t know about you but the holiday season always seems to remind me how much I really need to get in shape. All of the food and drink over Thanksgiving and Christmas can really put our bodies over the edge. Instead of waiting until January, why don’t you jump start your fitness routine with these frugal fitness ideas? Don’t let the barrier of expense hold you back!

  • Everyday Fitness: Don’t underestimate the value of everyday opportunities to create a fit lifestyle. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Burn calories cleaning your apartment/house, babysitting, going shopping or garage-saling. Don’t judge those mall walkers, they are getting a good workout!
  • Online Workout Videos: One of the cheapest ways to get fit is to use free online workout videos.Sparkpeople has a variety of videos, some require equipment but there are some that don’t. You can find other free workout routines by searching for videos on youtube or for free podcasts on Itunes. If you have “on demand” TV such as xfinity you may be able to find some free workout videos there as well.
  • Workout DVDs: You can also use workout videos and DVDs. If you don’t have any check your parent’s house for those old 80s workout videos or check out the selection at your local library. Why not gather a group of friends to workout to Buns of Steel a few times a week? You will have plenty of laughs and get a good workout while you’re at it!
  • Get Outside: Use the great outdoors as your fitness center. Get out for a refreshing walk around your neighborhood, run around a park/lake, go out for a hike, or bike on one of the trails. If you live in a colder climate, like me, you might also try snowshoeing or skiing.
  • Dancing: Dancing can be a really great work out as well as fantastic way to have fun with friends. Get down with salsa, swing or whatever you like. Or, try Zumba: a latin-inspired form of exercise that is a combination of dance and aerobics put to the beat of lively, fun music. Many community centers, fitness clubs, and even churches are offering this with varied pricing. Search here to find classes near you. Don’t want to go out? You can always play DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) or Just Dance for a great dance workout at home.
  • Community Classes: Get off campus, meet some new people and get fit by getting involved in some community fitness classes at your local community recreational center. Community centers offer a variety of classes and equiment. You might also check and see if your school offers any fitness classes. If you live in St. Paul, check out some of the offerings in Roseville.
  • Fitness Centers: As you know, fitness memberships can be very expensive. First check to see if your school has fitness equipment available for free or a small fee. If not, see if your school has deals with area fitness centers or if some of your local fitness centers have student pricing.
  • Community Sports/Broomball: Another way to get fit and meet some new people is to join a recreational sports team. One of winter’s most fun ice sports is broomball. A recreational winter sport that is similar to hockey. See if their are any recreational leagues near you, like this on in St. Paul.
  • Do It Together: So often socializing during the holidays involves parties with an abundance of food and drink. Find a few friends who are also interested in staying fit and socialize while you workout. Go for a walk/run, join a class together or just head to the gym together. Looking for something more adventurous? Try out the aerobic fitness classes at Sky Zone indoor trampoline parks or go to an indoor rock climbing gym.

Join the Conversation: What is your tip for staying fit on a budget?

Saving in the Season of Spending

Photo Credit: Johanna Abzug via Flickr

Photo Credit: Johanna Abzug via Flickr

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the Christmas season sets in after Halloween is over. I’m one of those people who thinks that it is sack-religious to listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. So, you can imagine my frustration when the commercials begin to feature Christmas lights, trees and music. But, I have to say that my largest frustration with this season is its eternal encouragement for you to SPEND, SPEND, SPEND not just others but also on yourself. I want to offer an alternative message this Christmas season, instead of focusing on spending why not focus on saving?

First, save money on gifts. I encourage you to make a budget for all of the gifts that you intend to purchase this Christmas season and stick to it. Make your money last by using coupons and checking out sales. Buy or make gifts that matter this Christmas, rather than just buying something for the sake of it. Think about how you can give of your time and not just your money to those you love. Check out this article on frugal gifts!

I absolutely love giving gifts, but we have to make sure, as frugal people, that we are giving for the right reason this season. Are we giving because we love to shop and buy gifts? Are we giving because we want to top someone else’s gift? Or, are we giving because we love and care about people and want to give them something meaningful? Better yet, are we giving in celebration of Christ’s coming? It is not worth spending our money on anything that is less than meaningful this season.

With all of that money that you save by giving frugal, meaningful gifts that fit into your budget, I encourage you to do two things with it: save the day for someone in need and save money for the future. First, save the day for someone in need. Take the time to celebrate the season by giving away some of the money that you would have spent on Christmas gifts. Maybe you choose to buy Christmas gifts for those who can’t afford it. Maybe you choose to give your time to serve Christmas dinner to folks at a shelter. Or, maybe you choose to incorporate giving into some of your Christmas gifts by giving money or items to an organization in honor someone. Check out Oxfam America, Sevenly or ELCA good gifts for some great ideas!

Lastly, save money for the future. It can be SO tempting to spend money on yourself during this season. Begin “acting yourself into a new way of thinking” by intentionally setting aside money that you may have spent shopping and putting it away in your emergency fund, retirement savings or other short term savings fund. This is one of the absolute best gifts that you can give yourself, even $20 can make a difference. For more information about the importance of saving for the future, check out this post.

I challenge you this season to save rather than spend. When you do spend, spend that money on gifts that matter. Check out the Advent Conspiracy for more information on making your Christmas season meaningful.

Join the Conversation: How are you saving this Holiday season?

Procrastinator’s Guide to Frugal Halloween Costumes

Happy Halloween! I decided to bring back this popular post from last year with a few new costume ideas for this year!

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend 2.6 billion dollars on costumes for adults, children and pets this Halloween. The average spending per person is predicted to be about $75 on decorations, costumes, and candy! For those of us who are trying to live frugally, holidays can be a challenge. Here are a few frugal, DIY Halloween costumes for those who are still looking for ideas for this year or beginning to think about next year:

  • Classic Toga Costume: Wrap yourself in a sheet + sandals + put leaves in your hair
  • Jay Crew: Polo Shirt + Khakis + a name tag that says “Jay”
  • Jellyfish: Clear umbrella + party streamers or metallic ribbons hanging from it
  • Sick and Tired: Pajamas + thermometer + ice pack + pillow
  • Olympian: Track suit + medal + Olympics logo
  • Hippy: Tye-Dye apparel + bell bottoms + sunglasses + beads
  • Prom Queen: Formal dress (old bridesmaid dress, prom dress, etc.) + Tiara + Sash
  • Facebook: Write “book” across your face
  • Mixed Greens: Wear a variety of different green clothing
  • Beer Bottle: T-shirt of favorite beer brand + Get a foil pie plate, punch two holes in it at either end, and run string through it. Put it on your head like a hat and tie it.
  • Identity Crisis: Plaster yourself with nametags, each with a different name.
  • Carmen San Diego: Red Trench, purple/black hat, gloves, boots, and a globe
  • Freudian Slip Costume: Write Freudian words (regression, Oedipal complex, etc.) on a slip
  • Highway: Black clothes + Yellow dotted line with duck tape down the middle + toy cars and paper signs glued on your body.
  • Lady Bug: Pin some felt or paper circles on a red dress and pick up a pair of wings from a halloween store or goodwill.
  • Bunch of Grapes: This is a great one to do with friends. Wear a purple, red or green shirt then tape balloons of the same color all over your shirt and put leaves in your hair.

For more ideas check out wisebread, realsimple, buzzfeed, c.r.a.f.t. and essortment.

Join the Conversation: What is your favorite frugal Halloween costume?

How to Save Money on Your Grocery Bill

Photo Credit: Robin DeGrassi James via Flickr

Photo Credit: Robin DeGrassi James via Flickr

One of the largest expenses that most students have outside of tuition and rent is groceries. Here are some tips that can help you both save money without resorting to ramen noodles and eat healthy without forking over hundreds of dollars:

  • Budget: Have a specific grocery budget for the week and stick to it. One great way to do this is by shopping with cash.
  • Make A List: Set aside some time each week to plan out your meals and make a specific grocery list. Try to base your meals on what is in-season, on sale, and what you already have on hand. Then organize your list according to the layout of the grocery store, you’ll save time and money by avoiding impulse buys!
  • Coupons: Check the Sunday paper or your local grocery store website for this week’s deals. Check out Couponsuzy.com or CouponMom.com both sites feature printable coupon deals organized by region. Check out this post on couponing for more tips and tricks.
  • Buy In Season: Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season, they are cheaper and a lot fresher. Try going to a farmer’s market, you can find good deals and the produce is fresh! Or, support a local farm by joining your local CSA.
  • Going Organic: It can be hard to buy organic on a small budget. You may not be able to buy everything organic, but you can be more conscious about where you get your food. Check out your local co-op, join a CSA, or go to a farmer’s market. Or, try out one of my personal favorites Trader Joe’s that features tons of organic food and products at lower prices.
  • Buy Less Meat: Meat is often very expensive. Try cutting down on your meat consumption by eating vegetarian for most meals. If you find a good deal on a large amount of meat, re-portion it into individual servings and freeze it for later use.
  • Store Brands: Don’t neglect the generic store brands, often they are the same product as the name brands. Sometimes the store brands even offer organic or all-natural options!
  • Avoid Prepackaged Foods: They may be convenient but they really add up. Instead of buying prepackaged cookies, why not make your own?
  • Check Unit Pricing: One of the best tips for finding a good deal is to check the unit pricing on items. This will quickly help you find the best deal.
  • Watch the Scanner: This will help you keep track of costs, make sure your coupons actually went through and it will keep the cashier more alert.
  • Limit Your Trips: Make fewer, larger trips. While shopping around can be very good, it can cost a lot in time and gas. Check out what you can get for the best price at different grocery stores in your area and make trips once a month to those stores for specific items.

Join the Conversation: What tips do you have for saving money on your grocery bill?

Fall Frugal Recipes Featuring Fall Produce

Photo Credit: Quiltsalad Flickr

Photo Credit: Quiltsalad Flickr

One of the best ways to eat frugally and save money on your grocery bill is to feature in-season produce in your recipes. Here are some fall fruits and veggies to keep in mind as you shop and some great frugal recipes to go with them.

  • Apples: Apples are the quintessential fall fruit. They are harvested in the Northern Hemisphere during the late summer and fall. While apples are really great all by themselves, they are also wonderful additions to almost any dish. Check out two of my new favorite apple recipes: fried collards with apples and cinnamon apple pork chops. If you are looking for a fun fall activity, why not pick the apples yourself? Check out these twin cities apple orchards for more information.
  • Kale: This hearty green often gets over looked in the grocery store. But it is really tasty when prepared well. Kale is known as one of the most healthy foods in the world, chock full of vitamins A, K, C and maganese. With its hearty leaves it is great in soups and salads as well as steamed all on its own. Check out this great kale with white beans and sausage soup recipe. Check out these 22 kale recipes from cooking light.
  • Eggplant: This beautiful veggie comes into season towards the end of summer and stays in season well into fall. They are at their best August-October. Eggplant is a great meat substitute as well as a good source of fiber. Here are some great eggplant recipes from treehugger.
  • Green beans: While green beans are often available year-round, they tend to be sweetest and most tender during their natural season, from mid-summer into fall. Green beans are a good source of vitamins C, A and K. They make a great side, sauteed or steamed with a little salt and pepper. If you want to get creative, try pickling your green beans for a great snack.
  • Sweet Potatoes: These orange gems are available from late summer through winter, often sold in the grocery store as “yams”. They contain lots of vitamin A as well as vitamin C, maganese, vitamin B6, potassium and fiber. These work as a sweeter alternative to your traditional potato. Check out these 25 healthy sweet potato recipes from health.com.
  • Pumpkins: With Halloween approaching, pumpkins are beginning to pop up in stores. Pumpkins, the most popular variety of winter squash, come into season in September. While they make great decorations, they are also a great source of vitamins A and C as well as fiber. Frugal Living NW lists 26 pumpkin recipes from desserts to drinks to baked goods. But, my all time favorite frugal recipe for pumpkins is simply salted pumpkin seeds.
  • Zucchini: This popular green variety of summer squash is in season from summer into the fall. Zucchinis are high in folate, potassium and vitamin A as well as low in calories. One of my new favorite frugal recipes is zucchini banana bread. It is easy to make and oh so delicious! For some other zucchini recipes, check out these recipes from health.com.

Looking for more information and recipe ideas for in season fruits and veggies? Check out the fall recipe guide from Martha Stewart.com.

Join the Conversation: What are your favorite fall recipes?

Fall Budget Challenge: Step One Discover Your Habits

By 401(K) 2012 under CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr

By 401(K) 2012 under CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr

Fall is here and the school year is now in full swing! As you get used to the new school year and the challenges it brings, why not consider how this year will affect your finances? Fall is a great time to set your budget for this year. Whether you have never had a budget or you religiously track each purchase, it is a great to consider or reconsider making a budget that works for this year. This is especially important if you are just starting school, have a new job, new living situation or you want to get a better picture of where you stand financially. Budgeting can help you see how much money you actually have (probably more than you think) and where that money is going (probably more places than you think). This fall join me in the Fall Budget Challenge. Together we will discover our spending habits, align our spending with our values and create a budget that we can maintain, all in just a few weeks!

We begin by discovering our spending habits. Over the next month, you have one task: track your income and your expenses. You may think you know where your money is going, be prepared to be surprised. Over the next few weeks track every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out. This includes everything from bills to paychecks to birthday money to the dollar you used to get a diet coke from the vending machine. Every penny counts. There are a variety of ways that you can do this:

  • Journal Method: Carry around a small notebook or journal and track every purchase you make whether with cash, credit or check. On another page track your income.
  • Excel Method: Instead of using a journal, track all of your income and expenses in an excel spreadsheet. This works best if you set aside some time each week to put in each transaction, if you do it with any less frequency you might forget some of the smaller purchases. This method works best if you keep your receipts from all of your purchases and write down those for which you don’t have a receipt. Microsoft provides a variety of personal budgeting templates.
  • Software Method: If Excel isn’t your thing, but you still want to track your spending on the computer there are a variety of different programs out there, one of the most popular is Quicken. This software will also be helpful later when we create a budget.
  • Online Method: There are a variety of websites that can help you track your income and expenses as well as create a budget. I use Mint.com because it syncs with my bank account, categorizes my transactions and tracks my budgets all in one place. There is also a great app that allows me to track on the go! Again, it is important that you set aside time each week to track your expenses on the site to make sure everything is categorized correctly and all of your cash purchases are included as well. For more information on other personal finance apps, check out this article.

Happy Tracking!

Join the Conversation: What has been your biggest surprise that you found out about yourself while tracking your spending?

Student Discount Blitz: Explore the Twin Cities on a Dime

Minneapolis at Night Photo Credit: Andrew Olson

Minneapolis at Night
Photo Credit: Andrew Olson

Exploring the twin cities can be expensive, but your student ID can make your adventures a whole lot easier on your wallet. Here is a selection of some of the discounts that you are privy to as a student in the Twin Cities. Whether you want to check out a museum, the orchestra, the movies, new restaurants, even sky diving, there are a variety of student discounts just for you!

  • Museums: On Friday evenings after 5pm the Science Museum offers discount admission to students. You can get into the museum for $6, or go to the omnitheater + museum for $12. The Minnesota History Center offers students $9 admission with a valid student ID anytime.
  • Live Entertainment: The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) hosts Club2030, a club of people ages 18-39 years old who get $10 best available seats to SPCO Concerts at the Ordway in St. Paul and Ted Mann in Minneapolis. All you have to do is sign up! The Guthrie Theater offers students a $5 discount off of regular price tickets and now you can join Guthrie U to receive student discounts right to your inbox. The Shout House, featuring rock ‘n’ roll dueling pianos, offers College ID Night on Fridays, students can get in with no cover.
  • Sports Games: The Minnesota Twins host Rasmussen College Student Day every Wednesday. You can get a standing-room only ticket for $5 with valid Student ID. The Minnesota Wild host a few College Nights throughout their season. On College Nights students can purchase a Lower Level ticket for $35.
  • Movies: There are many discount movie theaters in the Twin Cities including: Brookdale 8, Maple Grove Cinema 10, Hopkins Cinema 6, and the Riverview Theater.  Also, the St. Anthony Main Theatre offers $6 tickets with student ID.
  • Restaurants: The Loring Pasta Bar offers students 25% off with a valid ID, anytime except Friday and Saturday.
  • Shopping: If you are shopping be sure to check out J-Crew for a 15% discount and Picky Girl for a 10% discount on Tuesdays.
  • Skydiving: If you are looking for a little adventure, you can get a $20 discount on skydiving at Skydive Twin Cities.
  • Travel: If you are traveling, check out Student Universe for great deals on flights, hotels and more. Looking for student discounts at your new destination? Check out this article from daily finance.

For more discounts check out yelp. What other student discounts have you found in the Twin Cities?

How to (Re)Decorate Your Apartment on a Dime

Have you just moved into a new place that you would love to decorate?Have you been dreaming about redecorating your apartment but you aren’t sure if you really have the time or the money to do it? Does your apartment still feel reminiscent of your college dorm room? Never fear! You can decorate or redecorate your apartment on a small budget, check out these tips to help you get started:

  • Get Inspired: Start out by finding some photos of rooms, apartments or items that you like. Check out Pinterest or Apartment Therapy for ideas. Apartment Therapy has a great section on Decor Styles that offers examples of different styles so you can hone in on yours. You might also want to go out to some furniture stores, like Ikea, if you live close by so you can get a feel for different spaces that you like.
  • Start Small: If you are on a tight budget it may be best to start small. Pick out one room that you want to (re)decorate and imagine what items you would like to add to it. You don’t have to completely overhaul the space. Shifting the furniture and adding a touch of color with paint, new lamps or window treatments may be all that you need. Pick the space, and figure out the things that you would like to change.
  • Set a Budget: Next, set a budget and be stick to it. You would be surprised how much you can do with a small amount of money if you are careful about. Get some ideas for inexpensive DIY projects that you can take on. Check out Better Homes and Garden’s Ideas to steal for your apartment, HGTV’s 15 budget decorating tips, apartment therapy’s 25 DIY project that cost less than $50 and Budget DIY tips for stretching your project dollars.
  • Get Shopping: Now is the perfect time to hit garage and estate sales while the weather is still warm. Check out Goodwill, Freecycle, Craigslist and other thrift stores in your area. You will be surprised what treasures you can find.
  • Need a Little More Help? That’s ok! Apartment Therapy has the Style Cure to help you redecorate a room over a month. They will send you an email each day with a specific assignment to help you keep on task. Best of all, it’s free!

You can (re)decorate your apartment on a budget! So stop pinning photos on Pinterest and get moving! 🙂

Join the Conversation: What apartment DIY projects have you tackled?

An Eye to the Future: Emergency Funds, Retirement and Estate Planning

I realize that some of my readers are out there looking at me with a quizzical brow wondering why I would choose to write a post that includes estate planning tips when my main demographic is folks under 30. Let me promise you that this information is worth your time.

It can be easy when you are in your teens, twenties and thirties to trick yourself into thinking that you will live forever, but the truth is that you will not. You have no idea what the future holds! While this may be a scary thought, it is not intended to be. In fact, by talking about emergency funds, retirement savings and aspects of estate planning we are actually doing something to control that fear and maybe even find joy in what the future might hold for us and those we love. Here are some tips to help you think ahead:

  • Emergency Funds: An emergency fund is money set aside for use in emergencies, generally 3-6 months worth of income. I cannot over stress the importance of building up and maintaining this fund, even if you can only contribute $20/month right now. This fund comes in handy when you have unexpected expenses such as car repairs, home repairs, medical costs or job loss. I recently got hail damage on my car and I couldn’t be more grateful that I could draw money from this fund and not rack up a credit card bill. Check out this post for tips for creating an emergency fund. Even if you can only start small, it is worth it to start saving now.
  • Retirement Savings: For many of you, retirement might seem like it is a long ways off. You may have decided to defer saving for retirement until you have a better job, are making more money, have kids, etc. But, you really can’t afford to put it off. By the time that you get around to it, it may be too late. With the magic of compound interest, beginning to save at age 22 versus waiting until you are 35 can make a big difference. Check out this article for tips on why it is important to start saving now. Again, contributing a small amount now towards your retirement can really add up.
  • Estate Planning: There are many different aspects to planning for your estate. I will explore a few.
  1. Will: According to RocketLawyer’s 2011 poll, 60% of Americans admitted that they didn’t have a will. Nearly everyone under 30 that took the pool, 92%, said that they didn’t have a will. If you are over 18, it is not too early for you to be thinking about making a will. Check out this business insider article for more information on why it is important to create a will. What many people do not understand is that if you do not make a will the state will decide how your property will be distributed. While you may think that you do not have “property” because you may not own a home yet or have children, you probably have a bank account, savings account, jewelry, car or even some investments. Your will is also a great time to think about charitable causes that you might want to leave money or property to in your estate. A will ensures that your assets are distributed to those you choose in the manner that you choose. You can create a will with a lawyer or online for under $100. If you decide to do this online, be sure to do your research.
  2. Living Will: While you are thinking about your estate, it is also important to create a living will, also known as a health care directive or physician’s directive. This document informs your family and health care providers about your desires for prolonging medical treatment in the event that you are not able to speak for yourself. The regulations for this vary by state, so it is good to have a lawyer assist you with this. Many estate planning lawyers will include living wills and durable power of attorney in your package of estate planning documents. You may also be able to fill out this form online, be sure to thoroughly research the site before you use it. For more information on living wills check out this all law article.
  3. Durable Power of Attorney: While you are working on those other two estate planning documents, you will probably want to also create a durable power of attorney. This is a legal document that gives someone the power to act in your place if you become incapacitated, particularly in matters financial and medical.

I realize that this information can be really overwhelming and somewhat depressing. But, it is incredibly important! While we can never have complete control over our future, by saving money and planning our estate we can know that our wishes will be respected and our future will be more secure.

Join the Conversation: How are you thinking ahead and preparing for your future?