How to have a great vacation, even when money is tight



We talked about how to spend Christmas this year, as well as how to afford it. A few extended family members will be gathering at their family’s cabin in the country, so we will be welcoming a smaller group to our home on Christmas Day. We will all miss the others, but we’ll all meet up for our annual family ski and snow day before the kids go back to school. The advantage of having a smaller group is for our finances. We really can’t bear to do everything for the holidays like we have done in the past. However, we still want Christmas to be special to catch up with last year and because we have aging family members. What can you suggest? ~ Lenora


When the pandemic started, few of us realized we needed to have not only a COVID-style first Christmas and the holiday season, but a second as well. While Christmas 2021 will be different again, there is still a lot of celebration we can do. And with just under three weeks to go, a short shot is better than no shot.

As you prepare your plan, try not to think about how to make up for last year. Instead, focus on crafting a three-week budget that avoids racking up an unmanageable amount of debt as you prepare for an affordable celebration with meaningful new traditions. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Traditions can be easy on the budget

Some of the most meaningful holiday traditions are invaluable – or can at least be enjoyed in a cost-conscious way. Bake cookies, family board games or movie nights, hot tea or cocoa by the fireside, cook meals together, sing Christmas carols, play in the snow, attend religious celebrations and set up decorations are all important elements of a vacation.

Engage in the traditions that mean the most to you and your family, and look for ways to lower their costs. Reuse decorations from previous years or ask loved ones to lend you those they haven’t put up. Ask those who come to your house for a meal to bring their favorite food and include it in your overall meal plan for the day. Look for free or low cost events in your community to enjoy with your family or take a drive to watch the holiday light shows in your neighborhood.

6 smart money tips for the holiday season

Use the best buying strategies to save

With less than 21 days from the big day, it’s too late to save the money you need. However, it’s not too late to figure out your budget, make a list, double-check it, narrow it down, research deals, and cut back on your discretionary spending on other things (e.g., after-work drinks, lunches or gifts for yourself). Shop during less busy times to give yourself the chance to focus on what you need. Be mindful of your budget and cross items off your list as you collect them.

Resist the urge to buy whatever is available regardless of the price if the gift you are looking for is not at hand. If you can’t find what you want, give your loved one a personalized gift certificate for the item, with a promise to deliver it once you can pick it up.

Keep stress under control to avoid maxing out your credit cards

How to pay for the holidays when money is tight

Part of creating a vacation budget is figuring out where the money will come from to pay for gifts, food, entertainment, and all other vacation expenses. Rather than focusing on what little you have to spend, look for ways to make the most of what you have. Outline your household budget so you know where you stand and don’t run out of essential expenses once the vacation bills roll in.

If you decide to use the credit, plan how to pay off the expenses charged to your credit cards within three to six months. This will likely mean a decrease in expenses, an increase in income, or a combination of both in the early part of the new year. Resist the urge to juggle multiple credit cards for your vacation shopping. Stick to using a single map to make it easier to track your location.

Another way to pay for vacations is to file your tax return as quickly as possible in the spring if you are usually entitled to a refund. If you have extended health benefits or work expense claims, submit any overdue receipts for reimbursement and apply the money to your vacation expenses. Those who get paid every other Friday, depending on your pay dates, you might have an extra paycheck this year in the month of December. This “unexpected” money could go a long way towards paying for additional vacation expenses.

While there is no time to redeem Reward Points for merchandise, there is still time to purchase points at your favorite retailers. Grocery stores with a loyalty program will often have days where you can redeem points for buying a turkey, for example. If you have points or miles that you can transfer at a reasonable rate to a loved one, make your points their gift. Some programs even offer family sharing, and miles can be pooled at no cost. Sharing your points will allow you to purchase a gift without spending extra money and will help your loved one reach the level of points they need faster.

Practical tips for avoiding debt during the holiday season

Frugal vacation meal planning

Food is an important part of the celebration, whether it is in a large circle of friends and family, or with just your loved ones. With three weeks to go, you still have time to research deals to get what you need. Buy non-perishable, canned or frozen items as they go on sale and store them in a separate box in your pantry or freezer so you have them when you need them. Beyond your main holiday meal, you’ll also want to plan for all the snacks, treats, and other meals that make your season special. Create a master list so you don’t buy more than you need, or worse, realize what you forgot right after shops close on Christmas Eve.

13 hidden ways to save on groceries

Resist the temptation to spend

For the holidays in 2020, you may have spent less due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Notably, freebies have likely been cut back and most families haven’t been able to enjoy their annual getaway. This year, with the easing of restrictions, if you feel tempted or pressured to make up for what you think your family missed last year, instead think about what you did.


last year by being forced to stay home and spend less. Christmas 2020 has been a holiday reset for many families.

To help keep your spending reasonable this year, plan to keep your spending at or below what you spent last year. Avoid comparing your spending choices to those of your neighbors, friends, family, or strangers on social media. You might even want to start new traditions because the holidays are not a competition. They should aim to create memories, not mountains of bills.

The essentials on planning for Christmas when money is tight

The Christmas and winter holiday season plays an important role in most of our lives. However, these weeks are only a small part of the year. They shouldn’t be so cheerful and bright that they leave you in debt and tight on your budget for the next 12 months, or longer. Look for community resources if you are having trouble paying for groceries and gifts for your children; support is available. Consider alternative giveaways that can spread your spending throughout the year, and give your giveaway budget a bit of a break now. With careful planning, there is still time to get rid of traditions that don’t fit your lifestyle and budget.

Associated reading:

Alternatives to traditional holiday gifts

Simple gift planner for efficient shopping and budgeting

How to give your credit cards a break this holiday season

Scott Hannah is president of the Credit Counseling Society, a non-profit organization. For more information on managing your money or debt, contact Scott by


, Check

or dial 1-888-527-8999.

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