Updated on 10.09.17

Start a Holiday Gift Closet Now So You Can Avoid Black Friday

Holiday shopping is projected to rise 3.6% this year, noticeably more than the average 2.5% gain of the past decade. According to the National Retail Federation, U.S. consumers will be spending $655.8 billion in 2017.

It’s no secret that some people bust their budgets December. A 2016 survey by T. Rowe Price noted that almost two-thirds of parents buy more than they can afford. In some cases this probably doesn’t mean simply incurring seasonal debt, but rather adding to existing obligations. Ho, ho, no!

You don’t have to play this game. Frugal living expert Erin Huffstetler spends no more than $100 out of pocket to buy gifts for about three dozen people, and has done so for the past 16 years. Well, except for 2012, when she spent nothing at all.

She doesn’t give junk, either. Among the presents under the tree last year were a flag football set, a set of beaded bracelets, superhero T-shirts, Craftsman tools, and a slew of other items mentioned throughout this article.

“Spending less on gifts doesn’t have to mean giving things that aren’t as nice,” says Huffstetler.

“Being smart with your money isn’t something you should ever apologize for. I enjoy telling people where I got their gift – even if that story includes a thrift store.”

Like many other frugal folks, Huffstetler is a year-round deal hound who keeps an ever-stocked gift closet. They start their shopping at post-holiday clearance sales, watch the summer yard-sale and autumn rummage-sale seasons, take advantage of coupons and special promotions, cash in rewards points and keep an eye out for free stuff all year long.

It’s a little late to be that prepared. But look at it this way: You’ve still got almost three months to get creative about paying – or not paying – for this year’s Christmas presents.

Bonus: The holiday gift closet can often be an “evergreen” gift closet — i.e., you can pull from it throughout the year for birthdays and other special occasions.

Three year-round sources for free gifts

Buy Nothing Day, a movement described as “an international protest against consumerism,” is in the news every year right before Black Friday. What you might not know about is the existence of Buy Nothing groups on Facebook. Members have the option of giving away items and asking for things they need; some also share services such as tutoring and music lessons.

No guarantees that you’ll find exactly what you need; then again, someone might be offloading the holiday present(s) of your dreams. Visit BuyNothingProject.org to find a Buy Nothing Facebook group in your region. The site also has information on starting your own group.

These groups sound a lot like the Freecycle Network and the “free” section of Craiglist, two other potential options for getting gratis gifts. Again, you might not find what you need – but then again, you might. Obviously you wouldn’t want to give a gift that’s seen hard use; however, some items being given away via Buy Nothing and Freecycle are in great condition.

Previous use might not matter at all. While a member of Seattle Freecycle, I listed a CD of “The Nutcracker.” The single mom who picked it up had a young daughter taking ballet lessons. At age 4, the little girl didn’t really care that someone else had already listened to the CD. Your recipients might feel the same way about things like books, sporting equipment, and tubs of Lego bricks. It’s new to them, right?

More free stuff

Huffstetler is a big fan of the Shop Your Way program at Sears, which gives points for purchases. She cashed in last year for a faux fur throw for her daughter (“at the top of her Christmas wish list”), hiking boots for her husband, fleece pajamas, a Craftsman socket wrench set, a couple of LED flashlights, a toolbox, and some reindeer socks. (After all, it isn’t really Christmas unless someone gives you socks or underwear.)

Armed with a “$10 off a $10 purchase” coupon from J.C. Penney, she scored a pretty floral-printed top for her teenage daughter for just 19 cents. Not free, but pretty darned close. The moral of the story: Don’t throw away sales flyers without reading them first.

She also scored some free items, such as socks and leggings, through the CVS ExtraCare program. My state has no CVS, but Walgreens offers some freebies throughout the year and quite a few on Black Friday; these items make great stocking stuffers or small gifts.

The Kroger chain has a “Free Friday Download” each week. Some are perishable items and some go to a church food bank, but I save fun ones like beef jerky and sour gummy worms, for stocking stuffers or gift bags I create for my nephews’ birthdays. (I like to give five or six smaller items vs. one big gift.)

A few other options:

Library giveaways. Every so often I find stacks of books on the “free” shelf at my city’s main library. Some are discards from the collection; others are apparently titles donated by residents. I wouldn’t give the former as a gift, as they’re somewhat tattered and also prominently marked “discarded.” But I’ve found some wonderful novels that for whatever reason were put up for grabs rather than kept for the book sale. Some have been in such good condition that they landed in my gift closet after I’d read them.

Gift swaps. Invite friends over for an afternoon or evening of trading new or like-new items. Nothing junky, just items that weren’t the right fit: the scented candle from a co-worker who didn’t know about your fragrance allergy, say, or clothing in the wrong (for them) color. Heck, I once heard about a vegetarian who got a gift card to a steakhouse.
(Pro tip: Don’t put out anything given to you by one of the attendees!)

Judicious regifting. Last year someone gave me a compendium of “The Walking Dead” graphic novels. One reading was enough for me; after that the book went into my gift closet (a teenage relative is a fan). At a conference I received a gift card to a restaurant chain that I’m lukewarm about; it made the perfect gift for someone on my list. Or maybe someone gave you an item that you already own, so why not give it to someone else?

Paying less – maybe a lot less – for gifts

Determined to buy new? Know what things usually cost, and when you see a great deal, either jump on it or use price matching. Christina Hiatt Brown, the former writer for the Northern Cheapskate blog, wanted to get a Lego Minecraft set for her sons. It was expensive (about $100), but the only gift the three kids had specifically requested.

When it went on sale at Walmart for $36.97 Brown was ready to jump – but the store had sold out. So she took the sales flyer over to Target, which offers price matching. “I got my boys the (one) present they wanted for more than $60 off the retail price,” says Brown, a freelance writer who specializes in smart money use.

Watch for “clearance” tags and/or tables at your favorite retailers. Sometimes all you find is seasonal stuff they’re desperate to be rid of, but these can become elements of a themed gift. (For example, you could fill a bag with sidewalk chalk, wiffle ball set, kite, jump rope, and bubbles, and call it a “springtime fun kit.”) But sometimes even non-seasonal items like toys, tools, clothing, and housewares are marked way, way down.

  • Pro tip: Online retailers often have clearance sections, too.

Keep your eyes open for other specials or short-term deals, too. That flag football set Huffstetler bought for one of her kids was originally about $70, but she paid $2 for it in a “grab-bag” promotion at Michael’s. Other grab-bag finds were a coloring canvas, crafts supplies, and two blank journals, each of which cost a dime.

Although the yard sale season has pretty much wound down in much of the country, you might live in an area where they go on year-round. Or maybe they have church- or school-sponsored autumn rummage sales in your region.
The offerings vary widely, but I’ve found new, still-in-the-shrink-wrap items like art journals and candles that make great evergreen gifts. Huffstetler paid $1 for a like-new shirt with her daughter’s high school logo, 50 cents for an owl-themed water bottle, and just a quarter each for an “infinity scarf” and a Girl Scout journal.

  • Pro tip: Look for multi-family sales, possibly with a free app like Garage Sales Tracker.

Thrift stores are like yard sales in that you may find great stuff or you may find nothing at all. Again, you could luck out enormously, especially with regard to books, kitchenware, and baby items. Huffstetler found a brand-new Coach scarf for 50 cents at Goodwill. My best deal ever was a never-opened jigsaw puzzle of a detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, perfect for a puzzle-mad relative – and since it was half-price day, I paid just 35 cents.

Know your recipients! Some people might be super-conscious about secondhand gifts, while others don’t care. When Brown’s sons asked for MP3 players, she bought “gently used” iPod Shuffles, complete with new headphones and chargers, for about $15 each at GameStop.

“Here’s the thing: No one has to know you got an item on the cheap unless you tell them,” she says. “The real value is in the thought you’ve put into the gift – not the final price.”

Cashing in

Rewards programs like MyPoints.com and Swagbucks.com pay for a lot of my birthday and holiday gifts. You earn points through activities like using their search engines, watching videos, and shopping online.

I also cash in points from my two rewards credit cards, which covers just about everything else. If you’re going to use credit responsibly, why not get something back?

You can use these rewards programs and/or rewards credit cards in three ways:

  • Cash in for gift cards to pay for your shopping.
  • Cash in for gift cards to give outright.
  • Shop carefully, then convert rewards points to cash against your next credit card bill.

Some workplaces or health insurance companies offer incentives to stay healthy. Diedra Howson-Barker and her husband earn gift cards for holiday shopping through the family health insurance plan. They can claim up to $600 worth per year by getting annual checkups, working with health coaches and committing to exercise programs.

“If someone has this arrangement and has kind of fallen off the (health) wagon, anticipating Christmas is a reason to get back on,” says the New York resident.

Check with your own insurance and also the human resources department of your workplace to see if you have access to a similar benefit.

Thinking outside the (gift) box

An entire separate article could be written about rethinking the rules for giving. For example, why not give a family gift instead of individual ones? Giving a museum or zoo pass to a family of five might be more cost-effective than buying three children’s presents and one couple’s gift. (Not to mention it shifts the focus from “stuff” to shared experiences.)

Extended-family gatherings might include drawing names in advance, so that each person would be responsible for only one gift instead of a couple dozen. You could change the rules of engagement, e.g., “Gifts only for those under 18 or over 80.” Or you could suggest opting out of gift-giving entirely and make the big gathering about togetherness vs. acquisition.

Gift-giving isn’t mandated, but it’s a meaningful tradition to a lot of people. Yet your holidays shouldn’t drag you into debt or add to existing debt. Use some of these tactics all year long and next Christmas could be the merriest – and the most solvent – holiday ever.

Related Reading:

Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”