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Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006 | Now that I live in a big house in a neighborhood festooned with elaborate Halloween decorations, I have an overwhelming impulse to cover my yard with pumpkins and haystacks, oversized scarecrows and a fake cemetery. So far, I’ve got only three pumpkins and one homemade ghost, but the urge to wipe out Target’s Halloween section may overcome my frugal sensibilities any minute. Apparently, I’m not alone.

Americans are expected to spend $4.96 billion on Halloween candy, costumes, decorations and festivities this year – a significant jump from last year’s total of $3.29 billion. Halloween is the six-largest spending holiday, with the winter holidays expected to top out at $457.4 billion. Unity Marketing, a consulting firm that tracks consumer spending on gifts and decorations, says Americans spend about $8 billion annually on winter holiday decorations alone.

That’s a lot of money, but you don’t have to go into debt to have a great holiday season and an impressively decorated yard. With that in mind, I’ve got a few tips for holiday savings.

Budget

You can’t stay within a budget if you don’t have one. So set aside a day this month to figure out just how much you’ll spend on the holidays this year. Don’t forget all the little extras like bottles of wine to take to parties, new party clothes, sparkly earrings and even money you’ll spend on food to prepare special seasonal dishes, have dinner out with friends or the latte you’ll need to survive the airport. Once you’ve made a budget, set the money aside in cash and don’t use credit cards, which are easily a significant contributor to overspending.

Don’t give gifts

It’s a novel idea, I know, but do you really have to buy gifts for every member of your extended family, your grown siblings and parents? Can’t they buy their own sweaters? Do your neighbors really need huge baskets of pears and chocolates?

I’m deliberately not listing here all the websites that promise to find the best bargains on merchandise and shipping because I would rather urge readers to go the cheaper route by eliminating people from your gift lists. That won’t make you a Scrooge. Thoughtful friends and family don’t want you going into debt to buy them things they could buy themselves. And frankly we all need to stop buying so much crap. I strenuously object to the notion – strangely pushed by holiday savings guides – that you need to assemble or gather tiny packages of candies and cookies to give to people who happen to stop by your home or who surprise you with a tin of brownies. Theirs is a thoughtful gesture so thank them genuinely and wish them a happy holiday instead.

If you do buy gifts, buy small gifts for your immediate family that you think they’re unlikely to buy themselves. Or tell your loved ones that you’ll be donating all the money you normally spend to charity. Invite friends to join you for a homemade spaghetti dinner or a day’s work for Habitat for Humanity. Buy your kids just one or two things they really want instead of five or six or seven things designed to make the tree look more exciting.

Treat Yourselves

Instead of buying things, spend your money on family trips or outings or a much-needed massage. Last year, my husband and I bought each other just a few small, inexpensive gifts and spent our Christmas money on two nights in a bed-and-breakfast in Big Bear. That was better than anything we could have bought each other and it was much easier to control our spending than if we had wandered around the mall without a budget or a plan.

Go Natural

I love flowers, but I only buy them occasionally at the farmer’s market where prices are really low. And I hate silk flowers so they’re out of the question. Instead, I buy seasonal fruit on sale. Bowls filled with lemons and limes, cranberries or bulk nuts make festive and inexpensive displays. I’ve got a bowl of gourds in a glass bowl now that cost just $6 and will last much longer than flowers. Snip off a few tree branches and put them in a vase, or tie them around a wire hanger shaped into a circle for a rustic wreath.

Buy last minute

Everyone says you should buy holiday cards in January, but I’m just not in the mood then. You can get great deals on cards right before Christmas, however. What does it matter if your cards arrive two days after Christmas? Tis’ still the season after all. You can also make your own cards or simply print up a family newsletter. I would also avoid buying presents all year long. Turning a seasonal holiday into a yearlong shopping job just ensures you’ll spend more money than you need to – even if you’re shopping sales.

Recyle

You can make beautiful candle displays by simply dunking tea lights into clean jars that once occupied your refrigerator. I also use old jars to hold flowers and branches. Use sheets to make a nifty Halloween costume (Toga party!) or a spooky ghost to scare children. Wrap presents with newspaper. Or join Freecyle.org, where strangers give away things they don’t need for free. But you’ve got to commit to the idea of recycling and give away some of your own stuff too.

And, finally, a colleague of mine has suggested dumpster diving for your Christmas tree. Yes, apparently, some very wealthy people travel over the holidays and actually ditch their trees – ornaments and all – days before Christmas. I haven’t tested this one out, but you can turn that idea into a family outing to La Jolla – check out the holiday lights while digging trees out of rich people’s garbage – because, as we’ve seen in recent voiceofsandiego.org reporting, there very likely won’t be many cops around to stop you.

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a free-lance writer living in Point Loma. Please contact her directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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