Making memories without breaking the bank

Even though Christmas is still more than a couple of months away (so sorry if you weren't ready for a reminder), I am trying to think of ways to create meaningful family traditions for our first holiday season together as a family of four. It's true that my husband and I have celebrated eight years together, but we didn't do gifts most of the time (usually we paid for a house project), so I feel like this year is really the beginning.

I want to keep our traditions simple, yet memorable; to feel rich in love and family, without spending lots of money. I don't want our kids to feel deprived, but I don't want them to be materialistic either. To be honest, I am not sure what their expectations of Christmas are, but I am certain they aren't used to a huge number of presents. I want to keep their expectations low, so I can exceed them…but not too much.

I haven't decided what we'll be buying our kids this year — and I definitely haven't decided if thrifted or used items will part of our plan. But I have decided that we need to think about developing our family traditions. Here is a small list of Christmas traditions that I have done or sound interesting enough to try for our own little family.

  1. Christmas dinner. For more years than I can remember, we've planned a special Christmas dinner with my siblings and parents. Because we all help with the labor and the food costs, it doesn't seem overwhelming to any of us. Each person requests one dish, and we set the table with china, cloth napkins, table cloths, and serve special beverages. It's a warm, fun time that we all enjoy.
  2. Food Hide-and-Seek. As I have mentioned many times here before, I grew up in a low income, large, farming family. Because we grew a lot of our own food, certain kinds of candy and sugary cereal were a treat. Anyway, my mom wanted to make our Christmases special and memorable without stretching the family budget too much. Someone gave my mom the idea to buy each child his or her favorite treat and hide it. This family tradition has almost hit two decades. Still today, when our Christmas dinner is finished, we head to the basement while my mom and step-dad hide food gifts for all their children, in-laws, and grandchildren. I might be in my 30s, but I still think it's fun! And it might be a bag of licorice, or six pack of Pepsi, or homemade snack mix. Whatever it is, it was specifically chosen for the tastes of the recipient.
  3. Book string game. This idea is from a friend. I haven't done it myself; but my kids love to read, so it's definitely likely we will do this annually. A long length of string is attached on one end to a paper towel tube and on the other, to a book. The parent winds the string around a room. The child has to wind up the string on their tube. When they get to the end, they find a book!
  4. Present code. The same friend shared that she does a “present code” for her kids' gifts. The clues and codes change every year, but the children always have to figure out which gift belongs to them. Something fun to make each gift more special.
  5. Grab bag/white elephant. For a few years, one of the highlights of an extended family gathering was our version of a white elephant gift exchange. Each year had a different theme (starts with “C”, $5 or less, red, etc.). Gift givers followed the rules and draw a number. The person who drew number one selects an unmarked present from the pile and opens it. The number two person can either take the first present or pick from the pile, and so on. The fun was in stealing popular presents from each other and attempting to be really creative with our gifts.
  6. Give to others. For several years, we have gone to the local shelter and served a Christmas dinner. Also, the agency that helped us with our adoption has a program in which people can purchase Christmas gifts for kids who are in residential care or foster care. I've considered having my kids pick out gifts for this program, although I am not sure they are ready for that this year. I've also played Christmas music as part of a string trio at area nursing homes. (Not that this was a gift. Once, during one of our performances, I heard one nursing home resident say to the other, “These girls need to learn to play!”) Other friends host a meal and invite older people who maybe lost a spouse or would enjoy a special meal, but no longer have the health or energy to prepare it themselves. Donna Freedman shared a great post a few years ago on Christmas gifts that make a difference.
  7. Taffy pull. The other side of my family occasionally has a taffy pull at the annual Thanksgiving or Christmas get together. And even less occasionally, it's actually worked. Still, for all the failed masses of taffy blobs, I can conjure up pleasant memories of buttered hands pulling the taffy thin, laying it outside to cool and then biting off first crunchy (and then chewy) bits of taffy. It's an old-fashioned tradition that is a lot of work, but if someone else is making the taffy, why not?

I am not exactly sure what I want our holidays to look like this year (although low-key and simple are definitely part of my plan), but I look forward to making memories with my family.

Do you have any favorite family traditions that don't cost a lot, but are highlights of your family time?

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Frugal Sage
Frugal Sage
6 years ago

A family get together with a fancy xmas dinner or lunch is a must. I also like the ‘food hide and seek’ idea. I’ve always hated the #5 Grab bag/white elephant for two reasons. – Disheartening for people to see a present that they put thought into being ignored as people fight over a different present. (hence it hurts the givers). – Disheartening when you get something good as a present and you lose it to someone else (can create angst against the person who took it). Having said this. I’ve never done it in a family setting and only… Read more »

Michael
Michael
6 years ago

What a great (and timely) reminder. A lot of people have trouble separating the ability to enjoy themselves and create memories from the spending of money. The former doesn’t require the latter — and the latter doesn’t guarantee the former.

FI Pilgrim
FI Pilgrim
6 years ago

My family loves to play the white elephant game every Christmas, but for some reason their version of the game is more about “gag” gifts than actual gifts, meaning no one likes to steal anything. If you get a jar of haggis, be content.

So if you’re planning to go white elephant, please buy gifts that people actually want!

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
6 years ago
Reply to  FI Pilgrim

Or, better, gifts nobody wants! Just make sure you don’t “regift” something that someone there gave you, unless you got it at the White Elephant gift game.

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
6 years ago

My one requirement at Christmas is a church service, usually on Christmas Eve. I heard about this idea after my oldest started school: give each child 3 gifts just like the holy child got from the wise men. If you want to make service to others a part of your holiday, find a book titled The Sparkle Box. It’s wonderful. I guess I have a very Christ-centered Christmas. I also spend weeks baking cookies for teacher gifts and neighbors. I also like to make something as part of gifts for our nieces and nephews. In short, I try to make… Read more »

SAHMama
SAHMama
6 years ago

We do an advent calendar. My baby will turn 1 on Christmas Eve, and for the past 15 years, we’ve been guilted/pressured into driving up to my in-law’s house for church and ten bazillion family photos. Well, we’re not putting our baby through a 5 hour long car ride on her birthday this year, or any other year. None of us likes it. We don’t belong to a church, either, and always get pressure from the ILs about that also. So this year (like last, since I was in the hospital having a baby!), we will not travel. My older… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
6 years ago

Great ideas! IMHO, it’s so important for children to see that Christmas is about spending time with loved ones and giving to others — not what they’re going to receive.

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is driving around to look at the lights and decoration people put up. (We do this on foot too in our own neighbourhood too, of course). I still enjoy helping with the Christmas baking when I’m in town.

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
6 years ago

Christmas Dinner is a must. We always get together with family to celebrated with a great meal.

We typically have a party sometime during the month of December with family and friends. It’s a fondue type meal called “Bagna Cauda” we always invite someone new to the party each year.

William Cowie
William Cowie
6 years ago

From what I’ve observed, the best memories usually involve people. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that the holiday times people remember best (and fondest) involve larger gatherings, rather than small and simple. Personally, I’m with you on the simple thing, but even my fondest childhood memories are ones involving larger family groups.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
6 years ago
Reply to  William Cowie

I was usually one of the ones doing the cleaning, prep, cooking and clean up, so large gatherings weren’t particularly memorable for me.

I tend to have fonder memories of smaller gatherings because I actually had time to spend with people.

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago
Reply to  William Cowie

We have family coming out of our ears, so simple actually doesn’t mean small – at least not to us :). Just hoping to keep things unmaterialistic.

Sue
Sue
6 years ago

We play the “Christmas Game”.

anyone can purchase, regift or create a wrapped gift for “the pile”.

To “win” the right to open a gift, you answer a trivia question about another person playing. If right…go to the pile. If wrong the one asking the question goes to the pile.

Once gifts are out…can steal or go to the pile.

Cross between trivia-let’s make a deal- and white elephant. Has been a hit and that is all we do…no gifts to each other.

Merry Christmas:)

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
6 years ago

We do the white elephant thing as well. With so many family members between my wife’s family and mine, it’s just easier (and more practical) to do gifts in that way.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

stinger: 2-3 parts cognac, 1 part white creme de menthe. shake & strain.

hot buttered rum: prep a mix of soft butter, brown sugar, ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. when ready to drink, put add a spoon of the mix to a mug, fill 1/2 with rum, 1/2 with boiling water.

gin. and bitters.

irish coffee: coffee, irish whiskey, brown sugar, heavy cream on top.

eggnog: with dark rum. with bourbon. with brandy.

scotch: neat

calvados: in a snifter

irish cream: chug straight from the bottle like a chocolate milk. wake up when the holidays are over.

Carol C
Carol C
6 years ago

Laughed at the comment from the nursing home!

k-ro
k-ro
6 years ago

One tradition we’ve had a lot of fun with over the years is a ‘Treasure Hunt.’ We’d do this when we had a large gift that wouldn’t wrap well, or a gift of great significance. We’d create 3-5 successive clues (usually in the cadence of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’), with terrible puns or jokes, wrap the first clue in a box under the tree, and hide the remaining clues. It was always fun for both gift givers and recipients!

ed
ed
6 years ago

The first year of our marriage, we were so poor and in debt, that we couldn’t afford Christmas. We convinced ourselves, that we didn’t really need presents, we had each other. I had discovered during that first year, that my wife was able to make money stretch further than I could, when buying things and I was better at saving money, by doing without things. So for Christmass, I surprised her with an envelope full of dollar bills, I had squirreled away that year. I told her she MUST spend it all on Christmass Decorations, so that we could enjoy… Read more »

tracy
tracy
6 years ago
Reply to  ed

Lovely story!

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
6 years ago
Reply to  ed

Such a sweet story 🙂

When my parents were first married, they didn’t have much money so my mom made decorations for their first tree. Later, when my first sibling was born, she and my grandfather turned that into a tradition of making each of us an ornament every year. When we were older, we made it an annual craft project. When my siblings and I left home, we had a box of ornaments for our own trees.

Kathy
Kathy
6 years ago

If Christmas eve isn’t already planned, how about a Christmas themed movie night? My family always does Christmas Vacation but It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, etc. all would work just as well.

Laura
Laura
6 years ago
Reply to  Kathy

This is our Christmas tradition – the family always watches some version of “A Christmas Carol” every Christmas Eve. When DS was young, we also read “The Night Before Christmas” to him; now that he’s a teen, he reads it himself before bed because he loves the tradition! One tip I have for presents on Christmas Day: our family’s rule is that only one present may be opened at a time, with everyone stopping to admire that gift before anyone else’s can be opened (we rotate who’s opening a gift so no one has to wait too long for theirs).… Read more »

imelda
imelda
6 years ago
Reply to  Kathy

Yes, I love movies for celebrating Christmas. For us it’s always always been “It’s A Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve, to ring in the holiday.

We’ve watched “Love, Actually” on Xmas day for years. I always watch Miracle on 34th on the day after Thanksgiving, to launch the season.

A-L
A-L
6 years ago
Reply to  imelda

+1 on Love Actually. But no kids allowed!

Cath
Cath
6 years ago

I like to bake gingerbread anyway, but last year I made houses and we constructed and decorated them. Twice–once with the youth from church and once with my husband’s family. So much fun!

PawPrint
PawPrint
6 years ago

My kids always enjoyed baking and decorating sugar cookies that we cut out into Christmas shapes (trees, angels, Santa, etc.) as did I when I was younger. We also do stockings for everyone, young or old, with small gifts (lip balm, socks, tangerines, candy). When I was a kid, we’d always look at Christmas lights. My kids quit wanting to do that when they were ‘tweens, but my husband and I still love to look at lights.

Brenton
Brenton
6 years ago

Christmas creep! =)

Carol
Carol
6 years ago

I love the idea of a birthday cake for Jesus, but we don’t need more sweets in the house!

Carla
Carla
6 years ago

As a childless family of two, we don’t have high holiday expectations. My DH and I were having a conversation about what we will like to have (prepare or go to a restaurant) for our holiday meals/drinks and places we would like to explore – assuming the weather is OK for a short road trip.

The holidays is my favorite time of year but its very bittersweet for DH since he no longer has living family. Not to sound sappy but looking at the neighborhood lights, decorating a tree and volunteering is good enough for me.

Thera
Thera
6 years ago

We have several traditions for our large family, as we have 5 children (though two are now grown). ~Pack everyone up and go cut down a tree from a tree farm. ~The next evening we put on carols and decorate said tree and each person has their own special ornament that they get to place where ever they please. ~Family baking night, we make treats for ourselves, as gifts for friends and family and for a random senior in a seniors home. ~We do at least one family skate night. ~Lights night, make a thermos of hot chocolate and tour… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
6 years ago

We have been doing the lego advent calendar with our kids the last couple of years and it has been great. They are little and don’t have stamina for a big lego projects yet and the anticipation of a present a day is way better than a lot all at once. I really recommend something like this for small kids. On Christmas day we just get them one big gift and their stocking filled with little activities/food to enjoy the day of. Lots of gifts are overwhelming for little kids.

The Debt Shrink
The Debt Shrink
6 years ago

My family is obsessed w/gifts. Trying to grow mustache & say no this year. A cousin already suggested going to a theme park as a family instead of gifts, but even that’s outside our one-income budget. (Everyone else already bought their tix.) Suggestions??

Kristin
Kristin
6 years ago

I love how you say you are trying to grow a mustache like everyone knows what you are talking about. I would just tell your family you can’t come. Theme parks are really crowded around the holidays and aren’t that enjoyable then anyway. Then stash away your money with confidence.

Skint in the City
Skint in the City
6 years ago

New pyjamas on Xmas eve, then snuggling down with a film.
Xmas Day – every guest brings a couple of photos that are their favourites from that year and comes ready to talk about a special memory/day that they particularly enjoyed in the last year. I guess in the US that’s the sort of thing you guys might do at Thanksgiving, but not having that here in the UK I like to take a few minutes to reflect on the year on Xmas Day.

Katie
Katie
6 years ago

I like celebrating St. Nicholas Day. My parents would fill our stockings with apples, oranges, some candy, and usually a small gift like a headband, tube of chapstick, chewing gum, etc. I can still remember the scent of the fruit, sugar, chocolate, and nuts all mingling together. I loved waking up on the morning of December 6th, especially if it was a school day and checking out what St. Nick left me that morning. My parents would even say sometimes that Santa Claus was coming early to check on how good we were. Extra motivation!

mike
mike
6 years ago

For me the tradition has always been more about who I am with than what we are doing. Proof? My Christmas tradition with my father is to make homemade pizza and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I have no idea WTH pizza has to do with Christmas, but then again it has never really seemed to matter.

Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
6 years ago

I always enjoy the “kitchen” time before dinner. Everyone chatting, drinking, and helping to prepare the meal that we’re getting ready to enjoy together. I almost like it better than the meal itself since it retains that more casual air.

cathy
cathy
6 years ago

I’m in an interfaith family, so we have mixed traditions. For Christmas, my kids love the Lego Advent calendar. We never get our tree earlier than the Winter Solstice, and then decorate it (slowly) between the solstice and Christmas Eve. Often we’ll follow the tradition of my in-laws and host a Christmas Eve open house (and learned early on that it’s a lot easier to have a potluck appetizers/drinks/desserts menu than dinner). The younger kids get to open a present or two then (and save stockings for the morning). We participate in a cookie baking & exchange day with extended… Read more »

Nicole T
Nicole T
6 years ago

We do breakfast for dinner on Christmas Eve – low stress, low cost, and yummy. We also love to just drive around and find “pretty houses” (as my son calls them). I also love to stuff stockings with nuts, dried fruit, an orange, and some chocolate and candy canes. And a few small things to open (less than $5).

spiralingsnails
spiralingsnails
6 years ago

My family has a particular Christmas tree farm that we get our tree from every year. There are goats you can feed, reindeer & other farm animals to admire, and a tractor-drawn-wagon that takes you on a loop out to the tree fields. When I was a kid we would get a saw & go cut our own; now that my siblings & I are all adults, we tend to be lazy & just pick an already-cut one from the barn. But I love seeing my daughters’ eyes sparkle at the same sights & sounds – & yes, even the… Read more »

Micro
Micro
6 years ago

I’ve done white elephants quite a few times and I think they are a good way to distribute gifts and save everyone money. Sure some folks might get a little upset over a stolen gift but there is usually some trading afterwards so it’s always resolved in the end.

Phoenix_pjs
Phoenix_pjs
6 years ago

My husband and I started a tradition the year we got a home with a fireplace: we save the trunk of the tree from the previous year and burn it while we decorate the new one. This while listening to a playlist of songs from old albums my parents got when I was a kid. Mom had all the old vinyl albums translated to CD a few years ago, so now I drive hubby insane with the same songs my Dad was driven crazy with years ago. Anyone else oddly fond of the Caroleers (or even heard of them)?

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