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5 ways we waste money on the holidays


Between gifts, food, travel and parties, we spend hundreds of dollars on the holidays each year. The most recent Gallup holiday poll estimates the average American consumer plans to spend $704 this year.

While that number is down from last year, it’s still a heck of a lot, and it leaves many Americans much worse off financially after the holidays. Here are some costs that may feel a little Scrooge-esque to cut, but will actually hurt no one and leave you better off on Dec. 26.

1. Wrapping paper

Maybe I’m being a Grinch, but wrapping paper seems like one of the biggest ways to waste money on the holidays. No one really cares how their gifts are wrapped, and, worse, wrapping paper isn’t good for the environment. According to the EPA, household waste increases by about 25 percent during the holidays; discarded gift wrap undoubtedly makes up a large chunk of that percentage.

Last year, I spent twenty dollars on a roll of fancy, textured wrapping paper. Where is that wrapping paper now? Hell if I know. This year, I think I’ll try wrapping gifts by recycling or upcycling materials. Some wrapping paper alternatives include:

  • Old books
  • The Sunday funnies section of your newspaper
  • Brown grocery bags
  • Maps from a park visit
  • An old Atlas

Twenty bucks may not seem like much, but it’s a lot to spend on something that quickly becomes a pile of garbage.

2. Christmas cards

There’s something nice and traditional about receiving an old-fashioned Christmas card in the mail during the holidays. And to the sappy people in my life who feel the same way, I still send one. Everyone else gets an “elf yourself” e-card or a personalized call from Santa. Both are free — and funny!

3. Bad gifts

According to an analysis of data from Giftovus, a social media site that allows friends to brainstorm gift ideas, Americans will spend nearly $20 billion in bad gifts this year. Their research estimates that we will disappoint recipients with our bad gift giving 20 percent of the time. So what can we do?

“The surest and easiest way to eliminate bad gifts and wasted spending is to talk to the social circle of the receiver when it comes to ‘hard to shop for people’ before you hit the store,” says Jessica Jessup of Giftovus. “People who talk to the friends and family of a gift receiver before buying a gift spend an average of $33.40 per gift while the average is $50 per gift for those that don’t.”

As Jessup’s advice suggests, we spend more money to buy people things they don’t want. Reaching out to the recipient’s social circle seems like an easy enough way to give a thoughtful gift and save some cash.

4. Office gifts

I used to spend a considerable amount of money and effort putting together little gift bags for my co-workers. The bags included chocolates, coffee, ornaments, etc. But those little goodies added up. Not only did the gift bags get expensive to fill, but they were also a slippery slope: “Well, if I give one to Pete, I’ll have to give one to Jennifer, and then I don’t want to hurt Mark’s feelings …”

Sure, people thought the goodie bags were nice. But one year, in an effort to cut back on spending, I made a large batch of fudge for the office instead. I simply put it in the kitchen along with a little note that read, “Happy Holidays, everyone!” Not only was fudge cheaper — it also went over way better than those gift bags ever did.

5. Gift cards

I call it the gift card dilemma: I can’t think of anything to get someone, but I don’t want to be thoughtless and give them cash, so a gift card seems like the best option. Sure, they might be a slightly more thoughtful solution, but gift cards aren’t the most economical solution. A 2012 study by CEB TowerGroup found that $1.7 billion was lost to “spillage” from giftcards — money left on giftcards that a consumer will never spend.

And according to the National Retail Foundation, when we use our gift cards, we end up spending between 15 and 40 percent more than the amount gifted. In the big picture, gift cards don’t seem to make the most frugal gifts.

Cash, as impersonal as it is, may be a better option. And there are ways to make the gift of cash seem more thoughtful. A family friend once gave me $20, along with a bottle of nail polish and a Yelp printout of a nail salon near my house. I thought it was a great way to gift cash while still putting some thought into the present

It’s easy to get caught up in the holiday hoopla. What are some holiday money wasters that you try to avoid?

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