Ask Brianna: Can I enjoy the holidays without going broke?

"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to

Q: After hosting and attending holiday parties and buying gifts, I'm afraid I'll have no money left. How can I enjoy the holiday season without busting my budget?

A: December's gift exchanges and ugly-sweater soirees can make the pressure to spend feel inescapable. Your frustration is likely to mount if you're cash-strapped, saving for a big goal or trying to pay off student loans.

Consider ways to dramatically reduce gift-related costs, like drawing names instead of buying for everyone or agreeing to forgo gifts in favor of a group activity. But if those don't work, the following tips can help you give presents to friends and family — and even host your own holiday bash — without spending more than you can afford.


— Know your spending triggers: When you're shopping for others, you might be tempted to pick up things for yourself or spend more than you planned on each person. Put up psychological barriers to combat impulsive spending, says Laura Adams, a personal finance expert and host of the "Money Girl" podcast. That could mean using cash to buy holiday gifts, something 60 percent of surveyed 18- to 34-year-olds plan to do, according to NerdWallet's Consumer Holiday Shopping Report. Or shop online if you're the type who can't resist buying that impossibly soft sweater at the mall.

— Buy in bulk: For gift exchanges with colleagues or even some family members, cut costs and stress by choosing one affordable item to buy or make in bulk. Product-research website The Wirecutter lists 10 low-cost gift ideas, including gourmet olive oil and movie tickets. Or you can give out baked goods in glass jars, purchased in bulk and customized with printed labels.

— Go with experiential gifts: Providing an experience or service can be more personal — and cheaper — than a traditional gift. For instance, Adams recommends giving a friend or relative an annual membership to a local museum. Pick a small or quirky institution in town that fits your friend or family member's interests, like the Museum of Food and Drink in New York, which offers basic memberships for $30 a year. Or offer your time as a gift: If you're tech-inclined, help a relative master a new iPad or learn how to use video-editing software.


— Share the costs: Potlucks are an easy go-to so you're not cooking a huge meal for a gaggle of guests. Spice up your potluck by choosing a theme: Ask everyone to cook their favorite holiday dish from home, something inspired by a holiday movie, or a recipe with five ingredients or fewer. Another potluck variation is to offer a base item — like baked potatoes or tacos — and ask your guests to bring the toppings.

— Focus on the fun: Skip the expensive food and drink prep and invite your guests over for a group viewing of a holiday- or winter-themed movie. Or make it an at-home karaoke party using YouTube videos or cable channels that show lyrics on screen. A popcorn bar is a cheap snack option: Set out a big bowl and have your guests add toppings such as melted butter and cinnamon, Parmesan cheese and dried herbs, or candy such as chocolate chips.

— Choose a signature drink: If your party will be of the cocktail variety, you don't need to provide a smorgasbord. Offer a signature cocktail by the pitcher or a big batch of punch with holiday-themed ingredients, like mulled cider or wine. Wine spritzers also can reduce the per-drink cost by lowering the amount of alcohol needed.

— Hit the dollar store: Your local discount store is the ideal spot to buy napkins, decorations, cups and plates. Take a spin through Pinterest for inspiration: You can decorate doorways with draped plastic tablecloths, use wrapping paper as a table runner or make a tiered party tray from spray-painted plastic plates and candlesticks. Your options are limited only by the time you want to spend combing through DIY ideas.


This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: . Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

Related links:

NerdWallet: Consumer holiday shopping report:

The Wirecutter: Great gifts and stocking stuffers to buy in bulk: