Growing up in a low-income family taught me how to make holiday magic on a budget. Now, there are 3 lessons I live by to keep holiday costs down as a mom.

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  • When I think back on my childhood, my favorite memories are of Christmas with my sisters and parents on our family farm.
  • We didn't have a lot growing up, but special meals and traditions made our holidays feel magical.
  • I've applied some of the lessons I learned in childhood to my own family's holidays to keep costs down, including creating meal traditions, putting a spending cap on gifts, and giving my kids thoughtful gifts.
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When I think of my holidays as a child, I think of Christmas. I remember the scent of cinnamon in the air, the laughter of my sisters, and padding downstairs in my bunny slippers to eat a holiday feast. I think of sipping my mom's famous banana nog in front of a roaring fire, and the light in my dad's eyes when I opened the Christmas gift he picked out just for me. No matter what your family's heritage and tradition, the holidays are a time of love, light, and togetherness. And for me, as a little girl, they were pure magic. 

In grownup hindsight, this magic feels almost impossible when I remember another fact of my childhood: I grew up in a low-income home.

My mom was a homemaker and my dad was the vice principal of a struggling private school. We had a farm, but we were not the family dynasty farmers you see in the movies. No, we were "hobby" farmers who butchered a geriatric milk cow and lived on the ground beef she supplied for an entire year. And while we never went hungry, my parents still remember, with a laugh and a wince, their luck in having three daughters who were full after splitting a single cheeseburger. 

Discovering the cost of the holidays as an adult

When I first experienced the crushing financial pressure of the holidays as an adult, it was hard for me to square the economic realities of my childhood with the Christmas magic I remember through such a happy, golden haze. But when I forced myself to strip my memories of their nostalgic glow and do the math, I realized that my childhood Christmases weren't magical in spite of my parents' small Christmas budget, but because of it. 

Many of my holiday memories confirm this theory. Our Christmas decorations were almost entirely homemade: popcorn strings, paper chains, and handcrafted angel ornaments, all made for the price of construction paper, popcorn kernels, and office supplies we already had around the house.

And no, our house wouldn't have earned a spot in House Beautiful, but the magic I remember wasn't how stylish our holiday decorations were, but the hours we spent around the table, my sister on the other end of a popcorn string, holding it steady while I added a kernel for every two that I ate, and my dad read "The Nutcracker" out loud to us as we crafted Christmas. 

Applying the lessons of childhood to my adult life

That's only one example of savings, but I've taken this truth into my own family's holiday plans and saved a bundle.

Food costs

For starters, food is a major holiday cost. From your book club insisting you celebrate at a fancy restaurant to the $90 prime rib you serve for your holiday feast, it's no wonder we all resolve to do better in January after what often feels like a month-long binge.

But here's a trick I learned from my mother's frugal holidays: It's never about the food, it's always about tradition. My mom's famous banana nog was the cost of a jug of half-and-half and a couple of bananas, but the magic was in the fact that she served this special treat one time a year. If I'm being honest, I can't imagine eating turkey and stuffing in the middle of July because, gross, but you better believe that come November my salivary glands activate at the very thought of Thanksgiving dinner.

With this reality in mind, I have made my own family food traditions cheap. Christmas Eve we eat grilled cheese and tomato soup, which costs about $10, and Christmas morning we go big with our toppings and have snowman pancakes for $20. My kids eagerly anticipate both meals all year.

Putting a cap on gift spending for extended family and friends

Another significant holiday cost is all the presents. But my family's gift-giving is, in a word, thrifty. It's not a lack of generosity, it's simply recognizing that no one I love who loves me in return wants me going bankrupt over their gifts. So, I keep our gifts for friends and extended family small and often homemade, with a budget of $5 to $10 a person. A rough count tells me our family hands out roughly 20 of these small gifts a year, putting our total expenditure around $150.

This is no small feat considering that I could (and have in the past) convinced myself each of these people needed a gift of $20 to $50 each. You know the inner dialogue: "My brother-in-law has been into craft beer lately, maybe I should get him this overpriced brewing kit." "Starbucks gift card for the mail woman? $10 seems awkwardly low, better make it $25." These prices add up, to the point that I've personally spent well over a grand on gifts for people who only sort of liked them.  

Thinking carefully about the gifts I give my kids instead of getting them whatever they ask for

And that doesn't even cover my actual people, the ones who rely on me to stuff their stockings and create the pile of packages under their tree. I have a husband and three children, so our holidays can really add up, but when I think back to my Christmas presents as a child, only one gift really stands out: my make-your-own-bead kit.

I don't know why I remember the bead kit, I guess I just really loved it, but it wasn't something I asked for. In fact, when I think of the recurring Christmas list I submitted to my parents, I realize how gutted they must have been to see "go-kart" year after year. It's the one thing I wanted, and they couldn't afford it.

I think of this when I find my finger inching towards the add-to-cart button. All parents ache to give their children everything, but before I give in to this temptation I remind myself of two things: 1. My son doesn't need a Nintendo Switch more than he needs a college fund, and 2. Dreaming about a toy is the best part.

I wanted a go-kart because I dreamed of driving it to Dairy Queen with a boy from Sunday School class. A fantasy that wouldn't have been fulfilled even if my parents bought me a go-kart. My daughter can ask for a drone year after year, and she can hold onto her fantasies about it for just as long.  

This isn't to say I don't buy my children or spouse presents. I do. I just do it with a modest budget in mind. Some families use the "something you want, something you need, something you wear, something you read" guide for gift-buying. While we don't follow this guide exactly, we do stick to four-ish presents a person and keep our prices to $75 each.

This may seem uncomfortably cheap, and there are times the base of our Christmas tree looks very sparse, but I know firsthand that the absence of mountains of packages over the holidays won't hurt anyone, but a sky-high credit card bill very well could.

Instead, I focus on the quality of the gifts I give my family by learning about them over the year, so when my husband and children open their $20 gift Christmas morning, it will be the one thing sure to make their eyes shine. This is different for each of them, and for 8-year-old me, it was a make-your-own-bead kit. 

While we've all been discouraged from participating in the commercialization of the holiday season so often it's become cliche, financial pressure seems permanently embedded into holiday tradition. But take it from this former poor kid: You don't have to go broke creating holiday magic. My parents didn't and neither do I.

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