12 savvy tricks to save on holiday spending

From D.I.Y. holiday decor to the best time to buy Christmas cards

From twinkling lights to plane tickets home, the price of holiday cheer can add up fast.

And while you may have a strict gift-giving budget in place for the 50 important people on your list, when you factor in other expenses — say, entertaining and decorating — your initial good intentions can get easily canceled out.

So in the spirit of keeping holiday spending at bay, we turned to those who know a great deal about saving for advice on how to help cut costs this season: LearnVest readers and the site's own employees.

From stocking your freezer with pre-made hostess gifts to automating your hunt for the cheapest December airfare, these 12 tips and tricks will help keep seasonal spending in check — without sacrificing holiday cheer.

Serve a signature cocktail

"A party can be a budget-breaker if you try to provide an open bar, so I offer guests a seasonal cocktail, like a champagne-and-cranberry juice Poinsettia (for a non-alcoholic version, simply swap Sprite for the bubbly). It easily cuts my beverage expenses in half, and the festive drink adds to the theme of the party."

-Kristl Story, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Cut costs on Christmas cards

"Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved writing out and sending holiday cards, but stationers tend to charge a premium for boxed cards in the months leading up to Christmas and the New Year. My trick for saving? I stock up the first week of January, when the prices are seriously slashed, and then save them for the next holiday season."

-Liz Ozaist, LearnVest executive editor

Bake now, gift later

"I often have multiple holiday parties to host or attend, and the time and costs of running out to the store to buy prepared desserts each time adds up. So I pre-bake sweets and then freeze them for upcoming events. I'll spend an afternoon with friends or the kiddos baking treats like fudge brownies with holiday sprinkles and sugar cookies to decorate at the parties. It's a fun time and keeps costs low."

-Eli Mechlovitz, New York City

D.I.Y. holiday decor

"Instead of being tempted by store displays, I try to take stock of the decorations that I already have and spice them up for the holidays. For example, I'll fill a vase or votive with jingle bells or peppermints. Or I'll take pillar candles that I already own and wrap red, green, or metallic ribbon around them."

-Catie Parrish, Cambridge, Mass.

There's an app for that …

"My husband has a big family, so buying gifts for everyone is a bit of a stretch. For the past few years, we've been doing a family 'Secret Santa,' in which everyone is assigned a single giftee and a universal price range that varies by year. To make it a bit easier, I even built a computer app to organize everything. Of course, you don't need coding skills to do the same thing: Apps like Elfster and Secret Santa for iPhone can help you out. It's always lots of fun, and I'm much happier receiving one very thoughtful gift."

-Sarah McDowell, LearnVest I.T. and systems administrator

Automate your airfare discounts

"I set up alerts on Orbitz and Kayak for airfare (it's free!) as soon as I know the dates that I'll be traveling, so I get a notification when a particular flight goes on sale. If my travel dates are flexible, I'll set up multiple alerts in order to pin down the cheapest flight during the days I'm available to fly. I also take stock of my airline rewards early in the fall to see if I have enough miles or points to get an upgrade, a discount, or even a free ticket."

-Katie Brewer, LearnVest Certified Financial Planner

Fly in the thick of it

"My husband and I usually book our flights for Christmas Day. It's almost always remarkably cheaper than any other date. This year, we've also decided to return home on January 13, well after peak travel time, which will keep costs down even more, and allow us more time with our families."

-Andrea Perez, Miami, Fla.

Give the gift of expertise

"Instead of shelling out for presents each year, my friends and I gift each other services by sharing our talents and skills through what we call 'exchanges.' For example, I'm in communications, so I provide writing services — like website content or press releases. In exchange, I've received massages, jewelry repair, chiropractic care, and business advice. No one tallies the pennies involved — we're having too much fun appreciating each other talents — and that's part of the gift, too."

-L. H. Levy, Los Angeles, Calif.

Profit from an empty home

"My family and I rent our house on VRBO and AirBnB when we're traveling during the season and then use the extra income to fund family getaways. Once we leave for our holiday trip, a service comes to clean the house and change the sheets — and the renters follow. Last year, this afforded us a 16-day trip to Mexico, and we're using our rental money this year to fund a week-long getaway to Costa Rica!"

-Bea Johnson, Mill Valley, Calif.

Swap glitzy holiday wear

"There are always a ton of parties to attend during the holiday season, and it can be tempting to splurge on a new outfit for each one. To keep costs down, my friends and I hold a clothing swap: We try on each other's dresses and decide what we'd like to borrow for different events. It feels like we're wearing something brand new to every occasion — without spending a dime."

-Maddy Fleming, LearnVest client services and strategy associate

Sleuth for savings

"If I see something in a store during the holiday season, I always head to Google to see if I can find it online for less — and I usually do. I then go a step further and search for a site-specific discount code. Prime example: I came across a pair of boots that I had to have. In-store, they retailed for $169, so I jumped online and found them on Piperlime.com for $119.50. Then I found a Piperlime discount code and ended up getting the boots for $89!"

-Michelle Morales, LearnVest account manager

Celebrate a second time

"I come from a large family, and in order for everyone to get together, we do Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with our immediate families — and then gather the extended family to celebrate Christmas a weekend or two after the 25th. Travel expenses — and traffic — are typically much lighter then, and items like wrapping paper and presents are cheaper because post-Christmas markdowns are in full swing. It's always something to look forward to after the craziness of the holidays!"

-Kate Malhenzie, Boston, Mass.

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