While most of us are finally putting Christmas away for the year, Erin Huffstetler is just getting warmed up. For 2014.
For years, the Tennessee-based “frugal living” writer has made it a mission to spend less than $100 on Christmas – for a family of four, plus gifts for teachers, parents and extended relatives. That amount also includes a fair amount spent on holiday foods and decorations.
Last month, she tallied up everything she’d spent on Christmas 2013. Total: $99.70.
How does she do it? With a mixture of year-round bargain hunting, couponing and frugal shortcuts, enough so that she can buy brand-names and new electronics at deep discounts.
To find out how this “frugalista” accomplishes a $100 Christmas, we talked with her last week by phone. Here’s what she shared:
Start in January
Among her family’s favorite shopping venues are yard sales and thrift shops, especially in January.
“This is really the best time of year to hit thrift stores,” which are “overwhelmed with year-end inventory,” she said. “Everyone makes their end-of-year donations to get that tax write-off, so they show up on Dec. 31 with tons of stuff.”
Post-holiday sales aren’t just for Christmas wrap and stocking stuffers. At this year’s 75-percent-off holiday clearance sale at Target, for instance, she stocked up on 22 packages of peppermint Oreos, for 89 cents a bag. Over the next few months, they’ll go into school lunches as a special treat. She also picked up packages of stretchy hairbands – three for 60 cents – in holiday colors. This coming Christmas, she’ll pop them out as gifts for her daughters and their friends.
Make it a habit to check the clearance racks, sales bins or “endcaps” (the end-of-the-aisle discount spots) in stores you regularly visit. “It’s hit or miss. You may not find something every time, but when you do, stick it in a closet, and it’s there when you need it. It’s such a simple thing but saves a huge amount on our budget.”
DVDs, electronics for less
This year, her girls wanted the new DreamWorks’ animated movie, “The Croods,” which was selling for $17.99 at Target. What she paid: $2.48. Here’s how: On Amazon.com, she spotted a “flash sale,” a brief, minutes-only sale designed to attract quick-buying customers, that offered the movie for $7.48. She printed out the Amazon page, took it to her local Target, which matched the price and let her use a $5-off coupon she’d picked up online. Bottom line: She got the DVD for roughly 86 percent off the original price.
The Kindle e-reader topped both her daughters’ Christmas wish lists last year. She bought the $69 model – for $12. “It was something they weren’t expecting, but it was a great deal,” albeit one that took a little maneuvering.
As a $79-a-year Amazon Prime account holder, she is entitled to special offers, along with free two-day shipping for regular online purchases, two free Kindle e-books a month, plus video streaming of movies and TV shows. In October, Amazon offered its Prime members the basic Kindle for $40 off, which brought it down to $29. Coupled with $17 in Amazon credits that she’d earned from answering surveys on other sites, her total out-of-pocket price was about $12.
On her MyFrugalHome.com blog, Huffstetler posted photos of her family’s 2013 holiday gifts. Among them: a blue-striped tank top from a JC Penney clearance rack for $1.97; a $3 art portfolio case, found at a yard sale; a Transformer action figure ($59 new) for her nephew, scooped up at a garage sale for $1.99.
Using online sites like Hip2Save.com, she clicks weekly on three to five free items from varied retailers, things “perfectly tailored for going into someone’s stocking.” A click of a mouse “really saves me a ton of money … and it’s actually less effort than going out to a store.”
Among her favorites: K-Cups, the tiny single-serving coffee containers offered by most major coffee retailers. She created a coffee basket for her dad, filled with 25 or more K-Cups from Starbucks, Gevalia, Green Mountain and other purveyors eager to send free samples to potential customers. “Of all the gifts I’ve given him, that was the one I heard about again and again.”
One year, she took advantage of an irresistible Pottery Barn offer: $10 off a minimum $10 purchase, with free shipping. She purchased a number of $10 gifts that arrived on her doorstep for zero cost.
All the major holidays – Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas – are prime time to stock up on discounts for traditional foods, whether it’s hams and turkeys or baking ingredients, like chocolate chips, flour and canned pumpkin. Using a coupon matchup site tied to her local grocery store (Kroger), Huffstetler buys on-sale items, paired with coupons from her Sunday newspaper. She’ll buy expensive brands of flour and freeze them. Even the most mundane items get stretched. All those mini-candy canes handed out everywhere during the holidays? She pulverizes them to use as peppermint flavoring in hot chocolate and cookie recipes.
Credit card, bank rewards
Huffstetler likes credit cards with rewards programs, either cash-back or points toward other purchases. She uses two Chase cards, which give reward points on Amazon.com that can be used for purchases.
She also takes advantage of special discounts offered by her bank at specific stores. One month it might be 5 percent cash-back on all Wal-Mart purchases; another month it might be Starbucks or a major pharmacy. You sign up online but there’s no fee or other commitment, she said. “If I’m logged into my bank to check my account balance, I’ll click over to see what deals they’re offering.” For instance, in December, there was a 10 percent cash-back offer for any purchase at Great Clips hair salons. The hair salon itself was already offering $12.99 haircuts for $9.99 as a holiday promotion. She bought a year’s worth of $9.99 haircuts for her husband, knowing there’d be an additional 10 percent bank rebate off the entire purchase.
Similarly, with Starbucks, she bought a $5 gift card online, which triggered another $5 incentive card from the coffee company. And her bank offered a $5-back offer. “So for my $5 investment, I had a $15 gift ... You start with the simple stuff, then it kind of gets to be a game. It’s fun to learn these things.”
Uncool for teens?
It’s relatively easy to delight unsuspecting young kids with freebies, garage-sale finds and other thrifty gifts, but does it fly with brand-conscious teens?
Huffstetler says she’s not a bit concerned that her preteen daughters might balk at thrift-store gifts as they get older or prefer labels that don’t fit within her budget.
“My kids are wearing the same stuff everyone else is wearing. They’re wearing Nike sneakers and Under Armour T-shirts, things that are on trend with everybody else.” But instead of spending $50 on a sweatshirt, it might be 50 cents at a yard sale. “My experience is that people get rid of stuff a lot faster than you’d think.”
With her kids, “It’s definitely a mind-set,” said Huffstetler. “If it’s a brand they like, they could care less where it came from.”
Dial out the noise
It’s easy to get overwhelmed and tempted by too many “deals” on things you don’t really need or want. “You have to dial out the noise. If there are too many deal sites or too many emails from companies in your inbox, it’ll stress you out. You can drive yourself crazy trying to follow too many sites. Find one or two that work for you.”
Not an obsession
Although Huffstetler makes her living being frugal, she knows it’s not for everyone.
“If it makes you miserable, is taking too much time or you’re buying something you really don’t like, pay attention. What works for me may not work for you. But it’s so much more fun than handing my money to a cashier.”
After her husband’s job was downsized last year, he joined her full time on her blogging and writing venture. Primarily based on her income from About.com, she said, the two pull down a very respectable income, which she declined to state publicly. With two college degrees – in communications and art, she writes daily posts for About.com, which pays her based on every 1,000 page views. She also writes for magazines and websites and contributes to books on frugal living.
Frugal living is hugely satisfying, says Huffstetler.
“When you live frugally, you pick up a lot of skills along the way. This is a lifestyle that empowers you to do more for yourself and rewards you for your effort.”
Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance columns at www.sacbee.com/claudiabuck.