A cheapskate's guide to the holidays

Essential advice for penny-pinchers, tightwads, and broke-ass mofos.

By Lorraine Sanders

SINCE THE DAWN of time, the cheapskate has been maligned as a social misfit, a person lacking refined tastes, a wily weasel of a human whose only pressing goal is to save a buck (or perhaps $10). While other groups enjoy protection against verbal assaults and blatant discrimination, cheapskates are left to endure slurs like tightwad, churl, skinflint, and broke-ass mofo.

We thrifty Jacks and Jills have had the cards stacked against us for centuries. Negative associations with money-savers have ranged from anti-Semitic ramblings about Jewish moneylenders to Charles Dickens's infamous miserly meanie, Ebenezer Scrooge. These days, amid a near pandemic of lust for the luxurious, spending less is an oft-misunderstood, marginalized practice relegated to the shadowy outskirts of mainstream consumerism. Suffice to say, society frowns on cheapskates.

And a cheapskate is perhaps never in so much danger of being mercilessly ridiculed and having his or her penny-pinching ways exposed to the masses, not to mention friends and family, as during the annual holiday season that begins in early November and stretches through New Year's Day. While the rest of the year holds scattered occasions, from birthdays to weddings, housewarmings to going-away parties, the holidays deliver a sucker-punch of expenses condensed into a few weeks. Not only is resistance futile, few of us truly want to resist. Cheapskates we may be, but we still want to give and receive the proverbial holiday cheer. We just want to accomplish it without enduring diarrhea of the wallet.

Consider this guide a dose of fiscal Imodium AD. It may not completely clear up the problem, but it will stanch the flow and get you headed in the right direction. But before you launch into the holiday mayhem, there are a few things you need to know.

Contrary to popular belief, spending less is not necessarily the easy way out. Achieving the cheapskate holiday can be done, but it requires more time, effort, and mental angst than a few sessions of credit card aerobics. If you like analogies, think of cheapskating your way through the holidays as the financial equivalent of completing a triathlon. Preparation is key, and there are three major challenges to master: entertaining, decorations, and gifts.

There are dangers along the way. Going cheap can easily go wrong. You and your good tidings can end up looking shoddy, thrown-together, and thoughtless. You can plan poorly and end up spending more at the last minute. Or you can spend so much time obsessing about money that you miss the good parts of the season altogether.

In all cheapskate holiday endeavors, remember these three things: Plan ahead, start early, and embrace the unconventional. In the cause of thriftiness, time is your friend. And as for being different, it just makes economic sense: what the majority of the population wants at this time of year is probably going to cost you more.

 

Entertaining

Everyone loves a good holiday party, but throwing one can take major funds that you, as a cheapskate, either don't have or don't want to spend. But hark! All is not lost. You can still organize and host a successful gathering. Let's start with the basics. Every holiday party needs a time, a place, and a focus. Each of these factors has a relationship to money. If you want to throw a cabaret-themed New Year's Eve party in a rented space, it's not going to happen unless you have some major connections or major cash. Likewise, if your idea of a holiday gathering involves a sit-down dinner and booze for 20 friends, you can expect to drop several hundred dollars. Here are some ways to economically pull off a smashing shindig instead:

Throw a party on New Year's Day instead of New Year's Eve A friend of mine used to do this with great success. Invite everyone over for New Year's Day breakfast and serve a simple menu – like pancakes. Everyone loves them, they're cheap and easy, and they also happen to be a wonderful hangover remedy. To step it up a notch, add fruit or chocolate chips and provide toppings like whipped cream, powdered sugar, and flavored syrups; serve mimosas (OJ and champagne); and set out little packets of Advil. Not only will your friends thank you for pampering them the morning after, but yours will likely be the last event of the season and, consequently, will stick in folks' minds for months.

Potluck like crazy Both traditional and modified potlucks can be godsends for thrifty entertainers – you can accomplish the holiday hangout session without shouldering all the costs. If your friends like to cook, you'll have little problem pulling off a standard – i.e., gastronomic – potluck. If they shun culinary activities or you're into throwing more of a bash, consider a beverage potluck (more commonly known as BYOB) instead. Either way, you can get creative. Ask for food related to a certain theme, like dessert, holiday dishes from around the world, or something your guests remember fondly from their childhood holiday spreads. Request a different beverage from each attendee ("Bob, you're on lager. Susie, I'm putting you on zinfandel detail" ...). Write descriptions of each beverage category on little cards before the party, display them by the different offerings once they arrive, and presto, you're hosting a beer- and wine-tasting party.

Potlucks don't have to be food- and beverage-centric Say you don't mind covering the snacks and booze, but you're looking to give your soiree a little ... je ne sais quoi. Ask guests to bring a wrapped gift costing less than $10 and put them all in a collective, identity-concealing gift bag. Once everyone's arrived, let each person select a gift. It may sound like third grade, but you'd be surprised what sorts of bizarre, ridiculous gifts – Spam, a framed photo of Rick Santorum, butt plugs ... – people will show up with when they can give anonymously. It's practically live entertainment.

Party where you usually do The above suggestions cater to people with homes or apartments large enough to accommodate a gaggle of visitors. But maybe you lack the space to properly entertain. Maybe you've got crotchety neighbors, a snooping landlord, or roommates you can't stand. Worse still, maybe you live with your parents. Whatever your reason, organizing a gathering at a local bar is one of the cheapest and easiest entertaining ideas out there. Just cook up an Evite requesting your guests' attendance at your favorite watering hole. Schedule the gathering in the early evening or whenever the bar's less likely to be slammed. Check around for happy hour times and plan the get-together during one that offers cheap drinks and, better yet, food. You'll find good deals in unexpected places. Take Palio D'Asti (640 Sacramento, SF. 415-393-9800), for example. During its weekday happy hour, the downtown restaurant serves free gourmet pizzas if you buy two drinks.

 

Decorations

Of decorations, I must admit: I'm hardly their number one fan. I respect their place in the holiday season – they liven things up and get people in the spirit. That said, as a self-avowed cheapskate, it kills me to spend loads on bits and bobs I'll only have around for a month or two. Still, it's borderline depressing to live through the New Year without a single decorative frill. Just remember what happened down in Whoville. Not a pretty sight. To decorate without wasting your hard-earned cash, let these principles guide your endeavors:

Don't buy junk A true cheapskate never wastes precious monetary resources on short-lived decorations destined for the trash. Choose stuff you can use for future holidays. If you're dead-set on electric window candles or holiday-themed objects emblazoned with snowflakes, dreidels, or little elves, try something a bit counterintuitive and un-cheapskate-like: buy decent ones. Don't scoop up a bunch of crap that will break this year or look exponentially crappier next year. Instead follow the example of my mother, who dutifully dusts off her special Christmas china each November to dazzle the holiday crowds, then puts it away again for safekeeping after New Year's.

Buy decorations you can use year-round Do you really need an evergreen tree that will be at death's door shortly after the holidays? Consider buying a large-ish plant and dressing it up in Christmas finery. Should anyone question your avant-garde tree, pass it off as an example of your undying devotion to the environment. If you buy decorative strings of lights, stick with clear ones, festive all year round. You can also turn them into a funky lighting fixture after the holidays by stuffing them in a large glass bowl or vase and plugging them in.

Embrace campy-chic If you're willing to go campy or faux-naïf, a crafty world of decorative options instantly opens up – online. At this time of year, Web sites for kids and schoolteachers like Kidsdomain.com, FamilyFun.com, and Make-Stuff.com are treasure troves for easy, relatively cheap craft ideas you can execute in an afternoon. Craft-impaired? Remember: Four-year-olds can make construction paper chains and popcorn garlands. So can you. For quick, painless decorations, cut stars or snowflakes out of paper, coat them with a glue stick, add glitter, and fashion them into mobiles to hang from the ceiling. Forage in the wilderness (or park) for pinecones to paint with a thin layer of watered-down glue and dip in glitter. Carefully tie ribbon around the tops to hang them. Wrap a collection of empty boxes of varying proportions and arrange them on a table, under the tree, or by the fireplace for instant – if misleading – holiday ambience.

 

For decorations or handmade gifts, find cheap supplies at ...

Scrounger's Center for Reusable Art Parts Donated textiles, paper, wood, plastics, and much more. 801 Toland, SF. (415) 647-1746, www.scrap-sf.org.

TAP Plastics Fiberglass, plastics, and related materials. 154 S. Van Ness, SF. (415) 864-7360, www.tapplastics.com.

Building Resources A salvage yard selling reusable and recycled building materials, all donated. 701 Amador, SF. (415) 285-7814, www.buildingresources.org.

 

Gifts

Not everyone throws parties or decorates over the holidays, but almost all of us will give at least one gift. The cheapskate's two-part challenge is finding good, inexpensive gifts and making sure they don't look like they came courtesy of the Penny-pinch Express. That's not to say your goal should be finding cheap things that look expensive. The most adept cheapskates are able to track down and produce gifts so useful and/or aesthetically pleasing that their monetary value will be irrelevant to the recipient. But first things first:

Make a list Aimless shopping can be the death of frugality. Whether you plan on gifting one person or everyone down to the coworker who smacks his lips while he eats, cheapskate gift-giving is infinitely easier and more safely achieved with a list to establish boundaries.

Establish a budget Come up with a realistic total sum you can afford to spend. Don't worry about how you're going to stay within your budget yet; just be honest with yourself. Then play with the numbers. Maybe you're in cheapskate mode for everyone except your sig, your mom, and your best friend. Are there specific items you want to buy for certain people? Find out their rough cost and write those numbers down first. Then come up with monetary ranges for everyone else.

Stick it to the man If you really want to buck the system, make a pact with your closest giftees and fellow cheapskates to exchange presents after Dec. 25. (This works especially well if you or they have plans to be out of town during the holidays.) It may sound crass, but really, when you think about it, what's the point of paying full price for something the week before Christmas that's just going to go on sale Dec. 26? (Note: do not try this on small children, employers, or recently acquired significant others.)

Scavenge for bargains Duh. More specifically, when you know a recipient wants something you can't make or obtain without going retail, you owe it to yourself as a cheapskate to exhaust all possible bargain outlets before paying full price. Scour sites like Overstock.com, eBay, Ripusoff.com, Smartbargains.com, and Craigslist for general merchandise. Find steep discounts on outdoor gear at Sierra Trading Post (www.sierratradingpost.com) or REI's outlet (www.rei.com/outlet/index.html). Compare prices on products using Froogle (www.froogle.com) and Nextag (www.nextag.com). Before buying online, check DealCatcher.com, which recently offered coupons for Overstock, Aldo, and Circuit City, among others. Use Goldstar Events (www.goldstarevents.com) for last-minute, ultracheap tickets to theater, comedy, and musical performances. Visit fashion, art, and craft bazaars like Appel and Frank (www.appelandfrank.com) and the 3rd Street Sale (www.3rdstreetsale.com) for deals on gifts produced by area artists and designers (see "Fashion Festivus," page 48). You get the idea. Be relentless.

Raid your own bag of tricks Is there something you could do for a friend that will cost you nothing but time, yet mean a lot to them? Could you walk their dog once a week for a month? Baby-sit? Organize their unruly digital photo folder with San Francisco-based Slide.com's free slideshow tools? Wash their car? Build them a Web site? Seal the deal with a promissory note that includes an explanation of your gift and instructions on redeeming it. It may go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Don't offer something that could skeeve your recipient out (full-body massage for your boyfriend's best friend), disrupt their life (surprise carpet shampooing), or otherwise annoy them (amateur interior decorating services).

Go with a theme You know those ultraexpensive holiday gift baskets you see in catalogs like Harry and David? You can make your own for much less (controlling the cost of each item, splurging where it counts most) and tailor it to your recipient's tastes. If Dad loves Italian food, put together a basket with a nice but inexpensive table wine, pasta, sauce, a trusted recipe, olives, etc., and an annotated list of the city's Italian restaurants. If your sister's stressed out by a new job, combine a few key bath products with a CD of chill tunes (burn a mix yourself if possible), votive candles, a cheesy celebrity magazine, and her favorite candy. For someone with an upcoming vacation, put together a traveling kit with tons of info about the destination (researched online), a prepaid phone card, a disposable camera, sunscreen, and postage-paid postcards.

 

In a time crunch, try these super-quick cheapie gift ideas ...

For the reader A magazine subscription (www.magazines.com).

For the craftster Readymade magazine's make-your-own clock kit (www.readymademag.com/store).

For the hipster Personalized T-shirt from My Trick Pony (742 14th St., SF. 415-861-0595, mytrickpony.com) or Zazzle.com.

For the foodie A vintage apron from Lovejoy's Attic.

For the music lover An iTunes gift certificate. Or, stay local and grab cheap CDs from KQED's online outlet (www.outletplace.com/index.asp).

For the fashionista Anything from H&M. Or, troll independent shops like RAG (541 Octavia, SF. 415-621-7718, www.ragsf.com).

For the techie Purchase his-or-her-name.com, if available.

Make stuff But beware. One of cheapskate-dom's grandest myths is the notion that crafting is cheap and easy. More often than not, crafts will actually cost you more in the long run than buying the product from a store. For one thing, crafts require trial and error. And one of the worst things you can do is to hang your entire gift list on a craft project you've never tried before. I once spent an afternoon making fizzy bath bombs for a friend's birthday, only to end up with a batch of ugly bread-colored rocks that turned into blobs resembling water-logged cookies once they hit the water. A half hour before the birthday dinner, I had nothing but piles of craptastic bath duds. I've also caused a kitchen fire making candles, and unnecessarily brought several spindly rags into this world that were intended to be scarves.

If you decide to go the craft route, choose a project you know how to do, or one that's easy to learn and involves few supplies. However ... for defiant cheapskates hell-bent on learning new crafts, here are some ideas:

1. Learn to crochet instead of knit. It's faster and easier to learn.

2. Make candles out of rolled beeswax sheets instead of pouring your own wax. Find instructions at www.mycraftbook.com.

3. You can decoupage almost anything. Cut images out of old magazines or newspapers and glue them to your container of choice. When you've adorned it to your satisfaction, brush a thin coat of varnish over the outside and let it dry.

4. Make homemade lip gloss. Green Balm (greenbalm.com/recipes.htm) has a good recipe for all-natural lip balm. You can also order the $32 kit and make about 20 lip balms. If you go your own way, TAP Plastic is a good local place to check for containers.

5. Wine charms are the little hoops that fit around the base of wine glasses and help people stick with their glass throughout the evening. All you need are jewelry hoops, beads, and charms (optional) from a craft store.

6. Infuse olive oil. You'll need a jug of olive oil, glass containers, and fresh herbs of your choice. Place herb sprigs in each container, fill the containers with oil, and seal. Within a few weeks, the oil will take on the herbs' flavor. To speed the process up, chop the herbs before placing them in the container.

If you have the time and money, invest in a class or workshop at one of the following local spots:

Craft Gym 1452 Bush, SF. (415) 702-5700, www.craftgym.com.

Nova Studio 24 W. Richmond, Point Richmond. (510) 234-5700, www.thenovastudio.com.

Stitch Lounge 182 Gough, SF. (415) 431-3SEW, www.stitchlounge.com.

Beadissimo 1051 Valencia, SF. (415) 282-BEAD, www.beadissimo.com.

Atelier Yarns 1945 Divisadero, SF. (415) 771-1550, www.atelieryarns.com.

Artfibers 124 Sutter, SF. (415) 956-6319.

Many of these places have special preholiday sessions. For example, the Craft Gym has a $45 three-hour workshop Thurs/15 in which participants make as many marble magnets and bathtub teabags as they can churn out.

And lastly ... use the power of the card It may sound like a cop-out, but never underestimate the efficacy of a sincere, handwritten note. For casual acquaintances, far-flung friends, and extended family members, a brief note expressing your holiday wishes is a fine way to skirt the gift issue. For closer friends and family members, write a longer, more personal letter, perhaps delivered on a handmade card or with a few photographs.

If you haven't already started preparing for the holidays, it's time to get crackin'. Time is the cheapskate's best friend. (That, and a really good sale ...) And remember, as you cheapskate through the holidays, your creativity and perseverance may help give cheapskates everywhere a better name. Maybe.