20 Ways to Cut the Cost of Christmas

PHOTO: In a public letter to friends and family, Greg Hanscom, senior editor at Grist.org, implored his loved ones to buy nothing for his kids this Christmas. Hanscom is seen here with his wife and two daughters.PlayABC News
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intro: There are only three weeks left until Christmas. Have you made your list and checked it twice? While the majority of Americans started holiday shopping last month, one out of every five hasn't even started yet.

This year holiday shoppers plan to spend an average of $750 on gifts, decorations and other holiday accoutrements, according to the National Retail Federation. But don't panic. You still have time -- and you don't have to drain your bank account. We asked a self-described Scrooge to share some tips.

In an open letter to friends and family, Greg Hanscom, senior editor at Grist.org, implored his loved ones to buy nothing for his kids this Christmas. "Some people really took this column that I wrote as an affront," Hanscom told "20/20." "We got emails from people saying, You're damaging your children."

Hanscom said he has never bought Christmas presents for his two little girls. Instead he opts for more creative ways to celebrate. "The whole idea here is to have a house that isn't just covered in the stuff. I bet that when these kids are 16, 18, 20 years old, they'll look back on these holidays and they'll remember all the fun stuff we did."

Below are 20 tips from Hanscom and "20/20" to cut the cost of Christmas.

quicklist: title: Write your own rules. text: Hanscom's advice is take a step back and be bold enough to go against the shopping frenzy. "There are so many people out there who … just sort of get so caught up in the season that they haven't stopped and said, 'You know what? We're just going to sort of start from scratch and create our own holiday.'"

quicklist: title: Don't buy new gifts -- organize a re-gift swap. text: They say one man's junk is another man's treasure, and re-gifting is a good way to pass on things you may otherwise dispose of. Remember who gave you the gift to avoid embarrassment!

quicklist: title: Limit TV time and toy catalogs. text: Commercials and advertisements are a dime a dozen at this time of year. "[Our daughter] recently has discovered the toy catalogs that come in the mail … and she's going through and she's circling what she's gonna get for Christmas. And she circles everything!" Hanscom said. Stop the mail before it's delivered by taking your address off junk mail lists here.

quicklist: title: Plan and budget. text: If you must buy, take a deep breath, then take some time to plan before you hit the stores and online deals. Start with a budget. The Hanscom family plans to spend less than $500 on Christmas. Greg's wife, Tara, said, "Most presents are coming from really great Seattle thrift stores this year. I mean, we do not want to go into the new year with credit card debt."

quicklist: title: Avoid the guessing game. text: Find out what your friends and family want. Websites like www.secretsanta.com and www.elfster.com make it easy to organize gift exchanges. If you have a large family (or want to exchange gifts at the office), try a fun gift swap with a price range to avoid buying pricey gifts for each person and going over your budget.

quicklist: title: Experience gifts. text: Memories last a lifetime, so consider giving an experience as a gift -- concert tickets, weekend getaways, star gazing, whatever. According to the Center for the New American Dream, research shows that "experiential gifts" provide more happiness than material possessions for both the giver and receiver. Hanscom is planning on spending time with his girls while skiing instead of buying gifts.

quicklist: title: Start traditions. text: Give something with the stipulation that it must be passed down to another person the following year. It's the gift that keeps on giving. Don't forget to share the history of the article with the recipient.

quicklist: title: DIY. text: Flex your creative muscles with "Do It Yourself" gifts. Online tutorials abound for anything from crafty projects to food.

quicklist: title: Remember letters? text: If you're not artistic, simply tell your loved ones how much they mean to you by writing them a letter listing the qualities you admire about them.

quicklist: title: Pictures tell a thousand words. text: Gather photos and make a photo book or calendar online. It's never been easier to take, edit, compile and present captured images.

quicklist: title: Time is a gift. text: Offer your time to help out with everyday chores like dog walking, shoveling snow and babysitting. Remember those homemade coupon books you made as a kid? They can still make great gifts for anyone in your family.

quicklist: title: The gift of giving. text: Make this season of giving meaningful to strangers. Ask a local mission or shelter what their needs are and have each family member donate one of the items. The gift of charity may be as rewarding as unwrapping something for yourself.

quicklist: title: Honor someone with a gift. text: Make a donation to a worthy cause in a loved one's name.

quicklist: title: Green is cheap. text: Going green can be more affordable. Forget the store-bought cards and expensive wrapping paper: homemade cards can be thoughtful, and recycled newspaper funnies add a fun touch under the Christmas tree.

quicklist: title: Decoration as fun ritual. text: Make decorating a seasonal event. Try adding a single ornament each night to ease into the holiday and not make it a big overwhelming single night.

quicklist: title: See others' over-the-top decor. text: Load up the car and take a trip to see the houses that go full out with the decorations and avoid decking out your house too wild and raising your electricity bills.

quicklist: title: Potluck. text: Entertaining guests during the holidays can get costly. Have a potluck dinner where each person brings something they made.

quicklist: title: Communicate. text: If forgoing commercial gift giving, make sure to discuss it with your family in advance – before they already buy their gifts – and tread lightly when bringing up the concept to avoid offending them.

quicklist: title: Giving isn't about the giver. text: If you give a gift that is not received well, just go with the flow. You can't force someone to enjoy what you gave. Tara Hanscom said one of Greg's gifts to her had fallen flat. "One time he did give me flower bulbs, which is a really nice idea," she said. "I didn't have a chance to plant, and then he got angry that I hadn't planted the bulbs. So what I felt like I was given was an argument, really."

quicklist: title: When in doubt, get a gift card. text: According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, six out of 10 people say they'd like to receive gift cards this year. They also don't clog landfills as much as regular gifts.