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I'm dreaming of a cheapskate Christmas

By Christine Romans, CNN
During the holidays, it's possible to spend like a cheapskate without looking like one.
During the holidays, it's possible to spend like a cheapskate without looking like one.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Set a budget and never go shopping without a list
  • Think quality over quantity -- save up to get your kids one or two things they really want
  • Focus on the things that matter to you and allocate your resources accordingly
  • Pair your holiday meals with inexpensive yet tasty bottles of wine
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Editor's note: Christine Romans is anchor of CNN's "Your $$$$$" and author of the new book "Smart Is the New Rich" (Wiley).

(CNN) -- There's never been a better time to be a cheapskate. Global economic uncertainty gives you the cover you need to save your pennies. And the bursting bubble is a perfect reminder that we bought too much we didn't need with money we didn't have for too long.

With that in mind, you can spend like a cheapskate over the holidays without looking like one.

First rule, it doesn't have to be perfect. So much of the stress of the holidays comes from spending like crazy and setting high expectations. Prioritize.

If what matters to you is the meal, then focus on that. If you have little kids, concentrate on the great gift for the kids. If it's about being together, then make a special effort to go around the dinner table recounting your best family memory of the year and your best hope for the coming year.

Now set a budget. According to the National Retail Federation, the average consumer will spend more than $750 on gifts, decorations and food for the holidays. Decide the menu for the meal, the presents for under the tree and a handful of other gifts (hostess, teacher, etc.) early. Never go shopping without a list, and don't buy anything that is not on that list.

The kids

If you have kids, concentrate on the one or two big gifts that they really want and figure out how to cut back elsewhere to get them. If you can't afford to pay it off within the next three months, then you can't afford it. If you can't afford it, don't buy it.

I truly believe that kids have too much anyway. They get toys and trinkets all year long, so you might be needlessly putting pressure on yourself for Christmas. Think quality over quantity. Be honest: Their toy boxes are full.

Hundreds of millions of people have celebrated a holiday based on three gifts to a baby -- gold, frankincense and myrrh. Does your kid really need more than three?

Grandpa and grandma

Don't give grandma and grandpa a gift card. They want you to save your money and put it into a 529 college savings plan. He doesn't need a new sweater, and she doesn't need a new set of bath gels.

Instead, bundle up the kiddies in last year's sweaters and get 'em in a pile of leaves. Take pictures until you get a few good ones. Print, frame or make a calendar and voilà ... the grandparents and godparents are taken care of. (There are dozens of good sites for this online.)

For teachers and hostess gifts, spend a Saturday with the kids baking their favorite cookies and stack them in cellophane sleeves (available at any craft store) with pretty ribbon. Let the kids make the gift tags.

For more grown-up gifts, a shimmery red gift bag with a burlap bow and a cheap and cheerful bottle of wine does the trick. To plan ahead, save your favorite bows and wrapping paper from this year for next year. Feed the wrapping paper through a straight-cut paper shredder to make festive stuffing for gift bags and boxes without the cost of tissue paper.

The meal

Speaking of cheap and cheerful, here's where the wine comes in. Turkey prices are up 28 percent this year, and the costs of the trimmings are rising, too. Beef and bacon prices are up big, so the Christmas Eve beef tenderloin will cost you substantially more this year than last.

I recently tasted wine with Ray Isle, executive wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, and asked him for five inexpensive recommendations for the Thanksgiving dinner table and beyond. He says even a wine connoisseur can love these bottles, but you won't spend a fortune:

• 2008 Smoking Loon Syrah ($8)

• 2008 Substance ($15)

• 2009 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages ($10)

• 2009 Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay ($10-$13)

• 2009 Yalumba Y Series Viognier ($11)

Your honey

Gold prices are at record highs, and silver is at a 25-year high. This is not the year for cuff links or a gold watch. So how about giving your honey golden memories? Raid the attic for old photos of great-grandparents and ancestors and have them digitally restored. (It's a great gift for grandma and grandpa, too.) Find a long-forgotten photo from your courtship and tuck it into a shadow box with a concert ticket or baseball rickets or something you can enjoy together.

Better yet, digitize those boxes of photos under the bed and in the closet. Scanmyphotos.com can do it in a couple of days, and then you can spend the holidays hooting with laughter over your old hairstyles (and his old girlfriends.)

Get creative

Two of my friends this year are giving the gifts of babysitting. Another group of friends just had a wine and cheese pre-holiday party to trade clothes for the holiday party season. They all get something new for New Year's Eve without spending a penny. Another took up knitting, and yet another is finishing a book of poetry. My friend Bruce is giving to charity this year instead of to the American globalized consumer culture.

"Odds are pretty good that you have too much stuff," he says. "And if you are like me, you haven't given enough to people who have nothing. Try kiva.org for microfinance loans (this gift literally keeps on giving) or heifer.org. I owed big thanks to a Fortune 400 rich guy and his wife, so I bought a cow. They loved it."

Bottom line, focus on the thing that matters to you most and make it count. If you have small kids, then go for the great gift. If you love the dinner, then indulge there. If you want to make the gift for your honey a stunner -- go for it. But don't spend yourself into the poorhouse everywhere else. Be a cheapskate where you can to enjoy the things that matter to you.

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