I don’t know about you, but when I think back on my Christmas’ as a child it isn’t the gifts that first come to mind, it is the Christmas traditions. Leaving cookies out for Santa, finding and cutting down a Christmas tree, listening to Christmas music and so many more.
Nowadays even Christmas traditions have gone commercial with Elf on the Shelf, and elaborate advent calendars that cost a pretty penny. It can leave a family on a tight budget feeling like they just can’t keep up. Nonsense–you don’t need to spend much money to create memorable Christmas traditions. In fact, there are plenty of great free ones.
All 25 items on my list below cost $10 or less and most are much less, if not free. Now, don’t run yourself ragged by doing one each day from December 1st to December 25th–that is not why I chose 25. I simply wanted you to have a long list of choices so that you could pick a small handful that work best for you.
You also probably have the items needed for some of the Christmas traditions on this list already, which is another reason I wanted you to have plenty to choose from, so you can pick what works best for your budget and if that is working with what you already have then go for it. The Christmas tradition line on your Christmas budget can be zero and your children will still grow up with Christmas memories they cherish.
25 Christmas Traditions For Families On A Tight Budget
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1. Advent Calendar
An advent calendar does not have to cost a penny. All an advent calendar has to do is help your children count down the days until Christmas.
One idea is to make a paper chain of 25 paper rings. Break one per day. If you have a little more to spend pick up a small bag or two (depending on how many children you have) of Starlight Mints. Count out 25, stick them to a piece of red or green construction paper in a way that makes a tree shape.
Not at all crafty? check grocery stores like ALDI for inexpensive pre-made ones that are filled with chocolate.
If you have a number of children, don’t feel obligated to make each child their own–make them take turns.
2. Special Start Days
This is 100% free and makes the season a bit more special. Have a set day that you decorate the tree each year. A set day when your family can crank the Christmas tunes for the first time. A set day for Christmas baking. You get the idea.
3. Visit the Local Lights
In our town the local park puts on a huge light display and $10 gets you a sticker on your vehicle so you can enjoy the show as much as you want all season long.
There are free options as well though. Certain neighborhoods are known to have a certain someone that goes over the top at decorating their home in lights and driving by is free. A great way to find out about such hidden free gems is to ask around–put a shout out to your local Facebook friends.
4. Christmas Movie Night
Whether it is the same show year after year or a different one each time, watching a Christmas movie with all the lights out except for the Christmas tree has its own holiday magic feel.
Sweeten the deal with some festive popcorn and mugs of simple homemade cocoa.
The movie can be one you already own, one on TV, one from the library, or one using a free Redbox code. All free!
5. Dollar Store Sibling Gift Exchange
We started this with our children when they were very little. I sat outside in the vehicle while my husband took one child in at a time to pick out a $1 gift for each of their siblings. Sure, these gifts were not of the highest quality–although there are some great items at dollar stores. However, the real lesson here was learning the art and joy of giving.
6. Cookie Decorating
Since my children were really young, we had a special day where we make a batch of my special sugar cookies, and once they were cooled we decorated them as a family.
When they hit preschool age and up this turned into a party where we invited their friends to join us. In tight years I asked each mom to bring icing or sprinkles or a beverage for us to drink. In more prosperous years I just took care of it all and the party was our gift to friends.
Now that my kids are teenagers we have gone back to baking and decorating the sugar cookies by ourselves as a family, but when grandkids come I think the sugar cookie party will return.
7. Hot Cocoa and A Christmas Story
This is another event that could be just you and the kids or you could turn it into a dollar store Christmas mug exchange party.
Have everyone bring a dollar store, Christmas-themed mug, and an ingredient to top the cocoa with. Have the mom with the best story reading skills read to the children as they gather around the Christmas tree with their new mug that they chose in the exchange.
Christmas Book Suggestions
Ages 1 to 3
Ages 3 and up
The Night Before Christmas: The Classic Edition
How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Moms can swap mugs too. You could even turn this into a moms only party and swap the Christmas story out for a movie or a night of working on Christmas cards together.
For more inexpensive ideas for entertaining during the holidays, read this article.
8. Family Coloring Night
Adult coloring is all the rage right now and there are free coloring printables all over Pinterest because of it. Print some simple ones off for the kids and more complex ones off for the adults and gather around the table after dinner one night and color while listening to Christmas tunes.
9. Homemade Ornaments
My family has done this one on and off throughout the years. We like using unfinished wooden Christmas ornaments. We colored them using at first washable fine point markers and then as the kids got older permanent markers (they are a bit brighter). On the back, we always write the person who colored it and the date.
These are now some of my most cherished Christmas ornaments even though they cost well under $0.50 each when bought with coupons at Joann’s or Hobby Lobby.
10. Start A Christmas Giving Change Jar
I think that every family should have at least one Christmas tradition that centers around giving to others. A really simple one to start is a giving change jar. You don’t need to spend a penny on the jar–save those for filling it.
Simply find a jar around you home–we use a large, green glass canning jar. After Christmas this year begin to fill it with change. In our family quarters are used for various things so ours gets filled with pennies, nickels, and dimes, but these still add up to decent donation by year’s end.
When Christmas time rolls around, cash in your change for bills and then decided what charity to give it to. Perhaps toys for a local toy drive, or use the funds to fill Christmas shoeboxes or perhaps use it to buy groceries for the local food bank. Whatever it is it should be a family decision so that the little ones are involved in the giving.
11. Family Sleepover Around The Christmas Tree
Little ones will love this! Pick one night during the Christmas season where you as a family sleep in the same room as the Christmas tree–the closer to it the better.
Variation–let the siblings hold a sleepover in one room the night before Christmas.
12. A Christmas Book A Day Basket
You might have seen this idea on Pinterest where you let your child unwrap a book a day during Christmas as a type of advent calendar. My variation is to use library books and place 24 of them in a basket. Read one per day until Christmas. Don’t forget to renew them as needed because library fines are not very budget-friendly.
13. Send A Letter To Santa
Help your child mail a letter to Santa. Here is a list of places to send your child’s letter to Santa along with deadlines so that you will get a response letter from Santa too!
Don’t forget to photocopy the letter before you send it so you can keep a scrapbook of the yearly letters and read them again and again in years to come.
14. Feed The Reindeer Christmas Eve
My own children did this for years. There are all sorts of recipes out there for reindeer food but basically it is just oats mixed with Christmas themed sprinkles. Make up a tiny bowl for each child and let them spread it on the front steps before bed “so as to attract Santa’s reindeer”.
psst… don’t forget to sweep the food up before the kids awaken the next day so they can be shocked that the reindeer ate their food.
15. Hide The Christmas Pickle (Or ???)
Many many years ago our family was given a Christmas Pickle ornament. Each year I hide the pickle ornament in the Christmas tree after the kids are in bed. The first child to find it in the morning either gets to be the first one to open a gift, or gets to open a special “pickle gift,” which is usually a sharable box of chocolates or something similar.
It seems a bit silly, but you would be surprised by how much kids get into this. If you don’t have a Christmas pickle any unusual ornament would be a fine substitute.
16. Attend A Christmas Play, Concert, Parade, Live Nativity,
In every community, there is usually plenty of free Christmas plays, concerts, parades, and live nativity scenes for families to enjoy. Don’t forget to check out what your local library has to offer as well. Our kids have enjoyed free Christmas crafts, Christmas themed story hours, and more thanks to our local library.
17. Visit Santa
Yes, you will probably have to turn down the expensive photo, but sitting on Santa’s lap is free and most kids get a kick out of it. Now I say most kids because one of mine was extremely fearful of our mall Santa for years –so yeah, most kids enjoy this.
18. Make Graham Cracker Gingerbread Houses
Graham cracker gingerbread houses are fairly inexpensive to make and kids love them. You can either make just one as a family or let the children each make one–it all depends on your budget and your patience level.
19. Annual Christmas Puzzle
Usually during after Christmas clearance sales in toy stores and bookstores you can find wonderful Christmas puzzles like this one. These are great to snatch up and place on a card table next Christmas for the whole family to work on either in one evening or a little at a time all season long.
For those of you with little ones, a simple Christmas themed puzzle with 24 pieces will do and they usually are not that expensive.
For those of you with teenagers or older children like my family, holding a contest for whoever puts in the last piece is kind of fun! We give a chocolate bar prize. This isn’t something we have done every year, but it has been a memorable activity when we have. One year we never did figure out how the puzzle went together–it was that tough!
20. Volunteer Together
Christmas time creates family-oriented volunteer opportunities that are not available any other time of year. You can volunteer to ring the Salvation Army bells at their Christmas kettle donation centers. You can help fill Christmas food baskets or deliver Christmas presents.
21. Bake A Birthday Cake For Jesus
I think Jesus deserves a birthday cake, don’t you? Let the kids help you make Him one the day before Christmas and when they wake up Christmas morning let them sing “Happy Birthday, Jesus” before you serve cake for breakfast–one time a year won’t hurt.
Here is the recipe for our family’s favorite cake and here is the recipe for the icing we use on it.
22. Create Christmas Decor From Lego
If you have Lego lovers in your midst, gather them around and see if you can’t get creative and make your own Christmas characters out of Lego. Here are the decorations my daughter made with her Duplo one Christmas.
Try typing Christmas Lego Instructions into Pinterest as well as Christmas Duplo Instructions and you will get lots of patterns to try out.
23. Track Santa Christmas Eve on NORAD
On Christmas Eve have fun tracking Santa over at NORAD Tracks Santa.
24. Use A Special Plate Just For Santa’s Cookies
Years ago I bought a dollar store Cookies for Santa themed plate and I was shocked as to how big of a hit it was with my children.
25. Read The Christmas Story
Teach your children the reason for the season by reading the Christmas story each year. You can do this Christmas eve, Christmas morning, or whenever you see fit throughout the Christmas season.
One Last Note On Christmas Traditions
A tradition of course isn’t a tradition unless you do it year after year. However, over your children’s lives, there will come a time when they will outgrow some Christmas traditions and it is time to pick out some new ones.
Our family recently went through this stage of life and although it was hard on this mama–all turned out well. New traditions replaced the old and they are just as much fun and memory-filled.
Do you need to catch up on the How To Plan A Christmas To Remember On A Super Tight Budget Series?
How To Plan A Christmas To Remember On A Super Tight Budget: The Series
Week One:Introduction & Our Story
Week Two:Where To Earning Gift Cards For Fast Christmas Cash
Week Three: Where To Find Free & Low Cost Christmas Gifts That Rock!
Week Four: How To Make A Prioritized Christmas List–An Essential Item For Keeping Christmas Affordable
Week Five: Half Of What You Need For Christmas You Already Own
Week Six: Where To Resell Your Items Online For Quick Christmas Cash
Week Seven: How To Use Your Talents & Passions To Generate Christmas Cash
Week Eight: 25 Christmas Traditions For Families On Tight Budgets (you are here)
Week Nine: How To Hold An ‘Eat What You Have’ Week to Help Pad the Christmas Fund.
Week Ten: 15 Websites & Apps That Will Save You Money On Your Christmas Shopping
Week Eleven: 7 Christmas Themed Swap-It Parties That Will Save You Money
Week Twelve: 22 Gifts You Can Make Using Ingredients Found In Your Kitchen
Week Thirteen: How To Give Acts Of Service Gifts People Will Really Use: No More Coupons
Week Fourteen: 6 Ways To Earn Money For Christmas All Year Long
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Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing.
Your welcome! I hope you have a great holiday season!
Susanna Musser says
Maybe even cheaper and yummier is to make gingerbread house dough, roll it out, and cut 2 dimensional house shapes out of it freehand, then decorate after baking. Our kids love this annual tradition accompanied by Christmas music. 🙂
Sounds like a fun tradition!
This is such a great list! Thanks for such good suggestions. I wish more families could decrease the Christmas stress that comes from spending too much money trying to make it special. This list is perfect!
Our family tradition was started when we kids were young and money was tight…we don’t unwrap presents all at once.
The youngest child who can read is designated Santa. They pass out everyone’s gifts. Then, starting with the youngest, one gift is opened and the giver is thanked. Then the next oldest opens a gift…and so on.
While all of these won’t work for our family, these are some great ideas! I definitely want to have my kids pick out a small gift for each other!
I found your article many years ago & am happy to say we implemented several of them. My oldest moved out this year and I’m glad he has some of those memories to carry with him. Thanks for great tips when money was super-tight & we had lots of little ones!
Thank you so much for coming back and sharing this with me. I am so glad to hear this article helped your family make memories together.