So What is this “Zero-Budget Christmas” Anyway?

Zero-Budget ChristmasAs I’ve mentioned previously (repeatedly and loudly), I wrote a little book called Zero-Budget Christmas: The Almost Entirely True Story of Our Quest to Do Our Christmas Shopping Without Spending Any Money. Recently, I’ve been asked more than a few times, “Hey, what’s that book thing all about?” While I tried to cover it in that ridiculously long title, the questions make me think I could probably do a little bit more ‘splainin’ about it. If only I had some platform where I could go on about it at length, like a blog, maybe. Oh, yeah…

The Idea

Last year, my wife and I decided it was time to buy a minivan, because we had one child, and we were getting ready to have another one, and in that situation I believe we are required by law to buy a minivan.

Because we hate the idea of taking out a car loan with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns, we set about saving up to buy a used vehicle. But we had a hard time getting traction, and the next thing we knew, the Christmas shopping season was right on top of us.

We wanted to participate in the gift-giving part of Christmas, but we didn’t want to blow through the meager progress we’d made in saving up to that point. So, we stated looking for ways that we could minimize our spending on Christmas gifts. Minimize it way down. Minimize it, in fact, down to zero.

Cheap_ChristmasThe Criteria

There are a lot of crazy, complicated, time-consuming techniques for getting more out of your shopping dollar. But Rachel and I were never going to be the kind of people who keep a three-inch binder full of carefully-sorted coupons or spend ten hours every Saturday gathering stray aluminum cans. We were people with lives and without any helpful obsessive-compulsive disorders. We needed more practical ideas for saving money; things that we would actually do.

The best ideas were ones that used resources we already had or maximized the effectiveness of things we were going to do anyway. That’s kind of what made me want to share the whole experience: I thought everybody could benefit from our story because we didn’t do anything superhuman. We didn’t work three jobs apiece to scrape up extra money, nor did we live like monks to save more of what we had. We just looked a little harder for opportunities to be frugal, and lo, they presented themselves. The fact that we didn’t have to kill ourselves in the process made us more likely to make that little extra effort that means the difference between staying within your budget and blowing it out.

For example, here are a few ideas that made the cut:

  • Take advantage of the historically high demand for your old crap. Everybody’s heard of eBay, but they’re just one of many and growing number of business that facilitate turning your old junk into new gifts. One in particular that I focused on in the book is the chain of brick-and-mortar used-book superstores called 2nd and Charles. We loved the store already, so taking in a pile of old books, CDs, and DVDs and trading them for store credit was a no-brainer.
  • Get (or start regularly using) a rewards credit card. We had one of these that awarded points that we could use toward purchases on But we used it kind of haphazardly and never accumulated enough points to amount to anything. Once we started using it with a purpose, though, it was easy to rack up points buying things we were going to buy anyway.
  • Re-gift the smart way, by which I mean the way that’s least likely to look like re-gifting. People know that we love to get gift cards, so we end up getting them faster than we can use them. Rather than let that Chili’s gift card molder away in my wallet for another year, we started looking for people to give it to. And gift cards always look brand new!

And here are a few ideas that didn’t:

  • Ditch all your friends and become friends with Jehovah’s Witnesses instead. Aside from all the effort required to update all the contact info in your phone, this could make it extremely inconvenient if you wind up needing an blood transfusion over the holidays.
  • Get invited to the Oscars; save all the stuff from your gift bag to give away as Christmas gifts. In spite of the fact that no movie that anyone has heard of has won an Oscar in the last six years, this is still an extremely tough invite to get. And you’ll never be able to overcome the temptation to use that plastic surgery gift certificate on yourself.
  • Get on TV show “Survivor”; Win. We looked into this. It turns out it’s really, really hard.

The Result

Every time we came up with a new money-saving idea, I said, “I’m putting that in the book!” And so I did. As a result, we now have Zero-Budget Christmas — fifty-something pages of hilarious entertainment and practical tips, available for purchase at an near you.

We had a lot of fun living it; I had a lot of fun writing it; I hope you’ll have fun reading it, and I hope it helps you save up for the minivan of your dreams.

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