How to have a budget-friendly Christmas

December 3, 2015

By Sheryl Smolkin

Every December you resolve to spend less on Christmas and every January you have a huge credit card bill that blows the family budget out of the water. Part of the problem is that you are so busy and that in desperation, you end up doing a “hit and run” at the mall on the busiest shopping days of the year.

Here are 10 ideas how you can reduce costs while at the same time giving more meaningful gifts that create lasting memories for your family and friends.

  1. Buy fewer gifts: If you normally buy multiple gifts for your children, explain to them you will be buying one gift this year and that each of them can select a charity of their choice to which you will make a donation in their name.
  2. Give your time: Make coupon that can be redeemed for your time. Seniors will appreciate snow shovelling, lawn mowing and rides to appointments. Kids will love cooking lessons or homework help.
  3. Meals on wheels: Is your best friend coping with three children under five? Has your neighbour just come home from the hospital after surgery? Nutritious, tasty frozen meals that can be easily warmed up are always welcome.
  4. Entertainment: Regardless of the size of your community, there are sports events, concerts and school plays. While professional theatre and sports tickets can be expensive, local events are much less costly. Do some research and plan a memorable and unexpected outing for two.
  5. Re-gift: Re-gifting is only a no-no if you aren’t upfront about it. Gently-read books in good condition make a great gift. If you are downsizing, your kids or grandkids may be thrilled to have the vase or tea set they have admired for years.
  6. Pictures, videos: With the advent of digital photography, most people no longer actually print pictures. I realized this when my granddaughter asked me why there were no pictures of her on my walls. Print and frame special family pictures or put them together in a small, inexpensive purse-sized album.
  7. Shop online: Shopping online can save you time and money. You can comparison shop to find the best prices. Often prices are lower than in “bricks and mortar” stores. Free delivery in many cases is a real bonus, particularly if your friends and family members are spread across the country.
  8. Give consumables: Most people have enough stuff. But if your cranberry sauce, apple pie or homemade chocolate truffles are the talk of the town, they make great gifts for teachers, neighbours and your hairdresser. Unless it’s a “top-secret” recipe consider including it with the gift.
  9. Cookie exchanges: Between people dropping in and house guests staying for extended periods, the holiday period means lots of entertaining. One way to keep the cookie jar full of a variety of yummy treats is for a group of friends or neighbours to each bake multiple batches of their specialty and arrange a cookie exchange.
  10. Boxing Day shopping: By Boxing Day the last thing you may want to think about is next Christmas, but it’s the best time to get deeply-discounted wrapping paper, cards and ribbons. Also, if electronics like a TV or computer are on your list, the most economical approach may be to give an IOU and actually buy the item between Christmas and New Year’s.

Also see: Budget-friendly holiday gifts

Nov 30: Best from the blogosphere

November 30, 2015

By Sheryl Smolkin

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens Brown paper packages tied up with strings These are a few of my favorite things.” THE SOUND OF MUSIC

After complaining for weeks that it is just too early for holiday window displays and Christmas music, with less than a month until the big day, it is finally the right time to start your Christmas shopping.

But unless you are careful you can blow your budget and end up with a huge credit card bill in January and no money to pay for it. According to the 2014 Post Holiday Spending Survey released by data collection company Field Agent, last year Saskatchewan residents planned to spend $698 but on average, actually spent 15.9% more, or $809.

To give you some ideas how to personalize your gifts and save some money, this week’s Best from the Blogosphere includes links to five websites that will give you some very good ideas where to start, even if like me, you are not in the least bit “crafty.”

Buy Nothing Christmas was originally started by Canadian Mennonites to help de-commercialize Christmas. For a great list of homemade gift ideas click here. I like food gifts such as made from scratch cookie kits, homemade granola and a spice sampler using spices bought in bulk and packed in pretty jars,

How to Not Go Broke Holiday Shopping includes some great tips for saving money. For example, if you get a great deal on a gift for your sister-in-law, don’t also pick one up for yourself. Remember you’ll be receiving gifts from others this season and your budget will thank you. Also, help to avoid temptation by unsubscribing from retailers’ email lists.

In Eight Simple Ways to Spend Less This Christmas the author suggests that another simple way to spend less on gifts is to buy or sell gift cards online. Find a gift card for a store that you’re interested in purchasing from and you could wind up buying a hundred dollars’ worth of gifts for seventy bucks. Take a look at GiftCardsWild for what’s currently available.

There are some interesting ideas in 48 Xmas MoneySaving Tips. For example, if you are traveling to visit friends and family, book your train tickets as soon as possible. Cut out gifts for adult family members and give gifts only to the children. Avoid the cost of long distance telephone calls by chatting for free with faraway family and friends on Skype or other apps.

And finally 39 Frugal Tips for Saving Money at Christmas suggests that instead of investing in pricey wrapping paper and gift bags that are immediately consigned to the recycle bin, wrap gifts with coloured comics from your newspaper or your children’s artwork. You can also use inexpensive tissue paper that you’ve saved from other gifts throughout the year decorated with stickers or even just the words ‘Merry Christmas.”

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information with us on and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Nov 16: Best from the blogosphere

November 16, 2015

By Sheryl Smolkin

Most of the time when I sit down at my computer to write the weekly Best from the Blogosphere post I have absolutely no idea what the theme will be until I read a few articles from other bloggers that send me off on a tangent.

Such was the case this week when the first message in my inbox was from Robb Engen at Boomer and Echo writing about Mischief Managed: How I Went From Credit Card Abuser To Rewards Card Master. He says optimizing credit spending means using one card for groceries and gas, one for dining and entertainment, one for travel and one for everything else. Last year he used six credit cards to earn over $1,500 worth of rewards.

In 2012 Carla Wintersgill wrote in the Toronto Star about How travel hackers maximize loyalty points. She reports on the inventive way American author Chris Guillebeau collected points through the United States Mint. For a year and a half, it was possible to buy U.S. dollar coins directly from the Mint, which included free shipping. Over the course of a few months, he bought $70,000 in coins using a points-collecting credit card and then re-deposited the coins in the bank to pay his bill.

With Black Friday and Christmas on the horizon, reader may be interested in the Top 5 tips for maximizing miles on your holiday shopping by Patrick Sojka at Rewards Canada. He suggests double or triple dipping to rack up your points faster. This basically involves your mileage earning credit card being used for a purchase where you also earn miles in the same program as the credit card. For example, pay for your Air Canada flight with a TD Aeroplan Visa or American express.

When you use travel rewards, at some point you may be juggling way more credit cards than the average consumer. Even with a really good system to ensure that you have paid your cards in full each month, at some point something may slip through the cracks. On Frugal Travel Guy, Caroline Lupini explains How to Get Credit Card Late Fees Refunded and Interest Charges Reversed at least once, but it is important not to make a habit of missing payments.

In a guest post on the Canadian Finance Blog, How to Get the Best Value from Air Miles Rewards, Retire Happy blogger Jim Yih explains how he exchanged 15,850 Air Miles for six flights from Edmonton to Ottawa that saved him $2475.99. He calculates that he is getting about one Air Mile for every dollar spent and his equivalent cash back is about 1.67% over the longer time frame. He also endorses double-dipping and believes that with a little more conscious effort and awareness he can get the reward up to a 2% cash back equivalent.

Do you follow blogs with terrific ideas for saving money that haven’t been mentioned in our weekly “Best from the blogosphere?” Share the information with us on and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card.

Budget-friendly holiday gifts

December 13, 2013

By Sheryl Smolkin


Christmas can be an expensive time of year. You have to come up with presents for your parents, spouse, kids, cousins, aunts and uncles. But you may also want to give small but meaningful gifts to numerous other people including helpful neighbours, your children’s teachers, the mailman and your hairdresser.

Where families are large and it is impossible to buy for everyone, it can help to pick names so you only have to buy one more expensive gift rather than a dozen smaller items. Another approach is outside of immediate family, to only give gifts to children under a certain age – say 16 or 18.

However, you may still end up with a long list and an overloaded credit cart. That can be a real problem come January when you have to top up your retirement savings. Here are some ideas for less expensive gift options that will satisfy everyone on your list.

  1. Food gifts: If you make the best banana bread in town, whip up a couple of batches, wrap them with pretty cellophane and ribbons and give them to people who always finish the last slice when you bring your speciality to a pot luck dinner.
  2. Coffee cards: As a rule I’m not a big fan of gift cards because they always seem like an afterthought and people tend to lose them. But many of us need our daily coffee fix and fancy specialty coffees can cost $5 or more. Find out if intended recipients are Tim Horton’s or Starbucks fans and make your purchase accordingly.
  3. Gift baskets: Gift baskets can contain anything from yummy treats to bath and beauty supplies. If you purchase baskets already made up, they cost much more than the contents which are often meagre once you remove all the packaging. Bulk stores and craft stores sell almost everything you need to make your own gift baskets for a reasonable price.
  4. Child care: Young parents with small children and big mortgages generally don’t get a night to themselves very often. Offer to babysit so they can go out for a quiet dinner or agree to take the kids for a weekend so they can plan a mini-vacation out of town.
  5. Consignment stores: Kids stuff is often gently used because children grow out of their clothes and toys long before they wear out. My daughter recently found a great pair of red winter boots in perfect condition for our granddaughter for only a few dollars at a consignment store.
  6. Business cards: How often have you wanted to exchange telephone numbers or email addresses with someone but couldn’t find a pen or a piece of paper? Business cards are handy to have whether you are a teenager, stay at home Mom or a small business owner. Card stock is available from any office supplies store and you can download templates for your colour or black and white printer.
  7. Magazine subscriptions: Magazine subscriptions are a great inexpensive gift that keeps on giving for a whole year. For example a new subscription to Chatelaine is only $14.95 for 12 issues and it includes access to a digital edition you can download on your iPad.
  8. Potted plant: Cut flowers will brighten up the house, particularly in the depths of winter but potted plants will last a lot longer if properly cared for. In fact by February, I usually toss out my poinsettia because I’m more than ready for daffodils and hyacinths. Most grocery and gourmet stores have a great selection of seasonal plants.
  9. Groupon: You can purchase discount coupons for half off or more on Groupon and other similar sites. Spa, haircut, belly dancing classes or dance lessons anyone?
  10. Kitchen gadgets: Spatulas, corkscrews, vegetable peelers, bag clips, tongs, whisks or a turkey baster. A trip to a dollar store, department store or specialty kitchen store can uncover a treasure trove of kitchen gadgets in all price ranges for stocking stuffers.

Whatever items you decide on for the people on your list, consider starting your shopping early and buying at least some items online. Companies like Amazon and Chapters deliver for free for orders above a certain amount and it sure beats finding a parking spot and carrying heavy bags around a mall.

If your friends or relatives live out of town, the added advantage is you can have a wrapped package delivered directly to them.

Do you have any ideas for inexpensive Christmas gifts that will wow your friends and relatives? Share your money saving tips with us at and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

Beginning in January we will be mixing things up a bit, and in addition to blogs that discuss ways to save money so you can save more for retirement, we will be interviewing our favourite financial bloggers, reviewing books that will help you better manage your finances and rolling out a monthly Retirement Savings 101 series.

The team at Saskatchewan Pension Plan wishes you a happy, healthy holiday season.

Real or artificial Christmas tree? The pros and cons

December 5, 2013

By Sheryl Smolkin


I am probably the wrong person to be writing about the pros and cons of real vs. artificial Christmas trees because we never celebrated Christmas or had a tree. Instead we lit Chanukah candles for eight nights and ate too many potato latkes (pancakes).

However, my research reveals that that the “real vs. artificial tree” debate is a perennial one, and the issues are somewhat different than I initially expected.

From purely a cost perspective, there seems little doubt that purchasing a well-constructed, long-lasting artificial tree is less expensive than buying a real tree every Christmas. In fact, in a Moneysense article published last December, Stefan Dubowski suggests that an artificial tree can be as much as $400 cheaper over 10 years.

He also notes that artificial trees are cleaner, there are no needles to gather up and no water reservoir that leaks or spills all over the presents. And it is less of a hazard because most artificial trees are fire resistant, whereas real trees dry out, making them more likely to burn.

He outlines characteristics you should look for in an artificial tree and recommends a pre-lit tree so you can avoid wrestling with tangled strings of lights each year. After reviewing four high-end trees sold last year at major Canadian retailers, he concludes that the Martha Stewart Living Pre-Lit Sparkling Pine Tree from Home Depot ($289) has the longest warranty (five years on the tree and two years on the lights) and is the best value overall.

But what about the environmental impact of real vs. artificial trees?

Some might make the case for fake trees because they are re-used every year and thus don’t generate the waste of their real counterparts. But fake trees are typically made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is one of the most environmentally offensive forms of non-renewable, petroleum derived plastic.

Several known carcinogens may be generated during PVC production polluting neighbourhoods near factory sites, many of which are in China. Furthermore, fake trees are not recyclable or biodegradable, so when they are disposed of they will fill up landfill sites for an indefinite period.

In contrast, the Saskatchewan Christmas Tree Growers Association reminds us that:

  • Real trees are a renewable, recyclable resource.
  • For every real Christmas tree harvested, up to three seedlings are planted in its place the following spring.
  • Real trees are environmentally friendly. They produce oxygen, sequester carbon, provide shelter for wildlife, help control erosion and are biodegradable.

However, what is more important is that selecting, bringing home and decorating a real tree is an important part of the holiday tradition for many families. Buying a tree at a department store and reassembling it every year may be a cheaper option over time, but opting for a real tree instead of an artificial tree is a decision you make with your heart.

Want to weigh in on the real vs. artificial debate? Share your tips with us at and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

13-Nov Holiday gifts Ways to save money on winter driving
20-Dec Transportation Ways to save money on gas
27-Dec Coupons Coupon websites that can save you money