hidden holiday costs

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1. The $9.73 Extra to Make Your Tree Sparkle
You're (rightfully) proud of your cheerful-but-not-Griswoldian holiday lights, tangling and untangling the same strands for a dozen years. But the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that it costs $10 to light a six-foot tree for the season—if you're using incandescent lights.

The solution: Switch to LED bulbs, and you'll bring that cost down to just 27 cents. That may not sound like much, but the same LED string could last you another 40 holiday seasons—that's $390—and your investment will pay off in other ways, too: The cooler LED bulbs are more resistant to breakage, less likely to lead to burned fingers and easier to install.
free shipping

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2. The Shipping Elves, Part One
Sending gifts far and wide is pricey.

The solution: December 18 is National Free Shipping Day, when hundreds of stores (including J.Crew, Brookstone and Harry and David) will give all customers free shipping on their online purchases, with delivery by December 24. If you can't wait until then because you're worried a gift will be out of stock by the 18th, Jeanette Pavini, a savings expert for Coupons.com, suggests you search for free-shipping promotions for any site you're ordering from. In fact, National Free Shipping Day can help you out with this too—scroll to the bottom of its homepage for links to free-shipping coupons for everything from Forever21 to Barneys.
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3. Sugar and Spice and Containers to Hold Everything Nice
You can't bring four dozen almond snowballs to the cookie swap in plastic bags, or you'll end up with a couple pounds of crumbs that look like dirty snow. The cost of ingredients, tins and Tupperware quickly adds up.

The solution: Finally, a sale that hits right when we need one. Pavini says that baking supplies and containers go on sale from November through the end of the year. Check store circulars, newspapers, Coupons.com and other online sources for sweet deals on cake mix, frosting, chocolate chips, decorating gel, sprinkles and plastic containers to put the goodies in. While this may seem to break the laws of supply and demand, Pavini says that there's so much baking done during the holidays and so many brands vying for a bigger piece of the pumpkin pie that competition for your dollars becomes fierce.
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4. The Party Clothes No One Sees
You wisely thought ahead and bought your dress during last year's postseason sale. But you forgot about the things that go underneath, like stockings and support garments, which could cost an extra $100. Manufacturers know that demand is high for these items during party season, so unfortunately, you probably won't see many deals.

The solution: For shapewear, check to see if the store carries Assets, the lower-priced brand by Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx (a pair of Assets shaping pantyhose will cost $9 to $18, versus $28 for a pair of Spanx at Nordstrom). Pavini also suggests asking retailers if they have any discounted styles left over from last year or brands in outdated packaging. (Make a note to stock up on winter stockings when you're out returning gifts in January, because that's when they tend to go on sale.)

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5. Wine for Everyone
If you're invited to one party a week this season, you'll need at least four bottles of wine to give to your hosts, and that's not including the extras you'll want for yourself. According to retail trade reports, Americans spent over $1 billion dollars more at wine, beer and liquor stores in December than they did in November in 2011.

The solution: Wine shops and liquor stores usually offer better deals before Thanksgiving, Pavini says. November also happens to be the end of the harvest season, she adds, so stores will be eager to move older merchandise to make room for the new. Pavini suggests picking up a case or two (you'll save 10 to 20 percent more than if you buy individual bottles) in mid-November to last you—and your guests—through January. Those oenophiles looking for year-round sales might consider signing up on a wine flash-sale site, like Wine Woot!, Lot 18 or Invino.
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6. The Shipping Elves, Part Two
Let's say you're sending video games, books and more that you purchased in Pittsburgh to your nephews in San Jose. The price to ship a 30-pound package via standard post will cost $35.99 and will take seven business days to arrive.

The solution: If you ship using a Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Box, you'll pay $17.90 (you'll save an extra $2.10 if you buy the box online), and your nephews will be competing for top scores within two days. You can even arrange for the letter carrier to pick it up from your house for free. The USPS has been trying to spread the word about these Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes for the past few years—and when sending gifts of ample weight (i.e., not origami kits) and packages long-distance, they can save you time and money. You can use the Postal Price Calculator on the USPS website to find out what shipping option best fits your needs.

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7. Frame-Worthy Holiday Cards
E-greetings are easy, inexpensive and just right for procrastinators who can't make it to the post office. But they lack a certain something that paper greeting cards provide (besides, there will be people who are eagerly awaiting for your card to complete their holiday decorations).

The solution: If you are adept with scissors and a stencil, you may choose to make your own cards, but the rest of us might consider sending postcards this year. Stamps for 100 postcards will cost $34, compared with the $49 you'd need to mail the same number of standard-size cards in envelopes. You won't feel like you're skimping if you choose something like these personalized photo cards from Minted or this relatably funny card from HenPen Designs.
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8. Gifts for Other People's Children
You love the idea of showing up like Santa at your friends' homes with small gifts for their children, but the added expense of the toys awakens your inner Scrooge.

The solution: During the year, whenever you stop at a rest stop or a mall with a toy vending machine, pop in a few quarters and save the prize. Disperse these baubles (they're prewrapped!) to your friends' children as you make the holiday social rounds. If you have more than a few coins to spare, look for games built to quietly amuse, like these serpentine dominoes, which will delight the kids and their parents without putting you over your budget.
hidden holiday costs

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9. Tips for You and You and...You?
Many of us feel so overwhelmed by holiday tipping etiquette that we start indiscriminately handing money to everyone who helps us look and feel better in December.

The solution: This isn't necessary, says Lizzie Post, a co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th Edition. "Think about holiday tips as thank-yous to the people who help us out all year long," she says. This means that you don't need to give an extra holiday tip (on top of your standard tip) to the woman you've never met before who painted sparkles on your nails. "If you're on a strict budget, ask yourself, 'Who could I really not live without?'" Post advises. That might include your babysitter, your regular stylist who cuts your hair every six to eight weeks, the teen who mows your lawn and shovels your walk. For suggested amounts on what to give them, check out the comprehensive "Holiday Thanking Recommendations" at EmilyPost.com.
hidden holiday costs

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10. An Available Babysitter
It can be next to impossible to find a free sitter on a Saturday night in December—some have been booked since August, says Mary Schwartz, director of public relations for Sittercity.com. Even if you do score help on New Year's Eve (the busiest night of the year for sitters), you should expect to pay a 50 to 100 percent increase over the normal rate (Sittercity.com's babysitting rate calculator can help you figure out the average hourly rates in your area).

The solution: Organize a babysitter share, which involves hiring one sitter for multiple families. Parents who share a sitter usually pay about 20 to 35 percent less, Schwartz says. "So if you and the other families typically pay $12 an hour, you could reduce this to $8.40 each, and the sitter will still make $16.80," Schwartz says. She adds that these arrangements work best when there's one sitter for no more than two infants or four children, the kids are around the same ages, the parents plan to return home around the same time and the families agree on the ground rules (i.e., TV time, bedtime, snacking).

Next: 8 ways to start saving now

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