The holiday season is a time for traditions. Traditions give a sense of rhythm and stability during a time of year that can easily devolve into hectic gift buying and frantic party planning. Plus, studies show that traditions are the best way to help your kids form positive childhood memories. And what parents don't want that for their kids?
Luckily, your family can have holiday traditions, even if you're on a tight budget. These nine ideas offer affordable, easy ways to connect with each other, give back and inject a little extra cheer into your holiday season – all without breaking the bank.
1. Host a potluck.
Instead of hosting a traditional holiday party where you provide all the food (and shell out lots of cash in the process), host a potluck. Everyone brings a dish and dessert to share, and you get to enjoy a relaxed evening in the company of close friends.
Have even more fun by adding an ugly Christmas sweater contest, a white elephant gift exchange or a classic holiday movie screening to your potluck party.
2. Feed the birds.
Do-it-yourself bird feeders are incredibly easy to make, and they're a great way to attract some feathered friends to your yard this winter. Even preschool-aged children can cover a pinecone with peanut butter and bird seed. Add a string, and you can hang these pretty, useful bird feeders on a tree outside your window.
3. Create your own décor.
Why spend a fortune on holiday decorations when you can create memories and charming decorations as a family? Pinterest is full of brilliant ideas for DIY holiday décor – from gorgeous handmade wreaths to simple construction paper crafts for kids. If crafting isn't your thing, you can always pick up an ornament or wreath decorating kit from your local craft store. These kits are easy to use and typically come with everything you need to create your own holiday décor.
4. Opt for a secret gift exchange.
Buying gifts for your whole extended family is expensive – not to mention stressful! So why not propose that your family start a secret gift exchange?
About a month before your family's prime gift-giving holiday – whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa – draw names to see who gives presents to whom. Each person only needs to buy one gift, so everyone can put more thought – and less money – into the gift-buying process.
5. Play the tourist.
The holiday season is a great time to get to know your own town a little better. Many cities host free holiday fairs and festivals. Even if your town doesn't, you can still enjoy driving around to see the Christmas lights or browse the locally-owned shops.
To find out about events in your city, check out your local government website, or call your local parks and recreation or tourism department.
6. Clean out the closets and toy boxes.
Instead of piling the new holiday haul in with the old clothes and toys, spend some time downsizing your closets and toy boxes. Give gently-used items to a local shelter or food pantry. Be sure to take the kids with you, and explain why you're dropping off perfectly good stuff for someone else to use.
Not only does this tradition help you do a little good and teach your kids generosity, but it also lets you start the new year with a cleaner, clutter-free home.
7. Bake cookies.
There's really nothing like the smell of freshly baked cookies around the holidays. But instead of keeping all those calories to yourself, prepare cookie plates to take to your neighbors, co-workers, your kids' friends and anyone else who may need a little extra holiday cheer.
8. Create and save thankful lists.
It's so easy to focus on wish lists and gift lists that we forget to focus on all the blessings in our lives during the busy holiday season.
This year, make a point of focusing on things to be thankful for by having each member of your family write down one thing they're grateful for each day. Display your thankful lists throughout the holiday season, and be sure to pack them carefully when you put away your decorations. You'll be amazed by how fun and heartwarming it is to read over each year's thankful lists as you build a collection over the years.
9. Volunteer together.
The holidays are a great time to volunteer with your family and friends. VolunteerMatch.org can help you find local volunteering opportunities that suit you. Whether you pack food boxes for the needy, visit a nursing home or serve dinner at a soup kitchen, you'll feel good about giving back together.
Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.