Halloween is a tricky holiday for anyone on a budget: On one hand, it's completely voluntary; no one needs a $50 Red Riding Hood outfit. On the other, it's one of the most popular and widely celebrated holidays around: The National Retail Federation has found that more than 70 percent of Americans plan to celebrate this year, spending around $80 each.
So what's a festive frugalista to do? Luckily, there are plenty of strategies for saving without sacrificing candy, costumes, or spooky décor. Here are 10 tips:
1. Swap costumes with others. Some towns, including Charlotte, N.C., participate in National Costume Swap Day, where families can trade gently used costumes. Writer and stay-at-home mom Emily Harris participated and got her daughter a dinosaur costume and son an Elmo costume for free, after turning in last year's dragon and baby tiger. (Find out more at www.greenhalloween.org/CostumeSwap.)
2. Build costumes out of household items. "You can make a costume out of a garbage bag and coffee beans," says The National Retail Federation's Kathy Grannis. Pinterest offers plenty of ideas, along with instructions. Tin foil often plays a prominent role, either as headgear or wrapping.
Martha Wang, mom to a 14-month-old, plans to re-purpose her son's clothes by adding accessories, to turn him into either Einstein or a punk rocker. "He has hair that naturally stands up, which adds to both costumes," she says. Her husband Jim, of the personal finance website bargaineering.com, plans to go as his manager to complete the look.
3. Re-use last year's costumes. Harris, who passes out candy to trick-or-treaters while her husband takes their two children around the neighborhood, wears the same outfit every year: a witch costume.
4. Buy costumes you can wear again later, in normal life. A denim studded jacket for a biker chick costume (just add tight black pants, a helmet, and short gloves) can be used again over dresses or dark denim, says Emma Starks of Copious, an online marketplace. Similarly, a tight, white, lacy cocktail dress can turn into a Madonna costume with the addition of a veil and extra bracelets and necklaces, and then can be worn without the accessories to a summer party next year, she says.
5. Don't buy loads of candy. Some people stock up on Skittles and Hershey bars only to find that they get few visitors at the door, or none at all. Grannis says it's also okay to simply turn your front light off and skip the trick-or-treat tradition altogether. "The rules have changed in recent years … It's okay not to participate," she says.
6. Grow your own décor. While pumpkins have proved challenging for Harris—she's tried, only to watch them die, for three years in a row—she has successfully grown corn, which turns into easy decorations for the front door.
7. Skip the holiday-specific items. "It makes no sense to buy seasonal gear that you use only once a year," says Starks. Instead of Halloween-themed bowls, for example, she suggests buying clear glass bowls that can work again at Christmastime, or decorating mason jars with washable paint and candles. "Store-bought signs and decorations look tacky, are expensive, and end up being clutter in your garage or closet," she says.
8. Embrace DIY projects. Craft guru Martha Stewart recommends creating an ice bucket out of the bottom half of a scraped-out pumpkin. A paper cut-out of a ghost's profile stuck on a door or mirror can be as scary as a store-bought one. Another option is to pour tonic water into drinks to make them glow under a black light.
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Writer and blogger Catherine Newman (benandbirdy.blogspot.com) created her own maple garland by collecting colorful leaves near her home in western Massachusetts and then connecting them with string. She used a sewing machine, but says a needle and string would also work. She also created a holiday-themed "comfort and joy" garland last year, after creating the letters out of brown grocery bags and gold acrylic paint.