most of us are finally putting Christmas away for the
year, Erin Huffstetler is just getting warmed up. For
years, the Tennessee-based "frugal living"
writer has made it a mission to spend less than $100 on
Christmas — for a family of four, plus gifts for
teachers, parents and extended relatives. That amount
also includes a fair amount spent on holiday foods and
month, she tallied up everything she’d spent on
Christmas 2013. Total: $99.70.
does she do it? With a mixture of year-round bargain
hunting, couponing and frugal shortcuts, enough so that
she can buy brand-names and new electronics at deep
Huffstetler, 33, it’s a lifestyle and a full-time job.
A mother of two daughters, ages 9 and 11, she writes a
regular frugal-living column on About.com and hosts her
own site, MyFrugalHome.com.
find out how this "frugalista" accomplishes a
$100 Christmas, the Sacramento Bee spoke with her
earlier this month by phone. Here’s what she shared:
IN JANUARY: Among her family’s favorite shopping
venues are yard sales and thrift shops, especially in
is really the best time of year to hit thrift
stores," which are "overwhelmed with year-end
inventory," she said. "Everyone makes their
end-of-year donations to get that tax write-off, so they
show up on Dec. 31 with tons of stuff."
sales aren’t just for Christmas wrap and stocking
stuffers. At this year’s 75-percent-off holiday
clearance sale at Target, for instance, she stocked up
on 22 packages of peppermint Oreos for 89 cents a bag.
In the next few months, they’ll go into school lunches
as a special treat. She also picked up packages of
stretchy hairbands — three for 60 cents — in holiday
colors. This coming Christmas, she’ll pop them out as
gifts for her daughters and their friends.
it a habit to check the clearance racks, sales bins or
"endcaps" (the end-of-the-aisle discount
spots) in stores you regularly visit. "It’s hit
or miss. You may not find something every time, but when
you do, stick it in a closet, and it’s there when you
need it. It’s such a simple thing but saves a huge
amount on our budget."
ELECTRONICS FOR LESS: This year, her girls wanted the
new DreamWorks’ animated movie, "The Croods,"
which was selling for $17.99 at Target. What she paid:
$2.48. Here’s how: On Amazon.com, she spotted a
"flash sale," a brief, minutes-only sale
designed to attract quick-buying customers, that offered
the movie for $7.48. She printed out the Amazon page and
took it to her local Target, which matched the price and
let her use a $5-off coupon she’d picked up online.
Bottom line: She got the DVD for roughly 86 percent off
the original price.
Kindle e-reader topped both her daughters’ Christmas
wish lists last year. She bought the $69 model — for
$12. "It was something they weren’t expecting,
but it was a great deal," albeit one that took a
a $79-a-year Amazon Prime account holder, she is
entitled to special offers, along with free two-day
shipping for regular online purchases, two free Kindle
e-books a month, plus video streaming of movies and TV
shows. In October, Amazon offered its Prime members the
basic Kindle for $40 off, which brought it down to $29.
Coupled with $17 in Amazon credits that she’d earned
from answering surveys on other sites, her total
out-of-pocket price was about $12.
BARGAINS? On her MyFrugalHome.com blog, Huffstetler
posted photos of her family’s 2013 holiday gifts.
Among them: a blue-striped tank top from a JCPenney
clearance rack for $1.97; a $3 art portfolio case, found
at a yard sale; a Transformer action figure ($59 new)
for her nephew, scooped up at a garage sale for $1.99.
online sites like Hip2Save.com, she clicks weekly on
three to five free items from varied retailers, things
"perfectly tailored for going into someone’s
stocking." A click of a mouse "really saves me
a ton of money … and it’s actually less effort than
going out to a store."
her favorites: K-Cups, the tiny single-serving coffee
containers offered by most major coffee retailers. She
created a coffee basket for her dad, filled with 25 or
more K-Cups from Starbucks, Gevalia, Green Mountain and
other purveyors eager to send free samples to potential
customers. "Of all the gifts I’ve given him, that
was the one I heard about again and again."
year, she took advantage of an irresistible Pottery Barn
offer: $10 off a minimum $10 purchase, with free
shipping. She purchased a number of $10 gifts that
arrived on her doorstep for zero cost.
TOO: All the major holidays — Easter, Thanksgiving and
Christmas — are prime time to stock up on discounts
for traditional foods, whether it’s hams and turkeys
or baking ingredients, like chocolate chips, flour and
canned pumpkin. Using a coupon matchup site tied to her
local grocery store (Kroger), Huffstetler buys on-sale
items, paired with coupons from her Sunday newspaper.
She’ll buy expensive brands of flour and freeze them.
Even the most mundane items get stretched. All those
mini-candy canes handed out everywhere during the
holidays? She pulverizes them to use as peppermint
flavoring in hot chocolate and cookie recipes.
CARD, BANK REWARDS: Huffstetler likes credit cards with
rewards programs, either cash-back or points toward
other purchases. She uses two Chase cards, which give
reward points on Amazon.com that can be used for
also takes advantage of special discounts offered by her
bank at specific stores. One month it might be 5 percent
cash-back on all Wal-Mart purchases; another month it
might be Starbucks or a major pharmacy. You sign up
online but there’s no fee or other commitment, she
said. "If I’m logged into my bank to check my
account balance, I’ll click over to see what deals
they’re offering." For instance, in December,
there was a 10 percent cash-back offer for any purchase
at Great Clips hair salons. The hair salon itself was
already offering $12.99 haircuts for $9.99 as a holiday
promotion. She bought a year’s worth of $9.99 haircuts
for her husband, knowing there’d be an additional 10
percent bank rebate off the entire purchase.
with Starbucks, she bought a $5 gift card online, which
triggered another $5 incentive card from the coffee
company. And her bank offered a $5-back offer. "So
for my $5 investment, I had a $15 gift. … You start
with the simple stuff, then it kind of gets to be a
game. It’s fun to learn these things."
FOR TEENS? It’s relatively easy to delight
unsuspecting young kids with freebies, garage-sale finds
and other thrifty gifts, but does it fly with
said she’s not a bit concerned that her preteen
daughters might balk at thrift-store gifts as they get
older or prefer labels that don’t fit within her
kids are wearing the same stuff everyone else is
wearing. They’re wearing Nike sneakers and Under
Armour T-shirts, things that are on trend with everybody
else." But instead of spending $50 on a sweatshirt,
it might be 50 cents at a yard sale. "My experience
is that people get rid of stuff a lot faster than you’d
her kids, "It’s definitely a mind-set," said
Huffstetler. "If it’s a brand they like, they
could care less where it came from."
OUT THE NOISE: It’s easy to get overwhelmed and
tempted by too many "deals" on things you don’t
really need or want. "You have to dial out the
noise. If there are too many deal sites or too many
emails from companies in your inbox, it’ll stress you
out. You can drive yourself crazy trying to follow too
many sites. Find one or two that work for you."
favorites: Coupons.com and Hip2Save.com, which post
discounts and freebies offered by major stores,
restaurants and grocers. She checks the latter once or
twice a day when she’s online.
AN OBSESSION: Although Huffstetler makes her living
being frugal, she knows it’s not for everyone.
it makes you miserable, is taking too much time or you’re
buying something you really don’t like, pay attention.
What works for me may not work for you. But it’s so
much more fun than handing my money to a cashier."
her husband’s job was downsized last year, he joined
her full time on her blogging and writing venture.
Primarily based on her income from About.com, she said,
the two pull down a very respectable income, which she
declined to state publicly. With two college degrees —
in communications and art — she writes daily posts for
About.com, which pays her based on every 1,000 page
views. She also writes for magazines and websites and
contributes to books on frugal living.
living is hugely satisfying, Huffstetler said.
you live frugally, you pick up a lot of skills along the
way. This is a lifestyle that empowers you to do more
for yourself and rewards you for your effort."