The economic downturn threatens to sour the holidays - but it doesn't have to. The Globe consulted with money-saving experts from Budget Travel magazine, Boston Gal's Open Wallet (a local blogger who writes about saving money at www.bostongals.com), and Mommysavers.com to create a list of 10 ways to save money and avoid stress during the holidays without losing the spirit:
Scale back the shopping list. Enlist your family in a Yankee swap or Secret Santa plan in which each person gives and receives one present. For other unavoidable gifts, make a list and budget how much you expect to spend on each item.
Celebrate with an experience instead of exchanging gifts by finding a free or cheap activity your family can do together. Begin an annual tradition of playing touch football, for instance, or volunteering together at a soup kitchen or conducting a scavenger hunt.
Capitalize on your skills. Give a "gift certificate" to change family members' engine oil or bake their favorite cookies. Offer to clean, baby-sit, or set up electronics. For a spouse or significant other, offer to take out the trash, cook for a week, or give an uninterrupted day on the couch watching football.
Harness your creativity and think meaningful, not material gifts. You may not be Martha Stewart, but get crafty with a homemade card. Print out photographs of loved ones and frame them. Or make a photo calendar or album online with services such as Kodak Gallery or Shutterfly.
Take advantage of hidden discounts. When buying online, check to see if the store is offering a coupon code. "There are literally thousands of sites that list coupon codes," said Kim Danger, founder of Minnesota-based Mommysavers.com that helps parents pinch pennies. "A simple Google search using the store name and coupon code will help you find current codes." Be sure to take into account shipping costs and taxes, she noted, and research the store's return policies.
Prepare for potluck parties during the holidays. "If throwing a party, there's nothing wrong with asking people to bring a dish to take the pressure off," Danger said. She also recommends clearing out the freezer and buying extra sale items as the grocery stores offer holiday discounts. And when making a potluck item for someone else's party, consider making extra that can be frozen for any impromptu holiday entertaining.
Tap nature for holiday decorations, Danger said, and bring the outside indoors. Use pinecones and evergreen boughs instead of buying pricey flowers or ornaments. Kids can be enlisted to help collect items.
Save on gift-wrapping. Buy fabric from the clearance section and use it to wrap presents again and again, Danger said. Or wrap gifts with brown paper bags - or newspapers - gussied up with a pinecone for a natural look.
Scout for deals or ask for them when making travel plans. "Right now customers have a lot of power," said Justin Bergman, senior editor of Budget Travel magazine. "When you go in, you can ask for a lot of deals." Hotels may offer upgrades for better rooms, free parking, gas rebates, or restaurant coupons, he said. Stowe Mountain Lodge, for example, was offering massages to those who made reservations in November. Good deals for flights and hotels can be found at sites such as FareCompare.com or Travelzoo (www.travelzoo.com), Bergman said, but he also recommends visiting airline and hotel sites directly to find specials.
Ease your travels - and possibly avoid extra baggage charges - by mailing your suitcases, Bergman said. Try old standbys such as FedEx and UPS or a baggage courier service. United Airlines recently began a door-to-door baggage option through FedEx, and other companies such as www.airportbags.com offer similar services. Some cost more than the airline fees, or tack charges on top of those fees for a hefty final price.
But if you are willing to send bags a few days in advance, you might be able to save depending on the weight of the bag and the distance covered. Even if you don't, sending bags can make airport travel less aggravating, which can be priceless.