Slim funds don't have to equal a second-rate holiday

The desire to produce holiday joy and memories for our loved ones can make this a tough couple of months if you're on a budget. Thankfully, slim funds don't have to equal a second-rate holiday. Use these strategies to make every dollar count. Group gift. Arren McDonald knows what it means to be stretched. She and her hubby have three sons, eight nieces and nephews, plus stepfamilies. "I try to come up with group gifts," McDonald said. "For my nieces and nephews and their parents, I do an all-ages board game with a tin of popcorn or a sausage and cheese package to give as a family gift." That way, she crossed several people off the list with one gift, spent no more than $25, and still provided a thoughtful and fun treat for everyone. Think ahead, shop ahead. "I shop all year," said Worthington mom Joanne Savage. "If I see something my mom would love, say some gardening thing on clearance in July, I buy it and put it away for Christmas. I also buy gift cards all year round. If I have $20 extra at Kroger, I buy a gift card. They come in handy as quick gifts if I've forgotten someone." Powell mom Sarah Coy "uses Discover (card) points to buy gift cards at a reduced price. Those cards are either the gift or I use them to buy tangibles, andany points I have left over I use to pay off the January bill." Stretch! Savage also gets the bonus gas discount for the gift cards. For extra stretch, consider shopping through web portals that refund a portion of your purchase, such as eBates or Upromise, then pay with a rewards credit card to earn rewards twice on the same dollar spent. And keep your eyes peeled for retailer promotions such as the "spend $100, get $50 off" deal at Elder-Beerman, McDonald said. Keep it simple. Coy's nieces and nephews get a similar gift every year: a savings bond and a small gift in the $5 to $10 range. (She also uses coins from the spare-change jar to buy the savings bonds. Genius!) Coy keeps it simple for her own kids as well - a couple of fun toys, a few books and clothes. Stockings are stuffed with a savings bond, dollar-bin toys and sweets: "It's the same game plan my mom had." Quality recycling. Great gifts can come from Craigslist and yard sales. The keys to doing second-hand gifting well are quality and thoughtfulness (matching the gift to the true interests and needs of the receiver). I have long used these sources to buy gifts I otherwise couldn't afford, including a near-mint Little Tikes play kitchen, Playstation games and accessories, and this year's Superman mini-pinball machine (shhhh....). It's not about the money. Think about the best gifts you've ever received - chances are they didn't come from a store. My mother once handwrote her recipes, along with her mother's and grandmother's, and put them in a binder for me. I still use it every time I make my great-grandmother's legendary apple pie. Right up there was the night my friend Sherri treated my toddler boys to a mac-and-cheese dinner plus a two-hour tour of local Christmas lights. They l-o-v-e-d it, and I got the gift of quiet time at home with hubby. A stellar gift, indeed. - Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.