I am the queen of being broke. Naturally, it’s not a royal title I’m proud of, but there it is. I’ve lately been not-so-broke thanks to a little saving (just kidding) but mostly thanks to steady employment and freelance hustling. But, throughout my twenties, I’ve often been in the “check my bank account before going out” phase of life. During the holidays, especially, there can be a subconscious pressure to spend more money than you have or than you’re comfortable with. You’re buying plane tickets home, wanting to impress a significant other with a gift, buying bottles of wine for holiday parties, etc.

It can be hard to, you know, ~participate~ and have a good time without overdrafting. During my time as a Broke Girl, I learned — or, rather, was forced to learn — ways around spending too much money but still going out with my friends. These are a few tips I picked up along the way…

Don’t be afraid to tell friends when you *can’t* do something.

This may sound obvious, but I think it’s an important first piece of advice. Don’t be afraid to tell friends when you can’t afford to do something — or don’t want to pay extra for a fancier-than-usual activity. Sometimes I’m in the financial position to pay for a few extra upper-middle-class meals; other times, a menu with prices above $12 makes me balk.

Even if your entire group of friends wants to dine at a $$$ restaurant, don’t be afraid to bow out or just be honest. You don’t have to throw a pity party or give them the blow-by-blow of your bank account (the fact that you have $80 in your checkings is for you and you only.) All it takes is a friendly “You know what, I’m needing to save some money right now, so you guys go ahead. I’ll meet for drinks after.” or a “This is a bit above my price limit right now. Is there a slightly cheaper place we can go to?” (Side note: At this point, a friend might generously offer to pay for your meal because we all get it, and being young means — unless you’re independently wealthy — being in a constant state of financial flux. Sometimes you’re flush; sometimes you’re bust. Refuse once, but ultimately take them up on it and thank them warmly.)

Don’t buy gifts for friends (or, buy cheap, fun things.)

Most people I know aren’t buying holiday gifts for their whole group of friends, but even buying gifts for a few folks adds up. Don’t feel obligated to spring for pricey gifts for your gals; they already know you love ‘em (hopefully? right?) And also, when it comes to gift giving, it’s truly — there’s no less cliched way of saying this — the thought that counts. When all else fails, go for things fun and nostalgic. Buy a pack of Lip Smackers and Lisa Frank coloring books and give to your friends. They’ll appreciate it, trust me.

Suggest free/cheap activities.

Usually, this money-saving suggestion is annoying because, realistically speaking, are we really going to go to a random free concert in the park? But there are ways to get together with your hometown friends over the holidays without ending up at a not-that-great, too-expensive strip mall tapas place. Find the dive bars you never explored when you lived in your hometown. They’re cheap, relaxed, and maybe you’ll find your high school crush is working there as a bartender and you’ll have a memorable one-night stand.

My go-to holiday activity is walking around the mall. Because malls are mostly dying, there’s a good chance your hometown mall will be relatively quiet on a weekday afternoon. Walk around the mall with your friends feeling like high school twerps; smell the Yankee candles, get the smoothie samples, and buy a choker from Claire’s.

Take advantage of all the free holiday things.

There’s admittedly a part of me that puts a lot of stock in holiday activities that require money. I love meals with dollar sign-less menus, cold winter night movie theater experiences, bottles of wine for the table. But there truly are so many holiday experiences that are free or nearly free that make you feel corny and in the spirit in all the best ways. Search [Your city]+free+holiday and see what pops up on community websites. Go to the tree lighting; catch a free holiday choir performance; find the place giving out free hot chocolate. Or, do as my group of friends did and spend $0 to gather around and watch Dolly Parton’s Christmas movie Unlikely Angel.

To put it bluntly, being broke during the holidays can feel alienating — like you’re doing something wrong. So many of the things lit up with holiday festiveness feel like they require money — stores with Christmas decorations, restaurants with lights and cozy fires, holiday markets. Don’t let the undercurrent of commercialism stop you from getting in the spirit. Maybe next year or five years from now, you’ll have a holiday where you go all out. In the meantime, enjoy this time. What I remember most of holidays past are watching Meet Me in St. Louis in my lit-up living room with my roommate and looking at the beautiful window displays of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. The free moments, usually, are the ones that stick.

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