Stretching Your First-Christmas Decorating Dollar

Stores may have begun decking their halls in early September, but for most of us, the holidays don't really start until we begin Christmas decorating our own homes. (For me, that sometimes means December 24!) Decorations at Christmas can mean everything from hanging a simple wreath on your door to covering every surface -- inside and out -- with holiday decorations.

If you're settling into your first home, however, you can't just pull labeled boxes out of the attic and start untangling Christmas light strands. Unless you inherited a share of your family's holiday decorations, it's easy to drop a bundle on just a few basics. Before you go wild at Christmas Cabin, I'd like to suggest a few tips to keep your costs down and your spirits up.

1. Develop a Budget
Aren't you sick of hearing us say "budget, budget, budget?" The fact remains, however, that holiday decorations direct expenses should come after gifts, in terms of holiday necessities. Once you've decided how much you're going to spend on everyone else, then you can develop a plan for holly-fying your home.

live, potted Christmas tree

2. Oh Tannenbaum
The biggest portion of your budget will likely go towards purchasing and decorating a Christmas tree. If this is your first tree, it'll be cheaper to buy a small fake one for $10 or $15; or you might invest in a living and potted tree. Though the original investment is higher than a tiny fake tree, it'll pay off over the long term as you can decorate it year after year, enjoy some house greenery in the meantime and, ultimately, plant a beautiful fur tree when you buy your first home. As an inexpensive skirt, I've found a bit of forest-green netting looks great and costs about $1.50. (It also serves as handy  packing material for ornament storage.)

Finally, you'll need to set aside cash for cheap lighting strings and single-colored balls to fill the majority of the tree, then invest in a few special ornaments you'll use for many years. You might even beg a few sentimental family ornaments off your folks, as they'll likely have far more than they use. If tradition holds true, you'll slowly amass unique ornaments over the years.

3. Secure the Perimeter
Naturally, you'll want to include some exterior decorating. If you want to light up the sky and put Santa on the roof, that's going to take big bucks. A simple wreath and indoor lights framing a window or two would be a nice way to start, however. Indoor lights tend to be much less expensive and a lot easier to install.

Of course, you could go the Trans-Siberian Orchestra route and light up the whole house. (The following is a really clever version, so watch to the end for a bit of hilarious fun!)

4. Go Room By Room
Now consider how many rooms you want to adorn. Your entry way and main entertainment room should be first on your list. What portions of these areas would you like to decorate? Do you want to festoon a staircase with garlands and bows? How much greenery would that require? How many surfaces throughout your home would you like to decorate? Don't forget you may end up with a different furniture configuration as you rearrange a room to accommodate the Christmas tree.

Popcorn and cranberry garlands

5. Do Some DIY
Before you buy, consider doing a bit of do-it-yourself decorating. Here are just a few basic ideas.

Popcorn and cranberry garlands are still adorable and even the least DIY-capable person can make them. If possible, hit the hiking trails to gather pinecones and other natural materials for wreaths, boughs, mantle decorations, etc.

You can buy basic wreath forms at art and craft stores or pick up a decaying wreath at a thrift shop and repurpose the portions that are still useful. Now arrange your fresh pine boughs and other elements and spray with a fixative, if you want them to last more than a couple weeks. You won't have the benefit of the greenery's natural smell, but you can always add a touch of vanilla, essential oil or a couple sticks of cinnamon.

Finally, old Christmas cards can be repurposed in a variety of ways. Begin by cutting them into traditional holiday shapes, like paper stars, angels, etc. Then you can:
    •  Attach the shapes to magnets (like the ones always clinging to useless phone books) and hang them on your refrigerator.
    •  String them together and drape the garlands from the stairs, fireplace or other suitable space.
    •  Turn them into tree ornaments by pasting the shapes on cardboard backings. (You'll want to cover both sides of the cardboard for ornaments.)

6. Make a List
Now that you've considered your options, make your shopping list of lights, ornaments, garlands and areas you'd like to decorate. Try to visualize how everything will look in your home. You needn't be specific on each item: Just include a general idea of how you'd like to fill the space. You still want to have fun selecting the perfect item for each area, but you don't want to end up with a pile of unusable junk. Don't overlook online merchants, like the Ornament Shop with free shipping offers.

7. Start At Thrift Shops
Thrift shops and dollar stores have a surprisingly good selection of everything from Christmas wreaths to ornaments. You'll want to avoid buying light strands from these places, however. It's incredibly irritating to end up with non-working lights when you're ready to set up the tree. Many online merchants offer a wide selection at surprisingly low prices that can be shipped to you in no time.

Local Christmas shop

8. Buy Local
Your next step should be the locally-owned boutiques, particularly those that plan early for Christmas and provide a large selection. These shops usually offer unique ornaments and decorations in a wide price range. (They're also a good place to find inexpensive hostess or girlfriend gifts.) Just make sure you stick to your list. These places can be impulse-buying traps as they really know how to display their adorable wares in tempting ways.

9. It Takes Time
As the years go by, you'll slowly add to your collection and likely end up with more decorations than you need. That means you'll be able to pick and choose, selecting different themes for different years. But no Christmas will be quite as special as these first years spent in your new home, so enjoy.

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