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How to Tackle Holiday Shopping as a College Student


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It’s that time of year! The holiday season has officially begun. There’s Christmas music on the radio, special holiday packages in stores, and Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells outside of the local mall.

With only a few weeks before we head home for the holidays, it’s starting to turn into holiday shopping crunch time. We need to get gifts for our college friends before leaving for break, gifts for our back-home buddies before we see them during break, and of course, we need to shop for our families. How do we possibly get all this done while remaining on a budget and studying for finals?

This year, stay on top of your holiday shopping with these tips on being efficient, finding the perfect gift, and saving money. With your shopping out of the way, you’ll finally have time for a peppermint hot chocolate and a feel-good Christmas flick.

Being Efficient

As college students, we’ve got a lot going on during the months of November and December. Finals, projects, parties – you name it, we have it on our schedule. That’s why it is crucial that we be efficient while we plan our presents and take trips to the mall.

To stay efficient, it is important to shop with a mission. All too often I go to the mall to browse or to pick up a little something and I end up wandering for hours. I return home only to realize that I’ve wasted precious time getting nothing accomplished! Make a list of stores you need to visit and gifts you need to get before leaving the house; that way, you’ll stay on schedule and prevent wandering.

Gift list
Photo Credit 

It’s also a good idea to plan ahead before going to the mall. Check out your favorite stores online or brainstorm where you can get that perfect gift for your friend. (It can be nice to keep a running gift idea list throughout the year, too.) If you have an idea of what you need to pick up beforehand, you’re less likely to meander and waste time.

Finally, if your budget allows you to, shop for your Christmas presents all at once. Taking one day to go to the mall and do some power-gift-buying will get you in the right mindset. There’s a thrill that comes with buying presents for your friends – on Black Friday, I was more excited about the gifts that I picked up than the trinkets I got myself! By shopping for all of your dearest friends at once, you’ll be so focused on giving that you won’t consider stopping to admire that sweater you’ve wanted. An added bonus? If the nearest shopping mall is far away from your college or university, you’ll save money on transportation.

Finding the Perfect Gift

Tiffany & Co Box
Photo Credit Р(what a pretty blue box!)

Finding the perfect gift is hard. You want to get your friends and family something meaningful and worthwhile, practical and enjoyable, and, of course, something they’ll like!

When I think about getting gifts for people, I sit down and ask myself a few questions: What inside jokes do we have together? Are there specific things that I associate with this person? Would they prefer a goofy gift or something more practical? How much am I willing to spend? Is there something they’ve wanted for a while?

Asking these questions helps narrow down the possibilities for each person. It also makes gift giving more enjoyable! You’ll reflect on funny memories and feel confident in the gift you choose. After thinking long and hard about what to get my best friend, I now have the absolute perfect gift for her!

Another good thing to consider when finding the perfect gift is that you can always do-it-yourself. DIY scrapbooks, customized picture frames, knitted scarves, tie blankets, photo collages – these gifts are personal, one-of-a-kind, and meaningful. They’re also relatively cheap! Last year I made my dad a calendar filled with pictures from the last year. For the past twelve months, he’s been able to remember something new every 30 days. Always remember that it truly is the thought that counts!

Budget Shopping

Wallet with money

Ah, yes. The college girl’s struggle – how do we give fabulous presents while staying on a tight budget? Thankfully, most of our friends will have the same problem this holiday season. They’ll understand.

Of course, we still want to dole out the presents and see our friends light up with delight. How do we manage this while saving money? First, I like to start off by making a budget for each person on my list. Are you willing to spend extra on your best friend? How about your roommate? It’s natural to spend different amounts of money on different people. By identifying how much money to allocate to each person, you’ll save yourself the hassle of figuring out your finances as you go.

Secondly, I recommend signing up for mailing lists and e-mail subscriptions. (And checking CF’s Coupons & Sales lists every Friday!) Although your inbox may become flooded with coupons and deals, you’ll be sure to find out about that Forever 21 40% off sale or the BOGO event at Gap. If you don’t want to give stores your work or school e-mail address, don’t hesitate to create a new Gmail account solely for shopping-related news. By getting information about sale events ahead of time, you’ll be able to plan ahead and save money.

Finally, don’t be afraid to just write a card! If you’re strapped for cash this holiday season (honestly, who isn’t?), don’t hesitate to pick up some stationery and write a meaningful message or two. I love getting mail and I save every card that I receive; if buying a gift for everyone on your list this year isn’t feasible, put some thought into a friendly letter. No matter what you choose, your friends will know that you thought about them.

Your turn!

In the next few weeks, I’ll be cramming holiday shopping into my already busy schedule. Thankfully, with a little bit of forward thinking and careful consideration I should be able to have a successful gift-giving season. Now, as always, we’d love to hear from you!

Do you have any gift giving advice for us busy, financially strapped college girls? What gifts are you ladies giving this year? What are you getting for your friend/parent/sister/significant other? How are you saving money during the holiday season? Make sure to leave your thoughts in a comment!

Posted on on November 30, 2011 / Filed Under: College Life / Tags: , , , , ,

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26 Responses to “How to Tackle Holiday Shopping as a College Student”

  1. 1
    November 30th, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I always start shopping early. I have tons of family members and a few friends I have to get presents for. My goal is to shop early so I can save my money near December to shop at after Christmas sales, go out to eat with friends, go to movies, etc. :)

  2. 2
    November 30th, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Don’t forget college memorabilia. You’ll only be there for a few years (probably) so don’t miss out on this extremely easy yet family-appealing category. UConn Mom sweatshirt, Colgate Dad mug, afghan, blanket…. whatever you’re into.

  3. 3
    November 30th, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I shopped at The Rainforest Site for less-expensive (but super cute) gifts!

  4. 4
    November 30th, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I think it also helps to get things like accessories or books online. It’s convenient and we spend so much time shopping online anyway and those are some simple things to get. Plus there are always some cute things that you can’t find in stores.

  5. 5
    November 30th, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    My mom is getting these Mississippi State flipflop decals she’s wanted, my stepdad is getting a State decal and maybe a mug, same for my dad.

    For my friends, I decided to be crafty and make cute inexpensive gifts. I’m buying wooden letters, whatever their first name begins with, and painting them with something that reminds me of them. My roommate, for example, LOVES Harry Potter and Gryffindor House, so her J will be painted gold and red with a lightning bolt and a lion. :)

  6. 6
    November 30th, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Great post! Holiday shopping can be a chore for anyone, but as broke college students it can be even harder haha! I guess in the end we have to remember what the season is really all about!

  7. 7
    November 30th, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Great ideas!

    I bought some cute things on etsy for some of the people I need to get gifts for. I thought it would be nice to get them something unique and handmade and also directly help out someone else who’s probably looking for a little extra cash for the holidays. I’ve found some really creative gift ideas for under $20.

  8. 8
    November 30th, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    I’m trying to go homemade with most of my presents this year. I’m have already made a few scarves and have two more to go.

    I also bought some plain mason jars from Ikea as well as some bottles with stoppers. I’m going to etch all of them ( and put homemade liqueur in the bottles, lemon sugar scrub in one jar, and some kind of food in the others.

  9. 9
    November 30th, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    For me, I always shop on Black Friday/Cyber Monday for gifts. The DVD section on Amazon is particularly fruitful (you can find DVDs for as low as $3).

    I think just paying attention to what people like is a big thing. One of my close friends mentioned she loved my lipstick shade, so I had her try it out and she loved it. So I’m planning to get her that lipstick. People are always dropping gift ideas in typical conversation, so I try to pick something they like.

  10. 10
    November 30th, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    These are some great ideas! Great post! Will definitely be trying to incorporate some your ideas into my holiday shopping!

  11. 11
    November 30th, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    A lot of the time I bake gifts for friends. You can never have too many baked goods around the holidays, right?

  12. 12
    December 1st, 2011 at 12:04 am

    This year I decided to go ALL home made [and CHEAP]! With so many great DIY sites out there, I’ve been keeping track of my favorites on pinterest. I (sadly?) have a list, in order, of who is most important to get/make gifts for. If I could, every friend and family member would have fabulous gifts, but with my ity-bitty income, it’s just not possible. So it’s important for me to get the “important” people taken care of before I spend away on my-third-cousin-from-oklahoma-who-once-sent-me-a-birthday-card.

  13. 13
    December 1st, 2011 at 12:59 am

    is that a picture of a louis vuitton wallet under the budget shopping headline? lol

  14. 14
    December 1st, 2011 at 7:45 am

    My closest girl friends and I have this tradition where we give gifts to each other but being students, we’re on a tight budget so we save up and buy each other one gift each instead of buying numerous little gifts for each other. But aside from the gifts we save up for, I like giving my friends little gifts from the heart. Last year, I made earrings for a few of my friends. Gifts from the heart are well appreciated. :)

    A tight budget will never beat the Christmas spirit. :)

  15. 15
    December 1st, 2011 at 7:46 am

    My closest girl friends and I have this tradition where we give gifts to each other but being students, we’re on a tight budget so we save up and buy each other one gift each instead of buying numerous little gifts for each other. But aside from the gifts we save up for, I like giving my friends little gifts from the heart. Last year, I made earrings for a few of my friends. Gifts from the heart are well appreciated. :)

    A tight budget will never beat the Christmas spirit. And handmade gifts really have personal stamps on them. :)

  16. 16
    December 1st, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    I was searching the CF archives for gift ideas for guys and noticed this article has the same photo as yours! :P

  17. 17
    December 1st, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Laura – Great tip! College memorabilia is fab for parents and relatives and campus stores usually have sales around this time of year, too!

    Shanna – The homemade letters idea is awesome!! So fun; I’m sure your roomie will love it, and you can use it as room decor :)

    Carol – SO true; etsy is a fantastic gift resource with the added benefit of giving money to artists directly. Doesn’t get much better than that.

    Kristen – Wow! That’s a fantastic idea – the glasses look really professional and the process doesn’t look too difficult.

    Paula – YES! Seriously, is there anyone who doesn’t love baked goods?

    Sabrina – Ooh, Pinterest is also a great idea for running gift lists – will have to start a board for that myself.

    Shaina – Yes, with nothing but $10 in it! Thought it was funny.

    Heidi – That’s adorable and such a fun tradition to start with your friends; it’s nice to be able to get someone something really meaningful that they’ll love, as opposed to last-minute “hope they like this” type stocking stuffers.

    Sally – Good eye! That was totally unintentional; we actually found the photos separately, which makes it even weirder.

  18. 18
    December 1st, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Great ideas! I laughed at the LV wallet with $10 in it. I was grocery shopping for dinner on a budget. I whipped out my Speedy, grabbed my LV wallet? $5 in there.. That wasn’t going to work, so I reached for my debit card in my coin purse. I literally thought, wow, “How many groceries could I have bought instead of my LV collection?” Probably at least a year’s worth… *smh*

  19. 19
    December 2nd, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I’ve signed up for the email lists of all my favorite places to shop and redirected them to a specific shopping folder using filters in Gmail. That way, you can peruse through your shopping folder at your leisure without your inbox becoming a nightmare.

  20. 20
    December 4th, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    This year I did all my christmas shopping online because I thought it was more convenient with college and exams

  21. 21
    November 20th, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Great advice Sarah. You have to keep it efficient, its crunch time in college. Anyone on a tight budget and shopping for men’s clothes should take a look at They have quality items and the discounts will keep you within your budget.

  22. 22
    December 4th, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    I love to travel and so do my friends. I think a set of travel guides make a good gift. Like to Paris or London. I just got a set for NYC and LA. They have great art work and are specifically for students on a budget but want to go to awesome places. Writer’s Retreat New York City and Writer’s Retreat Los Angeles. $20 for the set.

  23. 23
    December 14th, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    Also, shopping for everyone at one store with a discount would be great. For example, if you have a 20% off entire purchase coupon or event, you could save quite a bit. I wish I had used Sephora’s friends and family event to buy gifts for my mains, but.

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