The holiday that began in a lowly manger somehow turned into a spending bonanza. But you can save some cash this season without skimping on the Christmas cheer. Here's how.
• Cover a cork board with holiday wrapping paper and tack up all the cards you receive for an instant piece of art.
• Drape a few strands of beaded garland on a chandelier and hang ornaments from the beading.
• For a surprisingly elegant centerpiece, fill a glass bowl with apples, oranges, baby artichokes, walnuts or monochromatic ornaments. To deck out a bookshelf or coffee table, fill martini glasses about half-full with cranberries — about $3 a pack. Add a cinnamon stick, arranged as you would a pick of martini olives.
•Turn last year's leftover cards into a homemade wreath. Use the card fronts to cut out different-size circles. Glue them to the front of a cardboard or foam ring. You can also display a collection of wine corks, bottle caps or fabric scraps this way.
• Keep your eyes open for things to add to people's collections. If you find a rare shot glass to add to your girlfriend's vintage glassware collection, then she won't care that it came from a thrift store.
• Scour a used book store or record shop for frame-worthy book or album covers.
• Find a used field book of flowers or birds, rip out a few choice photos and stick them in Dollar Store frames to make an instant "art collection" for that friend with bare walls.
• Parents, get together sans kids and hold a clothing or toy swap. Bring something your children have outgrown or no long play with, and leave with a gently used item for under the tree.
• Hit a price club for bulk gifts you can give away throughout the season, like coffees, infused olive oils or blank CDs to create a homemade holiday play list.
• Crafty types can sew old sweaters into pillow cases, gloves and more. Use a sweater you seldom wear, or find a funky one at a thrift store.
• At restaurant.com you can buy discounted gift certificates for thousands of eateries nationwide. Get a $10 gift card for $3, a $25 card for $10, a $50 card for $20, a $75 card for $30 or a $100 card for a cool $40. Some restrictions apply.
• Stay away from gift cards. With stores like Circuit City and Linens 'N Things filing for bankruptcy, who knows if they'll be usable? Plus to get a $50 gift certificate, you must spend $50. But with coupons and markdowns, you can likely find a $50 sweater or video game for much less.
• Instead of buying wrapping paper, use old maps, wall paper, fabric scraps or your kids' artwork — with permission, of course.
• Cut up old cards to make your own gift tags.
• Open a cereal box along the seams and cover it with wrapping paper for a free gift box.
• This may sound harsh, but ixnay on the Christmas cards. Custom greetings can cost more than $1 each, and let's not forget 42-cent stamps.
• To keep the kiddos amused during the holiday break, skip the movie theater and get a stack of DVDs for free at the public library or sign up for a free 30-day NetFlix trial. For more free fun, take an evening walk around the neighborhood to look at all the holiday lights.
• Invest in LED Christmas lights. They use up to 90 percent less energy than traditional lights.
Contributing: Letitia Stein. Sources: betterbudgeting.com, cheapskatemonthly.com, dominomag.com, frugalliving.about.com, ivillage.com, oprah.com, realsimple.com,