This year, stop trying to fend off the holiday beast by throwing money into its gaping maw, and get smart about the way you tackle the season. A few simple solutions can cut down your bill, make your life simpler, and pull you out from under the annual avalanche of wrapping paper and tinsel.
- There are tons of affordable, smart gadgets available to help you conserve energy and cut the cost of your electricity and gas bills year-round. For example, the Nest Learning Thermostat adapts to your lifestyle by picking up on your heating (and cooling) habits and creating a schedule around yours. Teach it well, and it can lower your heating and cooling bills by up to 20%. You can even control your heat through the Nest app on your smartphone - so you can always make sure the house is nice and cozy when you come in from the cold of winter.
- Your refrigerator and freezer also get a real workout over the holidays, so help them operate better by keeping the doors closed as much as possible so cold air doesn't escape, and keep them full of food to speed up recovery time after the doors have been opened (but not so crammed that cool air can't circulate properly).
- And remember: unplug all your electronics before you head out the door for the holidays. Having them already plugged into a power strip saves energy and will make the process quick and easy!
- Twinkle with the best of 'em: switch to LED lights instead of incandescent lights for decorating your home and tree. They're more energy efficient and will last longer.
- If you're the type who will never remember to unplug your lights every time you go to sleep or leave the house, set them on a timer so they're always on when you're drinking your eggnog but turn themselves off when there's no one around to bask in the Christmasy glow.
- Don't be afraid to get creative– reflective ornaments like silver bells and tinsel are an energy-free way to multiply your sparkle without upping your wattage. You can make your display shine without casting a dinosaur-sized carbon footprint.
- While cutting down a tree might not feel "green," real Christmas trees are actually more sustainable than artificial trees, especially because people tend to discard plastic trees far more often than they expect to. You may think you're saving a tree by going artificial, but artificial trees consume major resources to manufacture, and they look terrible when they wind up in the landfill.
- When purchasing a real tree, consider a small tree in a large pot, which you can re-pot or plant in the yard after the holiday. With a little love and fertilizer, this year's modest little tree can be next year's envy of the neighborhood.
- Rather than just tossing your tree on the street when the holiday is over, turn it into mulch through city-sponsored programs. The mulch can then be used to spruce up your own community. NYC's MulchFest lets residents bring their holiday trees to a designated city park and other drop-off sites or leave it curbside for pick-up to be recycled into mulch that will nourish plantings across the city (including your own garden). Search Earth911's directory for a tree-cycling program near you.
- Excuse me, but does that turkey have its papers? Cooking with local, sustainable and organic ingredients for your holiday meal isn't just a good choice for the environment, it also makes for tastier food.
- If you're hosting a small-ish holiday gathering, it's less wasteful and more festive to forego disposable dishware and serve your canapes and cocktails on the good china and cocktail flutes you inherited from your grandma. (Your regular old dishes will also do if grandma willed all the heirlooms to her cat.) But if you have too many guests for real plates, try buying your party supplies from a company like Susty, who makes party supplies that are both eco-friendly and fashionable.
- Since it's not always on people's minds at a party, set out a recycling bin for guests, so they won't be tempted to toss glass bottles in with garbage. It'll make recycling easier for you when it comes time to clean up later.
- Holiday parties mean wine. Lots and lots of wine. Unless you're the crafty type who's going to repurpose all those corks into Christmas ornaments, get rid of them reponsibly: many stores have cork recycling programs.
- Go homemade: make your own unique gifts out of recycled materials. From a cookbook/tablet stand for your foodie dad to recycled sweater scarves for your mom and sister to mobile toy crates and kids' adventure-ready backpacks for your niece and nephew, HGTV has everyone in the family covered with some great gift ideas to get you started.
- Not in the mood to burn your hands with the hot glue gun? Hit a craft fair and let someone else's homemade gifts fill out your list. Buying local or fair trade products also goes a long way toward reducing your yuletide footprint. As with personalized homemade gifts, you can find something meaningful for everyone on your list.
- For your philanthropic friends, make their gift a donation to a favorite local charity or non-profit, such as a nearby botanical garden or conservatory, school, performing arts organization, humanitarian or wildlife relief fund, advocacy and civil rights organization, or even a community foundation that supports area organizations. You could even give the gift of time and bond over knitting and movies throughout the winter with a friend for a charitable cause. And for the mom who has everything, why not give a cow in her honor to someone who could really use one.
- According to EnergyQuest.ca.gov, 40% of all batteries are purchased during the holiday season. Try to shop for gifts that don't require toxic batteries that will just end up in a landfill — especially when it comes to the kids on your list.
- That fun glossy or metallic wrapping paper's high-clay, low-paper content actually makes it difficult to recycle, so get creative and wrap your gifts in a reusable alternative. (Brown bags, Sunday comics, posters, maps, blueprints, wallpaper, fabric, and cloth gift bags are all great choices.)
- It's better to give than to receive, but it's hard not to want all the latest gadgets for the new year. So what do you do with your clunky, old duds? Find a recycler where you can drop off old electronics or look for local organizations that will fix up the older models and give them to those who will still certainly appreciate them.
Nicole Bruce is a Chicago-based writer covering design, technology, art, travel, culture, wellness, and sustainable lifestyles. You can follow her on Twitter @nicoleabruce.
Illustrations by Alexandra Cannon