Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are a special time for families to be thankful for the many blessings they have received and for gathering together to enjoy each other.

However, we occasionally let the decorations, food preparation, and gift-giving get in the way of enjoying this special time with family and friends. This holiday season, many retail stores and online holiday shopping sites have already begun their special Black Friday sales.

Food is a major expense associated with the holidays. By the time you factor in the cost of a ham or turkey, side dishes, and desserts, you can easily spend a few hundred dollars, especially if you have a larger family. However, there are ways to save money on your holiday meals. Whether you shop sales or simply shop smart, you can save cash.

Most manufacturers use seasonal coupons, which mean they offer discounts on the most popular foods during this specific time of the year. Canned foods and prepackaged or convenience foods often have coupons attached. There are also a variety of "couponing" apps available if you have an electronic device. Take advantage of the sales offered by our local grocery stores. Most stores order more holiday items, but want to get rid of them before the holidays pass.

Discount and warehouse stores are an excellent place to find low cost holiday foods. Dollar stores now offer a selection of groceries, including some name-brand items. At $1 or less per item, you can save big on your holiday meal. Warehouse stores let you save on items you need for the holidays and beyond. The trick is to only buy what you need and what you will use.

Buying a case of mushroom soup for one dish of green bean casserole is a waste of money, but if you use that same soup for dips and other casseroles, it might be a money saver. Be a smart comparison shopper before you go to the store. Look at the unit price and only buy items with a price per unit cheaper than you find at your favorite grocery store.

If you don't want to be responsible for preparing the whole meal for the family, then have a covered dish meal. Offer to make the main course, and have family members bring the side items. If they are traveling a long distance, let them use your kitchen when they get there, or they can bring the extra plates, ice, and napkins.

Keep decorating and gift giving simple. Try being crafty this holiday season and save some money. We continue to use decorations that the boys made when they were younger. They have a lot more sentimental value than anything I could buy and they enjoy looking at them. too.

Gifts for family members are also more meaningful if they involve your children. Remember the "gift cards" idea from last week and be sure to read next week for more "crafty" gift giving ideas.

Happy holidays!

Heather Winn is a family and consumer sciences educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.

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