What’s the Ugly Xmas Sweater in Your Budget?


Neil’s authentic Ugly Sweater.

The Advent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater

When did you attend your first Ugly Christmas Sweater party? And how much did you spend on that embroidered, bedazzled beauty (or beast)?

Back in 2004, one of my hipper college roommates (they were all hipper than me) suggested we throw an Ugly Sweater party. It’s been so long I don’t remember how much my ugly sweater cost, but it was definitely less than $5. Neil also snagged one for a few bucks and still proudly sports it through the holiday season and beyond.

During a recent visit to the thrift store, I noticed that the Ugly Sweaters were displayed prominently, and over-priced compared to their Regular Sweater counterparts. There was no shortage of discounted jolly jumpers cast off by retired elementary school teachers when my roommates and I shopped for such treasures. Twelve years later, Ugly Sweaters are sold by just about all major clothing retailers, and you can even buy “designer” ones for $40-65 in horrifying prints such as:

Men's Centaur Claus Sweater

Please do not buy this.

Perhaps my fashion sense is a bit outdated, but I’m fairly certain that NO MAN SHOULD EVER LET THAT MONSTROSITY TOUCH HIS BODY! Or woman, for that matter. Neil’s opinion of Santa Centaur sweater: “It’s funny, but not $40 funny.”

But I suppose tastes will vary, so I’ll get to my actual points:

  1. Trends are stupid.
  2. Marketers can get people to spend money on anything.
  3. Fashion is futile.
  4. Value is relative, but sometimes it shouldn’t be.

The Ugly Sweater In Your Budget

I don’t think I even need to elaborate on those. So let’s end with some application: There is probably an Ugly Sweater in your spending. I’m talking about that line of your budget that owes its existence to a marketing ploy, a cultural myth, or an old habit that’s gone too long unchallenged. Maybe the line item itself is legitimate, but the amount is just nutty, and you can’t see it because Ugly Sweaters have become the norm. You’ve become inoculated against their ugliness and re-conditioned to view them as hip, or at least passable.

I have no idea what your Ugly Sweater is, but I urge you to find and unravel it. One likely culprit is consumer debt. By which I mean anything outside of student loans or a mortgage. Especially a car payment. A lifestyle of continuous consumer debt has only become an acceptable norm recently. Borrowing money all the time used to be as tacky as a Santa Centaur shirt. Living on less you than you make is precisely what we meant by pretending to be poor, and it’s a reasonable but often overlooked financial option with loads of benefits like financial flexibility.

Here are some Ugly Sweaters we’ve discovered in our budget:

  1. Haircuts for Neil. He’s growing his hair to his knees instead. Just kidding, I learned how to cut it.
  2. Haircuts for our boy. Neil’s job.
  3. $50 dates. Since we don’t get out often, we would budget (and spend) $50 every time. While we’re willing to splurge sometimes, we’re trying to get out more and spend less when we do with options like splitting entrees, going to our favorite less expensive restaurants, and buying ice cream at the grocery store. (Also, we visit places like parks, thrift stores, libraries, and coffee shops.) More on why you can’t afford not to date your spouse soon.
  4. Buying wine by the bottle. Unless there’s an amazing rebate, we’ve found less expensive ways to imbibe the occasion adult beverage. We are not ashamed of buying box wine.
  5. Christmas Lights. We’ve gone all out on outdoor lighting in the past, and probably will again, but we’ve reigned it in the last two years in order to focus on some big short-term financial goals.

    Maybe we'll do this again next year when we actually own this castle.

    Maybe we’ll do this again next year when we actually own this castle.

  6. Buying all-new Christmas gifts. Last year my wonderful mother suggested Goodwill was a perfectly legitimate place to buy thoughtful, useful Christmas presents, and we heartily agreed. We only buy for a select few people this way, but we save a lot buying our kids and each other certain pre-owned gifts. For example, the two-year-old’s Christmas tricycle is totally coming from Craiglist.
  7. Hang-drying laundry. We started saving about $25 per month in electricity when we stopped using our dryer so much.
  8. Wearing jeans with holes. I used to throw out jeans as soon as they wore holes in the knees, because that was “not my style.” Then I realized I could keep wearing them for some time before they actually qualified for scrap bag status.
  9. Cloth diapering. Though we are currently using disposables until (hopefully) potty-training soon, we saved thousands by using cloth diapers. More on this in an upcoming post I wrote for another site.
  10. Buying boneless, skinless chicken breast. Now I buy whole or bone-in chicken pieces and it saves a ton.

What do you think of the Ugly Sweater phenomenon (literally and figuratively)? Any idea what your Ugly Sweater spending might be?

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16 Responses to “What’s the Ugly Xmas Sweater in Your Budget?”

  1. Kristi with Femme Frugality says :

    I agree wholeheartedly that no man or woman should ever let that monstrosity of a sweater come close to them! I’m sure I have a figurative ugly sweater in my budget. We tend to spend too much when we go out on dates because they happen so rarely.

    As a side note, I cloth diaper too, and I love it!

    • Kalie says :

      As I’ll write about soon, infrequent post-kid dates aren’t the worst way to over-spend. Marriage is valuable!

      That’s great you enjoy cloth diapering and the savings that come with it.

  2. Brian - DebtDiscipline says :

    I happen to think the ugly Sweater’s are funny, but won’t be paying a high price for one. My wife actually picked up a regular sweater and decorated it herself out of some of of unused Christmas decorations. There is certainly room for improvement in one’s budget, tighten of the belt. I can related to the ice cream point. My three children’s favorite, and buying out can runs us $20-25 for that amount of money we can eat ice cream at home for weeks. 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      The sweaters are just so much funnier if they’re from the thrift store and someone once owned them in earnest. Homemade ones are even better!

      The experience of going out for a treat can be worth it occasionally, but the mark-up on ice cream is ridiculous once you add kids in the mix.

  3. Abigail says :

    I definitely buy into the hype with a cut and color. But I ameliorate that with the beauty school. So I pay less for both than most people do on a regular hair cut. And thanks to the lack of humidity here, I can’t just let my hair grow. It goes soooo flat.

    We do a date night, but that’s more at Tim’s insistence than how we think it “should” be.

    I definitely wish we could line dry more. Tim’s got this thing about it. Long story and not worth the argument.

    • Kalie says :

      I don’t consider women’s haircuts an Ugly Sweater, especially not discounted ones! I have very uncooperative hair so I have a skilled friend cut mine so that I don’t have to style it too much.

      Date night has always been important to us since we don’t spend most nights in together, but it looks different now that we need babysitters.

      I know some people don’t like crunchy line-dried clothing, which I can understand. And yeah, marital peace is worth more than the few bucks you’d save. Though AZ is a great climate for it.

  4. Gary from Super Saving Tips says :

    I don’t own any actual Ugly Sweaters, but I’m sure I have some figurative ones around here somewhere. I do have a car payment, but (yes, there’s always a “but”) it’s a small one, it’s for a car I share with my wife, and once the car’s paid for, that’s it (no perpetual car payments here). So it’s more of an Unappealing Sweater? 🙂 The real ugly stuff is more like my wife’s unneeded salon hair coloring or her somewhat more expensive date night wishes, but they’re important to her, and so for now they stay in the budget. We all need to decide which compromises to make, but we should definitely not spend without considering the alternatives.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s good you have a plan to avoid perpetual car payments! You’re right that it’s most important to think through spending options.

  5. Amy says :

    Great list! It’s inspired me to put together my own.
    I, too, have recently embraced boxed wine. My husband doesn’t drink it, so unless I guzzle it myself, I end up throwing out 1/3 to 1/2 of every bottle I open. (I like to have a glass of red wine a few evenings a week.)

  6. Michelle says :

    Ha! I don’t get how some people are spending so much money on ugly sweaters. Just go to a thrift store!

  7. StudMuffin says :

    That Santa-as- Pegasus sweater is THE BEST. I wouldn’t want to be caught dead wearing it, but it’s cool nonetheless… on someone else.

  8. Anne says :

    I think the centaur is hilarious! My oldest got an ugly Christmas sweater from a friend last year and it still makes me laugh. It’s got cats on top with laser beams coming out of their eyes burning up a row of Christmas presents along the bottom.

    This was the first year I had hubby on board with buying nearly all of our gifts second hand and he was so pleased with how much more we could give them for the money that we had budgeted to spend. Love the idea of unraveling Christmas sweaters. I’m working on a list of my own right now.

    • Kalie says :

      The cat sweater sounds hilarious! I think the sweaters are funny, but the original thrift store finds that someone once wore in earnest crack me up the most.
      That’s great you were able to have a “bigger” Christmas with a thrift store budget.

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