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How to avoid overspending on DIY holiday gifts

It’s that time of year again: Those of us with a knack for baking or knitting consider making holiday gifts for friends and family instead of hitting the mall. The personal touch will show how much we care, and we’ll save a bundle, too. At least, that’s the idea.

“About three years ago, a childhood friend of mine and I got together because we wanted to make candy and cookie baskets for our children’s teachers,” said Jamie Clemons, a mom and full-time student from Goshen, Indiana. “I think we ended up spending around $75 on ingredients, and after about two days of cooking we had all of these goodies but I think we could’ve bought them for around $25.”

The teachers loved the baskets, but what usually was a $10 or $15 expenditure had snowballed. “We realized it when we went to the store and were putting everything in the carts, but by that time, we were committed,” she said.

It’s the dirty little secret none of the cute craft spreads in the magazines will tell you: DIY presents can be pricier than store-bought.

“You see things like soap-making and candle-making, but once you start buying essential oils and honeycomb, it all starts adding up. You could’ve gone to a boutique,” said Beth McAfee-Hallman, founder of the frugal living blog OneFabulousMama.com. “Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re saving a lot of money.”

“There definitely are a lot of times when those DIY gifts aren’t as cheap as you think,” said Julia Scott, who blogs at BargainBabe.com. “You need to budget just as if you were going to buy your family a new TV,” she said, and research beforehand how much the project will cost.

This was the mistake that tripped up Megan McWilliams, host of the radio show and blog Green Divas. When McWilliams decided to made photo calendars for her family, her assumption that it would cost around $20 to get them printed turned out to be way off.

“The whole thing that was supposed to be so low-stress and low-cost suddenly cost me like $500,” she said. Her family never found out how much her “fun little homemade gift” cost, she said. “It was embarrassing.”

Another no-no: tackling a project with a steep learning curve. You run the risk of having to buy supplies twice if the first version doesn’t come out right, and it’s likely to take longer — the last thing you need to add to a busy holiday schedule. “If you have baking skills and equipment, don’t decide to knit,” said Jeff Yeager, author of "The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches."

“People need to be honest with themselves about their expectations around the holiday season,” said Sara Tetreault, who blogs about frugality at GoGingham.com.

As a young lawyer with “a lot of student loans,” attorney Melissa Moore said she and her boyfriend at the time decided to make breakfast baskets for their families for Christmas. Since her hobbies already included knitting and canning, she said, “I figured I’m crafty. This will be so great. It’ll be so cheap.”

But Moore said her home-baked scones “came out looking like little blobs,” even after several trial runs. “I looked at it and I was like, this kind of looks a little too homemade,” she said. By the time she jazzed up the baskets with teapots, mugs and other extras, “The things must’ve wound up costing $60 or $70 each.”

It’s easy to overlook how much you’re really spending when you make gifts, so watch out for these five budget-busters:

Equipment costs: “Expense-wise, the big things people need to be careful of are tools and equipment. Even for simple crafts, they really add up,” Yeager said. “Anything that requires specialized tools, particularly power tools,” can get pricey quickly. If you absolutely have to invest in a stand mixer or a sewing machine, check thrift stores.

Pricey packaging: Jars, tins, baskets, baking cups, cellophane — it all adds up, as do high-end paper and bows. “If you get gold-embossed tissue to wrap it in, that’s not really frugal,” McAfee-Hallman said.

Too much variety: “The temptation is to go overboard,” Scott said. Limit the amount of colors, flavors or other variations, so you don’t end the holiday season with a bunch of half-used skeins of yarn or bags of beads. Already stuck with them? Try unloading them on Craigslist or eBay.

Shipping expenses: “You may think you can make it for free, but you can’t ship it for free,” said Kendal Perez, who blogs at HassleFreeSavings.com. “If you have to ship it, I think you’re better off buying something and taking advantage of free shipping."

Too many projects: “If you’re going to do DIY gifts, try to pick something that’s universal, something you can do for everyone,” Scott said. “The startup costs for each project are set. Try to come up with a product everybody would be happy to receive to keep your overhead low.”

So what is a good DIY project? According to these experts, one fairly safe fallback even non-crafty types can master is a homemade recipe mix. For example, find a recipe for brownies, fill Mason jars with the dry ingredients (layer them if you want to get fancy) and use ribbon to attach a tag that tells the recipient what wet ingredients to add and how to bake them.

What do you think is a good DIY gift?

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