The following is a guest post from Elizabeth at Simple Finance Blog.

Last year, I went a bit too far when it came to buying Christmas presents for my kids. Scratch that – I went way too far. I started shopping the day after Christmas the year earlier, and didn’t stop until November, when I realized that my bedroom closet was starting to look more like Santa’s workshop than a place for me to hang my dresses, shirts, and jackets.

I tallied up the amount I’d spent on gifts – a total I’d tried to keep in check by only purchasing items using coupons or deep in-store discounts – and did a double take. Had I really spent over $800 on clothes, shoes, movies, books, toys, and games for just two children? My Christmas budget was officially a mess – and I’d yet to buy a single gift for my husband.

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Obviously, there was only one solution to my budget-busting ways: my husband and I wouldn’t get a single gift for Christmas. But as my husband and I discussed this possibility, we realized that while we could forgo many of our wants, we had certain needs that couldn’t be overlooked – as in, I needed a Kindle, my husband needed a new pair of running shoes, and we needed a night at a hotel away from the kids.

Playing the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge simply wasn’t going to work.

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In

When I’d left my job nearly a year earlier, I signed up for accounts from Inbox Dollars and MyPoints. Each of these free programs works by sending you emails or online surveys; you get a certain number of points for reading an email, completing a survey, or buying something from the company advertised in the email. Each day, I diligently logged in to the email account I’d specifically created for these programs, clicking through dozens of emails. I earned two cents here (the standard rate of payment for Inbox Dollars) and five points here (the basic number of points awarded for reading an email from MyPoints), until, 12 months later, I’d amassed a small fortune:

  • Inbox Dollars: $76.80
  • MyPoints: 12,690 points

I requested a check from Inbox Dollars and, even after the $3 surcharge, I ended up with $73.80 I otherwise wouldn’t have had. When it came to MyPoints, you can redeem the points you’ve earned for gift cards. I used my points to score a $100 gift card to the Marriott hotel chain.

But that wasn’t all. I’d also signed up with Swagbucks, just like Melissa did. By mid-December, I’d accrued enough points from using the search engine (and always taking the daily poll, which earns you an extra Swagbuck) to get $115 in Amazon.com gift cards. That was more than enough to buy my Kindle Touch and a leather carrying case.

Show Me The Money!

Thanks to Inbox Dollars, MyPoints, and Swagbucks, I’d managed to net $288.80 in cash, gift cards, and products. But I wasn’t done yet… not even close.

My husband and I decided that now was the time to redeem our cash back bonus from our credit card. There are a variety of cards that give you cash back on your purchases; we use a Discover card. Over the year, we earned 5% cash back on purchases like gas, groceries, or travel, depending on Discover’s monthly promotion schedule; we also earned 1% cash back on everything else. Between mid-January 2011 – when we’d drained our cash back to pay for some minor home improvements – we’d accrued nearly $285!

My husband asked if he could use $80 of that cash back to get a gift card to Foot Locker so he could buy new shoes; since Discover partners with Foot Locker, we were able to get $100 in gift cards for that $80. We then had Discover deposit the remaining $200 directly into our bank account (you can only redeem cash back for direct deposit in $50 increments, so we had to leave $5 in our cash back account).

Don’t Call Me Scrooge!

When all saw said and done, we’d accumulated the following:

  • $73.80 in cash from Inbox Dollars
  • $100 gift card to Marriott from MyPoints
  • $115 in Amazon gift cards from Swagbucks, used to buy a Kindle Touch and leather case
  • $100 in Foot Locker gift cards, bought using $80 in cash back rewards from Discover
  • $200 in cash from Discover

That’s a total of $588.80 in cash, gift cards and merchandise! We had managed to get all the gifts on our list, and still had almost $275 in cash as well. This year, we’ll be using the same accounts in the same way to earn money and gift cards for Christmas – meaning my gifts are already paid for.

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