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9 ways to save on your holiday display

Photo courtesy of Mark Dillon

Want to become the Clark Griswold of the neighborhood -- without causing a power outage or breaking the bank?

With professional help to avoid an electrical disaster, you'd need to spend about $16,000 to recreate the Griswold family's 25,000-light display, according to Of course, most homeowners don't have that kind of cash set aside for decking the halls.

So we asked the masterminds behind four of the country's best-decorated holiday homes to share what they've learned over the years about building a brilliant display and walking away with enough money left for gifts.

These decorators don't do anything halfway. Their displays involve tens of thousands of blinking lights, computer programming, festive music, dozens of homemade decorations and even animatronic characters.

In addition to providing entertainment and sharing the holiday spirit with their neighbors, the organizers of each light show collect donations for local charities, from food banks to law enforcement toy drives.

Click ahead for nine ways to save on your holiday display.

Start planning for next year now

Photo courtesy of Brandon and Megan Gill

All of our lighting luminaries agreed: If you want to build a truly great display, you can't wait until next fall to begin planning it.

Megan and Brandon Gill of Hendersonville, Tennessee, have been building light displays in their front yard for 11 years, growing their collection of Christmas lights from 500 bulbs to about 120,000, they said. "There's a lot of time we spend at the end of the year talking about next year, and we'll be preparing over the summer and into the fall," Brandon said.

The Gills use computer software to program their lights to blink in time to music. Programming the display takes about eight hours per song for about six songs, Brandon said.

They start building their homemade decorations in June or July, and keep their eyes peeled throughout the year for deals on the materials they need.

Shop estate or yard sales in the summer

Photo courtesy of Brandon and Megan Gill

The Gills also pick up some of their decorations at deep discounts during the summer months by shopping secondhand.

"Estate sales and yard sales are good," Brandon said. "Even if [a decoration is] broken, you can take it home and make it work, spending 30 minutes to rewire a deer or a snowflake."

These sales are also good places to find unique vintage decorations no other display will have.

Make your own extension cords

Matt Baker, a high school sophomore from Naperville, Illinois, has been building a computerized light display in his neighborhood's cul-de-sac for five years. In that time, he said he has learned that making his own extension cords to fit the display's requirements is easier and cheaper than buying cords from the store.

"It's a huge money-saver," Baker said. "You can buy a 1,000-foot roll of SPT-1 wire [from a big-box store] for $100, but for that money you could maybe get four extension cords if you were just buying them."

Baker cuts the wire to the desired length and attaches "vampire" plugs to the ends, creating his own custom extension cords.

"It's much nicer," he said, "because you can make your cords a custom length and don't have to plug a bunch of cords together to make one big cord, which would have connections where water could get in."

Use tomato cages to make tiny trees

Photo courtesy of Matt Baker

Another trick Baker uses -- a popular choice among these dedicated decorators -- is skipping the store-bought fake trees in favor of building his own.

An overturned tomato cage bent into a cone and wrapped with lights looks just like a store-bought mini-tree, Baker said.

"You can also wrap garlands around it to make it look a little more like a real tree, but it looks good with just the lights," he said.

Similarly, Baker also makes jumbo-sized, illuminated Christmas ornaments by shaping chicken wire into a ball and wrapping it with lights.

Recycle election yard signs

Photo courtesy of Mark Dillon

Mark Dillon dresses up his Round Rock, Texas, yard with a programmed musical light show, a cast of homemade animatronic characters and a hidden snow machine. An easy method he uses to make signs and cutout shapes that light up is by creating a sort of DIY Lite-Brite.

"We take old plastic signs -- like campaign signs -- we were going to throw away, poke holes in them and put the lights through the holes. And you've got your shape made out of lights," Dillon said.

Other decorators said they have a similar technique, using plywood or purchasing sheets of the same corrugated plastic used in yard signs from hardware stores.

Learn from others

Seeking out a more experienced decorator for advice can help you improve your display and avoid costly mistakes.

When he started out, Dillon said he had no idea how to program his light show or build animatronic characters. While living in his hometown of New Orleans, he contacted a man who had experience building animatronics for advice. From there, he did a lot of research and experimented on his own.

Other decorators suggested checking out YouTube for tutorials or scanning message boards on sites like, where decorators go to share their tips, ideas and mistakes.

PVC pipe can be your friend

Photo courtesy of Joey Felix

PVC pipe is an inexpensive and integral part of Joey Felix's Dallas, Georgia, holiday display.

"It's very inexpensive, and I've seen people do all sorts of things, like building trains, with it," Felix said.

Felix and other decorators have used it to create arches wrapped in lights, and Felix said he'll use it next year to make his decorating process shorter.

"When I'm outlining my house, that's a day and a half of work," Felix said. "I'm going to be attaching the lights to PVC pipe and buying PVC clamps to put on the house. So instead of stringing up all those lights, you can zip-tie them to the PVC pipe, snap it into place and you're done."

Make sure LEDs are right for you before buying

Photo courtesy of Joey Felix

The power-saving reputation of LED lights may sound appealing if you're looking for ways to cut costs, but they may not save you much on energy in the long run, decorators warned.

Most said their energy bill only increases by $30 to $50 during the holidays because their lights are flashing, rather than staying on constantly for hours on end.

Felix said the LED lights he now uses in his display are three- to five-times more expensive than traditional lights, and the amount they save him on energy costs doesn't match their higher price tag.

However, because they use less power, you can plug in more LED lights without overloading your home's circuit breakers, Felix said. When incandescent lights overloaded his home's breakers, Felix said he had to install another breaker to share the load.

The bottom line: LEDs allow you to plug in a larger number of lights without overloading your power supply, but unless you've got a static display where the lights are on consistently without flashing, they might not make a dent in your electricity bill.

Stock up at sales

Photo courtesy of Mark Dillon

The final point on which all of the decorators agreed: Do the bulk of your shopping at the after-Christmas clearance sales.

Some said they were able to get cases of lights for as much as 90 percent off the regular retail prices.

Keep an eye out for other sales throughout the year when you could purchase the less-seasonal components of your display at a big discount. End-of-summer sales are good places to find tomato cages or hanging baskets, for example, which the Gills use to make giant ornaments.

Light-O-Rama, the software all of the decorators said they use to program their displays, also has sales in the off-season, one in March and one in August, Felix said.

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