Holiday shopping for 2011 is about to kick into full swing. And though many Americans are saving more throughout the year, the holidays offer that all-too-tempting opportunity to let loose and splurge a little. In fact, if you aren’t careful, in November and December you can blow all the good saving intentions you held firm to during the rest of the year.
Here are 17 tips to help keep your spending and sanity in check this holiday season.
1. Get real with yourself about your financials.
Before you even make your gift list, you need to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about your financials. “Look at how much you can realistically spend,” advises Leslie Greenman, author of Dating Our Money: A Women's Guide to Confidence with Money & Men (AuthorHouse, 2011). “Then decide whether or not you really need to spend that amount. If it has you feeling anxious then absolutely create a budget that has you spending less. Think about your long-term financial plans. Don’t allow your holiday spending to negatively affect your bigger plans. When you know what your financial picture really looks like, instead of thinking about it as a black hole, you’ll be more inclined to control your spending.”
2. Don’t fall back on old holiday spending habits.
When you’re making your budget, it’s important to remember that spending during the holidays does not stop with gifts. We allow ourselves a little more leeway when it comes to other discretionary spending as well.
“Holiday incidentals include additional food spending, entertainment costs, clothes buying, wrapping paper, and on and on,” says Greenman. “All of these costs add up, big time, and they often get overlooked during the holidays. They can also be slightly easier to eliminate or reduce than the money you’re spending on gifts. For example, it isn’t necessary to buy a brand new dress for your office party. You could borrow a dress from someone or add an accessory or a great pair of shoes to a dress you already own. In fact, this is actually a great reason to organize your closet. When you can easily see what you have, you can quickly put together a great holiday outfit without spending a dime. As for food costs, if you’re having a holiday party, make it potluck so you don’t carry the food cost burden all by yourself.”
3. Don’t shop when you’ve got the holiday blues.
This time of year can bring a lot of joy, but the hectic nature of the season can also be overwhelming. “Avoid shopping when you’re having a down day,” advises Greenman. “Studies have shown that we are willing to spend more when we are sad. So when you’re suffering from the holiday blues, curl up and watch a holiday movie or go do something fun with your kids instead. Save the shopping for a better mood.”
4. Remember, ’tis the season for relationships.
It’s perfectly natural to want to give back to those who give to you, but it’s quite possible that your friends and family will appreciate an end to spending this holiday season just as much as you. Suggest to those on your gift list that you all spend valuable time with one another rather than purchasing gifts this year. For example, suggest to your best friend an afternoon together meeting for coffee and going to a movie. Or treat your parents to a home-cooked meal and some Christmas carols performed by their grandkids.
5. Establish an “Operation Holiday” plan.
If there is no avoiding holiday shopping for you, once you know what your budget is start mapping out your shopping plan. Make the gift list and then think about where you’ll need to go to purchase each present. “Keep your key goals in mind,” advises Greenman. “For example, are you trying to keep each gift under X amount of dollars? Do you want to be finished by a certain time? Avoid a certain shopping area? Again, if you stick perfectly to your plan, I think it’s okay to reward yourself. Just don’t go overboard. For example, if I meet my goal of buying my gifts and staying on budget, I’ll treat myself to a pedicure.”
6. Finish your shopping early in the season.
Though getting out for those late night/early morning hours on Black Friday might not be your thing, it is best to start your holiday shopping as many shopping days before Christmas as you can.
7. Set a holiday shopping curfew.
You don’t have to go tearing through stores pushing innocent shoppers from your path, but setting a time limit on your shopping will help you stay on budget.
8. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.
You might find the perfect gift for someone but then reject it because you don’t think the price is significant enough to be an adequate gift.
“The reality is that a gift with a lot of thought behind it or shared meaning for you and the person you’re buying for can have a lot more significance than a more expensive gift,” says Greenman. “For example, a special photo of you and a friend in a frame with a special note about how much you enjoyed the time you spent together is a great gift. Or have your kids write down the 10 things they love about their grandparents and include the list in a photo album of the kids. These are all gifts that involve more thought and meaning than just going to the store and buying a gift. And the people receiving them will truly appreciate it.”
9. Make a list, check it twice, and bring cash!
How many times have you walked into a store and immediately found the perfect gift for a friend? Sure, you hadn’t planned on spending that much, but she would love it, so why not? You can just put it on your credit card, right? “Wrong!” says Greenman. “If you use your credit card, you’ll probably end up buying that gift for your friend two or three times over in interest payments. Do not stray from your list. If you do stray, the cost of the non-list item needs to be the same as the one you had already budgeted. Bring only cash with you when you’re shopping so you can stay within your budget.”
10. Save merrily by trading in your rewards points for gifts or gift cards.
You should always, always use your credit cards wisely. Never make purchases on your credit card unless you can pay them off at the end of the month. And during the holidays avoid whipping them out to pay for gifts. But one positive role credit cards can have during the holidays is rewards points.
“A few years ago, I bought my sister a chair she wanted from Pottery Barn using rewards points,” says Greenman. “I redeemed some of my points for a Pottery Barn gift card and then used it to buy her the chair. In fact, I save up all my rewards points throughout the year and use them in December for gifts. Another example: teacher gifts. I always get my kids’ teachers Barnes & Noble gift cards using redeemed points.”
11. Point, click, and save.
The benefits of online shopping are obvious. You don’t have to battle holiday traffic, it is practically hassle-free, and it’s easier to compare prices. “The prices are also almost always better online,” says Greenman. “You have a greater selection, and usually free shipping is offered around the holidays. And when you use specific search terms, you can avoid being distracted by all of the other items you might want to look at or be tempted to buy if you were shopping in the store.”
12. Don’t shop for yourself.
According to Lab42, last year the average holiday shopper spent $107.50 on themselves. When you’re making it okay for yourself to do a lot of spending, it can be difficult not to stray off your list and buy a couple of things for yourself.
13. Don’t shop with a holiday budget saboteur.
If you prefer doing your shopping with someone else in tow, be sure to choose someone who won’t encourage you to go off budget.
14. Have a Secret Santa-style gift exchange.
Depending on the size of your family, buying a gift for each family member can be daunting, especially when you see some of them only once a year!
“There are exceptions, but I think by and large once you reach a certain age—specifically the age where you feel obligated to buy gifts for everyone—the reality of gift giving and receiving sets in,” says Greenman. “My point is that most of the adults in your family will probably be grateful not to have to buy a gift for everyone. Instead, suggest that your family do a gift exchange. Have everyone pick a name out of a hat. Then, you buy only for that person. It is a great way to help everyone cut down on unneeded spending. And if you’re just shopping for one, it gives you a lot more time to think about what would make the best gift.”
15. Don’t be afraid to regift.
Take an inventory of regifting possibilities. Are there any gift cards you’ve never used? Any clothes hanging in your closet with the tags still on them? Any gifts you’ve received in years past that you’ve never taken out of the box? If so you might want to consider regifting them.
16. Make like Santa’s elves and DIY.
Getting crafty during the holidays is fun and can save you a lot of money on gifts. There are any number of options depending on your level of craftiness. “Costco has cute jars filled with cookie dough ingredients,” says Greenman. “We could all do that at home! Bake cookies and place them in a holiday tin for your kids’ teachers. Frame your kids’ artwork for their grandparents. The possibilities are truly endless and truly cost-effective!”
17. If you’re super savvy, plan (way) ahead.
As we’ve touched on above, there are always great deals after Christmas. That means if you can get over your holiday hangover fast enough, you can get a jump-start on buying gifts for next year while also saving a bundle. “My bargain shopper friend buys many of her gifts for the next year’s Christmas during the current year’s after-holiday sales,” says Greenman. “She is always finished shopping by October. If immediately after Christmas is too soon for you to think about the next year, take advantage of other sales throughout the year. For example, there are almost always great sales at Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day.”
“We naturally want to give during the holidays,” says Greenman. “But what’s important to remember is that you can give a lot without spending a lot. Don’t put a price tag on your holidays. Stick to your budget and then be generous with your time and spirit. Once the holidays are over, you’ll be happy you didn’t blow your savings, and you and your family and friends will be fulfilled by the time you all spent together.”
Leslie Greenman is a financial advisor, author, and public speaker. She loves to talk to women and girls about managing money and making wise choices. Her recent book, Dating Our Money: A Women's Guide to Confidence with Money & Men (AuthorHouse, 2011) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.
How are you at controlling spending around the holidays? Please share your tips below!