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The holidays are a tough time for a budget. On the one hand, you are caught up in the spirit. You want to spread cheer – and gifts – among the people you love. To do any less makes you look and feel like Scrooge. But you don't want to put yourself into debt you will spend the rest of the winter – or more – getting out of.
It is not an either/or proposition. With a little planning and discipline, you can have your holidays without going hopelessly into hock. Start by determining a budget. Sit down with your checkbook and decide how much you can afford to spend this holiday season. Think only about your own financial situation; this is no time to worry about what your friends and relatives are likely to spend. You may need to have a discussion with some people – particularly children – about reasonable expectations and the true meaning of the season.
Once you have established a budget, of course, you have to stick to it. Which can be very difficult in this season of frenzied giving. If you need a little help holding the line, here are some suggestions.
- Make a list, and follow it. Impulse buying can be a financial disaster, so try to avoid it. Write down how much you have to spend for each person, and a list of things in that price range you think they would like.
- Start shopping early. It used to be that you had to wait until right before Christmas to get any real sale prices, which was especially unfortunate if you celebrate a holiday other than Christmas. But that's not the case anymore. Most retailers try to jump-start the season with major sales as early as before Thanksgiving. Of course, you still may get the best deals at the last minute, but your selection will be greatly reduced.
- Shop around. Check ads in the newspaper, on TV and radio. Walk around the mall. Watch for coupons or special shopping days that offer extra discounts. If the item you are looking for is generic rather than specific (a shirt rather than a Playstation, for example), check out different manufacturers.
- Don't forget about online shopping. There are deals to be had online, both from retailers and from resellers like eBay. Plus, you may not have to pay sales tax, depending on whether the retailer has locations in your state. However, you will have to pay shipping – unless the site offers free shipping – so you have to figure in those costs. And be certain that the site is secure before you provide any personal information, including credit card numbers.
- Consider homemade. Even if you are short on time and talent, there are things you can make at home. Baked goods are a popular gift; if baking is too complicated, try melting chocolate in the microwave and coating pretzels in the melted chocolate. Put the goodies in a festive container, and you are good to go. Photos are another meaningful gift. Put a favorite picture in an inexpensive frame, and you have a budget-friendly gift that is sure to please.
- Make a contribution. If you don't know what to buy for someone, consider making a contribution in their name to a charity you know they support. It probably will be less expensive, and the recipient will appreciate it more.
- Finally, remember that the season is not about spending, it is about giving. And they are not necessarily the same thing. If you feel that the gift-giving among your family or friends is getting out of hand, you might want to initiate a discussion about it; often, other people feel the same way but don't know what to do about it. 'Tis the season to remember that what matters is not the price tag on the gift, but the thoughtfulness of the giver.