1. Check your budget and savings.
Take a look at the budget you set earlier this year. (If you didn't set one, here are 7 simple steps so you can next year.) What did you set aside for the holidays, for gifts, food (for any parties, baking and the actual day) decorations, activities, etc.? That's the amount you'll have to start from. If you didn't set a budget, what do you have in savings that you can afford to put toward the holidays?
2. Set a limit for holiday spending, including gifts, stocking stuffers, food, decorations, activities, donations and anything else you usually spend.
Did you save the amount you'd budgeted? Did you already spend some of your budget by buying ahead to save (see farther down in the list for more on this tip)? Did unexpected costs pop up so that maybe you shouldn't spend as much as you'd planned? If you didn't save as much as you thought you would, or if you have bills coming up in the new year you'll need money from, reevaluate how much you have to spend and set a limit for yourself.
If you didn't set a budget, how much have you set aside for the holidays? Factor in any upcoming expenses as well so you can figure out what amount you can really afford.
3. Set a spending limit for each person.
Make a list of all the people you and your family would like to give gifts to this year. Looking at the total spending limit you've set, how much of that do you want to put toward gifts? It's a balance between all the holiday spending categories so if you spend more on gifts, that's less for the celebration category. Once you figure out your total gift amount, figure out what you can afford to spend on each person on your list. You may want to break out a special category for stocking stuffers. Your final numbers should add up to, or come in below, the total you want to spend on gifts.
4. Set a spending limit for celebration spending (i.e. food, decorations, wrapping paper, activities, etc.).
After you figure out gifts, how much of your holiday budget is left? That's your limit for celebration spending. Break it out into all the subcategories you spend on, such as food, decorations, a tree, wrapping paper, any holiday activities, donations you make, etc. Your list is personal to you. If you don't have enough for all your categories, you'll either have to trim some back or take it out of the gift spending.
5. If you can't pay for it right now, don't buy it.
Remember, only buy things you have the money to pay for right now. Don't put it on a credit card and carry a balance, it'll just hurt you in the long run. Lay away is a great option if you need to use it.
6. Shop sales for gifts and food.
Here are some great tips for saving money on food. More are here. As for gifts, it's always best to check out all the sales and get things as cheap as you can, especially as sales are the best around the holidays!
7. Buy ahead.
Speaking of sales -- Don't forget to take advantage of the after-holidays sales to start buying for next year. Decorations, wrapping paper, even gifts can be stored away for next season and you'll pay a fraction of the price. Keep your eyes open throughout the year to grab deals on gifts when you see them. I keep bins in our storage area that I fill with gifts as I pick them up for cheap. When you buy ahead, be sure to subtract it from your holiday budget for next year as you go so you don't end up spending more than you'd planned. Remember number five!
8. Scout flyers. Check online. Comparison shop.
Even if the sale looks good at one store, it may be even better at another. Scout the flyers and online deals to find the best price. Compare, compare, compare!
9. Shop thrifty.
Thrift stores can be a great place to find deals. You'll save money and be doing a favor for the environment by reusing. Many thrift stores benefit a cause as well. Scope out the ones that do so you also end up helping out someone who is in need this season.
10. Make gifts and decorations.
Yes, making gifts can save you money. But, the biggest benefit is that homemade gifts require thought, effort and time store bought ones don't. That means you're give an extra special gift with a whole lot of meaning and love with it. This is also a great option for those loved ones who already seem to have everything. A special homemade goodie basket with a selection of teas and hot chocolates, gifts made by the kids or a knitted blanket are some suggestions. There are plenty of fun home decoration crafts you can make, too! I'll be sharing a wreath tutorial or two in the coming weeks.
11. Want, need, read, wear.
So many of our kids have more than they really need or can use. Sticking to the "want, need, read, wear" rule means each kid gets one gift they want, one they really need, one they can read and one of clothes to wear. Less "stuff" to clutter the house and added savings for you.
12. Take inventory.
What do your kids and spouse already have? What do they really need? What wrapping paper, baking supplies, food and decor is hanging around? If you already have 5 dolls lying around never played with, should you really be getting little Susie another? It's also a great time to dig through toys that aren't played with, kitchen gadgets you don't use and clothes that are no longer being worn so that you can donate them to those in need.
13. Avoid cute, yet pointless, gifts.
That little trinket may look fun or be amusing, but is the person you're going to give it to really going to do anything with it the next day? If you suspect it'll just end up pitched in a drawer or collecting dust somewhere, skip it. You're saving yourself money and the giftee space.
14. Check in with your budget after each purchase and keep lists.
Keep the budget you outlined somewhere you can easily see it so you're less likely to stray. Each time you make a purchase, subtract the amount from the corresponding category. This keeps you accountable and on track so you're not saying, "Wait a minute...I don't remember spending that! Now there's nothing left and I still need to get XYZ!"
15. Take advantage of free activities.
There are so many fun, free activities around the community to do this time of year. You can get creative and have fun at home, too. Check out my list of free activities that'll be up on the blog in the next few weeks to get ideas.
16. Don't be afraid to return.
If you buy something and it's cheaper a few days or a week later, either at the same store or another, take it back and get the lower price. Factor in the cost of gas to make the return to be sure it's still going to be a savings. Even if a gift has already been wrapped, it can still be exchanged if you unwrap it. Do it carefully so you can reuse the wrapping as the gift will be the same!
17. Remember the meaning of the season.
It isn't the amount of money you spend. It's the time you spend thinking of those you love. It's the memories you build with your loved ones. Those are things you'll remember year to year, not who gave you what gift. Years from now, your kids are going to remember how you sang Christmas carols, baked together, watched holidays movies each night leading up to Christmas, drank hot chocolate while watching the town parade, ate dinner together and enjoyed just being a family. They'll have no clue how many gifts were under the tree, how fancy the dinner was or even what was in those packages.