If you take a little taste of the holidays now, you could be way ahead of the game come Dec. 1. “The less time you have at the holidays, the more likely you are to spend more, just to get things out of the way,” says Gerri Detweiler, author of “The Ultimate Credit Handbook.”
1. Make your budget and gift list now
Since your holiday budget is likely to be similar to what you’ve spent in years past, Chris Farrell, author of “Right on the Money” says. “You can pretty much come up with your budget.” As for gifts, advance planning removes the deadline pressure, but it does require some added consideration. “You really have to be more thoughtful about the gifts you’re buying,” says Farrell. “And you have to think, ‘Will they like this come December?'”
2. Set aside some money
“Remember that anything you put on credit cards and finance at those convenient monthly (rates) costs more,” says Gary Foreman, publisher of The Dollar Stretcher. “Now is the time when, if you’re in the habit of going out for lunch every day at work, maybe you bring leftovers once a week and sock away that $6 to $8. Before you know it, those lunch savings will add up to a tidy sum you can spend on the holidays. Want to make it almost painless? Set up an automatic deposit to a savings account or Christmas club fund.
3. Start shopping now
Sock away money for presents and you still have to do your shopping later. But salt away actual gifts and you’ve saved time and money. If you’re the type of person who shops estate sales or garage sales you’ll have time to find that perfect present, says Foreman. Shopping months ahead means you can make the most of sales and seasonal pricing trends. Spreading out your spending “is a good way to avoid using credit cards,” says Farrell. “The reason people use credit cards at Christmas is they are going out and buying a lot of things all at once. Early shopping also gives you the chance to pick up nonspecific gifts at bargain prices. Good late-summer buys include outdoor entertainment-related items, such as hand-blown imported lanterns, says Rebecca Kolls of Seasons by Rebecca. Stores, she says, “are practically giving that stuff away now. Carol Schroeder, author of “Specialty Shop Retailing,” suggests looking for “things like stationery, soap or (nonperishable) holiday foods or decorations. Those are things that anyone can use and give you flexibility to use them as hostess gifts or last-minute gifts.” If you prefer to make gifts instead of buying them, get crafty now. “Who’s got time for that Dec. 15?” says Foreman. By starting early you can use evenings and odd moments to actually finish your projects.
4. Order early
Do you prefer shopping from home instead of maneuvering the malls? Take advantage of the catalogs that are starting to trickle in, says P. Allen Smith of P. Allen Smith Gardens. “I’ve got my holiday bulbs ordered now, so when they arrive Nov. 1, I can just start potting them up,” says Smith. “You can also get them started and give them as gifts.” It’s a money-saver, too. In the fall, amaryllis bulbs go for $2.50, says Kolls. Buy them as blooming plants two months from now, “and you’ve already kicked (the price) up $30,” she says. Early mail-order and online shopping also allows you to save on shipping. Buy at the last minute and you pay a premium for shipping. Buy early and use the delivery method that is the most economical, says Foreman.
5. Pick your plasticI
If you plan on charging your holiday purchases, choose the credit card you want to use. “Negotiate a low interest rate on it if you think you’ll be carrying a balance,” says Detweiler. And if all of your credit cards are maxed out, take control of your debt now rather than during the holiday rush. “If you’re having trouble,” says Detweiler. “Now is a good time to talk with a credit counseling agency.”
6. Check your credit report
Make sure the credit card you plan to use will be accepted. One out of four credit reports contains an error serious enough to trigger a refusal of credit, according to a 2004 U.S. Public Interest Research Group study. “The interest rate for holiday purchases is definitely affected by your credit report,” says Detweiler. If you find a mistake, you’ll have time to correct it before the holidays.
7. Preset the holiday table
“There are so many ways to set a delicious table without spending a lot of money,” says Kolls. One of her favorites: Get the makings for a table cloth from the cloth store bargain bin or pick up an on-sale sheet with a cool design. Start ahead and you’ll have plenty of time to find something you like. Also buy special groceries gradually. “If you’re the kind of family who likes baked goods, now’s the time to stock up on ingredients that won’t spoil,” says Foreman.
And ask yourself what you can cook ahead of the holiday dinner and freeze, says Kolls. She uses this trick to help with Christmas sugar cookies, a tradition with her family.
8. Include the family
“It’s a good time to sit down with kids and establish some guidelines,” says Detweiler. Depending on their ages, you can touch on how much they can spend, what they can expect and what they can do to help others, she says. “And maybe even give them extra chores to earn money for holiday spending.” Don’t forget about the rest of the family. Did last year’s spending get out of control? Before the holiday music hits the airwaves, talk with relatives about this year’s gift policies, says Foreman. Consider trading names, making charitable donations in honor of each other, simply sending cards or baked goods or organizing a gift-free potluck family dinner.
9. Plan a special moment
Want to enjoy dinner with your spouse at that super exclusive — and costly — restaurant during the holiday season? Or make a holiday weekend of it at that special bed and breakfast? If you make the reservations and start setting aside the money now, “you’ve planned for it, you’re not just putting it on the credit card,” Farrell says.
10. Book your holiday travel
If you’re opting for a high-traffic destination, a cruise or an international jaunt, book those tickets and hotel rooms early, says Edward Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad.” When it comes to international or popular options, “you save money by doing it now,” he says.
11. Stock up on supplies
What’s the one thing (other than cash) that you never have too much of at the holidays? Time. Buy candles, glass or crystal items, ribbon, faux greens, wreath forms, and other items now when you see a good price, says Smith. Then in a few months when it’s time to deck the halls, decorating will be quick and easy. The selection is better earlier. Plus, having time to search for those supplies also gives you the chance to stretch your imagination. Start looking at inexpensive store merchandise with an eye toward the holidays, says Smith. One example: Chinese lanterns or paper umbrellas look Christmasy in yuletide red. “The bottom line is: Be creative,” he says.
12. Give back to your community
While food banks typically get half their donations in November and December, in the fall, the Salvation Army is helping kids with back-to-school clothes and supplies. With their year-round schedule of serving people through youth programs, care for the sick and elderly, substance abuse counseling and providing shelter or education, the opportunities for donating throughout the year can still count as holiday gifts, says Melissa Temme, public relations director for the Salvation Army. “If you’re looking for a way to give back but can’t afford to do it all at once, give monthly gifts of financial donations, volunteer or in-kind support in the name of a friend or family member and surprise them at Christmastime with the total support you’ve given to the community in their name during the year,” Temme says. “Many charities have a way to help you package this kind of gift.” Your holiday-inspired generosity also might pay you back a bit in the form of a tax deduction for your donations. While the tax savings won’t show up until you file your return next year, you can set aside the money then for next Christmas.