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Let’s get something out in the open. Sure, the holidays are
fun and festive, and they’re a great opportunity to slow down for a bit. And we get to see
friends and family we may not have had much chance to see throughout the hectic
But let's all just admit it: They’re also kind of
stressful. You’ve got your regular family and friends to buy gifts for, and
then your great-aunt Ida is coming in from Idaho for the holidays so you have to get a little something for her,
and Junior’s been asking for an Xbox all year long … how will you ever afford
It’s all in the planning. “It’s like the old saying goes: If
you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” says Joe Wilson, wealth management adviser
at TIAA-CREF. Here, Wilson and Andrew Schrage, co-owner of financial website Money Crashers, offer tips that will
help you get out of the season alive—and with your savings still intact.
Step 1: Figure out
Your “Wiggle Room”
The hardest part of planning for the holidays is getting
started. If you didn’t factor room into your budget for holiday spending back
at the beginning of the year, you might be wondering where you’ll come up with
the cash. Instead of putting everything on a credit card and wondering how
you’ll pay for it later (always a bad idea), sit down and make a list of
everyone you want to buy for this season. Include tips for people like your mailman
and the dry cleaner, and gifts for your kid’s teachers.
Then, take a look at your budget. Whether you keep track of
your spending on a simple Excel spreadsheet or a more sophisticated online
system like LearnVest or Mint, you’ll need to figure out where you have
wiggle room before you can determine how much money you can spend on gifts for
If you don’t currently track your spending, just take a
look back at your most recent credit or debit card statement. Add up how much
you’ve been spending on discretionary items like coffees, eating lunch out,
going to the movies with the whole family or buying things for the house. Add
up approximately how much you spend each month on these items, and determine
how much you think you can reasonably cut back during the holiday season. This
will help you determine your budget wiggle room for the season, and give you an
idea of how much you can afford for a gift budget.
Step 2: Factor in
Don’t forget to include travel spending in your holiday
budget (unless you have a separate travel spending account budget, in which
case you can skip this step). “If you plan on traveling over the holidays,
enter your dates now on a fare aggregator site like Booking Buddy to find the deals early,”
says Schrage. “Also, consider starting your trip on a Tuesday or Wednesday,
when prices are better, and try combining the kids’ luggage to save on baggage
“One of the things I share with my clients is that wants are
unlimited, but resources are not,” said Wilson. That’s why it’s so important to
prioritize your spending budget when it comes to the holidays. Once you know
how much you expect to spend on holiday travel, you can deduct that amount from
your wiggle room and you can start setting a gift budget.
So, with a budget and a “to buy for” list in hand, start setting
spending limits for each person on the list. Start with the people you already
have ideas for. If you know what you want to get for Uncle Charlie, do some online
research to figure out how much you will be spending on him, and deduct that
amount from your wiggle room. Continue down the list this way until each person
has a set amount of money assigned to him or her.
Step 4: Include Your
Kids in the Conversation … and the Shopping
Don’t forget that one of the most important things we can do
to help shape our children’s financial future is to start having financial
conversations with them today—and that includes holiday budgeting. “Bringing
your kids into the holiday money conversation is a great excuse to talk to them
about money and reiterate the idea that money doesn’t grow on trees, someone is
working for this money, and those gifts they get for the holidays are coming
from a person who worked hard to be able to provide them,” says Wilson.
As such, it’s a good idea to have your kid sit down with you when you’re creating your holiday
budget list (you can always figure out the wiggle room number minus what you plan to spend on your
kids, if you’d rather they not know how much you’re spending on them). It might
seem stressful, but consider bringing them along when you shop, too. “To have
them witness you wrestling with the notion of ‘could I be spending this money
more wisely?’ … it’s a powerful thing,” said Wilson.
Step 5: Spend Smartly
It might be tempting to purchase everything you need on
Black Friday or Cyber Monday, when the deals are so abundant, but take caution.
“Do your research in the weeks leading up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday,
because the deals will be everywhere,” says Schrage. “Track what you really need to get, who has it on sale
and what time those retailers open.” The best way to make the most out of Black
Friday deals is to know exactly what you’re looking for before you go in,
purchase it and get out. Otherwise all the other deals might tempt you to spend
more than you have allotted in your budget.
If you’re still worried about keeping on track with your
wiggle room budget, DIY gifts make a great personal, budget-friendly
alternative to store-bought items. When it comes to the holidays, it’s the
thought that counts, not the amount you’re spending. If you think you might
want to go the DIY route with a couple people on your list, consider reaching
out to the to suggest that you both go that route. That way you won’t be left
feeling guilty when you hand over a beautiful, handmade ceramic vase to your
cousin Lea while she gives you a cashmere sweater.
Step 7: Start
Planning for Next Year Now
A little planning ahead can really go a long way when it
comes to budgeting. If you start thinking of what you’ll need for the end of
the year while you’re putting your budget together at the beginning of the
year, you might be able to avoid some stress come holiday time. “The best way
to financially prepare for the holidays is to start really early—as in the
beginning of each year,” says Schrage. “I keep a separate bank account, and $25
out of each paycheck is redirected there for holiday spending—that way I start
off the season with roughly $650.”