Even Santa Needs a Budget
Before you start spending, do a little math and figure out how much you can afford, says Bill Losey, a certified financial planner based in Wilton, New York. Keep it simple: Take any money you've been saving for the holidays and add it to your discretionary cash (the dough you don't need to live on). Divvy up that budget among all expenses. If you don't know where to start, look back at how you allocated your money last year. While there's no rule for budgeting in general, if you splurge in one area, cut back in another. For example, hosting a lavish dinner means you'll probably need to dial down on, say, gift giving. And don't make the common mistake of forgetting to account for all expenses, including holiday cards, stamps and end-of-year gratuities.
Finally, if you need help sticking to your plan, use a smartphone app, such as Gift List Budget Shopper (iPhone, $1.99) or the Christmas Gift List Planner (Android, free). For extra motivation, check out Bankrate.com's credit card payoff calculator to see how long it will take to reach a zero balance.
Don't begin browsing until you've written down who you're shopping for and how much you want to spend on each of them. Remember, it doesn't have to be divided up equally, says Anna Post, an etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute. Nor do you need to match other family members' price tags. Consider asking everyone to set a price limit, says Losey. Even better, agree to buy only for the kids and organize a gift exchange, such as a Secret Santa, for the adults (Elfster.com can help). Stretch funds even further by buying presents with unused gift cards, airline miles (through an airline shopping portal) or points from another rewards program.
It's the Thought That Counts
Stash your credit card and give your time, suggests Sean Meshorer, author of The Bliss Experiment (Atria Books). The tech-savvy set can create an online photo montage, amateur chefs might cater a special meal, or you could invite your sister's kids for a sleepover (offering the priceless present of an evening out). Since the holidays are about being together, make them extra meaningful by organizing a family volunteer project, such as working at a local soup kitchen. "The experience will be far more memorable and valuable than any gift could be," says Meshorer.
Don't forget to show appreciation for the folks who help year-round. Gratuities are always welcome, but it's perfectly acceptable to hand out small, inexpensive gifts, such as home-baked goods. For people you tip at each visit—like your hairstylist—a thank-you note is sufficient, according to the Emily Post Institute.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.