En español | As a kid, every day in the countdown to Christmas seemed about two weeks long. But as an adult, it feels just the opposite. One day you're shopping for a jack-o-lantern, and the next you're picking out a Christmas tree.
See also: Learn cheap etiquette.
The best time to start planning your holiday purchases and travels is when the year-end holidays are several weeks away. It makes for a less stressful holiday season and you will save some serious money.
- Start your own Holiday Savings Club: Christmas Savings Clubs sponsored by local banks aren't nearly as common as when I was a kid, and that's a shame, because Christmas credit card debt wasn't nearly as common back then either. But you can always start a savings club on your own. The idea is simple: Start putting away a small amount of money every week between now and the holidays, so that by the time you start spending you won't need to use your credit cards. If you put away only $5 a day from now (October) until the holidays you'll have over $300 saved up for gifts and other expenses. That's less each day than the cost of an average fast-food combo meal.
- Agree on an affordable gift exchange plan with family and friends: With people starting their holiday shopping earlier every year (Did I really see Christmas decorations for sale this year before Halloween?), NOW is the time to contact family members, friends and others you exchange gifts with and broach the potentially awkward subject of adopting a more reasonable, "money-lite" gift exchange plan this year. There are all kinds of creative possibilities — from drawing names to "re-gift-only" exchanges.
- Set up a budget and stick to it: My penny-pinching pal Heather Wagenhals, founder of the Unlock Your Wealth Foundation, likes to tell people, "Life is filled with unexpected financial surprises, but the holidays shouldn't be one of them. I can tell you right now that Christmas will be on Dec. 25 this year, so plan for it!" Now is the time to draw up a realistic, affordable budget for your holiday spending — gifts, decorations, entertaining, travel, etc. But remember, a budget is only as good as your ability to stick to it.
- Consider layaway plans: As my great-aunt always said, "I'd rather put something on layaway than lay awake at night, wondering how I'm going to pay for it when the credit card bill arrives." Thankfully, old-fashioned layaway plans are making a big time comeback these days, with Kmart, Sears, TJ Maxx, Marshalls and now even Wal-Mart — among many others — allowing you to put an item on layaway until you've fully paid for it. While most plans require a minimum deposit to hold an item and charge a nominal service fee, they allow you to lock in the price and make sure the item doesn't sell out before you're able to afford to buy it.