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.
- Consider end-of-season items for those on your shopping list: Summertime merchandise — including barbeque grills and accessories, summer sports equipment, lawn and garden tools, and summer apparel — are all steeply discounted this time of year, so why not start your holiday shopping by picking up some of those bargains for people on your gift list? Regardless of the time of year, there are always end-of-season bargains to be had if you know when and where to look.
- Take inventory of what you already have on hand: I love my wife of 28 years dearly, but this has sometimes been a flashpoint in our marriage. She loves to stock up on gift wrap and decorations after the holidays, when they go on sale. And she also shops for holiday gift items for people throughout the year, whenever she sees something at a good price. While I approve wholeheartedly of her money saving motives, when the holidays roll around she sometimes forgets what she already has socked away, so she's been known to go out and buy even more of the same stuff. Now, each fall we take a complete inventory of gifts and other items she has stockpiled before we do any additional holiday shopping.
- Redeem reward points: A number of my "cheapskate" friends pride themselves on using credit reward points to pay for all of their holiday gift shopping. Of course, these are savvy consumers who pay off their credit card balances every month, so they never pay any interest or other fees. "It's neat to know that all of the gifts I buy for people at Christmastime really don't cost me a dime," Dorothy K. told me. "I rack up reward points on my credit cards all year long and redeem them to do all of my Christmas shopping. I limit my gift shopping to whatever points and cash-back I have coming." It's a great shopping strategy, although make sure to leave yourself enough lead time to redeem the points you've accrued, particularly if you're applying to receive cash back to use for your holiday shopping.
- Get a head start on homemade gifts: And finally, nothing says "I care" more than a gift you make yourself for a friend or loved one. That's because the recipient knows you took the time to make it for them. And that's the thing: Making gifts takes time. Whether you're planning to hammer out homemade birdhouses or knit someone a sweater or scarf, now is the time to get started. Heck, it takes a full 10 weeks to make a Famous Yeager Fruitcake, so I need to get started. (That much rum doesn't get absorbed overnight, you know).
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.
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