Monday, November 26, 2007

Christmas Spending: Gaining control and keeping it

'Tis the season for spending money. Since everyone is probably well into the mindset of the holidays, I thought I might share how I try to keep control of my spending as I gear up for Christmas.

Christmas is the big buying holiday that my family celebrates, but it can work for any of the other religious or cultural annual events as well. If you celebrate Diwali, Eid, Hanukkah, Kwansaa, Winter Solstice or anything else I've left out, adjust accordingly for your traditions, be they gift-giving, wearing new clothing, giving charitable donations, holding a feast, or otherwise.

Step 0: Start doing everything that follows in January so you can save up for it and take your time.
I’ll assume that you haven’t done so this year (usually I have, but this year I stupidly didn’t), but that you’ll think about doing it next.

Step 1: Figure out who you have to buy for.
My list consists of my parents, my grandmother, Hubby’s parents, brother and two surviving grandparents, my niece, our eight closest friends, two children of friends, and whoever’s name I pull out of the office Secret Santa hat. Don’t forget that you’ll probably send Christmas cards to people you don’t send gifts to, which naturally involves postage.

Step 2: Figure out how much you can afford to spend.
This may be a very different amount from what you wish to spend, or what you spent last year. I’m hoping to spend around $500. I’d been planning on $1000, but since I became pregnant my financial priorities have changed significantly. Sorry to my family for the cheaper gifts, but you’ll have the grandchild you’ve been harping about for eons sometime next June.

Step 3: Divide your total spending budget among your recipients.
Keep a reserve of extra money for those ‘great deals’ or ‘oh, it’s perfects’ that’ll otherwise blow the budget. I’m planning on breaking up the bucks along these lines:

Mom & Dad: $70
Granny: $25
In-laws: $70
Granny-in-law: $25
Grandpa-in-law: $25
Brother-in-law: $15
Couple friends 1: $25
Couple friends 2: $25
Couple friends 3: $25
Single friend 1: $20
Single friend 2: $20
Niece: $25
Friends’ kid 1: $15
Friends’ kid 2: $15
Secret Santa gifts: $15
Christmas cards: $10
Stamps for cards: $30
Wrapping paper: $15

Total: $470; $30 worth of breathing room.

Step 4: Start coming up with ideas.
Brainstorm with your partner if you have one. Check catalogues and flyers. Browse online. Ponder your recipients personalities, hobbies and upcoming life events. Think about your beliefs and values. Try to put off strolling the mall until absolutely necessary, unless you have the willpower of a saint and a lock worthy of Fort Knox on your wallet.

Step 5: Take advantage of your skills.
Can you bake? Sew? Knit? Paint? Are you an amateur photographer? Good with wood? Like scrap booking? $10 worth of ingredients can be turned into a fortune in cookies if you have the know-how and a recipient with a sweet tooth. Same goes for yarn and blankets or scarves. Lumber and furniture or frames. Creativity and time can make an inexpensive idea really mean something to someone. But keep it appropriate. No fudge for a diabetic, no mittens for a snowbird.

I’ve made pies in the past. I’ve found cheap photo frames and filled them with a montage of old family photos I dug up from the basement. I’ve decoupaged Gladware (hint sandpaper the outside first) into holiday cookie containers and filled it with yummies. All of these take time and effort, but save money.

Step 6: Use child labour if it’s available.
No. I don’t condone sweat shops. Trent at The Simple Dollar mentioned picking up end rolls from your local newspaper for a couple of bucks and letting your kids loose with the holiday crayons or markers as a way to make cheap and personal giftwrap. I think it’s a brilliant idea, though I of course haven’t tried it yet. You can probably do the same with thick cardstock to make your Christmas cards.

If you’re artistic yourself (which I most certainly am not), you could make cards and/or wrapping paper in a similar (if more elegant) way and have them be much lovelier than what you’ll find in stores.

Step 6: Hit the stores, either online or in real life, with your budget and idea list in hand.
Obviously the earlier you start this, the more time you’ll have to find the perfect gift at the perfect price. Try to be firm. That $85 sweater may be perfect for your sister, but if you’ve only budgeted $50, it’s going to cause a problem. Keep the sweater in mind. You can probably find something similar for cheaper somewhere else. And if you’re lucky it’ll be even more perfect.

Step 7: Don’t resign yourself to it if you’ve blown it.
In a moment of weakness you’ve spent three times what you were supposed to on a massive snow globe for Uncle Mort. You have three choices.

Option 1: Suffer through it, cursing yourself when the Visa bill comes in January.
Option 2: Head back to the store and return it.
Option 3: Futz with the budget and spend less on everyone else.

Obviously I recommend option 2, and suggest option 3 only if the store won’t take it back. Which reminds me: make sure you know the exchange and return policies. You can get great deals on Final Sale purchases, but you better be sure you really want them.

Step 8: Enjoy the conclusion.
Okay. You’ve finally purchased everything you need. You’ve wrapped it all, sent off the cards and the distance gifts, had the big day, stuffed yourself with turkey and/or ham, given out some of your gifts in person, received some in return.

Whew. Glad that’s all over and done.

It’s time to analyse a few things:
How’d it go overall?
Did your recipients like your gifts? If not, why not?
Did you stay on or near budget? If not, why not?
What went well and what went badly?

Once you have the answers to those, you’ll be able to start getting a handle on next year. Christmas stuff is usually on sale and some great bargains can often be found during Boxing Week and early January. Just don’t forget to plan all the steps that come before the buying stage, or you’ll still end up with the brutal Visa bill.

What? You just finished Christmas? You’re far too tired and emotionally wrung out to start preparing for next year right now?

Fair enough. Solution? Take a month off and start in February. $10 saved a week starting in February will give about $470 (plus interest) by December 25th. That’s my whole budget for this year. If you can save more, great. If you can save less, great. Knowing way ahead of time what your budget will be gives you more time to find gifts at the prices you want.

Hopefully next year I listen to my own advice.

Best of luck!

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