If you've already finished your holiday shopping - probably last year during the after-Christmas sales - congratulations (or "bah!" depending on you outlook). For the rest of us, the shopping season that starts Friday can be stressful - and the bills that start to roll in next January are even worse.
Before you leave the house to face the buying frenzy, take a few minutes to prepare yourself - and your wallet.
The first step is deciding how much you can spend. But how? You could save all year, but it's a little late to start for this season. Instead, think about how much extra cash you have left at the end of the month. Whether it's $5 or $500, pick that as your limit. Don't go into debt, or add to the debt you already have. Be realistic - if you can't afford to buy gifts, don't!
Next, decide who you really want to give gifts to. Gift-giving shouldn't feel like an obligation. Are you're worried about getting a gift for someone who always gives you a gift? Maybe it's time to talk to that person and let them know you are trying something new for the holidays. If you are planning to scale back to just giving to your kids or grandkids, say so! They may be just as relieved as you are - and if they decide to give you a gift anyway, just do the polite thing and send a hand-written thank you note right away.
Now that you've set a budget and trimmed your list of people to give gifts to, decide what kinds of gifts they will be. You don't have to buy everything, and your talents might be the ticket to a great gift that costs less. Do people rave about your baking skills? A plate of cookies or fresh loaf of bread might be their favorite present - or you can offer to teach them how to make your favorite recipe. Are you handy at scanning old photos to DVD? Offer to scan favorite family photos to share with everyone. Be creative and think about the things you do for yourself that other might enjoy.
Sometimes the best gift is your time. Meet a friend for coffee, offer to drive for someone who is no longer able, or just sit for an hour or two to talk with someone. Know someone who cares for an aging parent or other family member? Perhaps you can offer to stay with them for an afternoon so the care-giver can take a much-needed break.
If you are going to buy a gift, remember that small, inexpensive items that you've put thought and time into may be appreciated more than something expensive from a major store's shelves. While everyone else is standing in line at the chain stores waiting to get their hands on the "door-buster" special - that might not be the good deal it seems - think about shopping at the small mom-and-pop stores. They may be less crowded, you just might find the perfect unique gift, and they will appreciate your business.
No matter how you choose to give gifts this year, make sure you track your spending as you go and stay firmly inside the limit you set. Your financial future will thank you!