Decorating the house. Buying plane tickets. Playing Secret Santa at work. Preparing elaborate meals. Dressing up for holiday parties. Shopping for gifts. There's no question that the days between Thanksgiving and New Year's challenge us with obligations and expenses. Since being extra-busy and having lots of gifts to buy is stressful enough, why add to that burden by blowing your budget or even going into debt? It's difficult to enjoy the holidays when you're worried about money, so use our holiday budgeting tips that take some of the stress out of the holiday season.

Decorating
For some people, decorating is optional. If you're not one of those people, here are some ideas to keep your decorating spending to a minimum.


Stop or Swap
If you already have a stash of decorations but you'd like to update your home's holiday look, hold off for just one more season and buy decorations on clearance in late December and save them for the following year. If you can't wait that long or want to spend no money at all, consider having a decoration swap with friends in November or early December.


Start Small
If you're on your own for the first time and you haven't started accumulating boxes of ornaments, lights and snow globes yet, buy the bare minimum from an inexpensive store to get started. Keep in mind that if you are willing to have an eclectic set of decorations, this will usually save you money over having a perfectly coordinated set. Then use the previous tip to add to your stash.


Focus on What's Important
If you normally have a tree that Martha Stewart would envy, a gingerbread house decorating contest for the neighborhood kids and a light display that makes the 5pm news, try doing things a little differently this year. Instead of attempting to do it all, focus on the type of decorating that is most important to you. One event or display done really well can make up for cutting back in other areas, and you'll free up both time and money. If you normally hire a decorator, use photos from previous holidays to recreate your holiday wonderland yourself. Neighborhood kids and college students are also good sources of cheap help, and they'll be more than happy to earn a few extra bucks during the holidays.


Is it Really Necessary?
Finally, consider if you need to decorate at all. If you'll be out of town for a large part of the holidays, you won't be around much to enjoy your own decorations, anyway. If you just can't stop yourself from decorating even though you're traveling, then stick to the outdoors. Hang lights, wreaths and outdoor decorations that your neighbors can enjoy, while saving yourself the time and energy necessary to turn your living room into Santa's workshop. If you are leaving your lights up while you are away, you should also consider using a timer. This will save power during the day and keep any would-be-thieves guessing.


Meals
Meals are a great way to bring folks together over the holidays. Hosting these meals tends to be expensive, though, as you want to impress and have all your guests leave with full stomachs. This usually translates into overspending, massive amounts of time in the kitchen and too many leftovers. But it doesn't have to be that way.


Cut Off or Cut Back
If you normally host a holiday party, consider not having one or scaling back your guest list. Most people have more holiday obligations than they can handle and will probably not mind having one less, no matter how much they enjoy your parties.


Let Someone Else Do the Cooking
Another option is to go out to eat at a nice, but inexpensive, restaurant. You won't necessarily save money this way (unless you and your guests split the bill), but you won't have to do any shopping, cooking or cleaning and you'll be able to take a break from turkey and ham if you like. Don't assume that your family will feel neglected if you don't make turkey on Christmas Eve and ham on Christmas day: they might be happier going out for lasagna and fettuccine. You won't be the only one with this idea though, so make reservations, dine early or be prepared to wait.


Make it a Potluck
If going out to eat seems impersonal or too expensive, another option is to have a potluck. This way, you'll only be responsible for the cost and preparation of one aspect of the meal.


Gifts and Related Expenses
Presents are probably the biggest burden for most people. It's a challenge just to think of gifts that everyone on your list will like, let alone finding and affording them. Plus, we all have at least one person that we buy gifts for solely out of obligation. If you don't want to get a big bill come Christmas, think more about giving meaningful gifts than their price tags, and make sure to check out the availability of a Christmas club at your local financial institution.


Family
If you can't or don't want to spend big bucks on gifts this year, let the people you would normally spend this kind of money on know that you'd like to scale back the holidays this year. This way, you won't find yourself in the awkward situation of receiving an expensive gift that you can't reciprocate. Other adults are likely to be as relieved as you are that they won't have to shell out as much dough this year. Kids are not always so understanding and the pressure to get them this year's hot gift can be daunting, but there are still ways to make usually expensive gifts more affordable. For example, if you have three kids, make their expensive gift an item they will all enjoy so that you only have to buy one high-priced item instead of three.


Friends and Coworkers
For friends or co-workers, consider organizing a gift exchange where you each draw a name out of a hat. Then, each person is only responsible for one gift instead of ten or more. You won't be the only one who is relieved by the decreased obligation. If your co-workers are more acquaintances than friends, consider bringing a plate of edible goodies for the whole office to enjoy as your holiday gift.


Space Purchases Out Through The Year
Another great way to decrease both holiday gift costs and related stress is to buy gifts throughout the year instead of all at once. For people you know you'll be buying gifts for, like parents, siblings or children, keep a running list of things they express interest in. Then, acquire them whenever you can find a good deal or have some extra room in your budget. For gifts you can't predict far in advance, stock up on a few generic items that could be given to just about anyone. Post-holiday sales are a great way to get these gifts at a discount. Just put them in a box in your closet and save them until next year.


Wrapping
To save on wrapping costs, purchase gift wrap throughout the year whenever you see something on sale that could pass as holiday paper. Also, stock up on holiday paper at post-season sales, along with holiday paper that can pass as regular paper. Malls sometimes have free gift wrapping stations (with the expectation of a tip), but don't pay to have all of your gifts wrapped, as this can easily add about $5 to the cost of each present.


Holiday Travel
Forget telling Mom that you're not coming home this year because you can't find a ticket for under $400 - that reason won't fly with her. Coming home on December 26 may not be well-received either. Unfortunately, the airlines know this, so you'll have to pay close attention if you want to avoid getting gouged on holiday travel. Luckily, there are many ways to get the best bang for your holiday travel buck.


The best strategy is to buy your ticket as far in advance as possible. If you're not sure what days you'll be able to get off of work nine months in advance, play it safe and schedule a short trip that isn't likely to cause any strife. Putting your vacation request in early may increase your chances of getting the time off, and it could give you a shot at a longer trip. If you have enough seniority, you might be able to buy whatever ticket you want and apologize later. This method can be expensive if you get stuck changing your ticket, but you can always try to appease your boss with an offer to work remotely.

If you're buying your plane tickets closer to the holidays, use price-tracking software like Yapta and Bing Travel and be flexible with your travel dates and times. In addition, registering for update emails from some of the airlines will notify you of upcoming or current seat sales.

If you can sweet-talk your family into forgiving your tardiness, flying on Christmas Eve, Christmas day and New Year's Eve will usually decrease the cost of a plane ticket. You may even consider driving instead of flying, especially if you're looking at buying plane tickets for your entire family.

The Bottom Line
You don't have to go into debt to have a happy and memorable holiday season. Keeping your finances under control can help you keep the other challenging aspects of the holidays under control as well. If you're not stressed out, you're less likely to overeat or lose patience with your relatives. And if you can keep keep calm when all about you are going mad, your happy mood will perhaps be the best gift you bring to any gathering this holiday season. Remember that christmas is a time for enjoying and being thankful for your family and friends, and this shouldn't be in sacrifice of your saving goals.




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