When it comes to getting ready for Christmas it seems there are two kinds of people:

  1. Gifted Christmas Overachievers: This group has everything purchased, wrapped, addressed, and decorated before December even begins.
  2. Pleasant Present Procrastinators: Every year this group promises themselves next year will be different. They promise not to wait until the very last minute to buy gifts for everyone on their mental list. This often leads to forgetting someone or something, extra stress, and overspending on things that were purchased because of slick marketing tactics.

To which group do I belong? I would classify myself as somewhere in between (I guess that means there are three categories, but you get the point). Whether you belong to the first group or the second group–or somewhere in between–there is something we all can agree upon: Christmas is expensive. Have you ever thought about how we got here? Why are the expectations so high? Why is it that we spend hundreds of dollars–maybe even thousands–on gifts for our kids, friends, and significant others when the whole point of the holiday is to celebrate the birth of Jesus? I understand that these presents are supposed to signify the Wise Men bringing gifts, but they were bringing Frankincense, myrrh, and gold. They weren’t bringing iPhones, cars, and designer clothing. Granted the technology has changed, and the value of those commodities brought forth by the Wise Men were quite valuable, but I don’t remember reading about any of the Kings borrowing massive amounts of money to buy these gifts.

Christmas isn’t–and shouldn’t–be a season of overspending. Don’t start the New Year with new debt. Even if you already have your gifts purchased there are still things you can do to make this Christmas, and future Christmases, one that you can enjoy without going broke.

A Dozen Dos and Don’ts for a Debt Free Christmas

  1. Make a budget. Whether it is done by recipient or as a whole amount, a budget is a must to avoid overspending on gifts, decorations, “Ugly” Christmas sweaters, and all of the other things you want to purchase this season. Too many people go into debt over the holidays and are still paying for their gifts next Christmas. (Remember this: your kids will still love you even if you don’t buy them the latest cell phone.)
  2. Follow the Santa Claus method. Make a list and check it twice. Don’t buy gifts out of obligation. Most Americans already have too much stuff. (To my Gifted Overachievers, it’s not too late to do this. Fortunately most stores have very lenient return policies this time of year.) If your family is large, draw names so that you one have one name for your shopping list instead of every single family member.)
  3. Create a Christmas savings plan. Set money aside each month to use for Christmas gifts. Some banks still offer Christmas Club accounts. If your bank does not do this, open up a separate savings account and have a set amount of money transferred each paycheck. This is how I have used my flexible spending account. I would save my receipts and submit them in October so that I have the money in time for the Black Friday sales.
  4. Be present rather than buy a present. Several years ago my husband and I stopped buying each other tangible gifts. I have enough stuff as it is and don’t need to add anything else to my “stuffed” house. Instead we go on vacation. Last year we went snorkeling on Christmas Day in Cozumel, Mexico. Another year we went to Disneyland and ate Christmas dinner at the Blue Bayou. (The boats of Pirates of the Caribbean sailed right past our table.) The point is: give the gift of time together instead of physical items. Take your best friend out to lunch instead of giving another tchotchke that he or she may never display. Take your parents to a play or concert instead of buying them a kitchen gadget they don’t need.
  5. Tune out marketing madness. As someone that studied marketing in college I am fascinated by the many tactics retailers use to get people in the Christmas shopping spirit. Christmas music and decorations, coupons for future purchases and BOGO sales, loss leader pricing strategies and free gifts are all created to get you to open your wallet. Distract yourself at the register so that you avoid impulse buys. This point-of-sale area is carefully planned to make you buy items you never even knew existed. They may seem inexpensive at first, but a few of these can put a dent in the best-laid spending plans. (This is where a solid budget and fine-tuned list really help.)
  6. Nothing says lovin’ like a gift from the oven. A gift from the kitchen is often easier to enjoy than most other gifts you could buy. It is personal, it is memorable, and it can be a welcomed treat to someone who doesn’t have time to do their own cooking. Pinterest has so many cute ideas for all kinds of Christmas-themed snacks, desserts, and other delicious dishes. Use search words like “affordable” or “inexpensive” to find things that won’t break your budget.
  7. Become one of Santa’s Elves and help make the “toys.” Never underestimate the power of a homemade gift. If you can knit, crochet, sew, or are good with tools, you have the ability to make a gift that shares your talents. Just like a gift from the kitchen, it is more intimate and a true gift from the heart. Who can put a price tag on that? If DIY is not your thing, perform a service like babysitting or yard work.
  8. Bargain shopping is always in season. Don’t be afraid to buy things at discount stores. Several of the presents I bought this year came from BBs, Dollar Tree, Ross, and Kmart. These stores carry many hidden gems and are especially great for purchasing things like Christmas cards and decorations. Kmart’s “Shop Your Way Rewards” program gave me $45 in store credit for buying things I needed on Black Friday (and when I was buying items for GT’s Give Hope Project). I then used this “money” to buy gifts for people on my Christmas gift list.
  9. Donate to your favorite charity to save money on your taxes. Donations to GT Church, the SPCA, Salvation Army, Angel Tree, and many other deserving non-profits could use every dollar you are willing to offer. The money donated might be able be claimed as a tax deduction on your 2018 taxes (provided you itemize deductions). Make your donation using a check or credit card so that you have documentation.
  10. Use the envelope system. Have an envelope for each person or group of people on your list. Fill each envelope with the amount budgeted for each. Cash is harder to part with and the visual of how much you actually have to spend can be a powerful image. Once the money is finished, so is your shopping for that person.
  11. Shipping costs can deliver you an unexpected expense. Postage really adds up and can make a great “bargain” end up costing more than you planned on spending. Search for coupon codes for free shipping. Site to store shipping is often free, but only worth it if you don’t outspend the savings on gas. A first-class stamp is 50 cents (FYI the price will be going up in January). If you mail cards to 40 people that is $20. It may not sound like a lot of money, but every cent matters. Can you hand deliver any of your cards or packages? Not only can this save you money, but it also saves time looking for the addresses and writing out the full addressee information.
  12. Never pay full price. There are so many special deals this time of year that there is no need to pay full price. Just be careful not to let the cheaper prices manipulate you into buying more than you planned. If you don’t have a physical coupon for a store look online for one. I always Google a company’s name plus the words printable coupon or coupon code before I make a purchase (ex. “Ulta + printable coupon”).

Bonus Tip (perhaps the most important one)

Remember the reason for the season. Christmas is supposed to be about celebrating the birth of Jesus and spending time with loved ones. It is not supposed to be a season filled with the burden of impressing other people and spending money on things people might not need and (perhaps) you can’t even afford.

There are many other ideas that I could have listed, and perhaps you have a few of your own strategies for saving money this season, but I wanted to share my favorites as a starting point. My Christmas wish for you is that you make many happy Christmas memories that you will remember long after December 25, 2018, has concluded. My other wish for you is that you do this without unwrapping a lot of debt from overshopping and overspending.