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How to approach and combat holiday over-spending

Instead of embarking on a whirlwind, one- or two-day last-minute shopping spree, do your best to space your shopping out over the couple months leading up to the holiday season.

As the holiday season approaches, spending habits will inevitably be altered. Between gift-giving, travel expenses, holiday gatherings and other festivities, a lot can add up in a hurry between October and January. But the sooner and more thoroughly you plan ahead, the more likely you'll be to monitor and limit that spending to manageable amounts. Some of the strategies to consider this holiday season include the following:

  • Book early and savvy. If you're traveling to visit friends or relatives during November or December - or perhaps both - the expenses can quickly compound regardless of whether it's a flight or drive away. But for those who must fly, the best course of action is to try and secure tickets as far in advance as possible. Airlines and travel sites increase their rates as dates get closer, and you'll end up paying hundreds more if you're booking last-minute. Regardless of how far in advance it is, try purchasing tickets mid-week or mid-month, when rates tend to take at least a slight dip. Also consider flying on holidays if possible - many people don't want to be in the air on Christmas or New Year's Day, and thus availability is both greater and cheaper. Above all else, try to establish your travel plans as definitively as possible so as not to incur unnecessary fees for switching plans.
  • Take an enlightened approach to present preparation. Many people stress over the gift-giving process, becoming consumed with the number of people the need to buy something for and overwhelming themselves with the total price tag that comes with that burden. Instead of embarking on a whirlwind, one- or two-day last-minute shopping spree, do your best to space your shopping out over the couple months leading up to the holiday season. Consider in advance what you can spend and what your gift recipients might need. You'll be more likely to buy a thoughtful gift this way, and probably find it at a more favorable price. And if you see opportunities to purchase wrapping paper or gift bags on sale, take advantage, even if it's weeks ahead of time. Employing newspaper or creative manners of wrapping isn't a bad idea either, provide the person getting that present won't mind.
  • Minimize and downsize. As much as it may be tempting, the holiday season should not be all about how much you spend. For most people, the joy of getting a gift is derived from the thought and preparation that went into it, as opposed to its price tag. Try and focus on what your friends or family members most need or value, and pursue that gift creatively. Capitalize on sales and don't overlook the values at discount stores or outlet malls. Black Friday department stores aren't the only opportunity to find a deal, and they're certainly more of a headache than some of the other options. For the more obligatory objects of your gift list, definitely don't go overboard. If you're involved in a gift exchange with co-workers or certain acquaintances, propose a spending ceiling for all involved. They'll likely be relieved to not have to spend a lot themselves, and no one will end up feeling embarrassed or disappointed by the price disparity among the gifts.
  • Make holiday gatherings a collective effort. Holiday travel expenses are accumulated out of necessity and a desire to see friends or family. Gift-giving costs are mostly a function of charity. But spending too much to host a holiday party is largely inexcusable. Especially during less-than-buoyant economic times, there's no shame in scaling back the trimmings or toning down the decorations in the interest of your bottom line. If you must host, ask friends, relatives or neighbors to either help cook or contribute something to the spread. Or, make it an all-out potluck gathering. Either way, don't end up in a situation where half the food goes uneaten and is left to sit or spoil in your fridge for weeks after. In that same vein, no one should end up regretting how much money they spent by overdoing the holiday decorations. There's something to be said for subtlety, as well as for streamlining the number of activities or traditions a family dives into. Emphasize a few important things rather than trying to do it all, and you'll probably end up finding your savings compounded.

The holidays shouldn't be viewed with dread or looked back on with regret. Spending more than usual is a mostly unavoidable element of the final couple months of the year for anyone with close family or friends. But that spending should occur with a feeling of gratification, rather than being accompanied by stress and fear that finances will be tight for months to follow. By placing a premium on planning things out and maintaining certain priorities, you can significantly lighten the burden you assume this winter.